Empathetic Leadership: Returning to the Workplace

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It’s really happening. Over the next few months, offices are reopening and teams will be returning to the workplace. But going back doesn’t mean returning to the way things were. In fact, for many of us, the office will look and feel much different. So how can leaders better prepare their teams and themselves to make the transition to in-person work easier and more productive?

Daniel Goleman, PhD, the psychologist and author of the original book on emotional intelligence (Emotional Intelligence, written in 1995), defines three different types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern. It’s through the lens of these three different types of empathy that leaders can better strategize returning to the workplace.

Cognitive empathy: State the obvious

Cognitive empathy means understanding how people think. Leveraging this skill makes leaders good communicators because they can think through what messages will make sense and what will resonate with their people. As a leader, what messaging are you being super intentional about as you return to the office?

It’s OK to admit what most folks are already feeling: returning to the office might feel weird. We’ve spent over a year apart and many team members likely had or cared for someone with COVID-19, or quarantined in their home with little interaction outside of their household during that time. And, as a result, we’ve gotten really good at washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, social distancing, and masking, and less practiced at having face-to-face social interactions. Being in the same hallway, office, or meeting room with someone we haven’t seen in a while may seem like a welcomed interaction to some, but it can also create anxiety in others. How we go back has a direct connection to the amount of anxiety team members may feel and it’s imperative for leaders to acknowledge a few facts:

  1. Not everyone is looking forward to going back to the office – and there could be many different reasons for that. These reasons are unique to the individual and their preferences and needs, as well as their home life. Reluctance doesn’t have to mean push-back if you are able to acknowledge it and move forward supportively.
  2. Many people are uncomfortable in “crowded” spaces even if they have six feet of distance between them and others. Respecting space without judgment is key.
  3. Masking for some will be non-optional until everyone around them is vaccinated. What types of guidance are you giving folks about when and where masks should be worn? This clarity will help many feel more comfortable.
  4. Not everyone wants to get the vaccine at this point in time, and could feel social pressure to share whether they’ve gotten it or not and their reasoning.

Emotional empathy: Acknowledge different emotions

Emotional empathy means understanding how people feel, because you can sense it and feel it yourself. This type of empathy helps leaders build emotional connections and strengthen relationships with others.

As much as we want the world to go back to the way it was, it can’t and it won’t. The impact of COVID-19 extends beyond economic and public health ramifications into the mental health of every individual. In an office of 50 people, you could very likely have 50 different feelings about coming back to the physical office — whether it’s for a full 40-hour work week or just for weekly meetings. That’s why it’s especially important for leaders to acknowledge and seek to understand the different emotions team members may be feeling when considering returning to the workplace.


“Just because I miss you doesn’t mean I’m ready to be near you.” A good friend of mine recently relayed this sentiment as we discussed an upcoming opportunity to see each other. She apologized profusely but I understood her position. She truly has not left her home outside of a walk or run around her neighborhood or to have groceries loaded into her car, in over a year.

For my friend, going back to the office feels overwhelming and scary. She’s concerned not all her coworkers will have the vaccination by July. It feels like too much, too soon for her.

Do you have any team members who may feel the same way? What are you specifically doing to understand their feelings? How are you addressing their concerns?


“I can’t wait to hug you!” another friend exclaimed when we discovered we would be in the same place at the same time this summer. While she hasn’t received the vaccination yet, she hopes to get it at least a month before her employer opens its doors again to full-time employees. I asked her if she meant it (the hug, that is) and she nodded enthusiastically. “I can’t wait to hold onto the people I have missed the most during the pandemic!” she exclaimed.

While I find myself more in the excitement than anxiety camp, I certainly understand how an enthusiastic team member may make others feel uncomfortable in the first few weeks back. What if my friend the hugger reaches out to my more cautious friend? It’s likely both of them could walk away from the situation feeling misunderstood, uncomfortable and uncertain about the situation and potentially their relationship.

Do you have any team members who are expressing excitement over going back to the office? Have you spoken to them about what they are most looking forward to and prepared them on how to handle team members who don’t share their enthusiasm?

Empathic concern: Show you care

Empathic concern goes beyond understanding and connecting with others’ emotions, and actually moves us to take action and to improve the situation. Leaders who leverage this third (arguably most important) form of empathy are able to show that they care enough to do something about it.

There are many feelings associated with returning to the physical office this summer outside of anxiety and excitement. And that’s exactly why leaders should be talking to team members now to understand all of the emotions surrounding such a big change in our day-to-day routine. We didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the impact of a remote work environment before we all packed up and headed home in March 2020. But now, we should take time to plan and prepare for our return to the workspace beyond the logistics. Here are some steps leaders should take to show they truly care, before welcoming everyone back to the office this summer:

  1. Survey employees to find out if people are ready to begin planning a safe return to the office, and how they feel about it. Leave space for people to openly express their thoughts, worries, and ideas.
  2. Talk with team members individually to better understand their feelings about going back before announcing any plan or procedure.
  3. Consider what resources are needed to help employees who are feeling anxiety over returning to the office.
  4. Provide EQ or emotional intelligence training to team members to help them navigate differing emotions and build trust with others.
  5. Be open about your own feelings about returning to the workspace. Consider how your team members would feel to learn that you also struggle with your emotions regarding going back to the office and confirm that leadership would never use their feelings against them.
  6. Assess and adjust. Once you’ve eased back in, don’t assume everything is fine and people are bringing their concerns forward. Re-survey and continue having 1:1 conversations to assess if any changes or adjustments need to be made, and communicate those openly.

Going back to the workplace will be an emotional time for everyone. Do you think you are sufficiently prepared to develop and activate an empathetic return plan? If you’re unsure or have questions, please reach out.


If you’re looking to learn more about emotional intelligence, you’ll enjoy “The Leadership Dilemma No One is Talking About” by ADVISA’s President, Heather Haas.

And, if you’re already planning a return to the office and looking to grow your team, don’t miss “Booms, Bottlenecks and How to Prepare Your Organization for Growth” by ADVISA’s Chairman, Bob Wilson.