Why the future of employee experience remains a priority

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When I started my working life in the mid 80s the question was not how was I, the employee feeling, but how was the boss feeling? If they weren’t happy, I would certainly know about it. The shoe is firmly on the other foot, awareness of company culture and employee engagement have changed significantly over the decades and never more than over the last two years.

How the employee experience has evolved

Covid-19 has shattered the “employee experience” that organisations have spent years crafting to attract and retain talented employees.

It made aspects of work life easier for some and tougher for others. Those working from home no longer share similar offices or workstations, lunchrooms, or even internet speeds. People in the physical office have had to adapt to virus-driven safety guidelines.

Times of stress tend to be revealing. When we asked how well their organisation stayed true to its values when making decisions during the Covid-19 emergency, just 62% said “well” or “very well”. Memories of this period will influence people’s feelings about their organisation’s culture for some time.

Employees have come to expect empathy, but leaders find it hard to sustain

The effects of the pandemic also resulted in empathetic behaviour some employees never expected from their leaders: offering to cover the costs for backup childcare, extra sick leave and “hero pay” for front line workers.

In India, one CEO announced they would reimburse employees forced to seek oxygen on the black market for family members, without regard to reasonable and customary limits and with no requirement for a receipt. Another committed to cover education costs for the children of its employee who succumbed to the virus.

In fact, research shows that workplace empathy ratings rebounded in 2021 after years of decline.

Yet as (what we hope is) the conclusion of the health emergency nears, many CEOs and managers can’t wait to get back to the “old normal” that better suited their own preferences. However, these preferences often conflict with those of many of their employees. Empathy doesn’t come naturally to many senior leaders.

In their 2021 State of Workplace Empathy study, Businessolver reported that this year nearly seven in 10 leaders admitted they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace and about the same number said they struggle to consistently show empathy in their work life.

On both points, there were big increases over 2020 suggesting many leaders are finding empathy especially hard to sustain over the long term. It wouldn’t be surprising if employees now feel a sense of betrayal as leaders’ empathy begins to evaporate–while the problems they face themselves remain.

When compelled to by the crisis, companies allowed work from home and communicated more often and clearly, providing a window into an employee experience that some workers didn’t know could exist. Now there are a considerable number who are unwilling to return to a time when company leaders chose to ignore difficult issues such as burnout, childcare, mental health, diversity and inclusion and other challenges of integrating of work with home-life.

Advice for leaders to build a culture of empathy

  1. Embrace and continue empathetic leadership. If it’s not a strength for you, make the effort to build the skill.
  2. Actively listen and consider how the employee experience looks now for each employee – and how decisions may once again change it for better or worse.
  3. Remember that it’s all about expectations – you can’t turn back the clock. Employees know now what they want and it’s up to employers to deliver if they intend to retain top talent.

Related: What is the Great Resignation?

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Michael Shaw
Michael Shaw
Michael Shaw is managing director of Dale Carnegie BOP Waikato (www.bop-waikato.dalecarnegie.com). He can be reached on Michael.shaw@dalecarengie.com

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