With big tech making snap office-wide layoffs (especially in 2022), job security may be more in demand than ever before. How can we go about putting empathy back in remote work? Some companies have opted for impersonal, AI-generated mass “thank you for your time” emails. It’s cheap, quick, and easy for the company. Kind of like a breakup text.
But for the employee on the receiving end? Waves of shock, guilt, and stress are normal reactions. Before, in the office, human resources would coordinate a one-to-one meeting with the employee (the termination interview) to discuss what had led them to make such a decision. The employee is allowed to ask questions if they’d like.
Here’s an empathy map to highlight what the term entails (source):
We’ll take a closer look at the hidden factors behind a looming issue over the ever-evolving HR cycle, especially at the final stages.
The Disconnect Between Technology and Empathy
4 in 10 employers will simply fire employees who refuse to return to the office, which is a recipe for stress. A simple smiley face does go a long way for conveying emotion, but there’s a lot to improve to incorporate empathy over technology.
Is it even possible? Yes, but with many challenges.
Imagine waking up to a cold email on a Monday with a blunt “We’d like to thank you for your time” in the subject line. With all workplace emails and chats shut down. This was the harsh reality for thousands of people around the world this year.
Thousands of employees have gathered over LinkedIn to share their sudden layoff stories and empathize with others in a similar situation.
What People on Social Media are Saying
We took to the comments section on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit to paraphrase what people are saying about being fired unexpectedly. (Quotes are paraphrased to keep the posters’ identities anonymous.)
I just started a full-time position as a software engineer three months ago. Suddenly, I was let go because I was one of the newest to the team. It’s been tough job searching lately.
The email came as a surprise on Friday. Two others on my team received the same automated message…it was heartbreaking.
So, after being promised a raise at the start of next year , I was laid off instead in December. Bummer.
My manager and I both received a ‘Thank you for your time’ email on Monday. People on different teams had layoffs every day of the week. It so was disheartening to hear.
Tough to process? Absolutely. Employees felt dehumanized, like a mere data point with their previous employer. A one-to-one Zoom call with HR may have softened the rejection, during an abrupt layoff like these examples above.
Quiet Firing as a Response to Quiet Quitting
Companies, in response, are now quiet firing employees as a passive-aggressive way to stop them from advancing in their careers and hold off on certain benefits such as a planned raise. Is that really going to help drive empathy back in remote work? People are looking for trust—both in their colleagues and their organization.
It’s more often than not insidious and unfair to the employee, who’d be left in the dark as to what they did wrong. In other words, it’s a form of the silent treatment leading up to a split. People want contructive criticism and feedback. In order to make that happen, training has to happen from the ground-up.
Final Thoughts on Putting Empathy Back in Remote Work
Remote and hybrid work schedules are here to stay. From the moment a potential candidate has their initial phone screening to their departure, there are ethical ways to retain their dignity and self-concept every step of the way. It may save time and effort to send out mass layoff emails, but the hurt that lingers from employees on the receiving end makes it inhumane.
At this rate, some chatbots might be demonstrating empathy better than humans can. Can AI take on the role of mental health counselling? Imagine a community of entirely virtual therapists. How would that be a plus and minus for the corporate world? To put empathy back into remote work, organizations must rethink what it means to be a community.
Devaram, Sarada. (2020). Empathic Chatbot: Emotional Intelligence for Mental Health Well-being. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.16077.46564.
Dolamore, Stephanie & Lovell, Darrell & Collins, Haley & Kline, Angela. (2020). The role of empathy in organizational communication during times of crisis. Administrative Theory & Praxis. 43. https://doi.org/10.1080/10841806.2020.1830661.
Lee, Youngho & Masai, Katsutoshi & Kunze, Kai & Sugimoto, Maki & Billinghurst, Mark. (2016). A Remote Collaboration System with Empathy Glasses. 342-343. https://doi.org/10.1109/ISMAR-Adjunct.2016.0112.
Morrison, Elizabeth. (2014). Employee Voice and Silence. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 1. 173-197. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091328.
Neubauer, Daniel & Paepcke-Hjeltness, Verena & Evans, Pete & Barnhart, Betsy & Finseth, Tor. (2017). Experiencing Technology Enabled Empathy Mapping. The Design Journal. 20. S4683-S4689. https://doi.org/10.1080/14606925.2017.1352966.
Wood, Matthew & Karau, Steven. (2009). Preserving Employee Dignity During
the Termination Interview: An Empirical Examination. Journal of Business Ethics. 86. 519-534. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-008-9862-5.