Turning Empathy Into Innovative Solutions During COVID-19

People have started scouring the internet for virtual ways to connect with friends and loved ones. Netflix parties, Animal Crossing, and Zoom calls are all doing a lovely job at keeping us occupied, so it seems. But when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, feelings of loneliness can begin to creep in. We start to miss visiting the trendiest restaurant spots with our friends, and attending those dreaded (but ultimately fun) family barbecues. 

If you have felt scared, isolated, or restricted during this quarantine, then I challenge you to explore those feelings and consider how they may allow you to better empathize with our aging population.

Loneliness and social isolation are prominent issues amongst older adults.1 Loneliness has been associated with a variety of physical and mental health outcomes, including depression, Alzheimer’s, and cancer mortality.2,3,4 Multiple studies have found that loneliness may increase the risk of premature mortality in the senior population.5,6,7 Suffice to say, loneliness and social isolation have a tremendous negative influence on the quality of life of seniors, which is only being further exacerbated by the current situation. We who are young can only imagine the devastating impact that the current pandemic has had on vulnerable individuals living in retirement and long-term care homes around the world. 

Why do we need empathy now?

The current stigma against aging is prevalent in our society and has a negative impact on the physical and mental well-being of seniors. Older adults have been shown to internalize ageist stereotypes such as the inevitably of poor health, inactivity, and deteriorating cognitive abilities.8,9 This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can result in reduced levels of engagement, memory loss, and poor health outcomes for an already vulnerable population.10

Ageism may result from viewing elderly persons as part of an out-group — i.e. a group that does not share the same beliefs, norms, or behaviours that we do, and is therefore unlike us.11 Research has shown that members of out-groups have difficulty soliciting feelings of empathy from in-group members. The implications of this aren’t trivial: Empathy is important because it can improve intergroup relations and result in helpful behaviors.12,13 Current events have the potential to elicit feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, and dejection in seniors and youth alike. Regardless of age, this unique experience of living through a global pandemic together has given us the opportunity to practice empathy. It is time we harness that and use it as a tool.

How can we use our empathy productively?

What we choose to do in order to combat social isolation in the senior population is up to us. Options include creating interventions, volunteering, and reaching out to senior members of your social circle. Most importantly, it is how we go about engaging in these activities that will determine their effectiveness. 

For example, creating an intervention without speaking to members of the population that you are attempting to help can prove futile. The intention is noble, but the execution can fall flat for multiple reasons. It may be that the intervention does not adapt to the user’s lifestyle, or that it addresses a problem that does not exist. This is why our ability to empathize is such an important step in the pursuit of becoming positive changemakers. 

It is for this reason that empathy is a key tool that is consistently used in human-centered design.

An empathy-informed design process can result in products, interventions, and policy changes that are tailored to the needs of consumers. When done correctly, the results are highly favored by the recipient. Understanding needs is easier to accomplish when you have empathy for the individual that you are creating a product for. There are various ways that designers can gain empathy, such as ethnographic studies, empathic modeling, and mapping out user experiences.14 It allows them to see the world from the perspective of the user and create solutions that fit into their lives. 

Empathy for the elderly

Young people like us have no way of fully understanding what it is like to live in a retirement home or long-term care home during these unprecedented times. However, due to the impact of the pandemic on all of our lives, we can see a faint glimmer of what it can feel like to be lonely and isolated from friends, family and loved ones. 

Personally, this makes me more inclined to understand the dispositions of seniors with whom, until now, I had difficulty relating to. We can use this as an opportunity to listen to the experiences of senior members of our society. Not only will this help us understand the perspective of the other party and put us in a better position to help them, but empathic conversations can also be extremely valuable and therapeutic in nature.15 

What else can be done

Another way that we can utilize our empathy is by volunteering. The benefits of volunteering are bi-directional — doing so can encourage a sense of community and belonging for the giver and the receiver. These are feelings that are extremely beneficial during a crisis like the one we are currently living in. It is understandable that many individuals may not want to volunteer in-person visits during the pandemic. Fortunately, online volunteering opportunities are available and still provide benefits in the form of improved psychological well-being and social connectedness.16,17

Finally, reaching out to friends and loved ones during times like this can make a world of difference. There is a sort of comfort to be found in conversations that reminisce, appreciate the little things in life, and look forward to a post-Covid world.

Although we are in a position that allows us to empathize, using this to facilitate positive change is a conscious decision that we must make. A natural response to a health crisis is fear. The threat of disease may result in increased ethnocentrism and negative behavior towards out-groups.18 In the past, this has led to discrimination and prejudice that have compromised our ability to empathize and act. We are better than that. Now that you are aware of the tools that you have, I hope you will let your empathy guide you towards making a positive change in the world.

