Why Empathy Matters in a Remote Work Environment, with Sophie Wade

Gabriela Molina

Sophie Wade is the founder of and Workforce Innovation Specialist at the Flexcel Network, provider of advisory services and transformative workshops to help businesses attract, engage, retain, and support their multi-generational and distributed talent. She’s a work futurist and international keynote speaker, and the author of the new book, Empathy Works. She’s also the host of the Transforming Work Podcast.

Sophie Wade

Read the transcript

Luis:

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to another episode of the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. I am your host, Luis, and I am here today with my guest, Sophie Wade. Sophie is the founder of and Workforce Innovation Specialist at the Flexcel Network, provider of advisory services and transformative workshops to help businesses attract, engage, retain, and support their multi-generational and distributed talent. She’s a work futurist and international keynote speaker, and the author of the new book, Empathy Works. She’s also the host of the Transforming Work Podcast. Sophie, welcome to the show.

Sophie Wade:

Delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me, Luis.

Luis:

It’s an absolute pleasure having you. We were talking on, off. I’ve been trying to make this happen for a while now. And actually, it was completely all my fault. By the time we had things hashed out in early 2021 to have you on the podcast, I really got down with a case of severe burnout and we had to reschedule. And just one thing on top of another, and here we are today over a year after that situation. So, hey, it’s good that we finally made it happen.

Sophie Wade:

Absolutely. Yes. I’ve been pretty much tied up with my book as well, and I’m feeling a little bit of burnout now, but I’m coming out of it.

Luis:

Yeah. I think that we can get to the topic of burnout later in the call, because it is something that I don’t… I’ve done over 160 of these episodes and the topic barely came up, like twice or thrice. But before that-

Sophie Wade:

Oh, I don’t think it has anything to do with… Sorry.

Luis:

Yeah. It’s fine.

Sophie Wade:

I think there are issues to do with how we work, it’s not to do with remote working, burnout.

Luis:

Oh, yeah.

Sophie Wade:

This me, focused on my book, and really pushing really hard. That’s my issue.

Luis:

Yeah. But I do think that there’s a bit of admitas that remote work, is kind of a magic pill for burnout, and we don’t appreciate how many… A year ago, the excuse was, “Oh, burnout has nothing to do with remote work. It’s just that remote work under the pandemic is not ideal condition and that’s why people burn out.” And I actually think that that’s not true at all. Right? I think that there’s a conversation to be had that it’s just as possible to be burned out doing remote work than doing regular work.

Sophie Wade:

Oh, absolutely.

Luis:

The factors in the burnout could be different. Right? And I think it’s worth having a conversation about that.

Sophie Wade:

Sure.

Luis:

But before that, I do want to ask you about your history with remote work. When was it that you realized that remote work was a thing? Tell me that story and then tell me how it impacted your career.

Sophie Wade:

Well, I think one of the interesting things that in my experiences, I’ve lived and worked in five different countries, and so work never had a particular format. Quite early on, in between working full-time in organizations large and small, I also have done consulting. And as an independent consultant, you end up effectively as a sort of freelancer, contractor. You end up effectively working remotely. You’re working on projects and you’re not typically based on site. So that was sort of the very beginning of it.

Sophie Wade:

I was first working in this space really in 2011, and I started out with workplace flexibility. And the workplace flexibility was I had just been working for four years full-time at IMG, the big sort of sports marketing company. And with two kids, I never had any time whatsoever to be doing all the stuff I needed to do and to be spending time with them. And that was the first time that I looked for workplace flexibility.

Sophie Wade:

And one of the pieces of workplace flexibility is remote working. So I think there are many different elements to that. It could be a four-day work week, which is now being experimented with in a really big trial in the UK. It can be flexible hours. There all kinds of different things that workplace flexibility means, but remote working or hybrid working is definitely one piece of that. So it’s many different types of working. And as I said, having been a consultant, and then exploring that in much more detail, that was 2011, when I was really looking at the different elements of workplace flexibility. But I had already been experimenting with and succeeding at remote working myself as a consultant.

Luis:

Yeah. So, we were talking before starting recording the show, how you basically created the title work futurist. And I wanted to ask you how do you define a work futurist and how did you come to it?

Sophie Wade:

Actually, the work futurist was something that I’ve been enabled with… There are a number of work futurists out there. I actually came up with the title Workforce Innovation Specialist.

Luis:

Oh, I’m sorry. That was my bad.

Sophie Wade:

No, no, no, not at all. Because I had had something like Future of Work Expert or Future of Work Specialist or something. And nobody, at that time, I think this was 2015, 2016, nobody knew what that was. So I tried to come up with a title that really described what I was doing, which was being innovative about how people work and how the workforce organizes itself and sort of employs its talent, people employ their talents. So that was the best thing that I came up with, and I tried and tested it with many different people, and that sort of made the most sense to people and that’s where I am. So now I also have a number of different titles including Work Futurist, because of the many different things that I do really under the umbrella.

Luis:

So talking about the future of work, right? I am loathed to talk about silver linings after an event that has caused misery and suffering to so much of the world. But I think that it’s undeniable that the COVID pandemic dragged most businesses kicking and screaming into the future of work. And now that we’re, well, I wouldn’t say we’re past that because some are trying to kick and scream their way back, trying where they were previously going.

Sophie Wade:

That’s for sure. Yeah.

Luis:

And we can talk about that if you’d like, but I’m also very interested in knowing where do you think the momentum will take us? Because now that people are thinking about work outside of the box, I think that people such as yourself, that think a lot about the future of work and what it will look like, have their work cut out for them, because now it seems that for many, many people, for many, many companies, the sky is the limit.

