Human-Centric Remote Leadership: Building Empathy and Engagement in Virtual Teams

By Cristina Imre, Founder of Tech Leadership Lab and Quantum Wins.  – Feb 1, 2024

The AI Empathy Paradox

Your fridge might be your best friend and show more empathy than a human.

Well, not just your fridge, but pretty much any other part of your house that can be upgraded with AI. I didn’t even mention lifelike robots when things get trickier by resemblance.  

That’s not what we would want as an outcome as we try to preserve the best in humanity. 

If you saw the advancements presented at CES2024, then it was obvious that our interaction with technology irreversibly changed. We now forever live in an increasingly AI-integrated world where many things will be just done for you. 

On a second note, that forever part is TBD for two reasons: advancements in longevity and climate action. They both need to succeed for a long and thriving future. 

With the rise of AI-enabled devices and virtual assistants capable of displaying fake empathy, there is a paradox. The seductive simplicity of AI companies, such as those in the movie ‘Her,’ appears to hold out a vision of a future where technology understands us better than our own species.

Loneliness and Technological Solutions

When we don’t belong much, as it’s the case in today’s divided society, this is highly attractive. We are facing an epidemic of loneliness. This resulted in having a Minister for Loneliness in the UK and Japan today.

Therefore, this technological empathy seems like a solution, yet it’s a double-edged sword. At first glance it brings easy and efficient ways, for remote management, but at what price? 

Although artificial intelligence may help in organizing work, and offers individualized assistance, it lacks the authenticity of feelings and understanding that can only be provided by human empathy. 

Should we then delegate AI to express humanity-empathy on our behalf, as we are fascinated with empathetic-like responses from devices designed with GenAI? Thinking it’s good enough, and at least I can have 24/7 attention if I want to. I can even prompt it to like me and make me feel like the most important person in the world. 

Is it possible that AI could ever replace the intricate human connection? It’s a valid question but then again this would directly address the meaning of being human. 

The Role of Human Empathy in Leadership

Remote leadership is here to stay and get traction. It’s inevitable even if we just encounter the sustainable and climatic aspects. Therefore, a human-centric approach becomes more important. 

It’s not just about saving time or streamlining processes; instead, it is about creating a culture where every member of a team feels genuinely connected, valued, and understood.

What will happen when we connect to the cloud through neuralink devices? For some, this is Sci-Fi, a secret hope; while for others it’s a certainty. 

Either way, our preparation in the most intrinsic human traits like our capability to connect, understand, and empathize with others needs to be on stable ground to know how to handle technology healthily. 

Integrating Technology with Human Connection

Handling and enabling technology to benefit humankind in a healthy way.

It involves acknowledging each person’s unique challenges and emotional landscapes. It is also about making an online environment that goes far beyond the simple coexistence of team members by fostering a sense of community and respect among them.

Instead of replacing real human interactions with technology, we should use technology to make those interactions more meaningful.

I have worked in virtual mode for over a decade now – all through team works, across multiple time zones.

Empathy implies recognizing and reacting to the emotional and psychological requirements of team members. AI may be able to mimic, but it lacks the depth of understanding and emotional engagement associated with true empathy.

Therefore, our challenge as leaders in this new era of work is to combine technology seamlessly with our inherent humanity. Technology should rather support without replacing the human dimensions of empathy and connection in leadership. 

As leaders, we are the architects of the environment, tasked with the delicate balance of integrating technology and maintaining human connection.

Learning from the Past

Our role becomes about deeply understanding the human element behind the screen. This understanding is rooted in our evolutionary psychology, where empathy and social bonds were key survival tools. Our ancestors relied on empathy to build cohesive tribes and communities, a principle that is still relevant in today’s virtual teams.

Anthropological insights remind us that human societies have always been built on complex social interactions, often requiring nuanced understanding and emotional intelligence, traits that AI has yet to fully replicate. 

The remote work setting, therefore, presents a unique opportunity for leaders to draw on these ancient, ingrained instincts of empathy and social bonding to create a sense of belonging and community, even in a virtual space.

Active listening and being attuned to the subtle cues that indicate how team members are feeling and coping with the remote leadership skill. 

This skill is particularly important in a remote setting where physical cues are absent. 

By understanding each team member’s personal context – their home environment, personal challenges, and individual working styles – leaders can tailor their approach to meet each team member’s needs effectively.

How to Apply Maslow’s Pyramid in Remote

If you have some knowledge about Maslow’s pyramid you understand that expecting people to perform and excel if their basic needs are not met, is an illusion.

Let’s see. People need to have shelter, food, and good conditions to exist. Then they need to feel secure to enable all brain functions. In a remote setting security also means enough salary to alienate the scarcity mindset and the right tools to perform the task without constant malfunctions.

Basic needs must be met before individuals can achieve their full potential.

I always add to these conditions all those basic elements most employers miss. 

  • Do your workers have a nice office with greenery and lighting? 
  • Are they comfortable at their desk with the needed equipment and chairs? 
  • Are they doing enough movements and eating properly to keep being healthy? 

How come many miss that for a human to perform well, we need to enable those internal mechanisms from external sources. Once these requirements are met our remote workers feel good and secure enough to focus on the job.

The Best Friend Phenomenon at Work

Another crucial element is the ‘best friend’ aspect. You might know from Gallup that it’s one of the key factors for engagement in companies. Now you don’t need to have your best friend at work but have at least a friend. 

It makes so much sense, again from an evolutionary stand of view. And yet, most employers miss the mark and do not encourage personal bonds. Without those, detachment becomes natural. Together with it, people just don’t care. How effective such a person can be and inspired to do a great job?

To further illustrate the importance of creating a sense of belonging and community in remote teams, consider the anthropological concept of “phatic communion.” This term refers to the non-utilitarian, social interactions that humans engage in to maintain social bonds and strengthen group cohesion.

The Phatic Communion

In traditional societies, phatic communion took the form of casual conversations, shared meals, and communal activities. While these practices may not seem directly related to work productivity, they are essential for creating a positive and supportive work environment.

Remote leaders can replicate these elements of phatic communion by scheduling regular team-building activities, encouraging informal communication, and creating shared spaces for virtual collaboration and socializing.

By incorporating these practices into their leadership approach, remote leaders can foster a sense of belonging and community that is not only essential for employee well-being but also contributes to the overall success of the team.

Then in remote leadership working globally, you need to recognize the diverse backgrounds and perspectives each team member brings. This diversity, when harnessed correctly, can lead to a richer, more creative, and innovative work environment. It mirrors the diverse, interconnected societies of our ancestors, where each individual’s unique skills and perspectives were valued for the survival and prosperity of the community.

Safe space means also having the permission to be vulnerable enough to share if something is wrong, but ‘stupid questions’ I highly encourage, and reach out for help before bad things happen.

Technology should be viewed as a tool to enhance, not replace, these human interactions. For instance, AI can be utilized to handle routine tasks and data analysis, freeing up leaders to focus more on these human aspects of their role.


In summary, as we navigate the complexities of remote leadership, it is paramount to remember our roots in evolutionary psychology and anthropology. These disciplines teach us the importance of empathy, social bonds, and community – elements that are essential for successful leadership in any environment, but especially in the virtual world. 

By combining technology with a deep understanding of these human fundamentals, we can lead teams that are not only productive but also emotionally resilient and deeply connected. A future worth living because, by bonding and real connections with other humans, we are much happier.