Amid turbulent times, what is the social glue that still binds us?

Bob Prieto, A.M.ASCE, is a member of ASCE’s Industry Leaders Council and serves as the chairman and CEO of Strategic Program Management LLC, a consulting firm based in Jupiter, Florida, specializing in management services focused on infrastructure megaprojects.


He’s also written eight books on leadership, management, ethics, and innovation.

In today’s Member Voices article, he writes eloquently about something that isn’t just crucial to business; it’s a concept that will play a critical role in lifting society out of 2020 and into a brighter 2021: empathy.

Empathy might be simply defined as being aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without explicitly experiencing them. An ability to relate to what another is feeling. It is the ability to connect emotionally with others showing you understand their feelings, concerns, and the problems they are facing. In effect it is social glue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a reinvention of business, creating a home-based reality. The social contract with employees is being modified as well as the economic model of the business. The view of organizational purpose will need to be re-examined and the interaction between the social contract and economics will be called into a much closer examination than it has in decades.

Changes in the social contract with employees will emphasize not only the importance of personal health but more broadly societal health, in all dimensions. Society includes coworkers, customers, stakeholders, and broader slices of all humankind with a likely strengthened ESG (environmental, social, governance) focus. This represents a shift to a much more empathetic organization, one challenged by reduced levels of face-to-face contact; an inability to readily read body language of remote workers; and a multiplicity of “work” environments subject to the homebound circumstances of each remote worker and their own daily clocks and interruptions.

Team building, driven by common purpose, peer pressure, and the energy (positive or negative) of ever-present supervision, is challenged and will need to be replaced by a new set of binding and driving principles. These new principles must engage at the emotional level, not just the intellectual level. A new genre of “tribal” stories and rituals must emerge. These new, powerful “stories” must weave fact and emotion together. They must be compelling, hold attention, and trigger a sense of caring. Importantly, they may be more visual than auditory, substituting in part for the reduced face-to-face communication that the remote worker will experience.

The acceleration into a remote working environment will be further amplified by two other accelerated and interlinked trends – the shift to an (almost) fully digital work environment and the growing expansion of artificial intelligence into all aspects of both work and personal environments.

Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends sees a far greater role for contingent workers in the future (77 percent of executives surveyed), adding yet another change factor into the nature of the social contract with employees.

Empathy is needed to check on employees’ mental health. This goes beyond the validation and positive feedback that all individuals require. Working remotely in a purely virtual setting eliminates the opportunity for that passing nod from a coworker or boss, or even the “how’s it going” platitude we have come to expect. The needs that this level of validation satisfied needs to be met in the remote and virtual environment in new ways.

This need for empathy is especially important during periods of high anxiety, such as during this pandemic period, and even more difficult “at distance.” One-on-one engagement may never have been more important, in addition to regular team meetings where the initial focus is on “bonding” and sharing. People and the team are a company’s real assets, and they must be nurtured and engaged emotionally to perform at high levels.

Pre-pandemic, there was already a growing need for virtual water coolers to allow for relationship building, spontaneous exchanges of ideas, and innovation to occur. This need has grown and accelerated. Evolving solutions such as daily or weekly tea times; short Instagram stories with personal snippets; and hackathons, both work and nonwork focused, must be embraced and left to evolve in natural ways. The hierarchy of needs of tomorrow’s remote worker must be met with a virtual interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

There is no readily available how-to manual on how to best bring needed empathy to this remote working environment – but there are some things that stand out as important.

• Trust – always an essential element of engagement and in some ways the sine qua non. In a remote working environment the nature of building trust and sustaining it changes. In many instances trust will be initially assumed and then verified. The strategies discussed above on engagement, team building, and empathy become all-important. Importantly, trust must be a two-way street.

• Communication – again always essential but also changed in several ways. A good portion of the 90 percent of communication that is nonverbal is lost. Ad hoc spontaneous interactions are challenged or challenging at the best. Some techniques for addressing communication at distance have been described but a more important point needs to be made. Many of the transactional communications that are required will happen asynchronously. What that means is your request now may not be seen for hours by someone who is already in “heads down” mode. We know that remote workers enjoy large blocks of uninterrupted time contributing to higher productivity. A final point: be respectful of time zones, or at least mix up the timing of those global calls!

• Human element – “people who need people are the happiest people in the world.” Tea times, virtual lunches, and maybe even multiplayer gaming help build human connections. Help others build empathy as you build your own. Challenge yourself and others. Get out of the box, literally, changing up your work location where possible but certainly getting your thinking out of the box by working a stretch challenge. Solicit and give feedback; 360° reviews, appropriately focused, can be helpful. Create opportunities for everyone to get to know the person, not just the worker.

• Walk in another’s shoes – job rotation, challenging assignments, and opportunities to explore curiosities are all essential for engagement at an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Going digital is not synonymous with the automation of the workforce. People are not automatons. Adopting different perspectives helps in raising awareness of biases and asking better questions. It helps build your empathy toward others.

• Stay physically connected – this is not an advocation for breaking any quarantine that may persist, but tangible physical connections will remain essential. Send a physical package, something very different in a virtual world. Personalize it. Celebrate not just team accomplishments but personal ones as well. A story I heard many years ago was about an employee who came excitedly into the boss’s office to tell him about an exciting accomplishment. The boss congratulated him and reached into his desk drawer looking for some tangible way to recognize the individual. All he saw was his banana for lunch, which he proceeded to hand to the employee in recognition. The story got around, and in later years the boss, aware of the positive effects which that spontaneous recognition had, kept several “golden bananas” in his desk drawer to reward outstanding achievements.

As remote working becomes more of our new normal, we need to recognize that there are important differences between 100 percent based office teams; blended office and remote teams; 100 percent remote teams. In blended environments remote workers may feel like second-class employees, fearful of being passed over for promotion and challenging assignments. This reflects an empathy gap and suggests that engagement with remote workers is not at the levels required.

The opportunity to create truly inclusive cultures, blind to age, gender, and race, may have never been greater. We will capture this opportunity only if we can improve our understanding and capability toward empathy.


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  1. I agree with the need for empathy based management especially in our industry . Staff works on projects as a team and moves on to next one. This temporary nature of jobs requires good management thinking and application. Empathy is certainly one of the good ideas. To bring in the energy and dedication needed to make projects succeed staff needs to know that their management cares and and that they are a part of the “family” that is working on the project. It is challenging but empathy needs to become not just a tool but an essential commitment in the company’s vision.


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