Sophie Wade:

Yes. And I think if people can see it that way and see it that the sky is the limit, that this is a huge opportunity to do things differently and to write new rules because what’s necessary, rather than being the kicking and screaming. And I think there are obviously a good number of companies that have seen and do see the huge opportunity and are really reconfiguring in very powerful ways how their workforce is organized, what the work arrangements are, and really being able to help every single person in their organizations and all the contractors and freelancers that work for them do their best work. That’s hugely powerful.

Sophie Wade:

However, we, as human beings, we like routine and we don’t do well with continued unknowns, with a lot of disruption. And so, there is a very understandable desire and pull to sort of go back to the habits that we had before, despite the fact that it’s been two years in between. People want more stability or the feeling of familiarity. And that’s sort of what’s pulling a number of people back, because it’s sort of, “Oh my goodness. Now we have to do more work and really redesign things.” Because this does require a new, as you know well, for the future of work, we need to create a new, hopefully not quite a new box, but a new framework for how we’re working. And that takes work.

Sophie Wade:

And we have never, unless you have a sort of efficiency specialist who’s come in, we have never really thoughtfully designed for a very long time how we work best. And we’ve also incorporated and integrated over the last 20 years plus, new technologies. And all of that has changed. The processes have changed. All the different ways that we’re working and understanding the workflow and how we’re doing that, all of these need a lot of thought to sort of say, “Well, how should our business best do it? And then within that, all of our different workers.” And that’s a reasonable amount of work, and that’s sort of not what people really want to be doing. And then we’re like, “Okay. I want to get back down, get sort of sorted, and just keep powering through,” because we still have supply chain disruption. We still have inflation. We have economic situations, which are not easy. So I think that’s very understandable why people want to sort of go back to something that’s familiar, even though that back is not there.

Luis:

That’s a good point. I wonder, how do you manage to keep this conviction in the ideas of the future of work? Let me give you an example. Since I was very little, I was always a bit of a nerd or a geek, how you prefer to call it, into science fiction and stuff like that. And when I was a kid, I thought that we were somehow going to live in the internet. Right? The internet called me. It called me in my pre-teens, and I thought, “Hey, this is going to have a huge impact in the world, and this is going to be…”

Sophie Wade:

So you love the book Ready Player One?

Luis:

Oh. Actually, I only read that as an adult, right?

Sophie Wade:

Yeah, no. Me too, but that’s a great book, right?

Luis:

Yeah, yeah. That’s a great book. That’s a great book. But yeah, when I was in my preteens, and my buddies made fun of me, right? They said I was insane, right? And then, 10 years later, I was interacting like four hours a day with my World of Warcraft guild. So my entertainment was completely online, my social relationships were online, and my meat bag body was basically what I was taking to work and school. And then, I actually met my wife online. And obviously, that is something that can completely happen online, right?

Sophie Wade:

Absolutely.

Luis:

You’ll be glad to know a week before that, we did meet. We did need to eventually meet and get together and et cetera.

Sophie Wade:

That’s so retro of you.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And now, my work happens online. So, I kind of think that I wish I would have stuck with my convictions like 25 years ago, when I was thinking, when I was seeing that, “Oh, a lot of my life is going to be happening virtually.” But I guess that at the end of the day, the conviction wasn’t strong enough. How do you push for something that you envision but no one else is seeing?

Sophie Wade:

Well, there were lots of people over the last seven years. I’ve been fully in this space since 2011, but in the future of work space since 2015. It has been challenging at times, for sure, because people are like, “The future of what?” And I’ve always been at the intersection of typically media and technology, obviously, more recently it’s been work in technology, as this is my sort of second main career. And I really saw this as something that was just clear to me that this was happening. I always thought it would happen sooner. I rushed out my first book in 2017. It was really, really… I needed to do it urgently because I thought the future work was just around the corner. It was going to come. So that book came out five years ago in 2017. And of course, it took a global pandemic for the future of work actually to be accelerated and arrive in 2020. So I did think it was going to happen faster, that’s one thing.

Luis:

Can you remind me of the title please? I have my

Sophie Wade:

My first book is Embracing Progress: Next Steps for the Future of Work, which says where we are, where we’ve been, the technology development, what we can expect. It was basically just looking at all the trends, and it’s more of a data dump, a sort of thoughtful data dump to explain… And it’s very useful now, because it explains exactly why we are where we are. And so, I did expect it to arrive sooner.

Sophie Wade:

I did also see very much that it was going to be a huge issue, and had work all this time with almost entirely the pioneering companies who saw that coming. So I was working, a lot of my clients have been, let’s say, pioneering software companies. I’ve done a lot of work with Workfront and Atlassian, who basically brought me in to be talking about the future, which is what their software was helping people do, was be working more effectively in distributed ways, understanding workflow management, being able to collaborate across many different locations.

Sophie Wade:

So I had work with the companies who really saw the future as I did, and was helping communicate to their users and their existing clients and future clients about what was further ahead than that. So that was what sort of helped me, because there were other people. I had a world of people who also understood that or believed that, too.

Sophie Wade:

And now, because of the pandemic, yes, the future of work is here, and it’s obviously a different space, because now my job is really to help people navigate it because it’s a lot of change. It’s an enormous amount of change, which is hard to understand all at once when you have your day job to do and then deal with that transformation and be able to take the time, think it through, in terms of designing a new way forward.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah. Again, that’s the pandemic issue that I alluded at further, is that really, on one hand, it was useful in the sense that it forced companies to encounter the new way of work. In the other hand, the not having time to prepare makes it really not as effective or as good an introduction or as it might have been, right?

