Is there Room for Empathy in Business?

We need empathy in business now more than ever, but do companies really understand? Read to find out how families are coping or not.
Empathy in business

Empathy in business, is that just a unicorn in the world we live in?  

This article is dedicated to companies who are trying to understand and those such as caretakers/working families who need flexibility now more than ever! 

The Anxiety:

I’ve been feeling the anxiety from my fellow Life & Executive Business Coaching clients surrounding remote work vs. the pressure to return to the office. It led me to create this article so voices can be heard. 

In August, my sessions were mostly filled with questions like this:

“How am I supposed to remote school my children and do my job?”

“My boss wants me back in the office, but I can’t manage all of this with the kid’s home!”

“I have ______ condition, I cannot risk my health going back into the city”

I feel everyone’s pain.  I have been in the same boat myself since my daughter’s school closed in March.  Working and remote learning is uber hard. 

That moment in the summer when schools started posting their remote plans…the same week some companies started making plans for employees to return to the office was nothing short of complete mayhem on social media.

Companies and schools do not communicate with each other.  It feels like we are back in high school and your AP Calculus teacher planned a huge test the same day as your AP Chemistry teacher and neither one will change it. 

I hope that business leaders will read this article and be able to empathize with employees who need flexibility now more than ever. Empathy in business can exist alongside company goals and expectations.

I don’t understand why this is such a problem, especially for knowledge working professionals who have been coping remotely for months now with minimal issues.  

Parents Today:

Parenting today is complicated.  I hear stories of back in the day when parents were able to retire when their children had children, willing to help out and the whole village would come together.

For the most part today, those retired parents are still working or live far away. The “help” for some is a visit for Facebook pictures and not help at all.  Not to mention our maternity/paternity leaves downright suck in this country compared to others. 

working parent

If you are in a leadership position, even though you are “on leave” there’s still the expectation that you will check e-mail, chime in for big decisions and stay partly connected (without pay). 

I coach many of these leaders and my household has also personally experienced this as well.  It’s an accepted part of the culture.

You are expected to do it all and make it work…so that’s what we all do.  We try our best, but at the cost of our mental, physical, and emotional health.

The main help we do receive is usually in the form of daycare or education. Most of us do not have the luxury of full-time nannies, housekeepers, or personal assistants.

Right now, our schools and daycares are making hard decisions…

Daycares have jacked up prices, some 40-50% due to limited class capacities this fall.  I’m talking more than your monthly mortgage! Flexible Spending Accounts are so blindly limiting for families, that the max barely covers a third of daycare costs for 1 child already (wake up tax people!). 

The parents of school-age children have it no easier.  Most schools are doing at least a part remote option that drops kids off halfway through the normal school day on a weird hard-to-follow hybrid from hell schedule of alternating days. 

This means young children in Elementary school will need supervision and parent instruction, plus childcare after school hours until parents are done working.  I can tell you that tutoring prices for these children have been on average about $25-$50hr. That’s an average of $1500 a month for 1 tutor for 1 child on a part remote schedule! This means if you have 1 child in daycare full time and another for part-time tutoring you are looking at about $3000 a month. Yikes!

These are all unforeseen costs to parents whose salaries are not going up to accommodate this change. 

I know many parents with younger children who’ve felt they’ve had to decide to put aside their child’s education to do their job at home or parents who’ve had to cut their salary, take a leave of absence, or quit their jobs due to lack of childcare resources.

Not to forget our parents who are teachers with children.  Usually, each parent works in a different district, most of the time with children who go to a whole other district. It’s a scheduling nightmare this fall. 

Read about our Remote Learning Series here:

Part 1: Planning for Remote School

Part 2: Failproof Setup for Remote Learning

Part 3: Remote Learning Schedules that Keep you Sane

Companies Today: 

Firstly, we need to understand that the executives managing companies are not trained to empathize with employees.  Most of the time their training is all about the bottom line, capital investments, and pleasing boards. 

When I bring up the idea of “Business Empathy,” to the executives I work with, I get “What’s that?”  They have no clue how to manage stressed-out employees and are stressed themselves trying to manage their work and families. It’s not their fault, it’s a failure in the training process to becoming a manager. I’ve had to educate a lot of my Executive clients on how to connect to their employees and learn communication skills, especially during this time. 

Here’s an example of empathy gone wrong: When one of my clients asked his boss for the afternoon off to work later that night so he could help his 2 elementary kids with remote learning, the boss’s reply was “Where’s your wife?”  (I could write a whole post about this one!) He replied that his wife had an important meeting with her law firm and then his boss approved his request “just this one time.” Is this empathy in business? I think not!

work life balance

I see companies that are attempting to manage the same way virtually as they did in office.  This means meetings are at the same time, reports are due on the same days and employee welfare is something that needs not to be discussed. There’s a real invisible line between the company and the family with the expectation that all things will be completed between 9-5 pm. 

