During the pandemic, corporate clients would come to Julia Beck and tell her they were forming a committee to figure out work-from-home arrangements and how to best serve women and families. “I’d ask, well, did you talk to the employees themselves?” says Beck, the founder of the It’s Working Project, a strategy and branding firm focused on what she has coined the Panini Generation — the demanding, pressure-filled, messy and highly unpredictable descendant of the Sandwich Generation.

The clients usually hadn’t. 

“The very best thing you can do to build employees’ trust and confidence is to make employees part of the knowledge-gathering process,” she would tell them, noting that “listening provides better outcomes.”

“The only thing worse than not being empathetic is to assume what someone else needs.”

After two years of working from home or on hybrid schedules, companies may now be offering additional benefits — like paid parental leave, childcare and flexible work hours. But they need one more thing.  

“In addition to good policies for parents and caregivers, what the workplace needs is empathy,” says Sherrie Nguyen, director of product marketing at Indeed and founder and co-chair of the Parents and Caregivers Inclusion Resource Group. 

In an Indeed survey of 1,000 parents, most mothers said they wished employers would ask them what they need for support, but few actually do.

Empathy in the workplace is critical, Beck says. “It’s a baseline understanding of what it is to be a working parent.” 

Many working mothers bemoan how little employers understand about childcare, Beck says. For example, they don’t want to have to choose between leaving a meeting early or being late for pickup. An easy fix? Ask people what time they need meetings to end — and end them at that time. 

Meet mothers where they are

“Empathy involves actually taking the time to make sure organization leaders understand the concerns, frustrations and challenges faced by employees by listening to not only what they say but observing the non-verbal cues as well,” says Malissa A. Clark, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, and author of a 2018 study titled, "I Feel Your Pain": A Critical Review of Organizational Research on Empathy. “What are their key concerns? This may not be the same for everyone,” she says.

Working mothers have different needs because stages of parenting are different: The sleepless, breastfeeding mom of an infant and toddler may need something completely different from the mom of a pre-teen. “Employers should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to best support working moms, and instead have a comprehensive, flexible plan that meets moms where they are,” the Indeed report found.

Build an empathetic workplace for parents

Most parents in the Indeed survey wanted the flexibility to care for their kids when they’re sick (66%); to be home when their kids get home (64%); and to show up for their activities (63%). 

“Companies need to understand people’s situations… and make it work,” says Nguyen, an Austin, Texas–based mom, recalling her early parenting days of having to pump in closets and public bathrooms. Though lactation rooms are required by law, there needs to be “accountability” for all legal requirements, she said. “What we mean as empathy is what we think of as the status quo — there have been hacks and it’s just not acceptable anymore,” she says. 

Clark says that leaders should practice good behavioral empathy techniques by having conversations to ensure they have a correct understanding of the real issues and problems: “I’m hearing that you are feeling unsupported when the company does XYZ, am I understanding this correctly? Is there anything I’m missing?”

But, Clark adds, employees are only going to open up if they feel safe and supported. This trust will take a lot of time to build and grow. 

“Empathy is not simply throwing money or quick fixes at the problem and hoping it goes away,” she says. “It’s not saying, ‘Oh, you feel burned out? I’ve given all employees a six-month subscription to [insert name of mindfulness app here].’”

“It starts with a philosophy that you gotta have heart.”

When Andy Lipset joined SpokenLayer, a studio that specializes in short-form audio content, three years ago as CEO, he wanted to infuse the small company with “heart.”

“Whether it’s around empathy for moms, for dads or the workplace in general, it does really start from the top: It starts with a philosophy that you gotta have heart,” he says of his 35-40–person company. It’s more than just having a happy hour together, he says, and it begins with hiring the right people — a combination of talent and heart — and the philosophy is something he pushes down to managers and they push down to their teams. 

How does that translate into his workplace for parents?

“You have to have a certain mindset for what the workplace is today and how important families are in that mix. You have to be able to trust your team to get the job done or get it done in their hours,” he says, whether that means taking your child to the doctor or going to a teen’s award ceremony at school. This of course applies to all workers, like people with elderly parents that need care. “You have to be able to be flexible and be able to trust them to get it done at the end of the day.”

Another important part of empathy for him is mental health.  

“The workplace is stressful. We’re all under deadlines, we’re all feeling an incredible amount of mental strain,” he says, noting that they get their teams together to talk through mental health issues and Diversion, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) issues. A year ago he took a “hard look” at the company’s benefits and realized they could “do better,” especially around mental health benefits, which he then expanded.

And, as Nguyen points out, empathy for moms really translates into empathy for everyone, and it includes such practices as:

  • Checking in on employees, especially acknowledging any traumatic occurrences and offering support and time off
  • Asking employees regularly what they need to feel satisfied at work, and what could be improved
  • Acknowledging important holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and milestones
  • Making accommodations for different employee needs, like early mornings if someone is fasting or close captioning for accessibility or a prayer room
  • Using pronouns in email signatures, sharing them when introducing yourself, asking others for their pronouns

While many companies struggled to adapt during the pandemic, they learned important lessons: that people can be effective working remotely, that they’re not available 24/7 just because they work from home, and that people can work in functioning teams and not be in the same place. Many found that productivity actually went up during the lockdown.

All of these discoveries were good for working parents, but some companies didn’t really learn the lesson. “There were some organizations that said, ‘We’re going to go back to normal now,’” Beck says. This attitude is off-putting to their employees. “It showed a level of inauthenticity in what their work culture was: They were doing it in case of emergency, not doing it to evolve.”

1“‘I feel your pain’: A critical review of organizational research on empathy,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, December 2018.