The swift closure of many workplaces in 2020 as COVID-19 took hold ushered in remote work for millions of people in the United States.
Before the pandemic, most employees said they seldom teleworked. Now, 71% of workers do their job almost entirely from home, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
To be sure, working from home has its benefits, from cutting out a commute to a more accommodating environment for people with disabilities, but it also comes with challenges—namely establishing trust. And that’s where empathy comes in.
This ability to recognize others’ emotions and understand their perspective is key to connecting, even more so as teams look ahead to long-term, online-only work. It especially matters when you’re remote.
“Virtual empathy is the ability to make a connection between people in different places through technology,” said Lezlie Poole, a psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner who leads virtual training at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.
Turns out, putting virtual empathy into practice works for anyone on video calls, particularly if you’re struggling to turn on your camera and be present after almost two years of pandemic life.
Body language is revealing
Before humans developed language some 150,000 years ago, we relied on body language to convey and interpret thoughts and emotions—and to quickly determine whether to fight or flee.
Though we bring that instinct to virtual meetings, we mostly gauge tone and facial expressions on-screen to establish comfort, connection, and trust.
If you’re visibly tense, it sends a signal that may make people less willing to engage or connect, Poole said.
In other words, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. Welcoming people to a call with an inadvertently furrowed brow, for example, doesn’t feel that welcoming at all.
Poole recommends relaxing your facial and body muscles before turning on your video. Shoulder rolls, deep breaths, and listening to mood-boosting music can help. Preparing talking points if you’re expected to speak also helps convey confidence.
On low-energy days, it’s okay to be authentic and acknowledge that being upbeat is too hard, Poole said. You can be fatigued without being unfriendly.
On the other hand, if someone shows emotion out of context, like an angry frown or contemptuous smirk, it’s possible to unintentionally reflect it, so you have to be mindful of that.
As addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer put it, “Emotions are contagious and know no boundaries.”
Use empathetic language
Pairing body language with empathetic language helps interactions feel less forced or scripted.
Empathetic language includes words that help bolster the emotion you’re trying to project. It can be as simple as, “Hi, my name is Kari, and I’m excited to see you!”
Empathetic language—or intensifiers—conveyed with a positive tone can show you care about the interaction. It includes words like “really,” “so,” “very,” “excited,” and “amazing.”
Empathetic language lets others know you recognize their perspective, said Poole, who is trained in providing mental health support that draws on her own personal experience.
It seems obvious that the goal of empathetic language is to, well, show empathy, but while we may experience empathy, showing it may require more conscious methods.
“Emotions can carry through videoconferencing, but you have to be ready to send it so the other person can receive it,” Poole said.
Welcome others with your tone and expressions
Use a tone that makes people feel welcome and safe, and give them the time to hear you and understand what’s being communicated.
Depending on where you’re from or the languages you speak, you may need to slow down rapid speech or give context to culturally specific sayings if you use them. Leverage the cadence of your voice.
“Your tone, body language, and verbal language [can] let you display empathy in a way that people feel naturally connected to you,” Poole said.
You’ll also want to be mindful of your audience, like the time zones they are calling in from and what part of the day they are in.
Brewer recommends identifying your own barriers to forging online connections, like fatigue or multitasking, and adopting a sense of curiosity about where the other person is coming from.
It’s easier to get distracted by alerts from emails and team messaging on the same desktop where you’re joining calls, versus being engaged and focused in person. Pro tip: You can temporarily activate “Do not disturb” on mobile devices or Macs or “Focus Assist” on a PC to reclaim your attention span.
“It’s more about removing barriers to having an authentic connection than trying to create one,” said Brewer, also executive medical director of behavioral health at digital health company Sharecare. “Be yourself.”
Secret ingredient: The story
We’re not born with empathy—as Poole said, “A welcoming face may not come without lots of practice”—but research shows it can be taught. And there’s a lot of good in that.
For example, physicians taught to be more empathic had more satisfied patients who were more likely to follow treatment recommendations and have better outcomes.
Empathy is based on each person’s life experiences and stories, which are tied to universal emotions like sadness, grief, joy, and love. That shared validation draws people together. It can be as simple as asking, “What’s your story?”
At HFC, a national nonprofit that supports families affected by Alzheimer’s disease, reflecting on each other’s stories has been crucial to growing close connections in over two dozen online support groups. (The organization was previously Hilarity for Charity and was cofounded by actor-writer-producers Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen.)
“It’s what helps people feel seen, heard, and recognized and not alone,” said Alexandra Villano, HFC’s senior director of program development and strategy.
In a virtual work setting, that may look like sharing an appropriate, relevant personal story and being curious and interested about what’s going on with others.
“Empathy equals connection, and connection equals understanding, and that’s how we change things,” Poole said.
If you master these key elements of connection online, chances are they can make future in-person meetings even more intentional and personal.
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