Working from home has become more than just a temporary stopgap – it’s a new norm that many love. The last two years has shown us that not only can far more of us work remotely than we would have thought, but that we can do so successfully. It’s not hard to see why this might be desirable for so many: later wake-ups, more autonomy, the freedom to pick up your kids or take the dog for a walk at any time, easier scheduling, and so on.

All of that said, there is a practically imperceptible cost offsetting these many new benefits: we are losing our connections to both our colleagues and our places of work. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, either! By trading natural connection for virtual separation, we are presented with few to no opportunities for connection, engagement, or empathy. A specific decrease in empathy in the workplace is what we see as a large part of why people are beginning to feel so disconnected.

A 2020 Businessolver report on the State of Workplace Empathy showed a decline in the share of employees reporting an empathetic workplace, from 78% in previous years to 68%. A more dramatic decline was seen in the share of HR professionals reporting an empathetic organization, from 95% to 77%.  

Empathy is primarily about understanding another person’s perspective, which is critical for cooperation, productivity, and creativity at work. Improved motivation, higher productivity, and lower employee turnover are all proven by research to result from the development of an empathetic workplace. So, if empathy is so important to success, why is it declining? 

Our hypothesis is that some of this stems from three important misconceptions that are preventing leaders from seeing the value in empathy:

  1. An empathetic workforce takes too much time and energy to build.
  2. The vulnerability required for empathy is a weakness in the workplace.
  3. Empathy is irrelevant, unimportant, or impossible in virtual/remote settings.

The prevalence of these misconceptions is high, and although some people might think they have good reasons for believing them, they can all be overcome. Strategic and beneficial investments in organizational culture can do just this. Let’s explore each one in a little more depth to begin framing this strategy.

 Misconception #1: An empathetic workforce takes too much time and energy to build

Good communication is the key to every strong, healthy workplace. It’s necessary for high morale. Meetings where everyone is shouting, where no one has anything to say, or where only a select few people’s ideas are ever heard are simply not conducive to success. These are situations where skills like empathy can flourish, greatly improving results. An empathetic person can read a situation clearly and correctly, assessing the appropriate steps to solving interpersonal issues and ensuring every can work together.

Soft skills, or emotional and social skills, include empathy. These are the skills we use everyday that see us improving our interpersonal relationships, bolstering our professional networks, resolving conflict, and enhancing team productivity. Just because they are soft skills, though, doesn’t mean they aren’t hard work. They require careful investment and effort, just like any skill, to keep them active and sharp. Considerable research has come to suggest that investments in these soft skills can yield significant rewards: increased retention, higher employee engagement, greater productivity, and improvements to job satisfaction. Investing this time and energy up front will expand the depth, reach, and resilience of your team, allowing them to express empathy in situations you didn’t even realize were calling for it.

Misconception #2: The vulnerability required for empathy is a weakness in the workplace

Practically by definition, the practice of empathy will require some degree of vulnerability. Some people recoil from this, thinking, “I can’t be vulnerable at work!” But without it, there can be no trust, and as both a manager and an employee, a culture of trust is crucial for success. One clear example of where this plays out is when things go wrong. Which is better: a workplace where employees clam up, stay silent, and never seek help for their issues? Or one in which employees reach out, be honest, and ask for help whenever it’s needed? The former leads to missed deadlines, poor morale, and more. 

In fact, the Harvard Business Review states that “…managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees performance than those who display low levels of empathy.” Emotional intelligence and empathy in leadership leads to a workplace culture in which employees feel enthusiastic, engaged, and supported.

Misconception #3: Empathy is irrelevant, unimportant, or impossible in virtual/remote settings

The challenges of the pandemic have fundamentally shifted nearly every workplace on the planet. It’s likely that remote work, hybrid offices, video conferencing, and other things have become a part of your “new normal.” This means you aren’t in close contact or even in the same physical vicinity as your coworkers, managers, etc. This makes it very easy to lose sight of colleagues as people with their own distinct methods of communication, body language, strengths and weaknesses, and so on. In some cases, employees are thriving, while others are missing the structure of the office. It can still be a bit of an uncertain mess. Virtual Vocations provides four clear methods for building empathy in such an environment:

  1. Build some unstructured face time into your virtual meetings.
  2. Give each person in the meeting the time and space to make their contributions the way that works best for them.
  3. Listen to all perspectives and encourage diversity of opinion.
  4. Keep yourself open to communication.

These four simple concepts can by themselves greatly improve the state of empathy in both remote and hybrid workplaces. That results in more inclusivity, better communication, and a more effective team, remote or otherwise. That’s not only doable, it’s worth the extra effort. 

Investing in empathy is about building the kind of workplace people are excited and inspired to work at, encouraging success. The decline in empathy takes us the other way. Fortunately, there are many tools at our disposal to reverse this trend and build teams that are equipped with the emotional intelligence necessary to survive and thrive in the dynamic workplaces of today.

It’s important to note that empathy doesn’t just come naturally—it will require effort and dedication from people at all levels of an organization. That’s why it’s so important to give your team the opportunities to flex these muscles whenever possible. This could come in the form of, for instance, personalized development platforms that both measure and provide guidance regarding individual employees’ behavioral styles. That makes for a great first step — but from there, the real transformation is taking that knowledge and translating it to genuine growth and development.

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Ty Miller is a Leadership Strategy Consultant at Carver & Associates. He Helps Leaders Cast A Vision, Align Their Teams To It, And Drive Execution Of That Vision.

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