Smith Brain Trust / July 1, 2021

Why Empathy is a Back-to-the-Office Cure

5 Tips for How Leaders Can Handle the Transition

Photo of two people holding hands in empathy

While there is no single playbook for successfully bringing employees back to the office after pandemic restrictions have waned, Maryland Smith’s J. Gerald Suarez says there’s a crucial element that leaders can use to ease the transition: empathy.

One of the toughest things that anyone can do, Suarez says, is starting something new or stopping something old.

“COVID-19 accelerated people leaving behind things the way they were and embracing the new way, which led to them developing new habits,” says Suarez, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Now people are being asked to abandon this new way and let go quickly. That manifests in disruption and vulnerability with people having already adapted and being forced to adapt once again.”

It’s these types of moments where leaders need to be sensitive to what people are going through, Suarez says. Understanding how employees are feeling at this time is critical to accelerating the organization’s reintegration. “People have been impacted by this pandemic in varying scope and levels of intensity, and every conversation is unique.”

Suarez offers the following five insights for leaders facing those tough conversations:

Look for meaning. Consider why someone is sharing specific details with you, Suarez says, but don’t rush to solve the situation right then and there – just listen. “Silence is your friend. Don’t interrupt, but ask questions for clarification when necessary, says Suarez. ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘Tell me more.’ Or a simple nod, will allow you to relate to the situation at a deeper level.”

Read between the lines. Stay in the moment and focus on what you hear and what you see. The unspoken parts of communication can offer relevant clues, Suarez says. “What emotions are you observing? What expressions and gestures are reinforcing the feeling? Are the spoken and unspoken communications in harmony? All of those details are important to pick up on,” says Suarez.

Seek the proper context. After allowing for the meaning and feelings to emerge, it is important to get some specifics and demonstrate curiosity, Suarez says. When, how and where did something happen? “Gather the facts, make your assumptions explicit and seek clarification. How widespread is this issue? Is this person representing the views of others or is this their own point of view? Paraphrase your understanding of the message and let the person react to it. Never walk away without this validation,” says Suarez.

Assess the consequences. Are there unintended consequences or irreversible implications that may emerge? “As you seek empathy, be mindful of your own emotions. Are you genuinely interested in how others feel? Are you in tune with how they feel? How do you know? Are you mindful of how their emotions are influencing you?” says Suarez.

Don’t watch the clock. When people ask if you have a minute, consider the intensity of the request and try not to postpone the conversation, Suarez says. They may change their minds and not tell you. Is this a priority that requires immediate action or attention? “Assess the risk of inaction or postponement,” says Suarez. “Recognizing the time sensitivity with respect to the request is an opportunity to take action and our options should be to respond with compassion and comfort.”

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