Many things have changed at work in the last year—and as a Head of People, I can say there’s never been a time when I’m more focused on inclusivity and empathy. People have different needs, and I want to be as empathic as possible to each and every employee at my company, Front. Some people are parenting and caring for newborns, while others are alone in their apartments, needing human connection. With this new era of remote work, one thing is for sure: managers need to keep a sharp focus on empathy and inclusivity regardless of whether you are in the office full-time, remote-first, or hybrid. 

Fostering empathy in a hybrid work environment

When it comes to fostering empathy in our new hybrid working environment, my approach has been to start with being inclusive and caring about what people are experiencing. Work is important, but it isn’t everything. As a leader, I am evolving my strategy to best suit the team no matter where they are, physically or emotionally. Here are some of my learnings and initiatives we’ve implemented to adapt to the events of the last two years.

Show your honest emotions 

One key learning I’ve had in the last year is that leaders need to talk about their own experiences and not hide their emotions. Our CEO Mathilde Collin has encouraged us to champion this. “As a business leader, if you can be vulnerable in front of your team, even when society or popular opinion might tell you to show resolve, you will build a more trusting, empathic team,” she said.

Be deliberate about connecting personally with direct reports

When the pandemic started, our management team had a working session on how relationships with their teams needed to change in this new environment. We knew we needed to find ways to keep personal connections strong. So, we decided that in every one on one meeting, before getting into work discussions, managers need to ask each individual how they are doing first. They should spend a few minutes in every single meeting checking in and really listening. This seems like a no-brainer, but it can make a difference for someone who is struggling.

Lead by example by taking time off

This summer I decided to take a two-week vacation. I’ve never done that in my career, but I knew I needed to. I sent an email to my team about it and encouraged them to take at least a week at a time, too. I wanted to stress this length of time because sporadic days off allow less time to really step away from work and get perspective. I needed to set the example first before expecting my team to follow and feel comfortable with doing the same. 

Support parents with flexibility

Working at home while caring for children is challenging, so we want to make sure we’re demonstrating care and flexibility for parents specifically. In the last year, I’ve held a few optional town halls with Front parents and told them to invite their children. I reminded them that we support them and that having kids running in and out of virtual meetings anytime is welcome and normal. I wanted them to hear this from me first hand so they know that the leadership team stands with them. 

Adjust benefits to support health and well-being

We decided to start using Maven, a program designed to help teams balance their work and family life and support physical and emotional health for parents. For the entire employee base, we also started using Modern Health, a counseling and life coaching tool. We want to put our money where our mouths are and demonstrate that we are invested in supporting our employees. 

Being empathetic during times of injustice

As social justice issues have taken a critical position in the world today, I’ve been making a point to reach out directly to employees who might be impacted. When the murder of George Floyd happened, I wanted to be the first person to talk at our weekly all hands meeting, and I spoke directly with the company about that horrific incident. I want every employee to know it’s okay to need time off and that we’re here to support in any way we can.

Our ERG groups play a major role in this new setting now; they enable employees to have an open space to discuss current events and lean on each other. I believe the best way to make people feel connected is to make them feel like they’re included in a community. HR can only do so much; the connection and support must come from within. 

Focusing on employee growth with our Lego program 

The Lego program is Front’s training for employee growth and development. It evolved from anniversary-based performance reviews to annual. Although there were benefits to doing anniversary-based reviews, like more time spent and focused on just one person’s overall performance, we wanted the review to allow for more fairness and clarity, especially now in a distributed workforce. 

The annual change also has allowed us to reflect on the fairness of promotion and compensation in regards to diversity. How were the promotion results between women or men? How does our compensation compare in terms of diversity? As we grow, these numbers will continue to be increasingly important. 

We also wanted to increase communication and feedback. Along with normal weekly one on one meetings with managers, we added monthly one on ones for feedback, growth, and career development. Lastly, we have our annual performance reflection process. This gives our managers 12 months of deep feedback conversations to make the best and most fair decision regarding promotion and potential compensation raises. 

Making new hires feel more connected rather than onboarded 

Early in the pandemic, we moved all our onboarding programs online. I ensured that managers knew that making distributed employees successful was a critical part of their own success.

The most difficult challenge with onboarding has been to make new employees feel connected. It’s harder to say hi or welcome someone remotely than it would be to walk up to their desk. We needed to be more scrappy and thoughtful, so we decided to start a group where people could opt-in to reach out to new hires and make them feel welcome. We also did virtual coffee meetings and introductions at all hands meetings to make sure the new hires could meet other people outside of their team like they would in an office setting. 

Empathy is more important than ever

Every person is different, and you can’t make assumptions about people and their situations. It’s hard to get the full picture of the lives of those you work with, especially in a remote setting. With unrest and injustice in the world and a new hybrid work model, empathy is something we’re anchoring on and will center our HR programs around. We hope to continue putting the right pieces in place to bring empathy into a much deeper realm of our business.