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It’s Time to Up Your Empathy Game as a Leader

Employee engagement is a primary leadership challenge in this age of intense remote work. And your number one tool to meet this challenge is empathy.

Empathy is touted a lot as a tenet of emotionally intelligent leadership, but it’s difficult to get a firm grasp on one’s ability to be empathetic. Now, more than ever, it’s time to figure this out.

Leaders need to listen, understand, and, ultimately, care.

A simple way to understand engagement

Employee engagement is a series of questions any staff member can be expected to ask themselves. It’s intrinsic to work.

We all wonder, “Do I feel like I have opportunities to learn and grow?” Because growth is the carrot that keeps us in flow, which means that we want to be doing difficult work but not get too far ahead of ourselves too quickly. 

This is why the next question staff asks themselves about work is, “Do I feel challenged but also supported?” We recognize that we cannot do everything on our own. We need to be operating in an environment that is healthy for us. We need to be tested, but we also need feedback, coaching, and help to grow to our full potential.

Part of achieving our full potential is, of course, working in service of something bigger than ourselves. Our motivation comes from many places, but it always includes some sense of belonging to something larger. So we ask ourselves, “Do I care about doing a good job (and do I feel like that also true for others around me)?” “Do I feel like my work matters to someone?” “Do I feel like I’m having an impact?” 

Your job as a leader is to provide the signals and feedback that reinforce these feelings of engagement. Remote work makes this more challenging. And given that remote work is expected to be more of the norm than the exception for the foreseeable future, it’s time to double down on empathy.

Remote work is here to stay

Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom sees the prolonged impact of the pandemic as making permanent changes to the way many people work. “We see an incredible 42 percent of the U.S. labor force now working from home full-time,” he notes in a recent interview. Further, he adds, “The stigma associated with working from home prior to COVID-19 has disappeared,” backed by recent survey data he collected that showed a 25% drop in demand to work in high rises in 2021, presumably after COVID. As a result, Bloom sees working from home becoming a more permanent reality. In fact, he’s already touting the emergence of a “working-from-home economy.”

People are looking to Bloom now because his earlier work shed lots of light on the benefits and challenges of working from home. In a study he published in 2013 provided key insights by split testing workers in a pilot work from home experiment at CTrip, China’s largest travel agency, which had 16,000 employees at the time.

The company ran a randomized control trial over a 9 month period. Over 500 call center employees showed interest in the chance to work from home and who also had a private room and broadband access. Half were randomly selected to embark on the program and the other half served as a control group.

Nine months later, the results were dramatic. The work from home group showed a 13% increase in productivity with quieter space and lack of a commute as primary contributors. But it wasn’t all good news in terms of employee engagement. Remote work does not suit everyone well.

While aggregate results were clearly positive, a number of staff actually performed more poorly at home. Interestingly, the company rolled out the program company-wide by giving staff the choice of whether or not they wanted to work from home. Surprisingly, half of those who were in the working from home test group decided to return to the office. And only one-third of those in the control group actually elected to take the work from home opportunity when it became official company policy. One of the primary concerns of staff who opted for the office was loneliness.

Empathetic leadership

DDI, a global leadership consulting firm that helps organizations hire and develop leaders, recently conducted a wide ranging study on leadership skills. As part of that study they “asked the managers of leaders to independently evaluate the participants on four specific leadership domains—decision making, coaching, engaging, and planning and organizing—as well as on their overall job performance.” Again the results were clear. “Overwhelmingly, empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance. It also consistently relates to higher performance in each of the four leadership domains.” 

Empathy has always been important to effective leadership. But This new era of extensive remote work will require even more empathy from leaders.

To do this well, I see the nature of many communications changing. More work needs to be accomplished outside of meetings, leveraging the benefits of remote work’s ability to increase productivity of individual contributions.

At the same time, more meeting time needs to be committed to relationship maintenance and development. Video calls with direct reports or teams need to include lots of time to “check in.”

Leaders need to spend more time not just listening, but also asking lots of questions. And not just questions about the work, but about the people doing the work. They need to find out more about their personal situation and challenges. And they also need to find out more about their thoughts, insights, and ideas related to the work to which they are contributing.

The best way to become more empathetic is to take all those little action steps to care about the work and the people doing the work. Doing this is neither complex nor complicated, but it is too often overlooked.

The cadence and culture of physical office life didn’t really cultivate this in many organizations. But remote work is a new chance for a fresh start. We know that it’s the right thing to do, and maybe now is actually one of the best times to do it.