Sophie Wade:

Well, I think the fact that had the pandemic not happened, people would have been struggling against this, continue to struggle against this for years. And it was getting worse and worse. Obviously, there were companies who already adapted and were either using software that helped them adapt and understand how their work worked and really designed differently for technologies that have been integrated. But a lot of companies were not, plus we have societal changes. We have the need for more flexibility in families where you have both parents in families where there were kids, both parents are working. Those type of societal changes have meant that we’ve needed much more flexibility and to be sort of changing how we’re thinking about work.

Sophie Wade:

But I think where we are now, we have been seeing this going along, and the pandemic did rattle us. It did shake us up and shake us out of those entrenched ways of working, so it’s easier now because we also have learnings from the last two years, which threw us out of our box, right? The box didn’t work anymore.

Sophie Wade:

And that’s why I’m always urging people to look and learn from the last two years, learn from what they were able to achieve in pivoting, in kind of saying, “Well, how can we do things differently? How can we run machines from home if we have to, because we can’t be on site necessarily, so how can we do that?” And in really forcing us to work very differently and think very differently, and understand that we can do a lot of things that we never imagined we possibly could, as well as dealing with starkly different customer behaviors that we are now adapting for and trying to work out. “Well, are the customers we had in 2019 the same as the customers we have now?” Because in many cases, they’re not. All those customers are the same, but they have different behaviors and we’re having to serve them differently. So I think the pandemic really did give us a lot of more understanding, which has been helpful in that sort of transformational change that we need to go through.

Luis:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s for sure. So I do want to get to your new book, which is highly important, very important, actually. But I feel like I want to bounce a couple of future ideas by you, trying to figure out, “Where are we heading?” Right?

Luis:

One of the things, going back to my past in multi-player games and playing World of Warcraft, and having a great deal of friendships, certainly as many friendships online as I add offline, right? I’ve been more and more thinking about this idea of the virtual country, the internet country, right? Right now, I’m in Portugal. I’ve spent most of my life in Portugal. I’ve traveled and lived in other countries, but it’s here that I keep returning to. And conversely, it’s here that I pay my taxes, and it’s a not little amount of tax, right? Obviously, I really appreciate the need for tax. I like having roads and schools that work and stuff like that, and helps universal healthcare and stuff like that. It’s pretty good. I don’t mind paying for that at all.

Luis:

However, I am faced with the reality that the country where I live is about half my life, right? The other half happens in the internet. And I’m wondering if you think that sometime within our lifetimes, there will be such a thing as having dual citizenship, being a citizen of the place where you live and the citizen of the internet, and what would the rights and responsibilities of a citizen of the internet be?

Sophie Wade:

So now you are proposing that possibly you’ll also pay tax on the internet, in your internet world? Interesting.

Luis:

I’m not keen on paying more tax, but I wouldn’t mind allocating a part of the taxes that I pay currently to the internet, no. Right?

Sophie Wade:

Right. A very interesting idea. I think that right now, the way that our world is set up, is that the infrastructure of the internet is paid on a national basis, right? And that’s how our world is geared. I think there maybe other elements to that, let’s say there might in the future certainly be policing, which is internet-based, there’s cyber policing which is done on a global basis. That would make sense.

Sophie Wade:

I think having seen how challenging it has been to change just how we’re thinking about work, to launch some effectively global or non-nation-based services or policing those type of things or security services, I think they could certainly happen. And that would make sense. That doesn’t mean that would be easy at all, because if you look at some of the multi-national bodies like the UN or WHO, there are a lot of issues in trying to have those type of multi-national or global bodies. But I think the concept makes sense.

Sophie Wade:

I think the way the future looks is to have companies that have smaller cores, physical presence, as well as smaller full-time clusters of employees, and then many more freelancers, part-timers, contractors, some based in the office and elsewhere. Obviously, there are good portions of the population in many countries who have fixed site jobs in factories, manufacturing, manual labor, construction, all those type of things. So there’s other aspects of work that need to have more flexibility, people have more autonomy over their hours or the type of tasks they’re doing or task sharing, those type of things. So I think there are many different aspects to it that needs to change.

Sophie Wade:

But I do see ultimately where we’re going, some very, very fundamental shifts in what jobs look like, more focused on skills, what companies look like, with these smaller cores and sort of perforated edges. It’s going to be very interesting. And I think the sort of binary, it’s either virtual or it’s physical, I think these are old ways of thinking about things. I think it’s very blurred.

Luis:

Okay. That makes sense, right? That the virtual… And they’re interconnected, right? At the end of the day, you don’t have internet without telephone poles, right? Or something like that. So you do need the physical, but a lot of the value is also generated digitally these days, so I think it’s an interesting question, too. Right?

Sophie Wade:

But I also don’t think that young people, for example, I don’t think they think of virtual versus real, right? Those are, for me, old school worlds in terms of how we were defining it before, where so much of a relationship is, it’s email and text and physical and whatever. So they’re all integrated or dotted lines between all of them, so I think trying to make clear delineations, I’m not quite sure that really reflects how we live.

Luis:

All right. So then, let me take you a bit further.

Sophie Wade:

Okay.

Luis:

And let’s start talking about getting out of the box and in the box at the same time with virtual reality, right? I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to try Facebook Workspaces or is it Workroom, they’re calling it? It’s basically the Facebook-branded virtual office, right? Where you put your headset on, your Oculus headset on, and then instead of having this conversation over Zoom, it’s actually Luis’s avatar speaking, sitting at a table with Sophie’s avatar.

