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HR Leaders – Make Return to Office Successful with Empathy

By Numly - Leadership Coaching Group
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The work environment continues to remain in a state of flux with mass layoffs and demand to get employees back to the office. The rise of new work models ushers us into the Future of Work that is boundary-less and collaborative. It also presents new challenges to HR leaders to drive employee engagement by identifying the best ways to foster connection.

The New Rules of Engagement

HR leaders have their work cut out for them. Identifying what influences employee engagement and productivity three years after the pandemic and making the ‘return to office’ successful are now urgent HR priorities. 

The rise of new work models demands leaders to manage the complexities of supporting people moving beyond the focus of a physical location. It urges them to help people develop a work rhythm, feel supported and productive, and develop a sense of psychological safety and trust in the workplace, wherever they may work from. ‘Empathy’ is one of those strategic skills that can help navigate these challenges.

It’s Time to Put Empathy into Action

Anyone in the enterprise community will agree that there has been no time when a constant change of prolific intensity has been as consistent as today. The intensity of the events in the recent past has rocked the world of work and has compelled the enterprise to completely accept a new, much debated, and under-discussion work model; that too, unanimously!

Enterprises now need a continuous and highly-faceted change-management strategy through which they can build and sustain a positive workplace. Such a workplace fosters diversity and inclusion, promotes collaboration, and delivers enablement through understanding.

Why Empathy Works?

Have you heard of the phrase, “People might forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel”? Well, empathy is that secret ingredient that fuels connection, builds understanding, and creates trust bridges. When we have leaders across the organization leading with empathy, it creates a ripple effect across the organization.

Leading with empathy helps organizations identify and understand the motivations and challenges of their workforce. This information can be used to create the right pathways for learning, delivering support, and ensuring enablement in the workplace, irrespective of the location of the employees.

Empathy is the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes—to understand their thoughts, feelings, and perspective. Empathy makes it possible for people with different experiences, thoughts, opinions, styles, and preferences to work together cooperatively.

Research shows that empathy is one of the most important leadership components needed for success. Empathy provides the capacity to provide authentic inspiration. This is because empathy allows us to release all judgment and view the person for who they are, complete with their unique strengths and weaknesses. Since people are not projects, leaders need to build an authentic connection with the people who work for them, with empathy.

Empathy and Psychological Safety 

Empathy plays a pivotal role in building psychological safety. It contributes to building trust across people and teams. This trust becomes the driver of motivation and productivity as people are less worried about perceptions or what people will think. 

This becomes especially important since the enterprise world has placed a significant value on the concept of ‘time at work.’ The worry of perceptions, of missing out on opportunities at work, the fear of losing ‘value’ at work, being overlooked for growth opportunities or personal development, bias, etc., are some real concerns, especially with the remote workforce.

When people see leaders leading with empathy, their fears are assuaged. This is because empathy allows the leader to understand and communicate in the language of the individual. Thus, the conversation remains individualistic, even though it is a part of the collective.

Empathy Is a Skill – It Can Be Developed

Since 21st-century leadership is about serving others, it has to move from a transaction-based world to a relationship-based one. In this hybrid world, empathetic leadership provides employees clarity in their future roles and assuages fears related to job security as the market and economic volatility continue.

While research proves that empathy is the most critical driver of overall performance, it also shows that only 40% of leaders are proficient with empathy. 

Powerful empathetic conversations allow us to connect as human beings before we connect as co-workers, team members, or business partners, etc. This becomes a powerful emotion that builds shared purpose

The good news is that empathy is a skill that, much like a muscle, can be developed. The three key things important to develop empathy are:

  • Self-awareness

Self-awareness exposes our thought processes, belief systems, and vulnerabilities. Leaders need to develop high levels of self-awareness to identify what limiting beliefs and thought processes are keeping them ‘stuck’ in judgment and impeding their ability to think and feel from the other person’s perspective. 

  • Active Listening

You cannot develop empathy without developing the capability to listen deeply and with complete attention. Deep listening is the skill that allows us to hear the implied connections and identify possible challenges that an individual might be hesitant in sharing. It is the skill to hear what is being said and know what is being implied. 

  • Non-judgment

Judgment is the exact opposite of what empathy does. It takes away inspiration and motivation. It makes people feel scared of taking chances and speaking up for themselves. It prevents expression in the workplace. 

Since a significant portion of the workforce is now remote, releasing judgment becomes critical for leadership to drive a successful return to the office. Judgment prevents leaders from identifying the needs of their workforce. This is simply because the workforce will spend considerably more effort to conceal their challenges. All in all, judgment makes people feel untrusted and unsafe. 

Empathy is the New Leadership Dialogue 

We are now steeped in a world where uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are constant. In this world, vulnerability is not a weakness but the only means to create a safe space where employees can express themselves freely without fear. 

Connected leadership becomes a great approach in these times as it is founded on self-awareness, non-judgment, and empathy. Organizations must also look at developing connected leaders by leveraging coaching to help them incorporate the behavioral changes needed to build empathy. 

A coach is also important in this journey as they help reinforce the right beliefs and behaviors and keep people accountable and on the pathway of change by continuously driving forward movement. 


As the concept of the ‘office’ changes completely, facilitating a return to the office means cementing a work culture that is fair, open, and transparent for ‘all’ – the in-office and the remote workforce. 

Building empathy, rather than blindly plowing forward with business transformation, allows organizations to develop real strength, drive authentic interactions, and build true connections across the enterprise and its people, irrespective of where they are located. 

Connect with our team to see how our AI-powered coaching platform can help your teams develop empathy and facilitate a smooth return to the office.

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