Why empathetic leadership is critical in the hybrid workplace

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This article was written by Eric Hutto, COO of Unisys.

Shortly after taking over as president and COO of Unisys in March 2020, I sent nearly all of our company associates home to work. The exceptions were people at a few of our service desk delivery centers and our field engineers, who were our frontline workers and never shut down.

This created challenges, but we got through it together and learned plenty in the process. Of course, Unisys was just one of many companies that was thrust into this new environment. Nobody was certain at the time how long the pandemic and related work-from-home requirements would last. Even now, more than a year and a half later, we’re living in an uncertain time in which many companies are putting the return to the office on hold.

But it’s clear that the hybrid workplace is here to stay, and empathetic leadership is critical.

Here are a few things you can do to meet the hybrid workplace challenge, lead with greater empathy, provide quality employee experiences, and deliver better business outcomes.

Understand that your business is your people

Businesses spend a lot of time talking about technologies such as artificial intelligence. That’s important. But people still make decisions. And people still want to do business with people.

Because your business hinges on people, be sure to figure employee experience into the equation when you evaluate what you need to achieve your goals. If you don’t, you may not have the team you need to meet your key objectives.

Take the time to connect with associates. Employees value frequent and open communications from managers — even 30% more than business leaders realize, according to our Digital Workplace Insights research with IDC. Connecting with associates doesn’t have to mean more big meetings. Rather than big townhalls for entire regions like Asia Pacific, during the pandemic I started doing smaller calls with just the team from China or from India. Some people are more comfortable speaking up when they’re inside their own culture and in smaller groups.

Understand that recognition is also critical to the employee experience. According to our research, 70% of U.S. employees said that recognition is their most important priority. Yet this same research indicates that only 50% of business leaders see recognition as a top priority.

Demonstrate that you care by what you do — and don’t do

Look at the employee experience inside and out. Are employees getting the physical care that they need? Do they have emotional support? Have you created a culture of trust?

This spring, India’s second wave became the worst COVID-19 surge in the world. It was devastating. Our associates are our biggest strength. So, we did two vaccination drives in India. More than 1,400 of our associates and their dependents were vaccinated in the process.

While the pandemic brought co-workers and families together in new ways, it created isolation. The level of stress this created affected people who lived alone far more than those who were married and surrounded by family. For some associates, their work is their family.

Take note of who lives alone and have someone do weekly check-ins with them. We used this approach. I believe that it can go a long way to helping associates feel safe and sound.

Many companies are using or reviewing employee monitoring software and asking people to leave on their cameras. Avoid doing that. Monitoring employees is telling them that you don’t trust them and are concerned they will steal from the company. That creates the wrong culture.

Establish rules of etiquette and engagement

There are some things that technology can’t solve. That includes call etiquette and courtesy.

Get into the practice of pausing every 10 minutes so that remote people can participate. If you don’t, the remote folks in a hybrid workplace get run over. Avoid side conversations following calls. That takes the remote team out of the loop and puts remote workers at a disadvantage. People are really worried about that.

Be open to cultural and structural change

Don’t try to hang onto the culture that you had before the pandemic. You can’t.

If you try, you will not be able to achieve parity. You will be so focused on the culture that you will cling to outdated policies, frameworks and behaviors. Culture needs to evolve. That doesn’t mean it will be lessened. It can be just as effective; you just have to foster it.

Many companies are great at driving strategy and hiring talent. But often they forget about structure. That can create unnecessary friction, which can stand in the way of scale and speed.

Structure is about more than just to whom associates report. It also entails the policies, governance model and empowerment — or lack of it — that you have built into the company.

In our own efforts to rethink things for the hybrid workplace, we focused on simplifying structure and empowering people. This helped eliminate what I call permafrost. Every company creates permafrost: layers in the middle that do little to move the company forward.

When I joined Unisys in 2015, we were nine layers deep. We have since removed unneeded spans and layers and begun establishing teams. Getting into teams allows people to come together, accomplish things and then disband and move onto the next thing.

This also improves employee experience. Associates can work on exciting projects and advance their careers rather than following established career paths. The company benefits too because it helps us to scale. We need to grow our business with talent to scale, but there’s a talent war. It’s hard to get and keep people. Understanding employee aspirations and expectations, and having the culture and structure in place to address them, is extremely helpful.

Decide what you want to be

It’s good to know what GoogleJPMorgan and other big companies are doing. But don’t copy others. Focus on your people and your company.

Ask yourself: What is the experience I want for my company? What kind of talent are we looking for? How are we going to behave so that we can attract the right talent?

We know what people want: understanding and balance. They want to know that their situation, including their home lives, will not get pushed down the list of corporate objectives. There may be another shutdown. Some people may worry that their employers will fire them if that occurs. This is just one reason that people want to work for compassionate organizations.

People in compassionate organizations with empathetic leaders come together in tough times. When businesses first felt the impact of the pandemic, the senior leadership team at Unisys took a pay cut.

We also asked associates to help. I didn’t mandate it. I simply said that if you can help the company get through this difficult time and keep more associates employed, please reach out to human resources.

Some folks told me this was crazy. They thought that no one would take me up on it, at least not in a significant way. But our associates volunteered more than $5 million to this effort. It blew everybody away. That’s when I knew we could be resilient to anything.

Eric Hutto is president and chief operating officer of Unisys, which leverages technology to deliver successful outcomes for the most demanding businesses and governments.

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