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What does workplace empathy look like during COVID-19?

Over the past several years, many of our clients have adopted empathy as one of their core organizational values. We have helped these clients devise their own definition of empathy and have operationalized the value across all functions and departments in our signature alignment process. While there is often someone in these workshops who expresses reservations about empathy as a core value due to its ubiquity in business publications and TED talks, by the end of the session that person usually comes to recognize empathy’s potential to enhance workplace dynamics. Empathy has become a bit of a management buzzword, but having facilitated its implementation and witnessed its power firsthand, we at Tronvig are strong advocates for its widespread adoption, and even more so in light of COVID-19.

workplace empathy

Logic isn’t everything.

While it is undeniably a privilege to be able to work from home during the spread of the novel coronavirus, this new modality is not without its hardships. Workplace dynamics now play out on Zoom, where one’s verbal communication style is amplified as it cannot be tempered by other modes of communication, chiefly body language. Exasperated tones and moments of tension are therefore felt more deeply, and they weaken an already-fragile team morale. This is where the core organizational value of empathy plays an important role: workplace empathy demands that all team members be cognizant of the way they affect team dynamics, and take that into account during every interaction—not just those with clients, where communication naturally takes on a more formal and diplomatic tone. In this scenario, workplace empathy may be defined as self-awareness in service of others. In practice, this can mean being mindful of the way you formulate questions (keeping them open-ended rather than leading) or refraining from interrupting a colleague when they’re speaking.

Workplace empathy demands that all team members be cognizant of the way they affect team dynamics, and take that into account during every interaction.

Another consequence of the switch to remote work is a blurring of the boundaries between work hours and leisure time (case in point: I am writing this article during Memorial Day weekend). A client recently told us that while he is technically at home with his wife and children all day, he is actually spending less quality time with his family than he was before the stay-at-home order, since his work day doesn’t have as clear-cut an end. Pairing this reality with the fact that people’s opportunities for social interaction and entertainment out in the world have drastically diminished, it is not surprising that our jobs have come to permeate our lives. Workplace empathy is important here again, as it calls on leaders to recognize that their teams are likely to be feeling overwhelmed and finding it difficult to switch off from work mode. In this scenario, leading with empathy could take many forms, such as encouraging employees to take care of their mental health, establishing a few Zoom-free hours per day, and making sure that team members feel heard and valued.

There is no doubt that empathy is hard work, but the potential benefits are undeniable. When elevated to a core value, empathy has the power to shape individual and team behaviors, improving workplace morale and overall well-being. Periods of resounding uncertainty and organizational upheaval are an opportune moment to re-assess one’s core values, and I strongly encourage you to consider adopting the value of empathy.

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Photo by Nick Bolton

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