Virtual reality reaches out to save relationships

6 min read

Girl looking in virtual reality viewer

From the Grass is Not Always Greener file, it turns out that working from home is not idillic. Indeed, toiling apart from the team might unintentionally undermine working relationships.

“Remote working has brought with it some vexing challenges, including distractions, Zoom fatigue and even incivility,” Megan M. Biro said. “Taken out of physical context, we tend to misread and misinterpret each other. That can have troubling side effects.”

A Forbes analyst, brand strategist and TalentCulture’s chief executive officer, Biro talked with Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and CEO and founder of Live in Their World. The program helps employees develop more respectful ways to interact using virtual reality that can be viewed remotely.

Biro and Rosenberg looked at how to make relationships work and repair collateral damage before it’s too late.

“Remote work at the present time means work from home,” Rosenberg said. “For many people, it’s under challenging conditions. There are many aspects that make remote work challenging, but I want to focus first on incivility.

“Incivility, ultimately, is disrespect—whether intended or not,” she said. “Civility is respect. It’s treating others with courtesy. Being thoughtful of others, and being aware of how one’s own actions—and those of other people—might affect others.”

Subconscious influences play a big role in interactions.

“Oftentimes, when people’s biases impact their behavior or they act uncivilly, the individual on the receiving end of the incivility may respond with a level of emotion that others think is ‘too emotional’ or ‘aggressive’ or unwarranted,” Rosenberg said.

“In fact, when an emotional response or reaction is involved, the person who acted uncivilly might believe that the person responding is being uncivil,” she said. “Unfortunately, this perspective shifts the conversation from an opportunity to understand how things could be improved to a focus on the person who acted uncivilly as the ‘victim’ of incivility.”

Losing in-person personal touch

Rosenberg noted that the focus away from the initial incivility and learning opportunities has historically happened more frequently to people of color.

“Working during the pandemic—and working from home—provide unique challenges to a civil workplace,” she said. “It’s hard to maintain the same sense of belonging, camaraderie and engagement in the team and company.

“Working together, if I behave in ways that convey disrespect to you, I may have a chance later in the day to notice that you’re less warm or even cool to me,” Rosenberg said. “I’ll have opportunities to repair the breach, even if we don’t explicitly talk about what happened.”

There are signs of change in the air.

“I may offer to get you coffee, or stop by your work area to chat, or in some other way show you that I saw that something negative happened between us, and I’m trying to address it,” Rosenberg said. 

“With work from home, these small opportunities to notice a coworker’s reaction—and to respond to it—are not part of the new WFH normal,” she said. “Little—and big—experiences of feeling disrespected can fester.”

These feelings can emerge from a variety of sources.

“Workplace culture starts at the top, but teams and working groups can have their own subcultures,” Rosenberg said. “The responsibility lies with leaders and managers to model, nudge and encourage civil behavior and, if need be, sanction uncivil behavior.

“Doing so requires significant mental effort,” she said. “Another problem is that unless all employees are trained and deputized to help create a culture of civility—including bystander intervention—it’s a heavy burden for leaders and managers to carry alone.”

On track with respect

In her view, when every employee has the opportunity to learn deeply what a respectful workplace looks like, the whole company is pointed in the same direction.

“The opportunities for miscommunication can multiply as people work from home,” Rosenberg said. “Most of us are not as clear writers as we think we are. Text-based communication such as email, Slack, chat and so on are ripe for miscommunication.

“We may misread emotion into the words or see snark where there isn’t any, for example,” she said. “In turn, this creates or adds layers to tension and wariness into working relationships.”

The latest innovations have turned into the latest drawbacks.

Videoconferencing has been helpful to have, but can recreate incivilities of in-person meetings,” Rosenberg said. “This includes interrupting, discounting ideas, someone taking—or getting—credit for another’s ideas, unintentionally not inviting employees with diverse perspectives to meetings.

“Videoconferencing also creates challenges to discern nuance,” she said. “It’s fatiguing to ‘read’ people when their faces are tiny boxes on the screen that have microsecond delays from their audio.”

Taken together, senses are overwhelmed.

“Paying attention to all the faces on a call while simultaneously trying to read what’s in the chat box or other text-based communication is also fatiguing and makes us lose information,” Rosenberg said. “With videoconferencing, we lose the body language cues that provide feedback about how the other person is doing and whether we’ve been uncivil.”

Biro suggests taking a step back to reassess.

“Look at the bigger picture right now to see how lack of tolerance and understanding robs us of civility—which in a work culture means we can’t function as teams, as collaborators,” she said. “If we’re not committed to true diversity and a culture that embraces diversity, we won’t have a foundation for true civility.

“When was the last time we stopped business as usual to have a big-picture conversation about civility—to understand the microaggressions that pollute our interactions?” Biro said. “Keep a problem abstract, and you can’t make tangible improvements.”

Equality of technology

Never let remote working become out of sight, out of mind—or take monitoring to extremes. Those working remotely might have added pressures to produce away from the rest of the office, especially if contending with unblinking systems monitoring their activities.

“Ensure equal access to remote technology and hardware before you expect everyone to be up and running,” Biro said. “We don’t all have the same privileges. Equality is a matter of technology, too.

