The Empathy Revolution

This crisis has seen – and allowed time for – a long discussion about the kind of world we’ll emerge into. More fear or more trust? Fragmentation or community? Economic hardship or fairness? These themes are being considered – and experienced – in organisations too. Things like virtual working and furloughed job sharing are making the ‘future’ of work seem an altogether ‘present’ phenomenon.

A ‘happy accident’ of this crisis is how employers have responded and the outcomes so far. With business as unusual as is possible to imagine, leaders feel an imperative to listen and understand the impacts on the employee experience like never before.

Josh Bersin calls this crisis ‘the best thing that ever happened to employee engagement’* due to new flexible benefits supporting financial security, a flood of virtual forums and, critically, an uptick in leaders ‘responding to the leads of others…from 53% to 81%’*

My experience is the more progressively-minded employers are doing just that – listening and being led, in order to lead. This has consequences for internal communications. I’ve felt in the past too many employers have approached internal communications with too little empathy – through their own lens, rather than that of those impacted. The change that Bersin celebrates points to a user-first mindset in internal communications winning over a more traditional, top-down, one-way one.

This was originally why I brought UX (user experience) thinking and methods into my internal comms consulting. UX is a process of empathy. And with empathy comes the ability for organisations to understand and build an experience that actually works for its end-user employees – inspiring, enabling and engendering a sense of belonging – as it has for the customers of brands like Apple, Google, Amazon and Toyota, to name a few.

It seems that isolation, counterintuitively, has forced many leaders and HR teams towards more empathy and connection. Virtual comms like Zoom calls and Hangouts have opened the window on employees as people not just workers – loved ones caught crawling the room to avert the camera; kids scrapping over lego; line managers in their post-yoga ‘streetwear’**. In fact, 95% of employees feel their leaders have taken ‘a sincere interest in [their] wellbeing and safety’* since the crisis outbreak, with 85% saying they ‘trust’ their leaders in the job they’re doing.

So where do internal communicators go now? The answer I think is more: keep going.

  1. Regular, structured leader / employee virtual touchpoints. They’re working and should become embedded as more than just a temporary measure.
  2. Keep listening. Keep a pulse of inevitably fluctuating employee reactions to ongoing change.
  3. Don’t assume ‘normal’ will return. Stick close to and influence strategic business planning for further changes in workforce circumstances – like phased office or shop-floor re-integration.

The future could be better than many fear, and more empathy can only brighten it. We’d do well to harness the lessons of the last six weeks.

**all things I’ve witnessed