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We can cultivate empathy anywhere, even from our living rooms

By Kelly Salance

Published May 29, 2020
Last updated October 25, 2020

Right now, connecting with others can be hard. Sometimes it’s the WiFi that cuts out, other times it’s internet fatigue after what must be my 20 millionth Zoom call of the week. We all know the aggravation of having frozen and glitchy screens, just as the most important part of the conversation is about to happen. Truly being heard feels improbable, and frankly, exhausting most of the time. But then, some days are different and the power of the technology is rejuvenating.

Recently, more than 30 Zendesk employees and several of our external community partners joined a virtual 30-minute beginner’s yoga class. The class was led by Amy Wendling, a customer success executive at Zendesk, as part of the company’s “Living Room Live” series (more on that later).

My little brother, Matthew, joined the class with me. He has Down syndrome and since COVID-19 has not been able to work or, like so many of us, do much of anything. Normally an energetic ray of sunshine, bringing a smile to every person in a room, Matthew has been lethargic and not fully himself lately. Throughout the class, I saw that light coming back into him. Matt shot me the occasional thumbs up from his downward dog and high-fived me mid-sun salutation more than once. Hours after the class, he buzzed around the house, flexing his muscles, still energized from the class. Matthew stepped out of his comfort zone (something that is not easy for him to do) and onto his yoga mat alongside 30 strangers all over the internet.

Together, friends and strangers came together to breathe, bend, and flow together. Even though we were technically apart.

Normally an energetic ray of sunshine, bringing a smile to every person in a room, Matthew has been lethargic and not fully himself lately. Throughout the class, I saw that light coming back into him.

After the class, I shared Matthew’s story internally at Zendesk. It’s not something I normally would do. It’s not easy being vulnerable, especially with something so personal. But I hoped it would inspire other employees to also be vulnerable, maybe try out a new skill, and connect with one another—even without the benefit of physically being together.

Within hours, employees began raising their hands to teach a class or signed up for a course they previously felt intimidated by. My post on our company Slack had some of the highest engagement we’d ever seen across our company. People messaged me directly, thanking me for sharing. A bond formed, creating a shared experience and a deeply felt connection that hit myriad people in myriad ways.

[Related read: The brave new world of virtual volunteering]

Putting skills to use—from one living room to another

For the past five years, I have organized hundreds of volunteer shifts in our local neighborhood from serving meals at St. Anthony Foundation to playing bingo with seniors at the Curry Senior Center. When we moved to sheltering in place, I didn’t know what this programming would look like or if we could still bring our employees and the community together in a way that captures the Zendesk culture and ethos.

Living Room Live was the answer. The program is led by Zendesk employees for employees, non-profit staff, and our broader community of shelter-in-place companions, from roommates to children. The idea was to ask people to sign up to share their skills via remote “classes” over Zoom. Think guided meditations, cooking, storytelling for kids, even TikTok tutorials. Really, anything someone was willing to do for 30 minutes or an hour that would bring our broader community closer together.

[Related read: Business isn’t always about commerce; it’s also about community]

Unsure what to expect, I experienced first-hand the power of virtual connection. A simple 30-minute zoom yoga class and a shared story underscored the importance of empathy—and its impact. Meeting online is easy enough, but it often feels like something is missing, especially with the uncertainty around when it will be possible to come together again in person. This is precisely why finding moments of genuine virtual connection will be what helps us survive, stay strong, and come out on the other side of this, able to intuit and foster emotional intelligence and empathy through technology.

This is precisely why finding moments of genuine virtual connection will be what helps us survive, stay strong, and come out on the other side of this, able to intuit and foster emotional intelligence and empathy through technology.

While I am anxious to see the day when we can do many of these activities in person, I am nonetheless heartened at the esprit de corp across Zendesk and elsewhere, as people try to reach each other in new and innovative ways; to over-rotate on sincerity and empathy; and to see technology as a conduit to bring us together versus keeping us apart.

Kelly Salance is a Senior Manager of Social Impact at Zendesk. When she is not empowering employees to create positive social change in their communities, you can find her exploring in the outdoors.