Building empathetic workplaces

In uncertain and challenging times, we all need support, whether it’s organisations getting government assistance to stay afloat, or employees turning to one another for emotional understanding or to their employer for assurances.

Neil Johnson

But such assurances can be hard to come by when businesses are in damage limitation mode, or unable to clearly see how the next few months or even years will play out.

Employees are then also starved of emotional support from quality time spent in the presence of colleagues and leaders, with the remote working, digital work environment perhaps slightly colder that the ‘real thing’ and lacking in ‘water cooler’ moments.

‘In the face of this, organisations need to think creatively about how to ensure they are meeting the emotional needs of their people. This is all about empathy and emotional intelligence,’ said Tim Segaller, Director and co-founder of Rising Minds, a social enterprise helping leaders and teams to unlock natural creativity, clarity and resilience in the workplace.

This is echoed by Natalie Trice, a PR coach and university lecturer. ‘If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that things can change fast and while we can plan and forecast as much as we like, it’s the reality of life and situations that we really have to deal with, and for this, you need empathy.

‘Who knows when the world will return to some kind of “normal” or even if it ever will, but once things are more settled, we have to hope that workplaces and leaders will have more empathy for those who work for them.’

How do you make a workplace empathetic?

Creating workplace empathy may seem complicated and multi-layered, due to a web of factors affecting an organisation’s culture, ethos, behaviours and practices.

‘But in other ways, it need not be complicated,’ said Segaller. ‘The heart of the “solution” is that leadership and management need to cultivate the ability to listen to people’s experiences and needs. You may not be able to meet everyone’s needs, but people always respond positively if you treat them as grown-up, creative and resourceful. This can then naturally spread throughout the whole organisation.’

Or another way of putting it is that it’s all about trust and respect, he continued. ‘Long gone are the days where leaders get the most out of their teams through command and control, or paternalistic micromanagement. We now know from neuroscience research that the parts of the brain most associated with interest and motivation light up when people feel that their core needs and values are understood and taken seriously.’

Building empathetic workplaces really is that simple Segaller believes. All it takes is for organisations and their leaders to adopt a listening attitude, and once they do the most appropriate tools, policies and procedures can naturally form.

‘It’s about getting in touch with your natural human interest and compassion for those you work with and allowing this to continually shape your working practices,’ he continued. ‘You don’t need an expert to tell you how to do this. You are already an expert on empathy by virtue of being a member of the human race. You just need to remember to keep asking people what they need and then to listen to what they tell you.’

A chance to de-bias the workplace?

And perhaps a crisis as disruptive and far-reaching as the Covid-19 pandemic is somehow the perfect time to make genuine and meaningful changes, or as Trice puts it: ‘A time for past power structures and inequalities in organisations to be taken down and for new ways to be created, for the long term.’

A lingering structural force that has shaped the workplace for so long is bias, both conscious or unconscious. Bias can lead to certain types of people being recruited, promoted or favoured, and subsequently other people and groups being effectively discriminated against.

‘By having unbiased recruitment policies in place, ensuring there is good training and CPD available for everyone and rewarding people when they work well, you can create a culture where every individual can reach their full potential and thrive,’ said Trice.

But leaders really need to look at where they are now when it comes to biases, blind spots and exclusion, continued Trice, and to seize this crisis as an opportunity to address them, not go back to business as usual.

‘This isn’t a one-off talk, or some outsourced training, this is an exciting time to look at an organisation and really look at its values, mission and purpose, and to 110% ensure that within that there is empathy, equality and inclusion,’ said Trice.

‘Let’s move forwards and create change, it needs to be seen across the board.’