How to apply empathetic leadership skills when returning to the office

When surveying your employees about in-person prospects, try to understand not just what they think and feel—but why.

How to apply empathetic leadership skills when returning to the office
[Source photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced executives to pivot, not only in how they run their businesses, but in how they approach issues. Employee well-being has taken center stage, and companies are now required to consider the humanity behind nearly every one of their decisions. Almost overnight, so-called soft skills like empathy have become “power skills,” and EQ now rivals IQ in determining business success.


The next few months, however, will be the true test of executives’ newfound skills as they strive to strike the right balance between empathy and business outcomes on a range of challenging policy issues. These judgments include when and how to have employees return to the office, whether or not to require employees to get vaccinated, and how to deliver on promises of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

All of these challenges call for empathetic leadership, or the ability to accept a certain level of vulnerability and put yourself in another person’s place. This also requires the ability to make decisions with both heart and mind. As CEO of a professional membership company, I’ve seen firsthand the growing importance of power skills like empathy and the need to model and promote empathy as a value throughout the organization.

Practically speaking, however, how do you apply empathetic leadership to a growing list of concerns? Here are a few of my recommendations.

When should you require employees to return to the office?

Recent research suggests that most employers and employees expect to return to some form of hybrid workplace where employees split their time between home and office.

To approach this decision empathetically, determine your employees’ specific attitudes toward a post-COVID-19 workplace. As leaders, we should be just as data-driven when making decisions about the welfare of our employees as we are in making any other business decision. In fact, according to the Conference Board, 60% of employers have already surveyed their employees about their willingness to return to work.


When surveying employees, however, it’s important to understand not only what they think and feel but why they think and feel it. Some 70% of workers in a recent Honeywell survey, for example, still don’t think their offices are safe from an air quality and cleanliness standpoint.

It’s also important to cut the data to understand how different segments of your employee population view the question. For example, a December 2020 survey from Pew reveals that 42% of those ages 18 to 49 say the pandemic period has been difficult for them, compared to just one-fifth of workers who are 50 and older. The former struggled in part due to inadequate home office space and difficulty motivating themselves.

Should you require employees to get vaccinated?

Legally, employers can require employees to get vaccinated, provided they accommodate those with medical issues or religious objections. But few companies seem willing to issue such definitive mandates. To approach the issue empathetically, consider the following:

  • Remove all barriers to getting vaccinated. Trader Joe’s, for example, is making sure its in-store employees (called Crew Members) are allotted time to schedule vaccine appointments. The company will also provide two hours of paid time off for each dose of the vaccine received.
  • Consider incentivizing employees. Dollar General gives its frontline employees the equivalent of four hours of pay after getting vaccinated.
  • Model good behavior. Iwan Barankay, a management professor at the Wharton School, suggests identifying employees from different backgrounds who are willing to get vaccinated to serve as role models. The companies can then leverage testimonials from these role models to encourage vaccinations.

How do you deliver on your DE&I commitments?

Following the social justice demonstrations last summer, many companies committed themselves to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. They now need to back up those commitments by installing the structures and processes that will lead to long-term behavior change.

We can do that, first and foremost, by listening to minority employees, but we need to do more. Here are a few examples of how:

  • Make equity and inclusion a shared responsibility. DE&I efforts must have top leadership support, but managers at all levels must also do their part. That means holding people accountable in their area of the organization.
  • Don’t limit recruiting to just entry-level employees. Hire at all levels so that diverse employee groups are not concentrated at one seniority level or in one area of the business.
  • Develop a more nuanced understanding of the multiple layers of a person’s identity. According to Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business, it may not be enough to address the needs of women in your workforce. You may need to go to a deeper level and ensure that you’re addressing not just women—but Black women, Latinx women, Asian women, and all intersectional women.

The ability to perceive and relate to the felt experiences of others is at the heart of empathetic leadership. Regardless of the issue, we need to bring that empathetic perspective to all we do—and not just in connection with the COVID-19 crisis. While the pandemic may have opened our eyes to the importance of empathetic leadership, it’s a skill that we all must practice long after the last vaccine has been administered.

Sunil Prashara is the president and CEO of the Project Management Institute (PMI). He is the lead advocate for PMI’s global organization, serving more than 3 million professionals working in nearly every country of the world.