Empathy has started to be one of those words bandied around a lot more since the pandemic started, which is a good thing that it has become part of the conversation. However, like any other buzzword, without the action to back it up, it is meaningless. It needs to be deeply rooted into the DNA of the company. It needs to permeate into the day-to-day behavior of leaders and employees of the organization.
And for mass company uptake, there must be a very strong link with the bottom line.
The reality is that certain industries, such as financial or professional services, are not traditionally associated with empathy. But in these industries, big organizations need to lead the way. Entrenching a culture of empathy in a large organization needs to start from the top. The leaders need to live those values, buy into them and uproot any behavior that is in contradiction with those values.
I talked to Steve Payne, Vice Chair of the Americas at EY Consulting. To be frank, I was skeptical that a Big Four firm would really buy in to empathy. However, Steve believes that there are compelling reasons to do so.
EY conducted a global survey of 16,000 employees — 54 percent would consider leaving their job post-COVID-19 pandemic if they are not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work. The new generation of employees want different things from work, and the world of work is evolving. The pandemic taught us that flexibility is possible. There is no compelling reason to not give people more of what they want, so that employers can get more of what they want (higher productivity and performance).
Here are some compelling reasons to build empathy into your company DNA.
Building an Attractive Place to Work
Churn and burn of employees in certain industries, such as professional services, has always been high. Reducing that is a tremendous cost saver for the business. An employer has a vested interest in having quality people stay for longer periods of time. Making them feel valued and appreciated will help with that. A substantial amount of work is necessary to entrench that culture, but in the long term, it becomes a distinct competitive advantage.
Employees that feel valued stay at a company longer, and tend to put more energy into their work, as they are more engaged and motivated.
There are cost savings achieved by not paying recruitment fees, along with training and development, for new people. In addition, more productive, happier employees produce better work, which drives revenue as well. Happier employees serve customers better, leading to a positive feedback loop, meaning customers are likely to remain with the firm longer.
In making your workplace attractive for top employees, you actually serve all stakeholders better.
You Can Draw From a Wider Pool of Talented Individuals
Certain industries are not 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. However, punishing regimes (constant travel, 90-hour weeks) will put off some otherwise suitable employees from going down a certain career path. Empathy at work provides the compromise that allows you to draw from a wider pool of people who may not have chosen that career path because it compelled them to live a certain lifestyle.
For example, it was not unusual, pre-pandemic, for a traveling consultant to be on the road all week, out at client sites. As Steve Payne put it during our conversation, you miss out on so much at home during that time. So, what if employers could give employees the full family experience? Which is something he never had. What if total employee sacrifice was not necessary to achieve company financial goals?
An evolved leader should know that expecting people to do as they did and make the sacrifices they did in their career will ultimately be self-defeating for the new generation of workers. How do you cater to the needs of the individual within a large organization, without sacrificing on client delivery?
The answer is balance. Do a review of each role and establish how much time a person doing that job needs to be onsite or in the office. For many organizations, that looks like a hybrid arrangement. And within that arrangement, you meet two goals: 1. Sustainability (reducing the carbon footprint from travel, which allows the planet to heal) and 2. Additional flexibility to employees on when and how they do their work from home.
Empathy Needs Clarity and Clear Expectations
The perception of empathy as ‘being nice’ is not wholly accurate. Empathy, in a work context, is about alignment between employer and employee. And that means clear and transparent communication about what is needed and expected on both sides.
By managing expectations on both sides, then there are no surprises. An employee has the opportunity to decide if a job is for them or not, because they understand what is expected of them in the role. We are moving more towards an outcome/performance driven model of employee assessment, rather than number of hours worked/face time. As long as the work gets done to a high standard and to deadline; then building some flexibility into the process is fine.
However, not having those parameters in place to start with has the potential to lead to frustration on both sides. Empathy works best where communication is clear and honest.
Empathy Can Help to Create a Strong Work Culture
Often when a company strongly embeds a positive culture (for example, hardworking, ethical, fair, and empathetic), it leads to self-selection. When people do choose to leave, it can be because of a misalignment at a value level. I call that short term pain for long term gain.
Value statements should be clear to everyone within an organization, and should guide the day-to-day behaviors and level of empathy expected for all stakeholders. Empathy allows us to understand our employee and customer needs better and act upon them (if we choose to).
Hewlett Packard has done this very well. They have built an undeniably (financially) successful business, with a strong focus on ‘collectivism,’ morality, clear expectations, and integrity. Balanced empathy is a part of that.
All employees need to align with company values and understand there are consequences for not doing so. A balanced application of a company culture leads to employee confidence that the system works, shows zero tolerance for bad behavior, and promotes open communication. If good values are put ahead of economics, in the long term, that can lead to better results for the bottom line.