Can Empathetic Leadership Boost Remote Employee Engagement?
Empathetic leadership is far more than a buzzword—empathy in the workplace can have a positive impact on employee engagement, performance, job satisfaction, and the organization’s culture.
While empathetic leaders have always been valuable in the workplace, they are even more essential today. Remote work introduces new challenges for leaders and teams alike, and overcoming those obstacles requires fresh perspectives to accommodate for these changes.
Let’s take a look at what empathetic leadership is, how empathy can add value in the workplace, and how leaders can become more empathetic.
How empathetic leadership impacts the employee experience
Empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. It is closely tied to emotional intelligence, which includes other skills, such as emotional awareness and the ability to manage one’s own emotions.
As a leadership quality, empathy can affect:
- How well managers connect with their employees and colleagues
- The organizational culture
- The bond of trust between employees and their supervisors
- Team dynamics and communication
- Employee engagement, productivity, and performance
Management quality has widely been recognized as one of the top factors affecting the employee experience and, ultimately, retention.
Gallup has performed studies that demonstrate a close correlation between management quality and employee engagement. One survey at the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that more than half of workers are either “actively disengaged” or “not engaged.”
While empathy is not the only leadership skill that affects employee engagement, it is one of the most underrated and impactful.
Many studies performed by both academic and private organizations have confirmed this, while also demonstrating how empathy affects the organization as a whole:
- A study from the University of Exeter showed that managers who possess empathy, integrity, and trustworthiness tend to increase business performance
- Another study by DDI showed that empathy was the most important interaction skill for leaders, almost equally affecting employees’ decision-making, coaching, planning, organization, and engagement
- In a 2021 survey, Businessolver found that 84% of CEOs and 70% of employees believe empathy drives better business outcomes—yet only 1 in 4 employees believe levels of empathy in their organizations is sufficient
The Businessolver study also demonstrated how empathy is being influenced by recent trends, such as remote work. While employees feel they are more productive when working from home, new challenges present themselves, such as increased difficulty collaborating with coworkers.
One implication of this shift towards remote working is the need to rethink remote workforce management practices and find new ways to be empathetic online.
How to maintain empathy in the remote ara
Remote work presents several roadblocks to empathetic leaders and remote teams, including:
- The lack of physical proximity with coworkers, which can create feelings of social isolation
- Challenges learning new workflows and software
- Staying motivated without the comradery of others in the same workspace
- Developing self-discipline and sticking to a daily routine
- Shifting to communication that is based more on text than on face-to-face, verbal communication
Leaders will need to find ways to adapt to these challenges and retain emotional connections with their employees. Rather than avoiding the use of digital tools, however, it is better to find ways to leverage those tools as much as possible.
Here are a few examples of how to do just that:
- Use employee communication solutions, such as the WalkMe Workstation ShoutOuts feature, to stay in touch with employees
- To maintain a human touch with employees, hold regular video meetings
- Touch base with workers on a daily basis
- Make a concerted effort to have online “water cooler chats” or even social events with teams
- Proactively listen to employees and find topics to discuss besides work
- Conduct employee surveys to learn more about their concerns, their perspective, and their work experience
Maintaining empathy online means both using digital tools and taking extra steps to stay in touch with employees’ feelings.
For managers who are already empathically inclined, this may not be difficult.
Other leaders, such as those who focus more on operational success than the influence of employees’ emotions on their work, may need to push themselves outside their comfort zone in order to retain strong emotional connections with their teams. It may even be desirable to build more emotional skills through activities such as leadership training and the development of soft skills.
While making these types of changes may be challenging in the remote work era, there are advantages. Remote work allows for flexibility when hiring talent and scheduling that suits the unexpected realities of life.
If managers and their teams can find ways to stay emotionally engaged, then it will be possible to enjoy the best of both worlds—the flexibility of remote working, as well as a productive and happy workforce.
Empathy is not a cure-all. Too much empathy can interfere with objectivity and decision-making, which can in turn affect business outcomes. As with anything, moderation is essential.
That being said, the right amount of empathetic leadership can dramatically improve employee engagement, employee productivity, the corporate culture, and, ultimately, the organization’s performance.
Since emotional and social ties can erode in a remote workplace or a hybrid office, it is even more crucial now for leaders to develop and display empathy to the workforce.
Keeping up with the digitization of the workplace, fortunately, is not too difficult. It often only requires the full adoption of remote-friendly tools, remote workflows, and a bit more employee outreach.