Can digital technology help build empathy?

Sociologist Sherry Turkle on how returning to the office is an opportunity to do things differently, and create more human connections

Businesses can foster human connection & build empathy through digital technology in the workplace.

Sherry Turkle has made a career of studying how people use technology to interact. Among her discoveries: smartphones, and texting in particular, kill conversations. During meetings, in classrooms, and at home, people too often stared at screens instead of paying attention to others in the room.

Then came the pandemic. After more than a year of remote work, Turkle says that Zoom calls, surprisingly, have helped rekindle a critical part of human connection. “We realized there’s something about a face that you can’t get” via text, she says.

As employees begin a shift to hybrid work routines, companies are rethinking how to use technology to keep teams connected and productivity and morale high. Turkle, a sociologist who teaches at MIT and an author of a recent memoir, “The Empathy Diaries,” says companies need to take this moment to create better environments for conversation and bring fresh eyes to how they use technology for employees. Here are edited highlights of a recent interview—conducted over Zoom.

Q
Is empathy a natural human instinct? Can we be empathic through our use of technology?
A

Yes. Our minds have mirror neurons. We are naturally tuned to mirroring other people’s inner states because that is going to lead to the greatest sense of connection with them. You don’t need to call it empathy. You can call it a natural desire for attachment.

The reason people get Zoom fatigue—and the reason that this interview is going to be more stressful than if we were sitting opposite each other at a table—is that I’m trying to look at your eyes. I also want to tune our body language. But on Zoom, to give you the illusion that I’m looking in your eyes, I have to look at the green [camera] light. So now I’m doing that. But I can’t see your body language.

I can’t see your face because I’m looking at the green light to make you think I am looking at your eyes to give you the illusion of connection. It is inherently stressful.

We’re not able to do what is natural, which is just to read each other’s faces. We are trying to do two impossible things: satisfy the desire to give the other person the feeling of being understood, and read each other, to be in an empathic state. The technology doesn’t make this possible.

[Read also: How to build empathy in business]

Q
Will that connection be restored when we’re back together in person?
A

In returning to the office, everyone is talking about the importance of spontaneous creativity and conversation. But I studied those offices before the pandemic. Everything was happening to halt conversation in those offices. People had their phones in front of them at every meeting. They were in a room together, and they were looking down at their phones and then they were looking up. The majesty, mystery, and spontaneity of conversation did not happen in that environment where people snuck glances at each other.

You want conversation? Don’t look to history. Look to what you need now, so that you can have conversation in your workplace.

Q
So what can companies do to create an environment that genuinely fosters conversation?
A

It probably isn’t workers who are crammed into tiny spaces where they need to put on headphones in order to have a moment of peace to work. They probably have better working conditions sitting in bed.

This is such an opportunity for a reset—in universities, companies, and industries.

Think about what your policy is regarding interrupting employees constantly with email. Research shows it takes 27 minutes to get back to work after any kind of interruption.

One of my first suggestions for offices is to tell workers to answer an email by saying, “I’m thinking.” It will create chaos in your office, and potentially change the culture in a really good way. What you’re doing is you’re signaling that you’re complexifying the question. When you say that you need to think, you are saying that asking for an instant response in a text message is dumbing down the problem and that you need to make sure that problem gets addressed in a more complex way.

Q
What should the goal be for employers offering digital communications tools, or for the tech firms that create them?
A

Technology should be more modest, presented as a package of discrete options, rather than as a totalizing solution. That’s why Zoom had such tremendous success. It said, “This is better than nothing.”

Technology always ends up being presented as better than anything else could ever be. But technology can really help once you have a relationship with someone. Once I’ve known a student and been working with a student for a while, we can get into kind of a joking relationship. You know their face very well, and you have a lot of connection and history. Of course, you want to use technology to connect and do business. You just want to be smart and not try to substitute technology for the deepest kind of relationship.