Luis:

And personally, I’ve tried it a couple of times. It’s definitely not… It’s a bit clunky. In terms of performance, it’s not ready for prime time. But I will tell you that even though my cartoon version is sitting with a cartoon version of my colleague, it feels more personal than what we’re doing right now, because yes, there’s a lot of definition. We’re talking to cartoon-like avatars of ourselves, but there’s also a three-dimensionality. There’s a sense of depth, right? There’s a sense of presence that’s facilitated by the fact that we are essentially in a little sensory deprivation tank. Nothing exists apart from the virtual reality. Right?

Luis:

Now, one of my main complaints about that, interestingly enough, you talked about Ready Player One, which is something interesting to think about, right? Right now, we’re having this conversation over Zoom and I’m using a noise canceling microphone, just so that I don’t have to deal with what you’re dealing with, which you have earphones over your years. And I really don’t like that. I like to be free from stuff on my head.

Luis:

And that’s the main reason why I haven’t explored virtual reality more for work, because it’s quite… Virtual reality headsets have gone a long way in a short time, but they’re still clunky, right? But I’m thinking, the moment I can have something that’s basically bulky glasses, right? The kind of glasses that I wore when I was 12 years old, right? Kind of manageable, right? Kind of big but manageable, right? The moment I can have virtual reality with that, the equivalent of my first glasses, I suppose, I think I would go all in.

Sophie Wade:

Yes. And I think it depends on the person, right? Because you have great comfort in an avatar interacting world, whereas I don’t. I haven’t played World of Warcraft hardly at all. And I am, at this point, more comfortable in this particular situation, where as 2D as this is, and with two little boxes here, at least it feels… That’s what I am familiar with and more comfortable with. That is not to say that obviously, that can’t change over time.

Sophie Wade:

I also was recently talking with a friend who used to be at Magic Leap, and he was telling me a lot about how much amazing progress there has been made in augmented reality and volumetric holographic presence. And the idea that we could appear to be sitting next to each other, in volume, not cartoon avatars, but I could actually see you sitting next to me at a table or in front of me, and yes, have a headset on, but you really appear to be there. Or holographically, I don’t have to have a set headset on, but there are ways of creating your form.

Sophie Wade:

I think there are so many different ways that these things can happen. And it’s very exciting to me. I don’t necessarily know which one I’m going to prefer most, or you are going to prefer most. And I think there will be different ways that we might choose to have… I really believe in meeting people where they are. So for me, if you really like to have avatars, I’ll probably have a meeting with you there. If the group of people who prefer to do volumetric presence, then I might have a meeting like that. So I think there’re going to be lots more, really interesting and exciting ways that we can enjoy and benefit from distributed working so that we can have much, much better experiences.

Sophie Wade:

And let’s be honest, that we have been working effectively remotely from each other for so long, in the sense that people have had remote offices, they’ve had multiple offices around the world, and those people were working remotely with each other. So this is not even about working from home. This is just about facilitating better connections, better ability to relate, understand each other, read each other’s emotions.

Sophie Wade:

One of the things for me that is more challenging unless you have the haptic facial recognition and all of that, all the haptic gloves and all those things that are in Ready Player One, so that the software is really reading your face. And technology is very good at reading people’s faces and being able to pick up the emotional aspects of it, going to empathy, right? For the ability, if I can see you on video, if we’re going to be in avatar situation, I would not want to lose that ability to be able to read your face. And if the avatar is not able to read your facial expressions, that for me would reduce the benefit of it.

Sophie Wade:

But I know that virtual reality is amazing for communicating empathy and being able to help people sort of really understand a situation because you sort of feel you are right in it. So I think there are huge benefits to technology. I would always want the ability to be reading each other, to be understanding as much as possible, getting as much information as possible about what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, so that we can have a really beneficial interaction. Those are the key things that I personally want to make sure that we don’t lose, because people find it challenging enough for Zoom or find it very stressful after hours and hours of doing Zoom course, because we are having to pay such a close attention with the sort of small windows. So I think there are going to be lots of lots more tools that are going to add to the experience in so many different ways.

Luis:

Yeah. So I think that you’re in good company, because at least Mark Zuckerberg is on record saying that that’s what they’re working on, on the ability to track people’s facial expressions, basically through the mouth and eyes, right? So inner and outer cameras, so that the avatars can replicate them. Now, I’m not sure if Facebook having access to that information is great, right? But that’s a different question.

Sophie Wade:

But it is a really important question. There’s definitely technology out there which does it already. There’s a lot of technology that does it already. Yes. I agree that the facial recognition technology which would enable that, connecting that, or any organization that does not have extraordinary security, there’s going to be a problem with that, for sure.

Luis:

So, now the conversation brings us to empathy, which is fortuitous, because your new book is called Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work. I find this extremely interesting, because I do think that a lot of the problems that the world, certainly the Western world, faces right now are mostly due to a lack of empathy. I feel that there’s a crisis of empathy out there, where the main crux of the argument is we’ve lost the capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes. And we’ve generally created this kind of bad meme, that if you don’t have a certain kind of lived experience, then there’s no way you can understand people who had it, which I can definitely see the appeal of thinking like that, but that leaves us with no solution. And I do think that, I want to hear from you, you wrote the book, but I do think that empathy is still one of the few, if not the only thing, the only tool that we have to solve interpersonal differences.

Sophie Wade:

Yes. I agree that empathy is the extraordinary, powerful tool to help us understand each other. And the book is really focused on the future of work and where we are, and the sort of counterbalance to the technology-driven core of the future of work, having that counterbalance, which is human-centric, which is about the talent. Our technologies are now so sophisticated that the people who are driving it, who are using these tools and platforms and applications, that’s where we need to focus our attention, because also things are more complicated. Things are not certain. We’re moving at a faster pace. The nature of work has changed. And therefore, that understanding and being able to manage and motivate and retain and engage employees who are now having to work together much more closely on projects, that’s where we need to focus our attention.

