Is work more human since the pandemic?

Yes, says Lucy Kallin, who argues that empathy is here to stay

Lucy Kallin, executive director for EMEA at Catalyst

No one on his deathbed ever said: ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’ So goes the famous quote.

The fundamentals of this point still hold true despite people moving away from the bastion of the office to remote ways of working. Work is not the meaning of life for most. At worst it is to be tolerated, while at best it can provide a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

But has the workplace changed for the better since the pandemic? Are we seeing a humanising of workplace culture in the longer term? 

In my work I speak (and listen) to many organisations and the common thread is that the workplace has fundamentally changed and changed for the better. There is no going back. We can’t reset the dial to early 2020.

Enduring a global healthcare crisis had far-reaching consequences, which we are still unravelling. It caused hardship and untold stress and anxiety, but it also caused people to come together and to share their fears and worries.

We know from research how hard this period was for people trying to juggle work with children at home, and women in particular faced a double burden of work and care-giving responsibilities that left them facing burnout, stress and fatigue.

Dealing with the fallout from the pandemic required workplace leaders to prioritise, perhaps using previously viewed ‘soft’ skills to support team members. These skills proved to be essential. Employees needed leaders and managers who could show care and concern for their personal circumstances. Empathy became the buzzword for good management during the pandemic, but has this continued?

With the genie out of the bottle, we know that the desire for empathetic leadership shows no sign of waning. Research also shows it is a no-brainer for business, with empathetic leadership shown to have far-reaching workplace benefits from reducing stress to improving employee morale, engagement and retention. Ninety three per cent of employees told Catalyst that they are likely to stay with an empathic employer.

Empathy is not a fixed trait. It is a leadership skill that can be improved with training and practice. Catalyst research has found that senior leaders and managers who have higher levels of empathy encourage positive work experiences, are able to address the life and work needs of their teams and boost productivity. Employees with empathic managers report much higher levels of creativity (61 per cent) and engagement (76 per cent) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13 per cent and 32 per cent respectively).

Furthermore, senior leadership empathy is shown to lower levels of staff turnover and, specifically among women of colour, there is a link with reduced intent to leave and lower levels of burnout.

Another important ‘human’ behaviour is trust, which also has many positive workplace benefits. In Catalyst’s 2020 European trust in the workplace study, however, only 46 per cent of employees said they experienced trust at work. When trust increases, according to the research, so do employee innovation and engagement, as well as team innovation and problem solving. Managers can establish trust with their employees by treating all workers fairly, encouraging them to work autonomously and ensuring that they know they have a visible ally.

No one goes to work to feel undervalued, undermined or marginalised. It is the responsibility of all leaders to ensure that it was not on their watch that employees felt their voice did not count.

When people feel they are treated as individuals and not mere cogs in the work machine they feel valued, respected and empowered. Taking the time to connect with team members to understand their experiences and show care and concern is vital to achieving inclusion, retention and other positive employee experiences. These should not be novel concepts. And the leaders who will help employees thrive in the future of work understand that these are not ‘nice to have’ but necessary. We are working alongside humans, after all, so let’s centre their humanity.

Lucy Kallin is executive director for EMEA at Catalyst