It’s now been more than eighteen months since the pandemic began. But few people, if anyone, are saying it’s been such and such many months since the pandemic ended. People talk about things re-opening, or use the phrase ‘post-pandemic’ – but it’s not really back to life before the pandemic. Yet it’s also no longer the lives we led at the height of the pandemic. It’s been hard to navigate that, for all kinds of reasons. But not just literally – the emotional toll is heavy. Perhaps nowhere has that been difficult than in the workplace. We talk a lot about the idea of empathy, sometimes casually, sometimes accusatorily, but often without the intention that we should. How do we offer more empathy in the workplace right now? It’s vital. Also exhausting. Oh, yay.
Providing more empathy in the workplace has never been more critical. Or more difficult.
None of us know what we’re doing. On a really basic level, empathy means understanding something from another’s perspective, experiencing their feelings as opposed to our own. Even if two or more of us are going through the same experience (the pandemic) we can be having different reactions to it. In the case of workplaces post-pandemic, we all have different ideas about what is the right way to move forward, based on those responses. Some of that comes down to personal circumstances – are you high risk, are you an essential worker. Some of it comes down to local laws – can you participate in certain activities. Some of it comes down to personal views – how much danger do you believe still exists. Some of it just comes down to different emotional responses to the same information. But right now it’s difficult to even be sure if our own feelings are the ‘right’ ones, let alone set them aside and understand someone else’s. It’s hard to get in someone else’s head space when you’re still sorting out your own.
Listen. Ask. Rinse. Repeat. Right now, one of the best things you can do to provide more empathy at the workplace is to be an active listener. That means being very aware of what people are saying – what they communicate, how they communicate it and what is left unsaid. Right now it also means soliciting more information about what people need now, what has changed in their circumstances. Forget how long you’ve worked with that supplier or managed that client account. No individual’s life is what it was in 2019, and neither is any organisation’s – don’t forget that any company is really just a collection of people. Ask a client what has been the top changes in how they do business. Are they selling online more? New products or services? Different client base (imagine everyone in the office supply business – how many are now targeting work-from-home individuals instead of office managers)? You may be surprised to get some emotional answers within the logistical ones. ‘We’re doing X and it’s difficult/perplexing/unsettling.’ Lean into the emotional response and try to recall it when you have a challenging interaction with that same person later. Then, you will be more equipped to provide the empathy required.
For your team members and colleagues, it might be the right time to encourage a culture of more personal sharing. No one need become uncomfortably transparent, but giving people licence to disclose information that is personal but now much more relevant to work. For those trying to navigate returning to the office, it matters if your colleague has a child at home that is too young to be vaccinated. If you are doing tons of videoconference calls, it’s important to know if a team member has pulled a parent out of a senior living community and is caring for them personally. Having more information about a person’s circumstances will make it easier to have empathy. You can’t walk in their shoes if you don’t know which road they’re on. (And if that’s too touchy-feely for you, here’s a more pragmatic motivator – The Great Resignation is coming to a workplace near you. Ignore employee needs at your peril.)
Provide more empathy in the workplace — and remember you work there, too.
We’re in such a bizarre time. I know, I know – that’s hardly a technical term. But this is unprecedented, within our living memory. Everyone needs more understanding at the same time that everyone is less equipped to offer it. Several years ago, I saw a television show where a woman confesses – with real pain — to her boyfriend that she can’t comfort him while he grieves the loss of his father because she’s battling illness at the same time. ‘We can’t both be in the hospital bed. One person has to be in the bed and the other sleeping in the uncomfortable chair.’ I’m paraphrasing but the point is true – it takes energy to put your own need to be understood aside. And studies show that being empathetic can have real, adverse effects on your own well-being. We have all been traumatised by the pandemic. Millions of people died within a year. It was unstoppable, unforeseeable and — for months and months — untreatable. Regardless of your personal circumstances, you have been affected – deeply– by the existential crisis of it. It’s a plague. When is the last time you used that word outside of a history class?
You need to offer more empathy in the workplace to others. But you also need more yourself. You will likely receive more positive feedback from others, the more empathy you show. People will almost undoubtedly perceive you as being kinder, more approachable, more generous. You may even receive actual empathy in return. That said, don’t neglect yourself when it comes to more pointed self-care. We are all in need of more kindness and patience and forgiveness right now. We are all in the hospital bed; we are all sleeping in the uncomfortable chair.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams, and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career, I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.