Sophie Wade:

And that’s why empathy is the key. I do feel empathy is still relatively early days, in terms of research and studies on it. But anthropologically, there’s a Dutch anthropologist called Frans de Waal, and he talks about empathy as being a human universal, but the fact that it’s second nature to us. And we do utilize it a lot in our personal lives, we just haven’t historically used it in our professional lives. And for a hundred plus years, there has been this sort of understanding, “I pay you. You turn up. You do your work.” Well, okay.

Sophie Wade:

For the most part, that works. You turn up, and you don’t do your best work. You turn up, you may well go through the motions. And that’s where the problem is, particularly now. I don’t try and look backwards. I try and look forwards and sort of say, “Now that work is more complicated and requiring more out of us, we need people more engaged, that’s where we really need to be thinking and utilizing empathy. It’s a corporate value, sort of at the foundational, there. It’s a sort of mindset and orientation, and then it’s a skill that we can practice. And it’s very practical in terms of empathy habits and people can, in different ways, whether it’s with sales or leadership, or on a cultural basis and inclusion, those type of things. There are lots of very practical takeaways and empathy habits to start.

Sophie Wade:

So I do look at the fact that we do have empathy skills. I think that the crisis of empathy was really shown to us over the last two years. But we did really seem to connect globally in a very raw and vulnerable way, because we were all, for once, all kind of in the same boat together, really, which was extraordinary.

Sophie Wade:

And I think what is challenging now is that as we come out of the pandemic, there does seem to be a zeitgeist which is much more about conflict than unity. And so, we do need perhaps empathy more than ever as we all need to try and craft or forge a new way forward, as I tend to put it.

Sophie Wade:

So I think when we can understand everybody in our ecosystem, both in our companies, our teams, up and down the organization, and the vendors that we’re working with and our suppliers and customers, we do really need to be connecting with all the people along our supply chains, because we’re all having to pivot and deal with supply chain issues. And that is requiring us to step up our game, every single person. So that’s where I see empathy as being so important.

Sophie Wade:

I do also agree with you, that with this atmosphere of conflict or discord or huge differences of opinion, that empathy is also very, very important for helping us try and bridge a lot of those gaps which seem to have got a lot wider over the last decade. So I think empathy works across the board, really. It can’t go bad.

Sophie Wade:

But I think also, to be honest, empathy does not necessarily mean you act in positive ways. Empathy can be used to be manipulative. It’s not necessarily all positive once you have that understanding of what the other person is thinking and what they’re experiencing and feeling, how you act doesn’t necessarily have to be positive. But I do think that once you take the time and connect with other people and really tap into what they’re thinking and how they see the world, typically that does help bridge gaps. And I think, yes, we can certainly benefit from that.

Luis:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course. Right. As most tools, you can use it in not so good ways, though I think that it must be hard, right? I think once you manage to really put yourself in someone’s shoes, using that knowledge to hear the person, I have to think that it requires at least a certain degree of empathy, right? Plenty go around, I suppose, plenty of that here.

Sophie Wade:

I hear you. And I would just say that it was just a comment that somebody made to me who is a very good salesperson. And she said that she knew some very manipulative sales people. So I don’t think it’s necessarily to hurt people, but in terms of in sales, when you can use that to make the sale when you’re not necessarily being genuine, I think, and if so, if hurting somebody is getting them to buy your product… We know this happens, right?

Luis:

Yeah, yeah. Though again, usually I find that the best sales people are actually the ones that think that really believe that the product is going to help customers.

Sophie Wade:

Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Luis:

Right. So anyway, I want to talk a bit, I know you’re a little bit familiar with video games. I tend to use a lot of video game metaphors because it was my previous life. Do you know what an NPC is?

Sophie Wade:

A non-player character.

Luis:

Character. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sophie Wade:

Non-player character. Okay.

Luis:

Yeah. Non-player character. Okay. So, this is very obvious when you’re playing an MMO, when you’re playing a most massive multi-player online game like World of Warcraft. It’s very obvious who is an NPC, a non-player character. That’s just a character that stands around hopefully looking pretty and delivers-

Sophie Wade:

Oh, I just watched Free Guy.

Luis:

Oh, yeah, exactly. That is it exactly. Exactly. Free Guy, though, so he was an NPC, right? He’s just someone that’s supposed to have a very set, very mechanical routine, right?

Sophie Wade:

But he didn’t, ha ha.

Luis:

It gives you a mission. Yeah, exactly. It gives you a mission or gives you a piece of information, right? And that’s it. It looks like a person, but it really isn’t. And it’s very easy for you to understand that it isn’t. And then, there’s the players, who have agency and run around doing stuff. Right. And I find that in a game like World of Warcraft, it’s almost impossible for you to confuse one for the other, right?

Luis:

In work, I find that it happens all the time that after working in a remote team for a couple of months, things can start becoming, if you don’t pay attention to the culture, very transactional. You start actually seeing your teammates a bit like NPCs, right? As not real people, as beings existing on the other side of the team that you hand stuff to, and you get stuff from. And to me, this has always been a thing that I thought about, how easy it is to make the distinction in a game, and then in work, how it actually requires real work to have that not happen, because obviously you don’t want to be thinking of people as NPCs.

Luis:

So I’m sure you’ve encountered this problem. Maybe you put it in other terms in the book, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it. How do you see this dilemma, and how do you usually approach it?