“One old-fashioned but surprisingly effective means to communicate remotely? By phone,” she said. “We can hear the nuances in each other’s voices with no delay.”

Avoid taking advantage of captive, remote workers.

“Limit endless daily video meetings,” Biro said. “Give your people a break. Zoom is an amazing platform, but Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Endless screen time can create tiny moments of stress that make us less receptive to each other.”

Entrepreneurs should have definitive ways to manage remote workers. 

“There are several strategies organizations can implement to improve employees’ abilities to work from home,” Rosenberg said. “One is realistic—and clear—expectations. Two surveys during the pandemic have highlighted that employees are, understandably, significantly distracted.

“It’s external distractions—such as managing children—and internal distractions: worries and anxieties,” she said. “So during the pandemic, many employees will not be able to work at the same level they did before.”

This makes communication even more important. 

“Expectations about the amount and type of work each employee can do should be an ongoing discussion,” Rosenberg said. “It’s also important for managers and teams to provide clear communication about priorities and realistic deadlines.

“Another strategy is for leaders, managers and coworkers to understand employees’ availability and bandwidth,” she said. “Managers and teammates should have some sense of what each employee’s homelife is like—what challenges each is facing when working from home.”

Messages in color

One strategy Rosenberg suggested is to ask each employee, at the start of meetings, for a quick color-coded check-in about their bandwidth: 

  • Green, which means good to go, ready to focus
  • Red, distressed, having trouble focusing
  • Yellow, in between the two

“Create easy ways for informal connections among teammates, whether it’s a voluntary 15-minute ‘book group’ or discussion around a shared article or streaming show, or having lunch ‘together’ during a meeting,” Rosenberg said.

“Help colleagues help each other,” she said. “Facilitate ways that each one helps, whether it’s sharing the work on a task, entertaining a colleague’s children for a half an hour, or being willing to listen to a colleague’s troubles.”

Being inquisitive is reassuring.

“Having a frame of curiosity can really help,” Rosenberg said. “The challenge will be how to do work from home better.

“The right channel will be different for different people and different tasks,” she said. “It’s about being willing to experiment.”

Virtual reality brings a sense of being there to people half a world away. Even at extreme distances, the ability to virtually reach out and touch brings teams and culture into the same room of belonging.

“So many leaders I know would love a great, effective tool for improving the work culture,” Biro said. “Right now that is so important. So here it is. With virtual reality, people live the experience of someone else firsthand.

“Here’s an idea: Leaders should use VR,” she said. “It’s so important for leaders to have a better understanding of what their people go through. I’m amazed at what VR does for our perceptions, and it’s efficient.”

Half-hearted steps for high tech will fail.

“VR takes a commitment to increase diversity and inclusion and gives you a platform to take the first step,” Biro said. “It’s a great example of a technology that can make us better humans.”

Experience another viewpoint

From any distance, connections can grow and strengthen.

“Virtual reality is an amazing medium to shift perspective and create empathy,” Rosenberg said. “It can—literally—put you in another person’s shoes.

“Let’s say a leader is white,” she said. “He or she might have read about situations that were disrespectful for black employees. Leaders might even have had some type of sensitivity training. But the virtual reality experience of being a black employee in such situations, first hand, is an entirely different experience. It’s developing insight, on steroids.”

That knowledge can improve the atmosphere of the entire business.

“Leaders play a crucial role in setting—and changing—culture,” Rosenberg said. “Virtual reality experiences can help provide leaders with the emotional learning of what best practices look like—and feel like.

Soft skills are a vital component of good leadership,” she said. “One soft skill is empathy.”

Rosenberg noted that empathy has different components: 

  • Cognitive: thinking
  • Emotional: feeling
  • Compassionate: acting

“Cognitive empathy is knowing what the other person likely thinks and feels,” Rosenberg said. “Emotional empathy is feeling what the other person is feeling, as if there were an emotional contagion. Compassionate empathy is being moved to help—to act.

“Most leadership training addresses cognitive empathy,” she said. “Certain types of virtual reality, done well, can induce powerful emotional empathy and, as a result, compassionate empathy. It is the pull toward action that improves culture.”

Rosenberg cited “great research showing when you give people a VR experience, compared to seeing a regular video of the same content or reading the same content, the VR experience is what stays with people and makes them more likely to act.”

The benefits circle back to leadership and the entire team.

“Virtual reality can help leaders experience what good leadership looks like so they can become models of best practices,” Rosenberg said. “Good virtual reality experiences shouldn’t just be for leaders. Everyone benefits when we deeply understand each others’ experiences.

“VR, done well, is perfect to facilitate deep understanding,” she said. “That said, virtual reality is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for ‘good,’ for ‘ill’ or be the wrong tool for a given task.”

Jim Katzaman Jim Katzaman is a manager at Largo Financial Services. A writer by trade, he graduated from Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and served for 25 years in public affairs – better known in the civilian world as public relations. He also earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Public Affairs. Since retiring, he has been a consultant and in the federal General Service as a public affairs specialist. He also acquired life and health insurance licenses, which resulted in his present affiliation with Largo Financial Services. In addition to expertise in financial affairs, he gathers the majority of his story content from Twitter chats. This has led him to publish about a wide range of topics such as social media, marketing, sexual harassment, workplace trends, productivity and financial management. Medium has named him a top writer in social media.

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