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Humanizing the Workplace

April 20, 2022

By Kelley Briggs
The pandemic has changed us in immeasurable ways with the workplace arguably seeing the most significant impacts in terms of changing needs, expectations — and demands — from employees.... Empathy matters, even in the workplace. In fact, Forbes reported that 96% of employees believe showing empathy is important. Unfortunately, 92% believe that empathy is undervalued in the workplace. And, while 92% of CEOs indicate that their organizations are empathetic, only 50% of employees believe their CEOs are empathetic.

The pandemic has changed us in immeasurable ways with the workplace arguably seeing the most significant impacts in terms of changing needs, expectations — and demands — from employees.

In an era marked by a mass exodus of employees — some to seek employment elsewhere and some simply abandoning work altogether — employers are eager to identify ways to attract and retain coveted talent.

As McKinsey indicates, employers have an opportunity to change the “Great Attrition” to the “Great Attraction.” Employees are demanding more human aspects in their work environment, like community, purpose, and shared values. They’re more likely to stay in their roles when they feel valued and appreciated, when they feel a sense of belonging, and are able to fulfill some sense of purpose.

Just because they’re at work, doesn’t mean they don’t experience emotions associated with worth and well-being. Even at work, employees crave empathy from those around them — from managers to colleagues to customers.

A Quest for Empathy

Empathy matters, even in the workplace. In fact, Forbes reported that 96% of employees believe showing empathy is important. Unfortunately, 92% believe that empathy is undervalued in the workplace. And, while 92% of CEOs indicate that their organizations are empathetic, only 50% of employees believe their CEOs are empathetic.

For empathy to be real, and be felt, it must start at the top. When it does, it can go a long way toward elevating employee engagement levels.

The Empathy-Engagement Connection

Engagement and empathy are inextricably linked. Employees are unlikely to feel truly respected and empowered in organizations that don’t show empathy for them.

Empathy may be a soft skill, but it leads to big benefits in terms of real business outcomes. In fact, according to a Catalyst study we reported on in our Employee Engagement Trends and Forecasts: “76% of employees reported a higher level of engagement when they experienced empathy from their leaders, and 61% said they were able to be more innovative." Also, a majority of women surveyed said they would be less likely to leave an organization if they felt respected and valued.

Employees Looking to Employers for Support

Perhaps due to their experiences during the pandemic, employees are expecting greater support from employers to help them balance work/life needs. Wellness, as a Glassdoor survey points out, encompasses far more than traditional healthcare measures. Employees also are looking for support from employers like flexible work schedules, encouragement to use their vacation time, and support for work/life balance.

And who’s to say employees shouldn’t be able to have fun at work? Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, says that spending time in “a state of flow” — being absorbed by engaging experiences — helps to lower stress and can enhance overall wellness.

In a McKinsey Author Talks segment, Price said: “When we are having fun, one of the prerequisites is that you’re not putting on a façade; you are actually expressing your authentic self. By adopting a more lighthearted attitude, leaders can help others let their guard down.” Price recommends using “props for fun” — offering a bowl filled with suggested conversation prompts, for instance.

Beyond taking steps to create a fun atmosphere in the workplace — whether fully in-person, remote, or hybrid, there are other things employers can do to humanize the workplace. For instance:

  • Acknowledge the uncertainty. We continue to live in a very uncertain environment which can create stress and anxiety. Employers should acknowledge that uncertainty and the fact that it impacts them as well.
  • Create alignment with mission, vision, and values. Mission matters. Employees today demand alignment between their personal values and the values of the organizations they work for.
  • Provide a place of community. Employees spend a third, or more, of their lives at work. Creating a sense of community can contribute to belongingness, engagement, and loyalty.
  • Communicate in a manner that speaks to a multigenerational workforce. With five generations now in the workforce, it’s important for employers to ensure they’re meeting the diverse communication needs of their employees. Being attuned to those needs is an important way to humanize the workplace.
  • Hire with an eye toward grooming future leaders. Employees increasingly value the opportunity for personal and professional development. Promoting from within can yield big benefits for both employees and employers.
  • Balance head with heart. The traditional divide between work and home lives for employees has diminished during the pandemic, as many have had to deal with children, spouses, and others who have been at home for some period of time over the past two years. Effective leaders are adept at balancing head with heart.

Research suggests that most employees — 75% — quit their bosses, not their jobs. Creating a more humanizing workplace takes coordination and concerted effort from senior leaders, HR, line managers, and supervisors.

Recognizing the need for balance, the importance of whole-life wellness, and the need for support, encouragement, and balance can help organizations create a more human workplace environment where employees thrive, and businesses survive!