Sophie Wade:

The way I look at it, particularly in terms of empathy, the point is, is that the better a relationship you have with somebody, and it doesn’t mean we are buddies. We don’t have to be friends. But the more that I understand you, and the more that… So we have bonded on Ready Player One, right? So we both understand, we have some familiarity, we have some common ground about that. I have not played World of Warcraft, so I can’t really relate to you about that. But we have this sense of Ready Player One core understanding, that world. There’s a lot of stuff there. That means I can empathize better with you because we have common ground. We are on the same side of the table when it comes to certain things. We know that already. So that we didn’t take very long to establish, and those are the type of things. So we’re not necessarily friends, but we can work together more easily because we already have common ground. And we have shared memories of how much we enjoyed the book or the movie. It was just all that.

Sophie Wade:

So those are the type of things that help us work together better as a team. So in terms of how to be working and not have that transactional piece of it, I talk about the move from transactional to experiential management and business and relationships, so that it is relationship-based as it sort of used to be in the past. We have gone to this transactional way of being, and I think we need to be moving on and back to having better relationships so that we can be working together more closely.

Sophie Wade:

When we have had more work which has been more independent, more individual, it is easier, or we can get away with having sort of much more distant relationships and not having to connect and relate properly together. As we are now working much more on teams, project work is now, Harvard Business Review, their November/December 2021 issue said, “The project economy has arrived.” And what that means is that we’re working together much more on teams, which didn’t used to be so much of our work. And that means you and I need to work together in it, not in a transactional way all the time, because it will not be fulfilling and rewarding and satisfying unless we actually have a reasonable relationship, because then it’s going to feel… If you’re working with a whole bunch of NPCs, that’s not going to be very fun at the end of the day. Right?

Sophie Wade:

So we need to be intentional about that. And I think that’s a key aspect of what the book is about. It’s really how we are needing to connect, both in person, whether we’re working remotely, all these different aspects of work are benefited from enormously when we have stronger relationships, because we understand each other better. We have more fruitful interactions. We communicate more clearly to each other. We collaborate better, on and on and on. So I think the NPC, I love the NPC analogy, and I’m probably going to use that going forward, so I think we definitely need to move away from that and not have any NPCs in your teams anymore.

Luis:

Yeah. So what are some ways… You talked about bonding over common things. I suppose we can call them cultural touchstones. But I keep wondering, “What else?” This ties back to the situation with the virtual reality headset, that I feel that it is an actual person sitting across the table for me, instead of a video game character. The move to 3D, I don’t know exactly what it is, but definitely if we were having this conversation over Slack, let’s say, there would be a huge loss in empathy, I think it’s fair to say, right? If we were having it over the phone, just audio, right? It would be much better, because we can sense intonations in voice, et cetera. But still, even though the podcast is audio only, I asked you to come in video, because I think that’s a step above.

Luis:

And again, I really see virtual reality or maybe your alternative is better, the Holodeck, as being the next step beyond it. But right now, we’re stuck in a reality that most work happens through text. It’s not feasible nor desirable to be on a video call for the whole of your work day, right? So what are some things that we can do to nurture that empathy? And that is my big puzzle, because when I was playing World of Warcraft with those people, that was never a problem. It just happened naturally.

Sophie Wade:

Yes. Well, I think you developed relationships with those people over time, right? You fought. You went in. I was reading an article about, I think it was World of Warcraft, when you had you form guilds, is that correct? Okay. So you form guilds of 50 people, 25 to 50 people. Right. And those people are from around the world, that you gather together and you trust them.

Sophie Wade:

So in order to trust them, you have to follow them, develop relationships with them, because you are going to fight to get to the next level. So that’s huge. The amount of empathy that you have, or common ground, the experiences that you have, the battles that you fought side by side them, maybe fighting with some of them, they can write, “Oh, they beat me.” “Okay. I trust them because they know how to do that thing.” That, you have got a really strong bond with those people that you go forward with, that guild, to try and get up to the next level. And you don’t even know how you’re going to do it. As far as I read, offline, you might be practicing and exploring other ideas and things like that. Those are not NPCs, right? Those you are really are connecting with. So all of that-

Luis:

It can give you a complex if you allow it, because in a 50 person guild, I’m not directly connected to all of those people, right? We play together probably maybe once or twice a week, right? The main unit on Warcraft is actually a five-person group, and you have the 10 people you play with often that swaps slots in and out of that five-person team. And then, the connections when you get together, 50, 40 people get together, to go for an objective, right? You’re relying not just on the people who are connected directly, but also, you’re kind of trusting that these other people that they trust and that they play with are actually going to play well with you, and that you’re going to achieve something together. Because I’ll tell you, for a couple of years, I led one of those guilds, and there was no chance I could be equally close with every one of those 50 people, right?

Sophie Wade:

Right. So think about that in terms of empathy and trust, and the trust that you have with those five people, and the trust if you’ve been leading those five people, that that transferred trust or the assumed trust, because they have to trust you because you’re connecting with those other people and you’re leading that guild, and the trust that people have in you. This is all, those connections, those relationships, which have all been brought up, which have been nurtured online, completely virtually. So I think that those type of experiences… And people build trust in very different ways. I think yes, having this call, I do on my podcasts as well, I do really pretty much insist to be able to have videos so I can read your emotions when I don’t know you.

