The Silver Lining To Our New Reality? More Empathetic Workplaces

By Anna Codrea-Rado, Contributor

Kelli Hodges doesn’t want her employees to talk to her about their work. Since the shelter-in-place order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dell Technologies’ director of commercial product marketing has been holding open video calls for her team at the end of each day. These meetings, however, aren’t status updates, they’re well-being check-ins.

“Those 30 minutes are designed to make us laugh,” Hodges says after a recent call that included the game “Never Have I Ever,” pictured above. On the calls, team members tell each other what they’re cooking for dinner that night, share tips for homeschooling kids, and generally voice what’s going on for them during the pandemic. “It’s a time to pause and share and, most importantly, listen to each other.”

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These moments of compassion are vital in the face of the uncertainty the pandemic has caused in workplaces. Health concerns and financial worries have left employees feeling emotionally vulnerable. Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, a group of psychiatrists and psychologists said that COVID-19 is having a profound effect on mental health and physical health. According to the paper, “It is already evident that the direct and indirect psychological and social effects of the coronavirus disease pandemic are pervasive and could affect mental health now and in the future.” Furthermore, according to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans feel that the pandemic is harming their mental health.

In response, business leaders are finding that one of the best ways to look after their employees’ well-being is by bringing empathy into their workplaces. As countries around the world start to look ahead at relaxing shelter-in-place orders and allowing people to go back to the office, company executives are already thinking about ways they can continue to infuse compassion into their company cultures once the pandemic passes.

Lead by Example

“Any leader who isn’t changed by this crisis probably isn’t a leader,” Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, says. Gelsinger notes that, in the wake of COVID-19, he now understands empathy in a new light—as something crucial to the way we communicate. “I’ve always been the guy who would say that if you’re not bleeding, go back to work. But going through this crisis, you become sensitized—that changes you.”

“I’ve always been the guy who would say that if you’re not bleeding, go back to work. But going through this crisis, you become sensitized—that changes you.”

—Pat Gelsinger, CEO, VMware

In a recent webinar about navigating the new reality of work, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies Michael Dell said that there was a silver lining to the new normal we find ourselves in. “It could lead to a human transformation, where we have more empathy, more generosity, more gratefulness, more kindness, more selflessness, and maybe some more humility.”

“It [the pandemic] could lead to a human transformation, where we have more empathy, more generosity, more gratefulness, more kindness, more selflessness, and maybe some more humility.”

—Michael Dell, Chairman and CEO, Dell Technologies

The benefits of compassionate leadership have long been known. A study from the University of Michigan and Cornell University found that empathetic workplaces foster a greater level of morale, particularly when employees are suffering a hardship. “Research suggests that interpersonal compassion has the potential to impact not only sufferers but also focal actors [defined in the paper as the person showing compassion], third parties, and organizations,” the report reads. “Instrumentally, compassion often involves the provision of resources (e.g., time, concern, material goods) that can help people resolve or cope with the sources of their suffering and recover the ability to carry on with their lives.”

Prior to the crisis, company leaders were already thinking about ways to be more compassionate; a survey from the benefits administration company BusinessSolver found that 80 percent of CEOs believe empathy to be a key to success. However, the outbreak of the pandemic has shown how to actually put this into action.

More Empathy, More Talent

Allison Robinson, member of Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, CEO and founder of The Mom Project, has been calling for more empathy at work for years. In 2016, she founded The Mom Project to connect mothers with job opportunities that offered flexible working. According to the startup’s research, 75 percent of women say employer support of work-life flexibility is the most critical criteria for feeling respected at work.

“Managers are now faced with the reality that we all have lives outside of work,” Robinson says. “Whether they like it or not, they’re having to acknowledge the employees’ personal considerations.”

“We will see an acceleration of things like remote work. That’s how you really level the playing field for people who cannot be in an office 40 hours a week.”

—Allison Robinson, member of Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, CEO and founder of The Mom Project

Research shows that when employers demonstrate empathy by acknowledging their employees’ lives outside of work, they retain talent. The BusinessSolver study cited above found that 93 percent of employees are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer. However, when it comes to putting empathy in action in the workplace, there’s a gender divide: Only 70 percent of women feel that their employers are empathetic compared to 85 percent of men.

Robinson adds that she’s hopeful this may change if company leaders continue to employ flexibility once the world goes back to work. “We will see an acceleration of things like remote work. That’s how you really level the playing field for people who cannot be in an office 40 hours a week.”

Post-Pandemic Compassion

Robinson did, however, emphasize the need to ensure outdated tropes about working mothers are not carried over to online working models. “On the calls I’m on, I rarely see the man holding the child or homeschooling,” she says. “I do worry that decades of progress will start to unravel if we’re not really intentional about how this is implemented.”

Gelsinger agrees that what comes next must be approached strategically. “We will never be the same post-COVID,” he says, adding that he sees three phases to the crisis: triage, new normal (our current phase), and then a final stage of new opportunities. “This now becomes a question of how do we embrace these changes in systematic ways to make things better.”

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Once the crisis is over, it will be more important than ever for leaders to continue to set an empathetic example. For Hodges, this means keeping the lessons learned front of mind. “When we go back to the office—or to whatever normal is—it won’t change the personal side that we were able to show during this time,” she says. “We must continue that conversation.”