Excerpt from Sophie Wade's "Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work"

Thought Leaders
Cover image for  article: Excerpt from Sophie Wade's "Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work"

MediaVillage is pleased to share an exclusive excerpt from Sophie Wade's new book Empathy Works, available at Amazon and all book sellers. In Empathy Works, the work futurist, international keynote speaker, popular online course instructor and workforce consultant shows you why empathy is a critical corporate value, mindset and skill for improving engagement and productivity, and achieving sustained growth as we emerge from the pandemic. Sharing data and insights from brain science and organizational psychology, as well as real situations, stories and solutions from around the world, Wade guides you through the steps to cultivate empathy throughout both the Customer Journey and the Employee Journey -- encompassing culture and leadership, managing distributed workers, fostering effective sales teams and bridging generations.

Chapter 12: Experiential Elements - Building Compelling Context for Employees

Creating a competitive edge in attracting, hiring, and retaining the talent you need may be the most convincing argument that persuades you to focus on employees' experiences. How many people in your organization are lifelong learners or somewhat open to learning new skills? How many positions do you currently have open that require a reasonable level of digital skills, and how many do you foresee needing over the next three years? Accelerated digitalization during the first waves of the pandemic further increased the need for technology skills and elevated the relative importance of your talent. Do you have a long-term skills-focused talent strategy yet? Of course, it is not just about workers having the necessary skills. You also need people engaged in their work when applying them.

For job seekers, the most attractive organizations focus on the employee experience, with

  • a human-focused, trust-based, inclusive culture;
  • a transparent and open approach with workers;
  • an inclusive attitude to all employees' contributions;
  • flexible work arrangements;
  • comprehensive and customizable well-being programs;

and

  • support for employees' self-managed skills and careers.

Such companies are, in essence, empathetic and thinking about the perspectives, needs, and futures of their power base: their entire talent pool. The companies also recognize the symbiotic evolution of their business and talent, including how to develop employees in, around, through, and even back to their organizations.

Where are the gaps or areas along the Employee Journey that your company needs to update or augment? Let's explore key aspects so you can assess what changes will improve experiences for all potential, existing, and future employees and non-employees who contribute to your business' success.

The Engine of Growth

Who fuels your future? The perspectives and circumstances of your company's youngest cohorts are integral when set- ting the tone because of the relative breadth and depth of their digital education and early intuitive exploration of technologies. Their inputs and ideas are key. Meanwhile, just as many Millennials and Generation Zs, you have probably been paying attention to certain elements of the Employee Journey for a while, aware of different elements of the shifting work landscape. You may share many of their general cares and concerns about reduced financial security and uncertain future rewards and career trajectory.

What will entice Gen Z candidates to your team? What gives them confidence that they will be included and valued as employees, their opinions listened to and data shared with them? Can they be convinced that they will get the training they need to upskill and sustain the competitive edge of the business and themselves? If your senior executives are not focused on how to keep the newest recruits in an evolving market, who would join or linger long?

Paulette Rowe, CEO, Integrated and E-commerce Solutions, with the Paysafe Group, which is a leading global specialized payments platform, said, "It's not enough for people [Millennials] to be successful in the role, or feel that the company is doing well. They want to thrive and feel that they are getting personal growth, that we're investing in them."

Employee Contracts

Whom did you last hire? For what reason and role? With what employment contract? Was that the optimal arrangement? The perfect candidate is not always going to become an employee. Your company needs the right complement of people and skills working to accomplish the business goals and advance towards its vision. Great candidates, especially for niche expertise, may often prefer not to become a full- or part-time employee, as working for multiple employers or clients can give them more financial stability, or their specific situation makes that a more desirable arrangement. Do you ever accommodate these options?

Perhaps your organization is philosophically or logistically still disinclined to hire contractors or only engages them for specific (non-strategic) tasks. Companies that resist the strategic investment of setting up non-employees to work effectively often find outcomes of outsourced tasks and projects are repeatedly suboptimal, so a self-perpetuating cycle exists. However, a surge of flexible arrangements offered to returning furloughed employees after initial COVID-19 lockdowns has changed some attitudes. In addition, specialized needs and increasing competition for specific skills are also influencing a changing stance.

What do you need to complete a project: easy access to direction, data, documentation, and any other necessary resources? Otherwise, you waste time and energy that could be spent optimizing results. Contractors also need to get hold of particular project resources using secure protocols applicable for non-employees.

New digital infrastructure has also automated portions of workers' tasks, which has often meant shifts in deployment and role. Implementing applications for pandemic-related remote working has also meant greater capacity to engage and support non-employees effectively. Going forwards, a variety of employment -- including more non-employee -- arrangements will be characteristic, catering to the flexible and financial needs of both your organization and the talent. Since millions of employees around the world are rethinking their working lives, it is beneficial for your company to be open to and participate in discussions about new arrangements and configurations.

Rethinking Recruiting

Where do you look for candidates? Is your company still limiting searches to the locale around your office(s)? Are you finding all the people your business needs? If not, then it might be an opportune moment for an important, strategic rethink. If your company needs to expand the recruiting search radius, does that mean trying to persuade people -- in other words, incentivize them -- to relocate within an agreed "circle of comfort"? Or are you contemplating that some employees might now be fully remote? Such a move could require a substantial mindset shift for executives and policy changes for the existing workforce, to avoid creating a dysfunctional multiclass system. Or are you now thinking about hiring more contract workers who are generally remote in order to keep agreed location-based arrangements intact?

