8 ways to grow empathy in the workplace

Office workers sitting around a meeting table smiling

What can you do to build a culture of empathy in your organisation? 

Our recent article about how empathetic leadership drives workplace diversity and inclusion showed how an empathetic workplace can boost productivity, increase creativity and create more trust. This leads to better employee satisfaction, lower employee turnover, and increased shareholder returns.

We followed up the blog post with a webinar featuring two leaders in accessibility and inclusion, Ted Drake, Global Accessibility Leader at Intuit, and Maria Grazia Hedda, Senior Equality Diversity and Inclusion Manager at HS2, a high-speed rail project transforming transportation in the UK.

They shared the lessons they've learned in their careers and we've used their insights to compile eight top tips to help you bring empathy into your workplace, products and services.

1. Use videos to explain 

During Ted’s time at Yahoo! he learned that video makes a huge difference when you need to explain the experience of somebody using your product, app or website that needs to be improved.

Video is a powerful way to explain a technical change needed by someone who has a low vision, is a screen reader user, or someone who can’t use a mouse for example. It can also highlight the challenges that users are facing when using your products. 

“When you show a video, that’s going to start kicking off your empathy” says Ted, video allows people to understand what the bad experience really is.

As an example This is the video Ted uses to introduce disability to his colleagues.

2. Empathy is about asking the right questions

Equality, diversity, and inclusion are all about moving from sympathy to empathy, and can be as simple as asking different questions. 

The sympathy-based approach would ask, ‘what is wrong with you?’, whereas an empathic approach asks ‘what works for you?’, ‘how do you want to be included?’. Empathy is about having respect for people's needs and really listening to the answers. 

3. Knowing your company's values

One of the first things Maria and her team did was instill company values at HS2, which would become the foundation of everything they do.

Voted by the entire workforce, they were Integrity, Safety, Leadership and Respect. These then set a precedent for all activity across your organisation.

Identify your organisations’ values from the start of your employment - if you build your work around them and refer to them in your work they will help and support what you are trying to achieve.

4. Develop your conversation skills around equality, diversity and inclusion

Having conversation tools and skills can help you solve and avoid problems by being able to have a constructive conversation with your employees.

Maria gives the example of a manager having a difficult conversation with an employee about underperformance and doing so in an inclusive and respectful way. Or a disabled team member who needs adjustments, the conversation around these subjects needs to be about respect and integrity.

In HS2 managers are given training in how to handle difficult conversations, which includes talking about disability - by developing these positive conversation skills, you create a better environment for everyone.

Find out more about our Workplace accessibility and inclusion eLearning training modules

5. Develop a positive flexible working policyScreenshot from our building a culture of empathy webinar. Maria talking over a PowerPoint slide titled 'Discussion / Q+A' with profile images of Maria and Ted.

HS2 has implemented a flexible working policy which has been picked up by suppliers and is built around 3 P’s:

  • personal choice,
  • professional development, and
  • program need.

Maria gives an example of a bricklayer, who can't request to work from home, but could negotiate their hours around childcare, or caring responsibilities, for example.

This small amount of flexibility really improves the mental well-being of employees and helps find a constructive way forward, so they can fulfil both their professional and personal life in an open negotiation.

6. Make adjustments so that everyone can join in

Provide disabled people with relevant and reasonable adjustments, and make sure you do it promptly.

At HS2 they ensure that their adjustments applications are made to agreed schedule, and they have a robust system that captures the adjustments needed by their employees as soon as they start.

Then they work with their occupational health and display screen and equipment staff to make sure they have what they need. This brings a sense of trust, and a feeling of being welcome and included. This process is about being empathetic to the needs of the individual.

7. Start with empathy

Understand who the customer is, which can be achieved in creative ways from volunteering to customer interviews. This will allow you to understand who your customers are, and know why you are making your digital product or website accessible.

8. Create an accessibility programme within your organisation

Grow a network of expertise that helps build empathy around your organisation. These teams and staff networks can connect you with different leaders and teams within your business. As teams mature, the ability to take things to the next level becomes possible. Ted talks about intersectionality as being the next step - understanding that people are complex, and they have different situations that are affecting them at once.

Their existing practices and knowledge meant Ted and colleagues at Intuit were quick to respond to the challenges of Covid, from Zoom fatigue, illness, coping with working from home and mental health issues.

Ted’s accessibility team has collaborated more over the last two years with their workplace team, one great initiative was to have a centralised budget so that even a small team could request for a sign language interpreter for example. There are also great global networks you can join, on LinkedIn for example the Champions of Accessibility Network.

Access the recording and transcript of our free webinar on building a culture of empathy:

Watch the webinar recording 

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