There’s one technology company that’s become essential during the coronavirus pandemic. Despite it being relatively unknown outside of the tech and corporate world a year ago, almost everyone has come to rely on its video conferencing capabilities (even my eight and ten year-old daughters). You likely guessed it—that company is Zoom. Along with being a necessary source for human interaction in the post-COVID world, Zoom is a window.
On each video call, every frame available on our screens tells a story. Some calls may be with friends or family, but for the workplace, the stories told are those of colleagues and managers. Sometimes even CEOs and HR partners. Some faces—like mine—are the faces of working parents who are juggling loss of sleep, homeschooling, or managerial duties in their companies.
Other faces tell the stories of workers who are caring for older relatives and finding ways to keep them safe. And some stories are those of our younger colleagues, recent college graduates who are getting the hang of the working world and dealing with the isolation of a small apartment and excessive alone time. These faces and the stories they tell include unique needs and wants, but they all have one common thread—an ask for empathy.
The value of empathy in the workplace
When history looks back on the coronavirus pandemic, I believe there will be a fair amount of criticism and lessons learned. History will wonder why governments weren’t prepared, why treatments and prevention measures were politicized, and it will remember the backdrop of cultural unrest.
But history will also remember the positive adjustments and innovations in the workplace from employees and companies. Most attendees of tech or corporate conferences in the last few years have heard the buzzword “empathy.” They know brands have highlighted its necessity, and conversations have gone on about how companies can better apply it to their organizations. So far, we’ve seen wonderful examples, including generous vacation policies, revamped offices, and perks and aid for working parents. In the face of coronavirus, the corporate world has responded again. Companies have added flexibility for parents, additional funds for home office supplies, and even extra time off so workers can recharge and focus on their mental health.
One of the obvious reasons for empathy is that it’s important for the stability of a business. Happy employees mean better work, longer tenure, and they may even become advocates recommending the company to their peers, attracting more talent. But aside from helping a business, being empathetic is just the right thing to do. It’s the sort of solution that has an impact on community, culture, and how employees engage with the world when they’re away from work. Essentially, it can actually make humanity better. Though some employees may take advantage of empathetic approaches from their managers or peers, most will appreciate the additional care and attention. Empathy will build trust and loyalty, and the relationships cultivated will help all parties long-term.
Two effective approaches to practicing empathy
Similar to engagement, there isn’t a one-size fits all model that can be applied to every individual or circumstance. It’s contextual, complex, and based on the needs and personality of the person that you’re working with at any given time. To put it in simple terms, empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of other people. One of the most effective ways to lead with empathy is by asking your employees or peers what you can do for them, or more succinctly—being of service.
Ask them about their needs, what struggles they’re facing, and start building a solid foundation of trust. That foundation is how colleagues will begin to feel comfortable with you and open up in a way that will allow them to share what they’re truly feeling. With some people, things may be different. Not everyone is ready or comfortable to open up about their circumstances. We are all wired differently. If you see someone who is likely to stay quiet or is prone to remaining closed off, think of other ways that you can connect and consider sharing your own experiences or struggles.
Showing vulnerability through sharing your personal challenges can be a powerful way of connecting with people. As you embark on an effort toward empathy, remember that it isn’t always perfect. There may be bumps in the road, misunderstandings, and changing circumstances. Additionally, you may need to try other approaches like giving some extra hands on a project or an extra day off. The ultimate solution will depend on their personality and needs. Regardless of the challenges, the benefits of focusing your leadership and managers on practicing empathy in the workplace will be transformational. The results interpersonally and for your business will be well worth it.