When COVID-19 initially forced our office to start working from home, I was thrilled. I was assuming it would be a nice three-month vacation, and then everything would go back to the way it used to be. I was excited to have the ability to do the parenting tasks that I rarely had the ability to do prior such as, eating breakfast with my children and dropping them off at school. Once we began to realize the severity of the pandemic, those parenting tasks that I longed for, quickly became harder to fit into my day to day though I was continuing to work from home. People had to adjust to full time work from home while also trying to be a present parent. Work slowly began starting earlier and ending later, then it started creeping into those precious weekend days. A good friend of mine joked on a Zoom call, “it is no longer work from home, it is living at work.”
Even though it felt quite isolating, I was not alone in this phenomenon. According to a study done by staffing firm Robert Half, nearly 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of COVID, say they now work on the weekends, and 45% say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before the pandemic happened. The survey also found that working parents were more likely to work weekends and more than eight hours per day than those without children. As employees are still having to navigate the challenge of working from home, it's more important than ever for managers and leaders within organizations to practice empathy, and lead by example.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The more I try to learn about empathy, the more I realize that, although it comes more naturally to some leaders as opposed to others, that empathy is a trait that can be learned and taught throughout an organization. Here are a few tips I have learned during my time in leadership roles to help become more empathetic in the workplace.
In my opinion, listening is the best way to practice empathy. It is important to practice being present and intently listening, not just asking your subordinate a question and then quickly proceed thinking about your personal to-do list for the day. Having a genuine interest and asking about a family member or loved one really shows your team that you care. I have a calendar that I like to use specifically for personal information of friends and business acquaintances. It means a lot to someone when you send them a quick email wishing them a "happy birthday" or "happy anniversary", and it takes less than one minute from your day. Another tip is to practice looking for other non-verbal body language and if something seems wrong, acknowledge it. This Global Pandemic has put a lot of new stress on people, and it's more important than ever before to focus on our mental health, and simply ask, "how are you doing?".
As a leader or manager, it’s important to involve your team in the decision-making process. Having everyone on the team provide input really gives them ownership in the final decision. It also allows your team to provide real time feedback on how they would be affected if the decision was put into place. When I was in the military, the best leaders would walk through their decision-making processes with the entire unit. This showed us their thinking and the rationale behind the process and really helped us have ownership with the decisions that were made. Oftentimes as a leader, you are put in a situation you know nothing about. Don’t assume you know the answer, find the right people who can give you actual feedback. As many of the schools started shutting down and moving to 100% virtual, a lot of that burden was placed on working parents who were trying to juggle both work and their children’s school day. If you are a manager or a leader of a company, but have no children, then this would be somewhat foreign to you. Reaching out and asking working parents about what you could do better to help them alleviate that stress would be very beneficial to the organization.
While this could be an entire blog post on its own, I believe the hybrid work schedule is here to stay for good. The nature of the hybrid schedule allows for flexibility in the workplace and can really drive retention if the company does it correctly. My rule of thumb is that if an employee needs to adjust their work hours to fulfill another commitment, be flexible. As a leader, it's often difficult to give up control of people's normal 9-5 workday, but as an empathetic leader, you realize that there is no one solution that fits every employee. Sometimes the best solution for them is not the best solution for you. Give the employee a chance to show that they will get their work done, and they might surprise you.
While these are just a few high-level tips on bringing empathy into the workplace, any leader can use them as a great starting point. As we have all heard many times over, these are unprecedented times. It is safe to assume, almost everyone you encounter on a given day is going through something stressful or upsetting. It is more important than ever for people to show each other empathy. Although this doesn’t come naturally to everyone, with practice and patience it’s a muscle that can be built up over time and benefit, not only yourself, but everyone around you as well.