Amid the Pandemic, Empathetic Leadership Is Key

Nearly 30 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits as businesses across the country navigate the economic challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. For many organizations, layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts have become unfortunate but unavoidable practices during this period of financial turmoil. Subsequently, organizations have faced increased scrutiny for how they conduct separations, which has led talent leaders to reexamine how they treat both their outgoing and remaining employees during times of crisis. Ultimately, businesses are starting to realize that conducting separations with compassion and empathy is the best way to handle a difficult situation, both for departing and remaining employees – and the organization itself.

A recent Randstad RiseSmart survey found that one in five employers have either laid off or furloughed staff since the initial Covid-19 outbreak in March, and how companies have chosen to handle separations has varied. Some have conducted mass layoffs via company-wide Zoom calls – resulting in both media criticism and the affected employees airing their grievances on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Conversely, companies like Airbnb have been praised for the way they have handled layoffs, because they took into account the well-being of their affected talent. In an open letter to employees, Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky announced the company would provide healthcare, job support such as outplacement services and equity to departing talent – which is especially important during this time when many are concerned about maintaining their financial stability and the health of their families.

Possessing empathy has long been overlooked as an essential soft skill, but today’s leaders are finding that being more human-centered is more important than ever as business operations shift to adapt to our current economy. In a recent survey, more than 90% of HR professionals, CEOs, and employees noted that empathy is important, and 72% of CEOs agreed that the state of workplace empathy must progress. However, only 48% of employees surveyed believe companies are empathetic.

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Employees are increasingly relying on their senior executives and managers to provide them with the support they need to overcome and adapt to these difficult times, especially as unemployment numbers rise. In fact, RiseSmart’s survey found that nearly half of US employers who have already furloughed or laid off staff are considering making additional job cuts in the next 12 months. If more workforce changes are on the horizon, leaders must make practicing compassion a top priority. A study on structural change showed that in order to conduct a successful workforce transformation, leaders must communicate empathetically.

Right now, individuals are seeking clarity to better understand what the future holds for them. Leaders must make it a habit to maintain transparency about market dynamics, business challenges and what the company needs to do to succeed. In recent years, the employer-employee relationship has evolved significantly as organizations move from a transactional employment model to one focused on trust and transparency. While all news that is presented may not be positive – especially during these challenging times – employees will appreciate being kept in the loop, which in turn builds trust and loyalty while also boosting a company’s bottom line.

Employees who view their employer as empathetic are more likely to be productive, work longer hours and remain at a company long-term. The 2020 State of Workplace Empathy study revealed that 76% of employees believe empathy drives greater productivity. Research has also found that managers who display more empathy are viewed as better job performers by their higher-ups. And when it comes to retention, empathy goes a long way. Eighty-three percent of employees noted they would consider leaving their current employer for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.

Focusing now on building more empathetic leaders can ultimately help organizations better recover from the financial challenges brought upon by the Covid-19 pandemic. While it can sometimes be difficult to fully understand what an individual is experiencing or how your team feels about a recent transition within the company such as a layoff or change in management, it’s important to gain insight into their current mindset. Leaders must try to view things from the perspective of their talent and ask themselves inquisitive questions such as: How would I feel if I was receiving this news? What would I do in response to this situation? What type of support would I expect from my employer?

At the end of the day, leaders must recognize that showing and conveying empathy signals to their teams that they are being supported and not just viewed as an asset. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that empathy is a soft skill that can no longer be overlooked, and leaders will need to possess this quality to truly achieve success in the long run.

Dan Davenport

Dan Davenport
Dan Davenport is CEO and co-founder of Randstad RiseSmart.

Dan Davenport

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