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A human approach in a hybrid age

A road through a forest
Published: December 8, 2022
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Trevor Johnson is a senior consultant at Impact Americas

A human-centred approach recognises that we are all just human beings, with our own unique challenges and needs. But hybrid working can add another layer of difficulty to this. How do you cultivate empathy through a laptop screen? In this article, I share my advice for making hybrid more human.  

In a previous role, I was the HR director for a non-profit organisation called Safe Harbor, which provided outreach services to survivors of domestic violence. My role primarily involved supporting staff who were experiencing high levels of burnout and compassion fatigue from regularly caring for individuals who were actively experiencing the deep and painful effects of trauma. While at Safe Harbor, I learned a lot about trauma and the range of behaviours it elicits, such as paranoia, yelling, or physical violence. Out of context, these behaviours can appear unreasonable or combative, but when we look at them through a trauma-informed lens, we understand that these behaviours are the body taking whatever measure necessary to feel safe and in control. Providing trauma-informed care means seeing these behaviours as a normal response to traumatic circumstances and bringing empathy and understanding to our intervention, while also prioritising one’s own safety.  

Normal responses to abnormal circumstances

This has been a useful lens to take forward in my work as a HR practitioner. When I hear about rising levels of depression, stress, anxiety, and burnout I often think about how these are very normal responses to the abnormal circumstances we are living in, both collectively and individually. With the amount of uncertainty, fear, and violence that we hear about or experience day-to-day, how could we not feel levels of depression or anxiety? This is exacerbated by the reality that, despite the traumatic circumstances we live in, we still need to perform well and achieve at work to maintain job security and support ourselves and our families. So, when I am faced with performance management issues, rather than judge an employee’s poor performance, I now ask myself: ‘What else is going on for this individual?’ ‘What personal challenge lies behind this behaviour?’  

Work environments can be very dehumanising and fragmenting places when achievement is valued over wellbeing. We need to find ways to hold space for each individual’s lived, human experience, and to treat them with compassion. A truly human-centred organisation recognises that we are all just human beings responding imperfectly to challenging situations and strives to provide the safety and tools needed to navigate these challenges. It understands the complexity and diversity of human experience and recognises that this can’t – and shouldn’t – be left at the door.  

Observing the unspoken  

For those of us in hybrid or remote organisations, how do we empathise with others when we don’t see them in person? How do we adopt a human approach when we communicate in a distinctly non-human way? It’s hard to open up to or ask for help from someone you have never met in-person; and it’s also difficult to empathise with someone as their whole self when you can only see a small part of them through a box on a screen.  

In an in-person work environment, rapport and trust is built by spending time in each other’s orbit, not just in meetings but through small talk and observing each other’s behaviours. The impact of in-person encounters became clear to me recently when I attended a silent meditation retreat. During our time there, the other participants and I didn’t share anything through words. Instead, we sat near each other in meditation, engaging through eye contact, facial expressions, and energy. I was surprised by how much of a sense I got for who a person is, at their core, without exchanging any words. In many ways, the hybrid workplace of today is the opposite: we only hear each other’s words, and we miss out on all the other information that can be gleaned from being present with someone in-person, from observing them, noticing how they engage with others, and experiencing their unique energy. The opportunity to observe the unspoken is a missing piece in today’s work environment.  

A mindful approach 

So, what can we do to be more human in a hybrid world? For me, it starts with mindfulness. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to our awareness. It’s the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings from a greater vantage point, bringing to light the lenses through which we see the world and recognising that our opinions aren’t universal truths. Mindfulness fosters curiosity because it invites us to step back and ask, ‘If I see it this way, how do other people see it? What other perspectives are there?’ In the workplace, this translates into: ‘What is it about my colleague’s life experience that makes them see this differently to me?’ ‘What current challenges are they facing to make them react like this?’  

Notice, decide, act

Mindfulness also involves getting curious about yourself – about the mood or energy you are bringing to work that might affect you or others. It’s about cultivating a form of mindful noticing, part of a process we at Impact refer to as ‘Notice Decide Act’– which is the key to leadership action. First, notice what is going on for yourself and others, beyond what’s obvious on a superficial level. What mood, energy or behaviours are you or others exhibiting, and why? Next, decide what action to take: how can you create a psychologically safe environment in order to bring these feelings into the open without fear of judgment or reprisal? How can you respond in a way that acknowledges this and holds space for it? Finally, take action.  

Share your reality

For example, I try to practice sharing my emotional state at the beginning of every meeting. This means that, if I am feeling low energy or low mood, I can communicate that to my colleagues from the start and let them know that it has nothing to do with them. My colleagues are then able to engage with me where I’m at; we can still get the work done, but I don’t have to pretend that everything is fine. By modelling this authenticity and vulnerability, I show others that it is safe to do the same.  

Furthermore, in my practice as a facilitator, I often choose to begin sessions with a mindfulness exercise, asking people to bring awareness to their external (physical) environment, and then to their internal (emotional) environment. I then invite them to accept whatever they are noticing without judgment, only awareness. What I’m trying to do is create a container in which people can feel safe to bring their whole selves and their normal human reactions. The range of human responses – anxiety, calmness, agitation, excitement – shouldn’t be ignored. When everyone has an awareness of what they are bringing emotionally to the table, and they can name it within themselves and share it with the group, it allows for more authentic and vulnerable connection; there is no energy wasted on pretence.  

In conclusion 

Hybrid organisations can still be human-centred, it just involves a more mindful and compassionate approach. Practicing mindfulness, modelling vulnerability, and creating safe spaces for others to bring their whole selves to work are great places to start. And any organisation that accepts and welcomes this will find themselves with a wealth of opportunity: the opportunity to create stronger relationships, deepen trust, improve wellbeing and retention, and advance collaboration and innovation.  

Read more from Trevor:

Only human-centred organisations will survive