5 minute read 25 Aug 2020
EY family in a park

Empathy in leadership - the key to achieving a positive return to the workplace

By Sarah Lavan

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate leader helping clients build transformative people agendas. Lives in Guildford with her husband, three daughters and dog, Archie. Enjoys running and sailing.

5 minute read 25 Aug 2020

Sarah Lavan, Partner of People Advisory Services at EY, discusses how leaders can successfully balance a safe return to work.

In brief:
  • Leaders need the ability to further understand and relate to employees.
  • Leaders need to balance human interaction and technology.
  • Leaders should create a culture that meets individual needs.

When the global COVID-19 pandemic first hit, private businesses across the world were plunged into uncertainty. It was hard for anyone to predict how and to what extent they could continue day-to-day operations with much or all of the workforce now working entirely from home; how they would emerge from the crisis; and what a ‘new business normal’ in a post COVID-19 landscape would look like. 

Whilst research has consistently shown the multitude of business benefits associated with flexible working, both on employee productivity and wellbeing, there remained various approaches. 

Despite many private businesses implementing new flexible working policies and practices over recent years, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 outbreak, with many workplaces forced to close overnight, that business leaders had to introduce technologies and policies to quickly transition to long term, flexible, home working. 

With lockdown presenting a wealth of challenges for employees, both from a professional and personal perspective, empathy and connection quickly became considered definitive characteristics of effective business leaders. And now, as we enter the COVID-19 recovery phase and begin to think about implementing a safe transition back to the workplace, this trait is likely to remain a desirable hallmark of a successful and respected leader.  

Ability to understand and relate 

With a significant proportion of the economy transitioning almost overnight to working from home, we have been invited into the kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms of our colleagues and leaders, with video call meetings and workday schedules often interrupted by young children, pets or the ringing of the doorbell. 

Striking up a new work-life balance has been challenging for everyone to varying extents. As a result, genuine empathy, communication and transparency have been key competencies which strong leaders have had to embrace –finding new ways to interact and engage with their workforce on a personal level. 

Now, more than ever, as we look towards re-entering the workplace safely, there is a compelling need for leaders to further engage, strengthen and maintain their human connections and communications with employees. 

The key requirement of any business leader is anticipating what is around the corner and making the necessary changes before it happens. As such, many leaders are now considering how they can sustain the positive skills and behaviours that emerged as a result of working differently during the pandemic – such as agility, creativity, improved productivity, and faster decision making. 

Clear and inspiring communication is central to making this next phase of transition a success. Not only is it essential for leaders to place a focus on purpose, values, wellbeing and personal development as we look ahead, but they must be able to relate to their workforce and help employees believe in the future of the business as well as understanding their roles in terms of making that happen.

Balancing human interaction and technology

Great leaders keep up with emerging technology and its impact on everyday actions. This ensures their businesses are able to manage and embrace technological advances in order to enhance human connections or communications in the workplace.

The use of technology has been of paramount importance in helping companies transition to working from home.

Whilst it was vital leaders championed the integration of technology in the early days of the pandemic in order for day-to-day operations to continue, as we prepare for a return to the workplace, good leaders will use their knowledge, skills and personal experience to encourage a healthy balance between both human interaction and technology.  

In some organisations, there could be four generations working in the same office. 

For the more senior end of the workforce, the use of technology perhaps comes less naturally, often because it hasn’t always been a major part of their working lives. And while the overnight transition to working from home will have led to them adopting technology in recent months, there are concerns that we may see a resurgence in old habits and practices once back in the familiarity of the former workplace environment. 

Equally, younger generations may be more predisposed to an overreliance on email and chat services, which can detract from face to face conversations and discussion. It is important leaders encourage a balance here and they combine technology with human interaction to guide teams towards challenging existing ways of working and pushing new boundaries to maximise success.

Creating a culture that acknowledges individual needs

With the conversation turning to when and how organisations will return to the workplace, it is essential business leaders keep their individual employees at the heart of the conversation as they work to understand how this transition can be done safely and in compliance with COVID-19 workplace requirements. 

The desire to return to work could arguably be split into two camps: 

  1. Those who prefer a physical separation between work and home life and are therefore very keen to return to their place of work.
  2. Those who are very happy, perhaps find they can achieve a greater work life balance and feel they are more productive working at home. 

In order to successfully navigate this transition back to the workplace, employee surveys, workshops and focus groups can be helpful in drawing out broad themes and preferences. 

However, they do not take into consideration everyone’s varying circumstances. 

In this instance, true listening skills will come to the fore as leaders engage in one-to-one conversations with employees, balancing their individual preferences and circumstances against the needs of the business, creating a culture of involvement, fairness, respect and inclusion. 

Recovering from the pandemic requires transformative leadership

With little notice, limited previous insights or experience of a pandemic, many organisations have nevertheless transitioned well to the ‘new working normal’ and developed an understanding of what flexible working really means in practice – working at a time which suits the individual and the commercial needs of the business. 

While our own research, an in-depth survey conducted among 150 UK private businesses in June 2020, suggests nearly three quarters (72%) of business leaders will use the current situation to make long-term changes to their work-life balance, there are concerns the transition back to the office could result in companies, their leaders and their employees, reverting back to old, familiar habits. 

As we look ahead, a generation of inspirational leaders who have the ability to balance business needs with empathy may be a positive legacy of the COVID-19 era.


As part of our Real Insights series, we explore four qualities that define the leader of the future: Think, Navigate, Connect and Relate. Here we explore, Relate, by People Advisory Partner Sarah Lavan, as she discusses how leaders can successfully balance a safe return to work with both the feelings of their workforce and the needs of their business.

About this article

By Sarah Lavan

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate leader helping clients build transformative people agendas. Lives in Guildford with her husband, three daughters and dog, Archie. Enjoys running and sailing.