During the pandemic, I became a “future-of-the workplace” webinar junkie. My interest went beyond learning how companies were coping with their pandemic hardships. I was looking instead for visionary leaders who were taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime global disruption to drive truly meaningful, long-term workplace change.
I thought this type of workplace innovation would come from some highly entrepreneurial, charismatic, cutting-edge source and that it would be sweeping and dramatic in form. The reality, however, has been quite different. The webinars – and much of the inspiring activity since – have instead been a window into the power of empathetic leadership. Leaders who drive change based on an honest reckoning with how people actually live, work, and thrive turn out to be the real workplace-of-the-future influencers.
For some empathetic leaders, the pandemic was an awakening that continues to fuel thoughtful and refreshing, beneath-the-surface work culture reckonings. One CEO was triggered by the pandemic to engage in a deeper analysis of his company’s culture. He asked his senior executives to take a closer look at pre-COVID work-from-home utilization. They discovered that there was a heavy culture of presenteeism at their company– cultivated by the executive leadership – which discouraged use of the policy and had a disparate impact on people who chose (or needed) to work from home. The culture of presenteeism also marginalized many employees and muted the innovative impact of diversity. Driven by these findings, this CEO went on a crusade to eliminate presenteeism in his company’s culture. This included transforming digital capabilities; prioritizing effective hybrid-team leadership competencies, and renovating office spaces to accommodate a diverse and dynamic set of business and personal needs.
Other leaders exhibited their ‘emergency empathy’ by simply listening to the temporary needs of their workforce and responding in an extremely practical and highly agile, supportive way. One CEO became acutely aware of the needs of working parents during the pandemic and instituted a company-wide 45-minute meeting maximum with a mandatory 15-minute break each hour, supplemented by a meeting-free lunch period. This leader explained that such a policy was designed to mimic remote-school schedules so that parents could support their children who were also working from home. This thoughtful leader also granted every employee an additional five days of paid time off to be used for unexpected family needs, because she recognized that the flip-flopping changes from remote schooling to in-person classes created a highly dynamic and stressful childcare situation. These changes were so successful that they are now standard post-pandemic employee well-being practices. Meetings are more efficient, people are less stressed and everyone has a bit more time to meet their care-taking needs – whether for themselves or others. As it turns out, even post-pandemic life is full of unexpected challenges!
Another empathetic leader discovered the advantages of video meeting tools to maximize the unique working styles of his employees. There was one particularly valuable member of his team who always had relevant insights, but she was unlikely to speak up at meetings and was uncomfortable being singled out. Before the pandemic, out of respect for her interpersonal style, this leader made a practice of informally seeking her impressions after meetings, which enabled him to benefit from her contribution, but it was never as impactful as it could have been if he had been aware of her insights earlier during the meeting. With the use of video meetings, however, this leader was delighted to discover that he could message this member of his team individually and receive her thoughts while the meeting was in progress. This communication option was a valuable tool to make sure her contribution was considered in real-time. He is continuing to explore how technology can be used to support the diverse styles of his management team.
Finally, another empathetic leader revealed that protecting the mental health of his employees globally had become one of his most pressing challenges. Instead of narrowly defining this as a COVID-only driven crisis, this leader went on to acknowledge that there has been a growing mental health crisis in the world over the last 5-10 years, during which the stress of the pandemic had only accelerated. In response, this CEO re-opened all of his global offices during the pandemic (with appropriate safeguards) to make sure that people who needed to be present at work for their mental well-being could be. He also embarked on a crusade to understand how workplace practices, in general, were contributing to the mental health crisis. His firm ran a limited fit-bit data-driven study on the effects of back-to-back meetings. They discovered that stress levels – and related negative behavioral changes – increase significantly after three hours of consecutive (online) meetings. In response, they have instituted a policy of limiting back-to-back meetings and instituting mandatory breaks – encouraging people to get up and out. Endless meetings have long been the drudge of the traditional workplace with a negative impact on employee health and productivity. This empathetic leader has instituted a change that is poised to have a beneficial impact for years to come.
While this is only a snapshot of the content I absorbed over the past few years, the power of empathetic leadership and the potential to drive meaningful workplace transformation is undeniable. Leaders who look closely at how their employees really live, and who care about their well-being, find it quite easy to adopt an array of workplace changes that make business and personal sense. As for me? Perhaps I can now cultivate more discerning webinar tastes and ease off my addiction. When it comes to the future of work, empathetic leaders need only apply.
Borderless Executive Search – Partner
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