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Workplace empathy needed even more now in recovery phase than at start of lockdown

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

There is an unparalleled need now to be empathetic, even more so than when we were heading into lockdown, as we are entering both an economic and psychological recovery phase. But we need ‘Big E’ institutional empathy, not just ‘small e’ individual empathy.

How empathetic should managers be to the needs of their staff? Do we even know what we mean when we speak of empathy? Is there a difference between what employers consider empathy to be and what employees expect?

A fierce debate around the concept of caring might seem a strange hill to die on, but it is fast becoming a very contentious issue in the global workplace. Covid-19 disrupted our lives in ways that none of us could have foreseen; the tectonic shift of lockdown led to a series of aftershocks that are reverberating to this day, even after the two-year-long national state of disaster was lifted.

During the transition to working remotely, initially entirely working from home, many companies thought about the potential impact on the mental wellbeing of their staff. Some signed up life coaches and mentors, others appointed fully fledged psychologists. Human resources departments came to the fore, as much as the chief information officers were put on full alert to ensure that people’s psyches were as well cared-for and fit for purpose as their work tools and wi-fi.

But now, the peak of the crisis has passed. We are learning to live with and manage the pandemic as it begins its next evolution of – we hope – less virulent mutations, but we also have to adapt to new challenges. The biggest of them all is getting back to work in a new normal, which is often a confusing mishmash of the old normal, where people actually came to work, competing with the lockdown experience of flexitime remote work. Both can co-exist. They must. But the how is the new sticking point. Welcome to the new normal.

Businesses – many of which have survived the rigours of being locked down, their staff working remotely and their customers too – are now desperately trying to reconnect and make up for any ground lost over the last two years. Companies may have made many sacrifices to ensure their staff didn’t have to pay an even greater price for something they had no part in, but which deeply affected them, nonetheless. Many were determined not to cut salaries or lay people off, even if the revenues didn’t even cover the expenses at the time.

But as companies try to ramp up production and make new demands upon staff, often empowered by the reality of remote working in all its many facets, people are pushing back. Over the past two years people have found they can mix work with picking up kids, flexi hours, avoid wasted travel time and saving in fuel, fares and food. And in some ways be more productive working from home.

Some of this is good, but not all of it. Dynamic companies are ones in which everyone is empowered at all levels and understand the company’s business and purpose. But if they forget or don’t understand the latter, people can abuse this – and if the opportunity is subverted through selfishness and opportunism, then it can backfire terribly.

There are often compelling reasons for continuing to work from home, but merely because it no longer suits you to go back to the office isn’t a valid reason for refusing to do so. The benefits of working with others face-to-face are legion; those quick sense-making conversations picking up information from all sources, innovation, coordination, project work, building social capital, trust and the sort of empathy that comes from being face-to-face with people. Unfortunately, this is becoming the new battlefield.

Another trigger is the raft of new regulations and changes instituted to make traditional workplaces fit for purpose in a post-pandemic, rapidly evolving digital world.

All of this change and a healthy, new-found staff self-confidence and independence can create a fertile breeding ground for dialogue – but also polarised conflict. However much the new normal resembles the old, there are significant changes that many workplaces have implemented, especially when it comes to remaining alert for new Covid-19 threats – or even new zoonotic threats of which we aren’t even aware.

It’s easy to rail against those who have to create and enforce the disciplines and rules for common safety on their staff and peers – whether it’s vax, or access, or distancing, or masking in common spaces. But it’s often unfair.

We must never lose our newfound ability to question, but it has to be constructive. It’s the same with introspection. We do need to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. But if we do so without an eye on performance, it can be destructive and ultimately self-indulgent.

The greatest empathy is communal wellbeing thriving, and in any country that means enterprises that succeed, keep people employed, and are financially viable. In countries such as many in Africa and the Americas with social inequities and high Gini coefficients, this is even more acute. The country needs the economy up and firing on all cylinders and most companies need to get back to where they were before the pandemic restrictions – there’s a moral imperative; we need to sustain the jobs we have, create a massive number of new ones and together turn what has become a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

We can’t do this unless we share that same sense of purpose. And that means a deepening sense of maturity too. Let’s avoid projection and channelling our inner teenage rage. It’s tough to walk the line between rules and relationships and dangerous to polarise it or choose to be the champion for one or the other in a world that is by nature dilemmatic, not binary. We all have to sacrifice a little something for the common wellbeing.

It’s far too easy to espouse purpose and care but not walk the talk. I imagine we all do that sometimes. We have to watch out we don’t start to weaponise the very instruments that were used to protect everyone during lockdown to fight a desperate rear-guard against being forced back into the office.

In the process, it’s the easiest thing in the world to project perceived injustices by blaming management who are only trying to do their jobs to protect everyone. We need greater empathy from management – but we need it for management also.

Empathy, or being accused of having none of it, is the latest dead cat of choice. It’s a political device invented by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, and then made into an art form by Boris Johnson when he became UK prime minister. It’s a ruse that you use when the “facts are overwhelmingly against you” (Johnson’s words) in an argument or a situation, so you fling a metaphorical dead cat into the debate, and everyone gets side-tracked talking about it instead.

There is an unparalleled need now to be empathetic, even more so than when we were heading into lockdown, as we are entering both an economic and psychological recovery phase. But we need “Big E” institutional empathy, not just “small e” individual empathy. There has to be empathy for the collective, rather than only the individual, because any kindness or exception shown to one person must for fairness be extended to everyone should they need it. That’s often impossible to do without materially affecting productivity and morale – and the common welfare.

Management is predicated on managing the contradictions of passion and dispassion, closeness and distance in staff relations – often simultaneously. When any of these get out of balance, the business can fail – and subjecting everyone to business failure is the greatest catastrophe of all of empathy and caring. 

Managers have to be empathetic, but so do staff, and that’s something that is ironically increasingly in short supply today. If there was ever a time for employers and employees to be working together then it’s right now. This is tough, sure – but none of us can afford to be sidetracked; the stakes are simply too high. DM

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