How Working From Home Can Amp Up Your Team’s Communication and Creativity

The great work from home experiment has begun. This shift brings small and large frustrations: my friend spent an hour trying to log in to his company’s email server, parents now have a second job keeping their kids entertained, and relationships may be in danger as partners spend much more time together. As you might be experiencing right now, there are downsides to remote work.

But there’s a silver lining. There are some new skills we can learn from this forced remote work situation. Our limitations, like communicating virtually and feeling distant, might even push us to communicate better and come up with better quality creative ideas. Let’s explore how.

1. Get clearer with your communication: Others don’t know what you know

When working with others, we succumb to the curse of knowledge[1]. We assume that others know what we know. We think they’re aware of how hard we’re working, what roadblocks we’re facing, and what we need from them. The distance between us forces us to get better at explaining our situation; we can’t hope that people will “see” what’s going on without an explanation. Fortunately, this can force us to communicate more clearly.

The empathy toy is a team-building product that requires teammates to explain steps to a blindfolded team member. These sessions teach communication techniques in an uncommon environment: your team member can’t see what needs to be done. You need to guide their actions, or they’re left in the dark. A work from home situation seems completely different from this at first glance, as (most likely) your co-worker isn’t blindfolded. But there are some commonalities: coworkers and bosses can’t see what’s happening on your end of the screen, and vice versa. They don’t know if, for example, you’re struggling to keep concentrated in your flat, and you don’t know if they’re frustrated trying to maintain their normal pace of work from an old desktop — thus, more than ever, when working from home we need to communicate even more clearly to close this gap.

As working from home improves our communication, this in turn can also help your team’s coordination[2]. By sharing how your daily and weekly tasks relate to the team’s end goal, team members will see what you’re doing and why it’s important. This keeps the team focused on its objectives. If your team members agree with statements like these, you’re doing a good job with virtual coordination:

“I exchange useful information with my group members to solve the problem together.”

“I try to bring all our concerns out in the open so that the issues could be addressed in the best possible way.”

2. Lower the psychological distance between you and your team

Even though we need to be physically distant these days, we don’t need to feel isolated from our teams. Psychological distance happens when we feel far away from others, regardless of where we are in the world. To prevent your physical distance from turning into psychological distance, consider using these tips to improve trust, coordination, and cohesion on your virtual team.

Researchers analyzed over 7,700 teams to see whether having more trust helped them achieve their goals[3]. Trust had a positive relationship with team goal achievement, likely because it helps members stay focused on the collective. One way to increase team trust is to share personal experiences and show vulnerability; when we share something personal about ourselves, we open the lines of communication for others to reciprocate. These connections the researchers observed were strong, no matter if teams were virtual or working face to face.

However, virtual teams can avoid the dangers of low team trust with more documentation[4]. By keeping clear records of their meetings, chats, and workflows, teams can avoid miscommunications that can hurt their performance. This documentation is especially good for clarifying roles and responsibilities. Confusion around who should have done what can hurt team member relationships.

3. Brainstorm separately for more, better quality ideas

Staring at the same wall in your home might be killing your creativity — but you’d be surprised at how effective brainstorming separately can be. If you and your team need to generate creative ideas, virtual “brainwriting sessions” can lead to more and better ideas than brainstorming together out loud. Across over 1,100 teams, researchers found that small groups that wrote down their thoughts individually and anonymously before sharing them as a group ended up with better ideas[5]. Those ideas were rated by experts as more creative and higher quality than teams that simply followed the all-too-typical process of blurting solutions out loud to each other with one dedicated person writing them down. This means our standard brainstorming approach doesn’t make the best use of each team member’s unique perspective. If you’re working with a group of more than ten people, consider electronic brainstorming instead[6]. With this hybrid approach, team members submit their ideas over text and the whole group can discuss concepts as they appear on the screen.

Even if creating ideas is an individual sport, building on them is where teams can shine. Use sentences that start with “yes, and…” to expand others’ thinking and make it even better[7]. This technique, originally from improvisational comedy, has infiltrated the world of work with great promise. It forces your team to narrow their ideas. Here, it’s ideal to have team members with different levels of openness[8]. People who are open to experience can be more helpful when generating ideas, and people who are less open can help narrow down the list of ideas into those with a chance of working in practice.

Despite positive results in work from home experiments, including a 22% performance increase[9], companies are still apprehensive about this change. Even though it’s business as usual to work from your office, the modern workplace isn’t ideal for focusing without distractions. So let’s test it out – try implementing the tips above and track how your team’s creativity, coordination, and trust changes.