Sophie Wade:

And the aspect of that, I think in terms of one of the challenges we have is we have too many meetings. It’s not a question of not having video channels open all the time there. Prior to the pandemic, talking with SAP and a company called Fuse, which has unified communications software, a lot of their developers had video channels open just all the time, just as though the person was… Sort of offices that mount on the table. And they could just look over their screen and just ask a question of somebody who was sitting around at an adjacent desk, keeping those video channels open so that you can be working together in a very fluid way. So I think there are ways to do that.

Sophie Wade:

I think there are other companies who do do that. That may not be the best way of working. I think when we can utilize asynchronous communication and really use that in powerful ways so that we are maximizing live video meeting time for key aspects, and we can do updates, for example. Updates don’t necessarily need to be live. But the questions about the updates, those could be little video segments that people just record, share, everybody can look at them. And then when we meet live, we can be doing that and talk talking about the key aspects.

Sophie Wade:

So in order for a Slack communication to really be beneficial, we need to already know each other. We need to have had some video calls, and maybe we had some in-person meetings. I don’t know. There are lots of relationships that build up and are very strong without having met in person. That can be very beneficial for sure, but it isn’t necessary.

Sophie Wade:

So I think if it were just asynchronous, if it were just on Slack, it wouldn’t be as powerful unless we have that foundation. So I think we have to be very intentional about building up relationships, about connecting on different things so that we can, whether it’s talking about fields, I’m so fascinated about how all that works, as you can tell. I read the whole article. I was like, “Wow, this is so interesting, how people who have no idea, who have never met each other ever in person, and don’t even know what their faces look like, can be relying on each other for something which is very important in the game.” So these are the different ways that we could connect and relate to each other and rely on each other. And it’s all these different elements. And then, we can actually also be purposeful about reducing meeting times, then we can maximize our time and maximize those live connections.

Luis:

Yeah. There’s actually a great book about that, about how online communities grow and get together to do incredible stuff without ever meeting. It’s called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. So yeah, that could be interesting to check. So I do want to be respectful of your time and wind down the show. Let’s maybe ask some easier, but no less interesting questions to wind down.

Luis:

I’d like to know about your virtual office, and by virtual office, I mean, basically what happens when you turn on your computer or open your laptop to work? What are those apps that are on startup? What are the tabs that are always working in your browser? How do you do your work? And feel free to separate this between your work as an author and your work teaching and doing consultancy, right? I know that, for example, I personally, I have two different Chrome instances, so I separate my outer work from my marketing work.

Sophie Wade:

Well, I typically have, you might freak out. I typically have about 50 or 60 browser windows open. I like to have all the tabs open, and so I don’t have to go and find them. And I do have them bookmarked and I do now have sort of folders in the thing so they’re sort of grouped. But I often just leave them there because I go between a lot of them all the time, constantly during the day.

Sophie Wade:

And so, I have my things which are to do with my website, the podcast, whether it’s writing, consulting, clients, all these different types of things. As I said earlier, I typically meet people where they are, so if it’s Zoom or it’s Microsoft Teams, I’ll meet you there. I don’t personally use Slack that much, but if somebody wants to or on particular projects, I’ll do that, too.

Sophie Wade:

What do I have typically? I do a lot of writing, so I do that in Word. I’m not a huge fan of Google Docs, and that’s mostly because it can be so funky, or it used to be so funky printing. That sort of irritated me. Yeah. Because I do a lot of writing online or on my computer, and then when I do some editing, I like to edit on physical paper, so I like to be able to print it out. And then it’s not as easy to track your stuff on Google Docs.

Luis:

You’re a way more disciplined editor than I am. I’ve tried the whole printing thing and doing notes, and then I never go back to my notes and change it. I need to edit it directly on the doc.

Sophie Wade:

Well, if I don’t have time, I have to do it directly there. But I tend to just spew it all out and then make enormous amounts of changes. And so, it is an iterative process for me.

Luis:

It is. All right. So I wanted to ask you, before we started the show, we were talking a bit about hardware and backgrounds and stuff like that. What purchase in the last six months has improved your work or productivity or work/life balance, your favorite metric. What purchase in the last six months has improved the most considerably the things you care the most about?

Sophie Wade:

Well, I have been… Not really in the last six months, because I’ve been working on this book for a year, which as you said, has now come out. So I think putting my studio up permanently, and ring lights is so much more effective than the umbrella lights, which I have, and one of them recently fell over and smashed the halogen light, which was wonderful. So ring lights, love those. And I have my little portable studio.

Sophie Wade:

So I do travel a lot, and I think, yes. So for my work/life balance, I have a little, what do you call it? Rolly bag, a little small one, where put all my office stuff in. And then that, with my matching backpack, all my stuff for my office, which has my podcasting stuff, all of that, when I wheel that, I can go anywhere. I can travel anywhere. And if I need to do a podcast, I have it all there. So it sits there and it’s ready to go. So that has really given me the ability to work wherever I want as long as I have good enough wifi.

Luis:

Yeah. So that’s a great concept, the office in a wheel bag, is it just a random one bought off of Amazon, or is it a fancy kind of thing?

Sophie Wade:

It’s a fancy one, because I do find that to me, their wheels work really well. But my backpack got so heavy that once I had checked in a bag, I then had this incredibly heavy bag with me. So I bought the little wheelie one. So when I check my bag in, I put the backpack on the little wheelie one, and then I have everything. So I can wheel around the airport and I have everything with me. I have all my chargers. I have a long internet cable. I have the feed that goes in if I need to connect with the internet cable in a hotel, the whole thing, it’s all there, my universe.

Luis:

Do you happen to remember the brand, because the listeners like specific, actionable-

Sophie Wade:

TUMI. It’s TUMI.

Luis:

TUMI. Okay.

Sophie Wade:

Yeah.

Luis:

Got it.

