Empathy: For A Flexible Work Culture

Empathy: For A Flexible Work Culture

Empathy is not a new concept, it has always been a commonly referred term while describing good leadership traits. However, the current times has accelerated its status to become a top management priority.

The events of the past 19 months have blurred the lines between our work and personal lives. This has created a perception for the employees to be ‘always on’ and flex their limits, although this was not an expectation. While organisations have done their best in ensuring a seamless transition into remote working by digitising and automating processes and providing the right learning opportunity for talent; their primary focus has been on instilling purpose and value, while driving a culture of inclusion and belonging. With a new kind of normalcy being restored, most organisations are choosing to function through a hybrid working model. Although this provides them with perks of freedom and flexibility, it paves way for a potential digital divide between managers and teams due to lack of physical proximity. The glue to bridge the divide lies in empathetic leadership.


A More Critical Time


There has not been a more critical time for empathetic leadership than our present. Empathy is not a new concept, it has always been a commonly referred term while describing good leadership traits. However, the current times has accelerated its status to become a top management priority. Transformational leadership is no longer looked at the way we reinvent our workplaces to function in a hybrid working scenario – it is how we take care of our working culture.


Some leaders are naturally more empathetic than others, and that is okay because empathy is not a fixed trait - empathetic leadership can be learned. Empathy at the workplace is a crucial component of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness which improves human connections leading to better trust.


Although, it may be challenging for some to practice, the benefits of empathetic leadership are undeniable. There is ample research and evidence that show us the substantial positive impact a culture of empathy has on building confidence among employees, boosting productivity, employee retention and most importantly, on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Therefore, it is imperative for organisations to pick and groom leaders who contribute to improving employees’ life experiences, rather than just their employee experiences.


An Ever-evolving Complex Structure


The future of work is an ever-evolving complex structure intertwined with numerous elements. According to research, by 2022, 25 percent of the global workforce will work from home two to three days per week. While the prospect of this model excites some employees, others do not necessarily share the same sentiment. For many employees, the novelty of working from home has worn off and has now led to concerns regarding a permanent shift to a mixed work environment. Research has also shown that employees exhibit higher levels of stress and anxiety today than in the pre-pandemic days. As we migrate to the new normal, one should aim to understand the interventions needed to help employees thrive and develop a culture of continuous listening. Additionally, it is imperative for organisations to provide employees with the required infrastructure to create a hybrid work environment.


Options like flexible working hours can be considered as they can boost employee productivity by lowering environmental stress. To ensure a suitable fit for each team and business culture, the managers will need to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ to a more customised approach for individuals.


Regardless of the uncertainty, the overall well-being of employees must always be a priority. A silver lining owing to the pandemic is that it has normalised mental health issues and led to more open and honest conversations. A crucial aspect of understanding empathetic leadership is the importance of self-care and care of the team. Employees look to their employers for support and assurance, and they will remember how they were treated in their difficult times.


Here are some practices that can be adopted and promoted by leaders and organisations to influence the right empathetic leadership behaviours in a remote, hybrid working environment:


• Encourage team members to find their own balance between work and life


• Provide resources that enable employees on mental and emotional well-being


• Encourage people to take frequent breaks to avoid digital fatigue


• Enable leaders and teams to on how to watch out for early signs of burnout


• Allow freedom and flexibility of working hours and location (in line with organisational regulations and business context)


• Encourage a culture of appreciation and gratitude for the team’s work and celebrating small milestones


• Demonstrate a willingness to help an employee with personal problems by engaging in empathetic communication and make listening a priority.


• Promote empathy as normalised behaviour by encouraging vulnerable conversation practices


• Directing the team member to a supportive assistance programme


• Provide safe and confidential platforms for grievance redressal


• Ensure the company’s health insurance policy covers mental health


A Deeper View


The pandemic has shown us that strong leadership can include vulnerability. Over the past 18 months, we have strongly leaned on our principles of empathy to empower our employees and leaders as they continue to work in their remote setups. Apart from the above practices shared, here is a deeper view of some of the things we implemented to build a sustainable culture of empathy, accountability, and trust – especially in challenging times:


• Creating enablers and multipliers: Mental well-being is not just an HR issue to resolve. These current times reinforced the importance of sensitising everyone on the matter. Creating a single resource platform that provides a wide range of resources for employees and managers cope and help others battling mental health issues is crucial. One can even find trainings on these platforms that enable employees and leaders on detecting early warning signs and means to reach out to someone in need of care.


• Balancing time and commitment: Working from home soon resulted in most of us stretching ourselves beyond our natural ability. Meeting fatigue soon took prominence with most of us in a continued series of meetings, skipping meals, and sometimes, compromising on our basic hygiene breaks. Therefore, reducing meeting times by 5 minutes and anything longer than 30 minutes by 10 minutes can be really helpful. Introducing No-Meeting-Fridays and Learning Wednesdays for employees to take a break from routine and focus on self. This small change makes a big difference in helping us balance our time well while reminding ourselves of much needed breathing time.


• Enabling leaders to live by example: Our strength lies when we come together to make a difference. Leveraging the spirit of togetherness to create a platform for leaders to share personal experiences and have candid conversations on the difficulties faced by them during such times helped them leverage best practices from their peers’ experiences as well as provide an avenue for them to be vulnerable about their challenges.


• Policies from the heart: A feeling of inclusion and belongingness is more crucial than ever. Therefore, it is essential to relook at the policies, processes, and benefits from the lens of empathy and compassion to ascertain whether they fit the bill. Our most recent enhancement is the inclusion of Mental Health (illness) as a part of our sick leave. Mental Health is still a sensitive topic, and the only way we can address this taboo is by being aware and speaking about it more openly. Organisations need to also support employees and their families against domestic violence. Establishing a strong support channel for anyone in distress indicates that the organisation stands united with its people to fight this violence.


The transition to a hybrid work environment is just getting started and most businesses are figuring it out as they go. Possessing empathetic leaders and driving business practices with care and compassion have become some of the valuable assets of any organisation can possess. These not only effectively create and nurture relationships at the workplace but also allow employees to bring their best selves to work – enabling productivity, creativity, and collaboration. Therefore, at the organisation level, empathy needs to be the established DNA, not just as a measurable attribute of leadership, but a fundamental element of the organisational culture.



Shraddhanjali Rao is Head-Human Resources, SAP India and provides HR leadership across the region for all entities including R&D and Sales & Services organisations and is a member of the SAP India Leadership Team. She began her career in 2004 at Tata Consultancy Services where she handled roles in HR Consulting, Organization Design, Corporate Governance and Talent Development. Shraddha has a Master’s degree in Human Resource & Marketing.


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