Companies that are not being flexible need to understand that the world right now is like a baseball game during a hurricane.  You have the choice to reschedule the game, everyone stays safe, fans are more comfortable in the bleachers and our players’ abilities are not compromised by the weather.

If we push our players to play anyway, their abilities are thrown off by what is out of control (the weather), and thus throwing the game.  

If we reschedule the game, we increase our chances of winning, our fans will be happy and our players will be safe.

Asking our parents to work during remote school is like asking baseball players to play in a hurricane. 

The reality is that the 9-5 concept is dying and/or is already dead.  I do believe we need a schedule, however, agility is key right now to let your employees know you are listening and care about their ability to drive the company forward. 

The Reality:

  COVID-19 or not, we are living in a different world today.  One with technological advancements that let us work from our laptops anywhere in the world.  One where men in suits have become both men and women…in hoodies.  Being progressive in all these areas, I think it’s time we become aware and progressive of the American family for our knowledge working professional.  It’s time for some empathy in business! 

We cannot manage it all, work, and family.  Long commutes, lack of childcare, and minimal flexibility are not working. People are struggling to figure things out and doing their best at the cost of their health.  I’d love to see some data on how much parents have spent in liquor stores for the past 6 months…I think we both know what the stats would tell us.  

The American family is what keeps our economy alive and that is something we can respect.  This means flexibility and empathy in the workplace. Whether for employees who are parents, employees taking care, or parents or employees just trying to take care of themselves.  We all could use some empathy and understanding right now. 

As a business owner, I’ve gone out of my way to respect the family of my employees over the years.  As long as they did their job, I allowed them to work out their schedules, complete things from home if they had to, and adjust their time as needed for their kids.  If their kids had to come to work with them because school was closed, we had a TV and playroom they could go to and our staff was more than happy to take turns checking on them and offering cookies.  

The result: work got done, people weren’t stressed and our numbers kept going up.

Top 4 Empathetic Approaches For Business Success:
To ensure success as a business, I recommend following my top 4 empathetic approaches:
  1. Embrace change: Change is consistently happening whether we look at technology, education, training, and the abilities of our current workforce.  If we are receptive to change, we will be better able to adapt and pivot as our economy develops and transitions over time for better or for worse.
  2. Welcome flexibility: As the American family continues to evolve, be patient, and understanding of the diversity and needs of various family units.  One family may have the resources to have a full-time nanny, another family may have a special needs child and grandma living in the home. Showing flexibility towards employees who need it and will not abuse it shows strength, not weakness. 
  3. Develop your talent: The talent you have now is important.  Let them know you care about their growth at the company by having a well-developed training or mentor program.  This ensures accountability for you and personal growth to your employees. 
  4. Promote the opportunity for growth:  Not everyone is motivated for promotion, however, those that are may not be thinking to ask for it.  Throw out opportunities with leadership for special projects, idea discussions, and understanding promotion opportunities to those who deserve it and contribute excellent work. 

Companies who aren’t following the empathetic approaches above can understand this is an opportunity to change for the better.  

Don’t put your employees in a position where they feel like they need to choose between taking care of their family OR the company.  

Train your management to understand empathy skills so they can connect with employees and employees aren’t afraid to talk to them.  Brainstorm ways to be flexible right now to accommodate what every parent is going through.  Here are some ideas:

  • Survey your employees anonymously and see what they need first.  Leave a section open for suggestions, you will probably receive some great ideas. 
  • Allow employees to have broken up work hours during the day that work for their families
  • Extend 5pm deadlines to 10pm (if possible)
  • If employees need to return to the office, have onsite childcare or onsite group tutoring (bonus if you can cover the cost or offer lower cost)
  • Extend EAP or mental health programs
  • If remote work is working and your lease is up, consider full remote.  Calculate the real estate cost savings. Invest in a WeWork space for meetings when you need it.
  • Survey your employees and see what their needs are currently
  • Train your management in empathy skills so they can connect with their employees.

happy working parents If you are part of a company that is already doing some or all of these things, thank you! I hope your company can set an example for others that being flexible in business can work. 

After all, a happy employee who feels respected and valued by the company will produce respected and valued work to help the company succeed.

So, yes we can have empathy in business! Let’s collaborate with our employees to keep them working and continue to achieve our quarter-end goals!

If you are interested in having me come and train your managers in empathy or help your business brainstorm ways to help employees through this difficult and strange time I am happy to help! 

I’m accepting business contracts and available for speaking in early 2021

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