Amidst uncertain times such as Covid-19, it is more important than ever for organisations to practice empathy to support the needs of employees. This extends beyond the actions and attitudes of individual leaders, to organisational process and communications.
Covid-19 has increased feelings of uncertainty among employees, taking a toll on their mental health (Kaur, 2020). Organisational empathy requires not just individual employers having empathetic and open mindsets, but enhancing current processes to create long-lasting, foundational empathetic practices for future generations to build on (Gentry et al., 2007).
Areas of Concern to Employees
People generally do not thrive in uncertainty, and would prefer to be prepared for challenges that may come their way (de Berker, A., Rutledge, R., Mathys, C. et al., 2016). For example, Employees may want to know what the company is facing – the good and the bad – and how these outcomes can potentially affect them as affiliations to the company. Some recurring questions employees may surface could be: “How secure is my job?” and “Is there still room for growth and promotion?”.
Such uncertainty, ambiguity, and insecurity add to the list of work -related stressors (such as reduction of available resources, lack of or over communication and manpower related inconveniences arising from WFH and blended work arrangements), which can be detrimental to employees’ productive capabilities and motivation. can potentially affect their motivation and performance at work (Tan, 2020).
Enhancing Current Organisational Processes
At the organisational level, the management can consider: “What are the organisation’s current concerns?” and “What are some plans employed in combating current challenges?”.
Current organizational processes such as compensation, performance evaluation and so forth, are processes that facilitate day to day operations and offer structure to achieve organizational goals (Singh, 2014). They further ensure fair and consistent management practices (Wang & Sun, 2009). While these are essential processes, they tend to appear impersonal and rigid, due to their formal bureaucratic background. It is thus important for organisations to reframe their current organisational processes to up-play empathy in tandem with these processes. How then can organisations do so?
Promoting a People-Focused Culture Through The POEMS Framework
One way to practice empathy in the organisation would be to cultivate a more people-centric culture, which is a form of cognitive empathy. While a people-focused culture may be less common in our local context, especially in larger corporations (Poh, 2016), it does not mean that it is impractical; we can see many benefits to be yielded. Many well-meaning employers may desire such change in their organisation but lack the resources for its implementation (Sanchez 2018). This article does not provide the resources for a cultural redesign. Rather, it offers some small, yet practical steps organizations can embark on to promote a more people-focused culture where employees can experience being valued, appreciated, and supported by the organization to thrive in the current environment. These can have direct impacts on employee commitment, motivation and performance in the workplace (Creighton, 2019).
Organisations can begin to apply the POEMS framework to identify possible actions towards a people focused culture and empathic organization (Crawford, 2017). It helps organisations to enhance the emotions and experiences of employees in their working relationship with organisations, and consists of 5 main parts:
Identifying who is involved helps to identify possible messages, initiatives and communication strategies that the management can use to reduce the experience of workplace stressors, such as uncertainty and work challenges. The organisation can identify who they are working with and targeting in implementing new empathetic practices.
These can include furniture, devices, machines, appliances, or tools that employees can engage with to help them in their work, or artifacts that emphasise the organization’s concern for employee well-being for an example. Organisations can consider : “What can we use to help enhance their work experience?” Organisations can make use of emails and posters to provide motivation to employees, or to check in with their mental and physical wellbeing. Especially with new WFH arrangements, using different modes of engaging with employees is important in enhancing their work experience away from the office.
These can be the physical setting, social features and conditions in which employees work. In the current COVID climate, greater emphasis needs to be placed on promoting a strong people-centric culture that supports employee self-worth, motivation and contributions to the company. As employers, providing a comfortable work environment that aligns with the organisation’s core values can be more important in some cases. One way could be establishing a communicative and morale-boosting environment between employees, through online team-building activities. When looking at physical environments, organisations can consider ways to enhance and support employee’s current WFH environments for them to thrive amidst uncertainty such as providing new WFH quantum. This allows employees to acquire essential items to support their physical well being while working from home. This can include adjustable tables, office chairs and table lamps. Not only can such additions enhance home work-space environments, it can also enhance reciprocal relationship and support between management and their employees.
Example of Enhancing Environments: Enhancing Organisational Transparency
Organisational transparency helps employees feel included in the decisions that are ultimately made by the company, and feel involved or in-the-know (Sanchez, 2018). The organisation can consider inclusive decision-making when faced with obstacles, by holding moderated forums or collating constructive employee feedback to garner responses from the ground. Organisations can also tweak their environments to create the appearance of literal transparency (Norman et al., 2010). Workplace environments have a big impact on employee impressions and behaviours. For example, Organisations can enhance the perception of approachability and openness by leaving doors open and making sure that all video cameras are turned on during web-meetings.
By promoting more open and authentic communication and enhancing concepts of approachability, management can feel less intimidating and distant, thus promoting communication, collaboration, and cooperation in the blended workplace. Cross-hierarchy interaction can also allow different employees to take on the perspectives of each other, helping each other solve workplace problems (Kohll, 2018). With perspective-taking, cognitive empathy (Goleman, 2007) can be achieved by various personnels in the organisation.
This includes the tonal quality of information, social and professional interactions, and even subtle environmental messages. Organisations can consider “What kind of messages can I convey to my employees to make them assured of the company’s status and plans to thrive through challenges (e.g. Covid-19)?” Ideally, organisations would want the messages to be interpreted by employees in a way similar to: “We understand your concerns and will do our best to support you as we go through challenges together”. The central idea here is that we support employees as they support the organisation.
Organisations can consider exploring services that support employee mental wellbeing such as health circles (link to our previous article discussing health circles: https://www.inpsychful.sg/empathy-workplace/), a moderated support group where employees discuss work-related issues that get consolidated and raised up to management (PRIMA Consortium, 2012). Displaying gestures of gratitude towards employees through notes of acknowledgement and staff treats can also be an act of service in making employees feel more appreciated (Osborne & Hammoud, 2017). Employees can thus feel greater assurance and allay their worries with regards to company stability and sustainability.
Example of Improving Services: Visibility of Organisational Justice
Organisational justice refers to an employee’s perception of their organisation’s behaviours, decisions and actions and how these perceptions influence employee attitudes and work behaviours (Greenberg, 1987). Employees can be particularly sensitive to the way that they, and others, are being treated by the organisation during challenging times, and this has an effect on performance, commitment and motivation (Ayres, 2020).
Up-playing the visibility of organisational justice, can help to reduce absenteeism, disengagement and counterproductivity while encouraging positive attributes like trust and employee camaraderie (Towler, 2019). With WFH arrangements, this can also help to promote communication, motivation and accountability.
Practicing empathy in the whole organisation may not occur overnight. However, it is definitely attainable. Empathetic practices can help to gel various concerns together and bring about more favourable outcomes such as increased employee communication, camaraderie, and commitment. In the process, organisations can appear more transparent, authentic, fair, and in support of employee benefits – thus providing employees with the support and reassurance that they desire amidst Covid-19 workplace troubles.
 Cognitive empathy: perspective-taking – understanding how the other party feels and what they might be thinking.
Jasmine Low (PhD.), Kam
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