What is your company ready to tackle now and in the short- or medium-term? Hiring needs for growth may force your hand sooner rather than later. Therefore, now may be the time for thoughtful conversations about what employee arrangements are acceptable and supportable to transition to. Do not forget to discuss the associated updates necessary, such as optimizing for remote recruiting and onboarding, as well as enhanced connective community activities.

In recruiting efforts, underscore the benefits of empathetic interactions when interviewing candidates, as well as when considering existing employees for promotion. HubSpot emphasizes behavioral questioning to be able to figure out a potential hire's empathy skills and how well they will likely connect and work with customers and team members. A bank sales lead deliberately seeks out individuals who are open-minded and curious as well as personable.

Paul Reid's company, Trickle, onboarded several new employees during the first year of the pandemic and did not meet them in person for months. Along with many other executives and HR professionals, Paul found onboarding remotely probably the hardest task to do well during the crisis, when it was not possible to assemble at the office. However, virtual onboarding can be accomplished successfully with attention and design.

Beneficial activities include convening in person where possible, combined with frequent virtual gatherings, both formal and informal. Meetings involving people with a mix of roles and levels accelerates new hires' sense of integration, community, and confidence. Senior leaders can model company culture and values, reinforce the corporate purpose and objectives, and, most importantly, share motivating connection to future career opportunities. Surveying can help uncover aspects not covered sufficiently for your company, employees, and specific geographic spread, to create and strengthen beneficial connections.

In addition, launching a strategic overhaul of recruiting processes and practices to integrate relevant HR applications is valuable, considering new hiring mindsets, methods, and recent innovations. Attention to any embedded algorithms is important, to check for bias and current relevance, since they typically reflect status-quo thinking from the time they were initially developed. Many are not updated regularly to incorporate important new data and understanding, which can result in hidden disconnection or irrelevance during times of great change.

What Work?

If the point of work is no longer to put us on the pathway to heaven through suffering, is it not reasonable to shift our mindsets deliberately to maximize earthly outcomes for all involved?! Purpose can provide beneficial value to motivate employees and channel their concentration. How can you connect employees with what they are doing, what they care about and enjoy?

During his internship in summer 2021, my son, Liam, was greatly motivated by learning the "purpose of a menial task" he was working on. An executive asked, "Do you know why you are doing this?" and then, empathizing with him, sat down and gave him detailed context and concrete understanding of the fundamental layer his work contributed to the overall project. Liam and his work output benefited by his recognizing the broader context of the project as part of a strategic initiative.

When you strategically integrate empathetic assessments for employees, you can more easily discern what work content is most appropriate for each person so they can enjoy what they do, feel fulfilled, and perform as well as possible. Gallup research in 2019 shows that orienting employees towards their strengths and skills increases engagement, as well as boosts revenues by 10 to 19 percent and profits by 14 to 29 percent.

The evolving technology landscape has widespread impact, shifting work focus to the skills needed to accomplish tasks rather than a specific job title. Some companies find it more sensible to craft roles for each worker based on their specific skills. After matching people and current tasks as far as possible, gaps are then filled in by other employees, part-time positions, and contracted resources, depending on the type and timing of the tasks involved.

Upskilling Careers

What are your top three skills? (This is a tough one!) What are the next skills that you have identified to develop, and to what end? How is your employer helping you stay competitive? Are you exploring options to develop additional operational experience where you are now? No doubt you, and most other employees, are regularly distracted by these questions.

Younger workers in particular recognize the new realities of work, have flexible approaches to jobs and careers, and are aware of the need for frequent upskilling to stay relevant and competitive. The Future of Jobs Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum related that while the number of jobs destroyed will exceed the number of "jobs of tomorrow" created, job destruction has accelerated while job creation has slowed, and 50 percent of all employees will need reskilling by 2025. Their awareness understandably undermines their feeling of safety, which influences decisions they make about the companies they work for.

Recent hires often seek early confirmation about advancement, often leading to consternation about an inappropriate request for a promotion or a raise after only a few months. If you have fielded one or more of these, consider what the young employee might actually be thinking or mean to ask, "Do I have a future here?" (As well as, "Help me move out of my parents' home!") While your reaction may not be positive to the discussion, it did get you thinking! At the same time, since entry-level jobs are often significantly more complex than they were for previous generations, why would they not advance in less time? Everything has sped up.

Technology developments have also catalyzed shifts in our career cartography. As hierarchies flatten to increase adaptability, vertical ladders are being replaced by responsive pathways that include horizontal and diagonal opportunities. One knock-on effect and benefit is that workers can now apply existing skills in new areas, as well as develop skills that offer new opportunities and career pathways. Indeed, "every individual should plan for having five careers over their lifetime," Helen Barrett wrote in the Financial Times in September 2017.

Since careers are less linear and the future is less certain, all employees need to be proactively managing and monitoring their career progress themselves, supported by training, skills-tracking, upskilling, and offering of new role options. Employees who are advancing towards or navigating the peak of their earning potential and those who are reviewing and readjusting their career priorities looking towards retirement have different but related issues to consider. How is your current career being actively developed by your employer and managed by you?

Gary A. Bolles, author of The Next Rules of Work, urges, "Whatever door you need to come in through to get the insights about you, to understand what motivates you, the skills that you most love using, the problems that you most love solving, the kinds of people that help you to do your best work, and so on. Whatever helps you to get those insights and information, you should do. And keep on experimenting and trying different techniques. Because what works for you today might not work tomorrow. Then you have to tie that to agency, as you have to go find and create that work."

Take frequent pulse surveys to find out how people are doing, including at every milestone, to allow your organization to confirm or adjust employees' experiences. Empathizing with each person through every step and phase of their Employee Journey with your firm strengthens and supports your competitive advantage.

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