Building Empathy Among Distributed Teams

Nathan Paterson
6 min readMay 1, 2020

Remarkable things can happen when empathy plays a key role in creative problem-solving. As we find ourselves living through extreme circumstances, whether working from home in global health and economic crises or climate change, we are all required to be more creative and solve increasingly complex challenges. The first step in addressing these challenges is to build empathy for others.

At IDEO, we begin designing innovative products, services, and experiences for the world by practising empathy — gaining an understanding of what others say, do, think, and feel in order to discover latent and unmet needs. Empathy is at the heart of design. Without understanding what others experience, design is a pointless act. The same is true when designing diverse and inclusive ways and styles of working together well.

Create and respect boundaries

Avoid the temptation to multi-task. Research shows that we are generally less effective — and may even drop IQ points — when attempting to focus on more than one task at a time. Whether in a meeting, getting work done, or spending time with your kids, be fully present. Your kids and colleagues will thank you.

Create clear boundaries — both physical spaces and time — where you plan to get different things done. If your partner is also working from home, or if you share the house with others, you may need to coordinate schedules so that everyone has time to get things done when juggling work at home.

For those with younger kids, they may enjoy drawing up a daily schedule with you at the end of each day. Communicate your boundaries and needs with your family, housemates, and colleagues; hear their needs, and adjust accordingly. Be flexible and respectful of others’ boundaries, and they are more likely to respect yours.

A woman works on her laptop computer at home during COVID-19.

Balance synchronous and asynchronous collaboration

Now that you’ve established clear boundaries, make effective use of your time. With a newly distributed team, it can be tempting to replicate all in-person meetings virtually. However, it’s often more exhausting to be on back-to-back video calls than in-person meetings. Before scheduling your next meeting, consider whether it is really necessary. What’s the purpose of the meeting? Can the goal be achieved through other means? Who really needs to be involved?

Instead of a meeting, write up your message, thoughts, or ideas and share via asynchronous tools. Writing it up affords you the time and headspace to craft a concise message. It also gives your audience time to digest your message and respond when it suits them. This often leads to more meaningful communication and collaboration.

If you still require a meeting, take steps to minimize the intrusion for others while maximizing the time together. Does the meeting need to be a full hour, or can it be 20 or 45 minutes? Have you shared relevant pre-work and designed the agenda? People will be thankful for the extra time to prepare meals and eat with their kids, attend to loved ones in need, or go outside for a stroll, fresh air, and sunshine.

Culture is not what you see or create — culture is what you do

Culture may seem easier to build in person, but it needn’t stop for distributed teams. Culture is critical for building trust, balancing burnout, and connecting people in a human way that fuels motivation and satisfaction. It’s important to maintain rituals — and experiment with new ones — that keep your team engaged.

When designing rituals, focus on inclusivity — what new or existing rituals can you try that foster camaraderie? At IDEO, we practice a lot of different rituals that we continue virtually as we shift to working online, and we’re adapting every week in response to our evolving reality.

One of our rituals that have continued virtually is our Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions. People in our community volunteer to “sit in the hot seat” and answer any and all questions asked of them by the community. This is an excellent way for us to get to know one another and have fun along the way.

The goal is not to get the most out of people; the goal is to bring out the best in people.

Lead by example — lead with trust

This is not only for those who lead others but is especially important for those who do. Many new to working in distributed teams often start from a place of mistrust and micromanagement — is my team really working if I can’t see them working? The answer, if you’ve hired well, is yes. Instead, focus on building trust by being open with your team. Be vulnerable and share more of yourself and your home life, encouraging them to share openly in kind.

Create space — leaders need to slow down, let people get used to the new normal, and allow time to adjust. When people get sick (or there’s a pandemic), accept that there will be delays. This is not the time to apply unnecessary pressure on people. Assume good and communicate the trust you have in your team. Review the work, not the worker or how work gets done.

The key to understanding how your colleagues are doing is to check in frequently to monitor how they are feeling. Facilitate supportive one-on-one conversations, actively listen, and seek to truly understand how they are doing. Many who now work from home may actually be working harder to prove they are being productive. Make sure you’re balancing people’s needs with their ability to be effective. The goal is not to get the most out of people; the goal is to bring out the best in people.

Father and son work together on a laptop computer at the dining table.

Practice gratitude

Sometimes, I need to remind myself of how grateful I am that many of us can continue to work — no matter how different or difficult it may seem at times — from the comfort and safety of home.

Every morning, I write what I’m grateful for at that moment, and every night I reflect on what I’m grateful for that day. This helps to foster a healthy mindset before and after a busy day of code-switching between home and work. When one of our kids drops into a video call with a client, I introduce them, grateful for this moment to spend more time with my family. When one of our kids is having a meltdown, we do our best to meet the moment with love, rather than frustration or anger. In challenging times, we need to be extra attentive in practising kindness and compassion for one another.

Yes, it’s difficult to maintain a healthy culture of empathy with large, distributed groups. If you’re introducing ideas like these at your organization for the first time, feel free to experiment one by one, test what works, and adjust accordingly. New rituals and behaviours must fit with your company and team culture, and each culture is unique.

We’ve found that the effort truly pays off for individuals, families, communities, and organizations around the world.

This article was first published at Forbes Japan.



Nathan Paterson

Executive Product & Design Leader | ex-IDEO | ex-Disney | #AlwaysBeCurious