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by Traci McMillan Beach
on March 05, 2021

Advice: Executives Need to Exude Empathy in New Workplace.

The current climate has caused some of the biggest tests to company resilience and created an even bigger impetus for change. The economy, election, social change and global pandemic have fueled the move to remote work, revised workforces and forced businesses to shift quickly.
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But it has also sparked other changes, such as transforming work culture to be more inclusive and instill a sense of belonging. 

What can executives be doing to adjust to the new state of work? We talked to Keri Higgins-Bigelow, the CEO and founder of Tampa-based livingHR, and her chief experience officer, Amanda Herring, to learn the top things executives should be focusing on right now: 

1. Build a more flexible workforce.

The COVID-19 crisis has put pressure on a number of companies to rework capacity planning and build out difficult-to-predict gaps in coverage. 

At LivingHR, they’ve met this challenge by increasing the number of contractors they partner with, and they conduct daily capacity planning by role. The company opted to maintain the relationship driven roles in the workforce while bringing in freelance support for skills-based and project-driven duties. The setup ensures they’re protecting client relationships while avoiding employee burnout, Higgins-Bigelow says. 

2. Tackle burnout head on.

It’s important to identify and address stressors that create issues in your employees’ work environments, whether that’s at your worksite or a telework setup. Prioritize well-being in your culture, appreciation programs and performance evaluation. Ensure that it is a piece of the overall employee experience, Higgins-Bigelow suggests. Encourage your team to tap into available mental health benefits, participate in fitness challenges or leverage daily pauses through Headspace or other mindfulness apps. Express empathy that many colleagues are dealing with personal pressure as well — with virtual school, care-taking or the inability to visit loved ones or participate in social activity.

Executives oftentimes underestimate the importance of model behavior — in this case, the need to create boundaries, Higgins-Bigelow says. “If we’re working banana hours, we have to learn how to turn off. There’s a stigma that working hard means working a lot,” she says. “Getting the most and best out of people depends on how you give them time away.” 

3. Help employees find meaning in work.

Develop your purpose, brand stand and culture code — something more than just “words on your wall or website,” Herring says. Your brand stand is “what you mean to the world beyond making money,” an authentic mantra that’s your North Star.

This is especially important as companies are working to strengthen remote culture. Your brand stand and culture code should be integrated in your company decision-making, behaviors and cultural norms. You should determine “how to celebrate it when someone lives it and what happens if someone violates it,” Herring says. At LivingHR, the culture code includes “think beyond self,” a social purpose to give back to other organizations, something they’ve carried into the remote work environment through opportunities like virtual food drives. “Always be authentic” is another. “There’s no sugar coating – if I’m not OK, I say I’m not OK. It’s not permissible; it’s encouraged,” Higgins-Bigelow adds. 

4. Don’t be afraid of tough conversations.

In many companies, there is a divided workplace right now, with different political affiliations, views on current events and social movements (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc.), or opinions on pandemic response. A lot of times, “people don’t know that people are feeling excluded,” says Herring. In addition, leaders must develop their emotional intelligence, or the ability to recognize, manage, communicate and exercise their own emotions in a positive way — including reaction to stress, empathy, conflict and challenges. “It’s hard for leaders to open up dialogue when they are afraid, so instead they ignore it because it is uncomfortable,” Herring says. “They let it fester.”

5. Help employees embrace change.

Continue to tie back to the organization’s “why” when you present a change in direction. “People are experiencing change fatigue, and you need to address it up front,” Herring says. If you don’t know what the future holds, say that; talk “human to human, make it real, address everything in the room.” When you’ve shared the information, it’s equally important to open it to the team and ask how they are feeling, what they need and what they are worried about right now, she adds. 

Companies are being forced to evolve, but in many cases there will be positives from the crisis — and an organization’s ability to adapt. Helping employees see how they fit into the big picture and how their career goals can align with your company’s forward-moving trajectory can be motivational. And showing your employees you’re committed to cultural improvement and their professional advancement will pave the way for growth after the storm.

What’s certain is that times have changed, and company culture must change to meet the demands of this new era of work. “If you don’t, you risk losing talent you don’t want to lose, or you force people to not be honest with you,” Higgins-Bigelow says. “Take care of the inside first. They’ll take care of the outside.”