(This article originally appeared on Forbes Human Resources Council.)
We often think about the impact of COVID-19 in terms of numbers: the unemployment rate, daily infections and so on. But for millions of American employees, the unquantifiable changes in their lives have been just as significant. As they moved from offices to remote work on a vast scale, their interactions with colleagues were radically transformed almost overnight.
While we're only beginning to understand the social and psychological implications of this shift, there are many ways employees can adapt to a new era of remote work. For example, consider the role of emotional intelligence (EI), which is defined as the ability to comprehend and manage our emotions while simultaneously understanding the emotions of others. Although some expressions of EI (such as the ability to interpret body language) have been inhibited, the changes employees are going through have made EI even more vital.
EI is all about empathy, inclusion and respect — traits that are more important than ever at a time when managers and employees have no idea what challenges their colleagues are facing amid a pandemic and a massive economic contraction. This crisis poses serious challenges to even the most emotionally intelligent people, but when isolation is a daily reality for millions of employees, overcoming these challenges should be a top priority.
Why EI Is Crucial In The Workplace
The healthiest company cultures make all employees feel like valued stakeholders whose concerns and opinions are taken seriously. This is why one of the most valuable traits managers and other colleagues can have is empathy. When employees feel understood, they're more likely to be engaged because they know their contributions are making a difference and the company has their interests in mind.
According to a 2019 survey, 82% of employees would "consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization," while 78% would "work longer hours for a more empathic employer." Along with higher morale comes improved job performance and innovation — a Yale study of almost 15,000 employees across many different industries found that "supervisor emotionally intelligent behavior was linked to employee creativity/innovation through its effect on employee opportunity to grow and higher experience of positive affect."
One of the biggest problems companies face is a lack of employee engagement. According to Gallup, less than one-third of American workers say they're engaged on the job. Among the critical elements of engagement that Gallup cites, many have to do with employees' emotional health, such as the perception that their opinions matter and that their colleagues care about them as individuals. This is why EI is indispensable in the workplace — it addresses fundamental interpersonal and emotional needs that all employees have.
EI Remains Essential For Remote Workers
It may seem like EI is less important at a time when in-person interactions have fallen off drastically, but the opposite is true. The existing problems with workplace cultures in the U.S. (such as a lack of engagement) have only been exacerbated by the transition to remote work, and many employees now feel alienated from their colleagues. This hasn't just made it more difficult to do their jobs; it's also had harmful psychological consequences.
For example, according to a recent Slack survey, almost half of newly remote workers report that their "sense of belonging suffers at home." Meanwhile, another recent survey found that half American employees feel less connected to their colleagues than they did before COVID-19 (while just 20% say they feel more connected). Although 27% of employees say they feel more productive working from home, 45% say their productivity has decreased.
One of the most significant components of EI is awareness. When employees have sustained contact in the office, it's easy for them to check in on one another and provide emotional support when necessary. But when these interactions are relegated to calls, emails and Zoom meetings, it's much more difficult to recognize when people need assistance (or to simply maintain healthy relationships). This is why managers and other employees should be proactive during the pandemic and use the full extent of their EI.
How EI Can Transform The Future Of Remote Work
Although remote work has been stressful and isolating for many employees, it also presents opportunities. It provides flexibility, allows employees to take control of their work environments and makes logistical obstacles like business travel more manageable. Employees have unprecedented access to digital communication and collaboration tools, and COVID-19 has forced companies to adopt these technologies — in many cases, much sooner than they would have otherwise. It's no surprise that, according to a recent PwC survey, 72% of office workers say they would like to work remotely at least two days per week after the pandemic subsides.
Despite all the advantages offered by remote work, companies have to recognize that some employees will flourish in remote settings while others will struggle. It will take managers and colleagues with high levels of EI to identify the employees who need assistance and offer it in a way that won't make them feel threatened. Working from home, particularly during this crisis, will also bring a range of new challenges such as family obligations, and these must be handled with as much empathy and adaptability as possible.
The era of remote work will mean employees are just a video call away from one another. While email won't be going anywhere soon, managers who have high EI understand that the ability to see a co-worker's face — even if it's on a screen — can go a long way toward fending off feelings of alienation and bringing employees together around a common purpose. Emotionally intelligent managers know which circumstances call for video chats and which ones require more traditional digital communication.
The technical challenges and cultural shifts associated with the move toward remote work may seem daunting now, but as long as companies have emotionally intelligent workforces, employees may find that they will be more connected in the remote work era than they ever thought possible.