We frequently hear about “the new normal” imposed by COVID-19, hybrid work and the resulting social fractures and burnout in our working lives. The phrase conjures memories of lockdowns, juggling work and home responsibilities simultaneously and the unyielding ambiguity that has gripped our lives for the past two years.

Yet, when employees are asked if they would like to go back to standard work routines, 76% of them confirmed they have no desire to return to the office, according to recent research from Future Forum. With such declaratively high percentages, it is clear we must learn to live and thrive in a hybrid world and manage the implications of being inconsistently connected with each other. Namely, we don’t know each other like we once did when we worked in an office together 40 or more hours a week, and we are not likely to know each other as well again any time soon.

Over the past two years, we have all experienced situations or relationships that, upon reflection, could have used greater empathy — either giving it or wanting to receive it. So, what gets in the way, and why is it so much harder in the hybrid context? Not surprisingly, the more dispersed we are, the easier it is to formulate “us” and “them” dynamics. This can easily turn pernicious when mixed with competition, conflict and fear.

Under these circumstances, empathy dissipates in a way that makes it easy to lose perspective, justify decreased collaboration or display more aggressive behaviors — rather than seeking ways to partner. Given these factors, effectively building and managing relationships in this “new normal” requires investing even more time and focus in building strategic empathy into our professional repertoire.

Think of a time when you felt most connected to your colleagues — informed and included in their point of view, and ultimately, part of something bigger than yourself. Chances are there was a key co-worker, if not multiple people, who were giving you strategic empathy. Effectively collaborating remotely is increasingly dependent on recognizing more of our assumptions, wholeheartedly looking at challenges from others’ point of view, and ultimately, leaders imparting more of their best thinking in a way that is most relevant to stakeholders. Leaders who strike the right collaborative balance and leverage strategic empathy succeed on a grand scale: They report less stress, greater happiness and professional success.

Developing strategic empathy enables leaders to lay the groundwork for future success. This includes:

  • Building trust and mutual acceptance that empowers future work adventures.
  • Identifying shared priorities and mutually beneficial action.
  • Having tough conversations that ultimately expand our singular point of view to help us understand the most vexing challenges
  • Understanding when to act to actively manage team performance

To make the most of the flexibility afforded with remote work, leaders must transition to new ways of expressing empathy to ensure our performance does not become siloed, inadvertently irrelevant or inconsistently informed by the broader context of organizational action.

During The Great Resignation, many leaders have been thrust full-force into an entirely new job and working context, without any real direction on how to engage their team or build key stakeholder relationships. This can impede leadership effectiveness in ways we might not have imagined before. In our consultations, we commonly hear leaders wondering: “Is my team engaged in this meeting?” “Is the report late because Steven is still doing his best to perfect it, or did he take the afternoon off?” “Is Susan drowning in work and on the verge of breaking?”

So many of these questions would be easy to answer if you could personally engage these people over a cup of coffee and ask, “How are you today?” But the realities of remote management mean that even the most seasoned leaders struggle to leverage their empathy skills to understand if their team’s experience and what can be done to support their performance. Thus, leaders need a new set of focus points and developmental goals to build strategic empathy in the hybrid context.

Let’s start by getting technical with defining empathy. Empathy is defined in three primary ways: the capacity to respond to people’s emotions appropriately, the ability to feel another person’s emotions and the ability to understand someone’s response to a situation. When defined holistically, we start to understand how it is strategically critical for leaders to build it as a foundational skill — and understand how to differentiate it from sympathy.

If we have decent emotional intelligence (EQ), we likely do a good job of recognizing others’ emotions. If a leader has successfully managed several heated moments, they are also likely good at responding to these emotions. But where real power lays in our ability to place ourselves in the position of another, strategically empathize to understand why people are responding to a situation in a certain way and learn how to prepare a future situation that improves positive responses from a range of stakeholders. This powerful skill is not only the trait of effective leaders. It may become the differentiator between success in the “new normal” and our collective stumbling.

Consistently incorporating the vital element of strategic empathy into our leadership requires four intentional steps:

  • Being curious about the stories and narrative implications colleagues share.
  • Consistently seeking out and experiencing colleagues’ frame of reference.
  • Actively reading emotional responses and applying those insights to others’ frame of reference (i.e., not just our own).
  • And regularly exploring how colleagues experience our frame of reference and related priorities.

These steps share one root operating principle in the new normal — it is vital to pay attention to the people around you. The good news is we can all become better at emphasizing this belief in ways that lower stress and enhance empathy. For example, studies have demonstrated that training people in “loving kindness” meditation leads to reported greater empathy, understanding others’ feelings more precisely and acting more generously to yourself and others. Understanding that empathy is under our control empowers us to work harder at developing it and to use it more with people who look or think differently than ourselves. Additionally, empathizing with the beliefs of others helps build more persuasive arguments that impact their perspectives.

Embracing the importance of empathy is the first step as we charge ahead into the unavoidable hybrid future. Once leaders accept this reality, it is critical that we deliberately incorporate the elements of strategic empathy into our leadership approach and openly hold others accountable for the same development. The future is ours to define, and with empathy at the core, the “new normal” becomes an enticing horizon.