Sophie Wade:

TUMI, they really do have good… The wheels work very well. It was a little bit expensive, but it is super versatile.

Luis:

Good things often are, right? That’s just the way the world goes, right? So, yeah. Okay. So let’s talk a bit about books. Apart from your own books, which I’m sure you’ve given out a lot, right? That’s part of the good thing about writing a book is that suddenly you have the Christmas stockings taken care of for that year, right? Apart from your own books, what books have you gifted the most?

Sophie Wade:

I have a lot of friends who are authors, so I buy their books, because I want to support them and I love the writing that they’re doing. In fact, today, two friends of mine, their books are coming out. One is called Great Work by Dr. Amanda Crowell, who I just recently interviewed on my podcast. And it’s Julie Ellis, and hers is called Big Gorgeous Goals, about sort of thinking big. So those are two. So I’m really trying to support friends of mine who are authors, who I also really believe in their work. And Dr. Gena Cox, in terms of inclusive leadership.

Sophie Wade:

But the fiction book that I have adored is A Gentleman from Moscow, so Amor Towles. I’m very bad about his… But that was one of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the last couple of years. In fact, I read it very slowly because I didn’t want to finish it. But he’s now come up with a new one, so I think it’s called Lincoln or something like that, so I’m really looking forward to reading that.

Sophie Wade:

But there are a lot of really, really interesting business books. Actually, behind the screen here, the backdrop here, I have an enormous number of books that I’m constantly… One which was very interesting that I read recently, which is called The Intelligence Trap, and that we can be blinded by our own intelligence, that we think we know what the answer is and therefore we don’t actually listen properly or don’t look at the data or look at it with such slanted vision that we don’t actually see what it’s really telling us. So that was a very, very interesting book that I recently read.

Luis:

Oh yeah. That’s actually a great team. It sounds very interesting. All right. So final question, this one is a bit longer setup. And then, yeah, obviously, I want you to tell people where they can find you and the book and all of that. But before that, let’s say that you are hosting a dinner. Well, let’s assume that it’s okay to host a dinner with many, many people before, right? I think we’re getting there, right? Certainly.

Sophie Wade:

Yeah. I think we are.

Luis:

Certainly, we’re getting there. So you’re hosting a dinner, and in attendance are going to be the decision makers from some of the biggest companies from all around the world. And the topic of tonight is the future of work, right? The twist is that the dinner is happening at a Chinese restaurant. And you, as the host, get to pick the message that comes inside the fortune cookies. So what is the fortune cookie message for the evening?

Sophie Wade:

Well, I could say “Empathy works.” No. What is the message?

Luis:

That’s not a bad message.

Sophie Wade:

It’s not.

Luis:

And on brand, too.

Sophie Wade:

It might be “Try empathy.”

Luis:

Okay.

Sophie Wade:

It might just be “Empathy works.” I think the focus for me is really the human-centric orientation. I didn’t start with empathy. Empathy was the solution that I found from all my work, and that’s how I arrived there. It wasn’t kind of I went, “Oh my God. I’m so much about empathy.” That was not how I got there. And so, I do believe that this human-centric understanding is really important for the future of work, because also it’s different for each company because your team is different from my team, how I’m going to manage my people based on who I am and who they are, all of these different things as the workplace is changing, as workers are evolving, as business is evolving with all the digitalization. I think all of these things are so critically important and having that human-centric understanding. So that would be what I would say, what I would have in the fortune cookie.

Luis:

Okay. That sounds fantastic. So Sophie, it was an absolute pleasure having you here. Now, please tell the listeners, where can they find you to continue the conversation? Where can they find your book and all the other services you and your business provide?

Sophie Wade:

Thank you so much, Luis. Sophiewade.com is where there’s a lot of information about me and speaking and consulting. My company is Flexcel Network, F-L-E-X-C-E-L Network. My podcast is Transforming Work with Sophie Wade. And I interview a lot of people, including people like Luis, we should do that, too, really looking into all the different aspects of the future of work and how to transform and sort of think about things differently, people who have new different solutions and different perspectives. And then, on LinkedIn, I have a number of courses there which are useful. So thank you, Luis.

Luis:

Yeah. Okay. Oh, please. I thought that you were done.

Sophie Wade:

No, no. That’s it. And Empathy Works. Sorry, my last thing is Empathy Works, which is Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work is available on online retailers and should be available in bookstores as well, wherever you are.

Luis:

Yeah. All right. Obviously, we will link to all of that in the show notes, so listeners can refer to that. And again, Sophie, it was an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for being a guest.

Sophie Wade:

Wonderful, Luis. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Luis:

It was fantastic. And thank you for listening to the DistantJob Podcast, your podcast about building and leading awesome remote teams. See you next week.

Luis:

And so, we close another episode of the DistantJob Podcast. And if you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media. That would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners. And the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me, and I hope there’re a joy for you to listen to as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcast. Click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up, so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world, because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. And to help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need, and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard. And with that, I bid you adieu. See you next week on the next episode of the DistantJob Podcast.

Remote work leaders need to be intentional when it comes to building relationships in the workplace. Why? Because you don’t work in a physical workplace is harder to create spaces where the team can interact and connect. This is where leaders build these virtual spaces and create collaborative teams.

During this episode, Sophie Wade shares why encouraging empathy in a remote work environment is fundamental for highly effective teams. She also shares insights on the future of remote work.

Highlights:

  • What does being a work futurist mean
  • How the pandemic transformed organizations
  • How are companies innovating and transforming the way they work
  • Insights about virtual reality in the workplace
  • Why empathy is fundamental in a remote work environment

Book Recommendations:

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