What does kindness mean in the digital workplace?

20 June 2023

Workplaces are one of the top three places where people experience the kindness of others according to data from the University of Sussex and Radio 4’s Kindness Test, with 74% of people either agreeing or strongly agreeing that kindness was valued in their place of work.  But what might this mean in an increasingly digital working world?

Against the backdrop of cancel culture, social media trolling, online and reported cultures of workplace bullying and harassment, it can seem like unkindness is running amok in the virtual world.  This matters because the test data concurs with the wider literature, that giving and receiving acts of kindness not only benefits our general well-being, but can also mitigate burnout at work.

The Kindness Test ran in 2021 and was completed by over 60,000 people from 144 countries. The survey was spearheaded on the Sussex side by Professor Robin Banerjee, who first drew together an interdisciplinary team of academics who were all studying research questions relevant to kindness. It has turned into a cornerstone for the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness, which officially launched in March 2023.

Whilst the Kindness Test did not specifically examine digital work, it did reveal that kindness at work is more commonplace than we might think. However, it’s fair to say that workplace kindness is not without its challenges, with digital work generating particular challenges.

Modern virtual, and hybrid team working practices mean opportunities for practical acts of kindness (like making a colleague a cup of tea) are less available.

However, the Kindness Test revealed that the most common kind act at work was as simple as saying something nice. So, whilst talk might be cheap, a few kind words (even just via email or a Teams message) can have a big impact.

People aren’t often kind to their boss

The launch of the new Centre and the Kindness Test data also reminds us that whilst kind words can flow in all directions, in practice this is often not the case. Only  0.2%  (so 1 in 500) respondents reported that their most recent act of kindness was directed towards their boss. It’s unclear why that is, but hints at possible barriers to ‘upward’ acts of kindness. These barriers might include not wishing to be viewed as sycophantic, believing it is not our place to comment on the qualities of those above us. Or perhaps leaders mask their stress, which, if observed by others, could be a potential trigger for acts of kindness.

In my experience, people don’t always feel comfortable offering ‘up’ positive comments, especially to more senior colleagues. I certainly didn’t as a young manager. I recall questioning my authority to praise staff who were vastly more experienced than I was. People (myself included) can overthink situations, worrying about being perceived as weak, or being met with dismissive ‘I was just doing my job’ rebuttals in response to positive feedback.

In fact, 65.9% of Kindness Test respondents said they were concerned about kindness being misinterpreted. This could potentially be exacerbated in our online working world, where kindly intended online messages could be retained and potentially become distorted when examined out of context.

Whilst appropriate interpersonal boundaries should always be observed in the workplace, people may reduce the extent to which kindness asides are made, out of this reported fear of misinterpretation. That said, I believe that even those who appear to reject kindness, or are suspicious of others’ intentions when kind words are offered, still experience the improved well-being and greater connection that is activated by kindness. So, perhaps we just need to feel the fear and be kind anyway.

And perhaps we could all consider those we typically forget to direct our kindness towards (including those we may perceive as having previously wronged us) and challenge ourselves to offer a few kind words or gestures – especially in our digital work.

About the project

If you’re looking for inspiration, or just intrigued to explore more about kindness, the Centre for Research on Kindness webpage offers examples of kindness in action from across the University, as well as sharing relevant research papers and details of knowledge sharing events.

The Centre for Research on Kindness includes community members who are passionate about kindness. The launch event, hosted by Dr Gillian Sandstrom, celebrated the completion of the University’s new Psychology of Kindness and Wellbeing at Work course, and welcomed Radio 4’s Claudia Hammond to share her seven keys to kindness and chair a panel discussion about kindness in all walks of life. You can also join the mailing list by clicking the link at the bottom of the landing page. If you’re interested in using the data from the Kindness Test in your own research please contact, kindness@sussex.ac.uk.

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