Finding Connection Through Our Connections

When Queen’s University Psychology Professor Dr. Wendy Craig heard the roar of a crowd coming up from the streets, she knew it might be related to homecoming parties. What she didn’t realize was that this year’s party would make national news as students defied Covid-19 restrictions on public gathering, damaged property and flaunted misogynistic signs.

After 28 years at the university, Craig had watched the parties grow from purely local events to attractions for young people from across Toronto. Social media has become an inseparable part of their escalation.

“Those gatherings happened because of social media,” she says. “There were leaders in the student community who said ‘We’re going to be here. Be here if you want a party.’ That information gets transmitted immediately. It’s highly effective.”

The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital communications. And online, empathy can be in short supply.


As the pandemic stretches on, we’re all looking for signs of hope, for evidence of our improving resiliency. One of the most important elements of resiliency is our ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback, which can make the failures of the pandemic—from premature re-openings to botched public health messaging—the lessons we’ll use to move forward.

For example in an article Craig co-wrote with Queen’s colleague Dr. Klodiana Kolomitro, the two suggest that the homecoming fiasco is a chance to use the collective power of groups to engage the student community while shaping an effective response and a repudiation of the misogyny on display. It’s a collaborative, empathetic approach with important implications across all sectors.

In November, Oliver S. Schmidt, President and CEO of the communication consultancy C4CS, presented “Crisis Communications: What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Effective Employee Communication” at The Ontario Disaster & Emergency Management Conference. Adapted from his 10 Tips for Effective Employee Communication in the Time of Covid-19, several of Schmidt’s key points echo Craig’s.

“Employees want to be able to have a say,” he says. “And it’s important to recognize the potential solutions they have to problems that are under their attention.”

But any company that aims to more directly engage its employees will also run into a version of Queen’s problem: the difficulty of in-person gatherings. As a range of research from firms like McKinsey and IBM have shown, the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital communications. And online, empathy can be in short supply.


Dr. Mathieu Lajante, an Associate at the Ted Rogers School of Management, recently presented a research paper to the Academy of Management Conference titled “Toward psychopathic organizational frontlines.” In it, he proposes that online communication strips out essential contextual cues, leaving a frontline worker able to take a customer’s perspective (this is the problem you’re having), but not necessarily able to empathize with their emotions (this is how you feel about it).

When a customer contacts a company directly, it’s usually because of an issue accompanied by a strong, often negative emotional state. And while Lajante doesn’t propose that digital communications literally induces a psychopathic state, his research does suggest that the loss of nonverbal cues has an analogous effect on our ability to pick up cues essential for empathy.

“You’re angry, you’re sad, you’re anxious,” says Lajante. “Expressing emotion is part of the information you’re sharing with someone else to describe the situation.”

Casting Ryerson acting students as customers and Business Technology Management students as frontline service worker stand-ins, the acting students read scripts based on different challenges, followed by the business students filling out a questionnaire indicating the degree they’d want to assist the customer. After over 1,500 responses, results were consistent.

“They don’t want to go above and beyond or spend more time with the customer,” says Lajante. “They don’t want to assist the customer as they would if they were in a face-to-face conversation.”

But face-to-face is no longer the default. Even the disaster management conference where Schmidt presented his workshop announced in October it would be moving online as a result of the evolving pandemic.


Talk to employees first
Whenever possible, internal crisis communication should precede communication with external stakeholders. Engaging in an honest dialogue with as many employees as possible also fosters better understanding and employee support for possibly unpopular but necessary steps company leadership must take to secure the future of the business. Whichever method of internal crisis communication a company may choose, and the more upfront management is about what’s happening, the better-informed and more entrusted employees feel.

Communicate facts, feelings and actions
At this time of heightened anxiety, economic turmoil and an unknown future, succinctly communicating facts, feelings and actions is more important than ever before. Managers must carefully listen to employees and openly communicate what’s known, how they feel about it and what they’re doing about it.
Convince leaders on feedback

  • Employees appreciate and increasingly demand feedback options like face-to-face meetings and technology-enabled two-way communication. But the best-laid crisis communication strategy may not work if continuous employee feedback isn’t included in management’s decision-making.
  • Employee feedback allows management to track whether messages have reached the intended groups of employees and achieved desired results.
  • Employee feedback enables management not only to track employees’ opinions, perceptions and expectations, but may also reveal what colleagues and external stakeholders are sharing with employees.
  • Employee feedback often contains valuable information and suggestions for minimizing damage, seizing opportunities and enabling necessary change.


The challenge now is to maintain connection through our connections. At the frontline, Lajante proposes making empathy an explicit consideration in customer service. Machine learning, for example, might help companies better detect emotion in automated processes. Chatbot scripts can include more explicit emotional language like “I understand this might be frustrating,” or they might just shunt upset customers more quickly to employees with empathetic gifts or extra training.

Within organizations, Schmidt advises that management incorporate listening sessions where executives frame the discussion, then provide an open, uncritical forum for employee feedback. And as an ongoing exercise, Schmidt notes that one-on-one relationships are always key.

“Whenever possible, and regardless of what level in the hierarchy the employee is, it’s important to keep in place communication with the immediate supervisor,” says Schmidt.

The result, he says, is a chain of understanding from upper management to frontline employees, interconnected with the assistance of those nonverbal cues so often absent from digital communications.

“Instead of an email to all staff, it’s important to see them,” says Schmidt. “If it’s not an in-person meeting, which often isn’t possible, do a video conference.”

Wendy Craig offers an even more direct suggestion.

“Make those nonverbal cues explicit,” she says. “Social media is really complex as a communication tool, because we have to think a lot about the receiver and sender’s relationship. It behooves us to be more explicit in our communications.”

The communication medium will always matter, though. When Craig heard the commotion of the homecoming partiers, her first response was to go online.

“I looked it up on Twitter,” she says.

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