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How We Built a More Empathetic Team in 2020 (In a Remote-First Culture)

By: Daniel Kim
January 20, 2021

How we built a more empathetic team in 2020 in a remote-first culture, one ice breaker at a time!

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2021! Though the year 2020 may be over forever, the pandemic is still with us as is our new normal: remote culture!

When I joined Apartment List in September 2019, getting to know someone on the team was as easy as tapping on their shoulder and striking up a conversation. Heck, I even organized a team get-together for the Design team to go mini-golfing, squeezed in a Lyft XL! This was just a year ago.

Fast forward a couple of months to March 2020, we interviewed David in-person, our awesome Product Designer, not knowing that it’d be the last time he got to meet all of us in person! We miss you, in person, David!🤗

The 9 months following have been a learning experience for all of us in the Design team but oddly enough, we got to know each other even better and at a deeper level. Our secret? Our weekly ice breakers!

No, not the quarantine nickname kind, though “paranoid sourdough” would be a time-appropriate name for a pandemic-era punk band.

The Power of Listening.

So how did we do it? I took how I approach user research to ice breakers and asked questions, ranging from a somewhat serious “do you value your past, present, or future the most?” to a more escapist “do you prefer the mountains or the ocean for your vacation?”🤓

Though it was interesting to learn that David is a future-oriented, mountain person, the most important part of this exercise was in the discovery of the “why” behind his answers—the “why” that provoked a momentary self-reflection.

“Why was being close to the mountains important to you?"

We all “leaned in” and listened carefully as David unmuted himself to explain how it reminded him of his childhood village and that it provided him with nostalgic comfort. Aha!✨

Asking the “why” behind a simple ice breaker was what cultivated the power of listening among each other and with it, genuine curiosity and empathic connection in our team.

Shared Vulnerability.

The act of introspection is a profoundly personal and delicate process: we deeply explore our subconscious as we search for the “why” behind our own thoughts. Sharing this thought about your inner self with the entire team can make you feel nervous, even vulnerable. We all do.

It is through this shared vulnerability that allowed our team to form infallible trust, forge a sense of togetherness, and nurture a safe space to express our individual thoughts freely.💭

From Cognitive to Compassionate Empathy.

So there it is! Building a more empathetic team is as simple as asking “why” more often. But with everything simple, the devil’s in the details: perfecting empathy takes patience, practice, and persistence.

Make this a habit—may I suggest through a weekly ice breaker?—and the team will collectively graduate from practicing cognitive (perspective-taking) empathy to compassionate (action-taking) empathy.💜

Here’s how you can keep this resolution in 2021: as Erika Hall would always say in Just Enough Research, “just shut up and listen.” Embrace the power of listening and be genuinely curious.

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UX Researcher at Apartment List — constantly fascinated by people, how they think, and why they think the way they do. . Read More
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John Kobs
John Kobs is the CEO and Co-founder of Apartment List, the fastest growing rental marketplace in the United States. John believes that everyone deserves a home they love, and has built Apartment List on a foundation of trust and transparency for renters and owners.
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