These 4 strategies will help managers lead with empathy

Nearly a year ago, a large percentage of the American workforce went remote, in what was initially considered a large-scale work-from-home experiment. Now, that temporary arrangement has become a long-term one and, for many, may become permanent. Key to the success of remote work has been managers–but the strategies they deployed and skills they honed at the start of the pandemic may need a reexamination as virtual work persists.

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In new research from employee experience software company Limeade, the organization found a clear disconnect between managers and employees when it came to perceptions of their employer: Just 55% of non-managers said the organization genuinely cared about their wellbeing, compared to 77% of managers. This could suggest that the resources that employers are providing to help managers lead are lacking, says Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor of the Limeade Institute.

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Lindsay Lagreid

“I think that speaks to the fact that, in this new world of work, we’re expecting different things from our managers, but the organizational support of managers may be lagging a little behind,” she says.

See also: 3 tips for managing long-term remote work in 2021

Regardless of whether the employer intends to bring workers back to an office or will continue remote or hybrid work, Lagreid says, “work will not be going back to anything that looks familiar anytime soon.” So, now is the time to ensure managers are prepared to lead in this new, fluid environment. Lagreid offered four tips to help managers lead with empathy and focus on employee wellbeing:

Intention and Attention

In the beginning of the pandemic, managers likely started asking a lot more “How are you doing?” questions of their employees–that will no longer cut it, Lagreid says. Instead, when managers check in about employee wellbeing, they should do so from a place of “intention and attention.”

Questions like “What’s making it hard for you to focus? How are you sleeping? Are there things you’re worrying about that keep coming up?” can help managers to stay in touch with the realities their workers are facing.

“If you don’t really know your employees, it’s harder to show that you care about them and support them,” she says.

Rituals of Recovery

In its research, Limeade found major red flags around employee burnout, which can ultimately impact employee engagement and productivity. Unprecedented levels of stress may have pandemic-exhausted employees investing in distorted realities, or what Lagreid calls “runaway recovery”–such as looking forward to blowing through PTO on a tropical vacation as soon as shutdowns start lifting.

“That’s not going to be an option for a while and it’s also not going to help restore wellbeing,” she says. “People are really suffering right now, and I worry there’s going to be this pressure cooker release–but the reality that people will come back to is the same.”

To curb that risk, managers can cultivate “rituals of recovery”: daily practices to help employees adjust to reality. Examples include a “rose, thorn and bud” exercise: asking employees to name a realized victory, what’s frustrating or challenging them, and something they’re excited about. Limeade team meetings, she says, often start with a trivia challenge that generates fun, back-and-forth chatter. Employees can also build rituals into their own routines, such as a 20-minute morning walk listening to their favorite podcast.

“People might think that’s silly or a waste of time, but I would offer that it provides a cognitive break,” Lagreid says. “Just having that moment of respite is so incredibly powerful.”

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Especially this time of the year, many employees are focused on outcomes–getting more exercise, eating healthier, quitting smoking. Managers can help employees “move upstream” to focus not on results, but on mindset.

“Our minds are what are going to help us beget, or not beget, that outcome,” Lagreid says.

This is another opportunity to help employees develop rituals, she says, such as encouraging them to “check-in” with their own wellbeing. Lagreid assesses herself monthly on five categories, which she says enables her to consider areas where she’s excelling and what she wants to work on.

Another practice centers on gratitude. Starting small–such as affirming your gratitude for a cup of coffee each morning–can help rewire the brain so that it’s accustomed to seeking out the positive.

“If you run around life looking for things to be grateful for, all of a sudden you become miraculously more grateful,” she says. “Mindset can have a massive effect on wellbeing and can be contagious–in a good way–to those around you.”

Trust and Trustworthiness

The shift to remote work has highlighted the need for trust–both for employees to trust that their organization is making decisions with their interests at the forefront and for them to feel that their managers trust their commitment to their work.

“That’s where a lot of the discomfort has come for so many organizations,” Lagreid says, “because they’ve really for the first time had to truly trust their people.”

Those that do, she says, will reap the benefits.

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“We know from research that trust is the most important cultural attribute. If employees feel that the organization cares about them and their wellbeing and is there to support them, employees thrive.”

Managers can play a significant role in setting that cultural norm.

By emphasizing and modeling a level of “courageous vulnerability”–in which all employees feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work–managers can create the space for employees to be open about challenges and feel supported in overcoming them.

“Employees should be able to say, €˜Hey, my kid is having a total meltdown. I know I have a presentation but I’m not going to be at my best today because there’s this very real part of who am I as a human being that’s going on.’ ”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].