Jo Upward, Director of Platform Group, discusses the role that empathy plays in workplace culture.
What is empathy and how do you build it into it the work environment? Simply put empathy is understanding people’s emotions whether that is a customer or an employee. A 2018 State of Workplace Empathy Study by Businessolver found that 96% of employees surveyed believed it was important for their employers to demonstrate empathy.
In a world where emotional connection to customers can be a differentiator for organisations, it is no surprise then at Platform, we are seeing a rising level of interest in developing empathy in front line staff for use in work and business.
Take Apple, known for its friendly, informal customer service. It’s Apple Genius Training Manual includes a basic guide to empathy where staff are taught to use certain phrases and monitor customers’ body language, enabling them to tailor interactions to an individual’s needs.
Empathy requires your staff to walk in your customers’ shoes and this starts with an understanding of what the barriers to empathy are. As part of our process of creating Customer Experience Centres, bespoke spaces where companies can collaborate with clients, team members and stakeholders to really understand the customer experience, we have undertaken research that has identified four key barriers to empathy;
- Us and Them
We tend to feel greater empathy towards familiar individuals or those that we perceive to be similar to us. A study by Mathur in 2010 identified that we feel enhanced empathy towards what were termed ingroup members and Decety and Cowell found in 2015 this can lead individuals to behave unfairly toward outgroup members in comparison.
- Negative stereotypes, bias and anxiety
A Study by Amodio in 2009 identified that biases can block an individual’s empathic response to another.
- Self-awareness and the ability to identify feelings and their origins
Individuals vary in their ability to perceive their own emotions and sensory states. Bird found in 2010 that there is a reduction in empathetic responses in sufferers of alexithymia (the key characteristics of which is a marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating).
- Interpersonal skills
Real-time tuning to the mental states of others is needed to generate an accurate empathy response. Main found that an observer requires present attention and openness to understand the empathetic stimuli from an interaction.
Taking Empathy one step further with VR
To satisfy this need to help staff develop empathetic skills, Platform Group is turning to Virtual Reality (VR). In fact, this area is turning out to provide a value use case for VR in the workplace – going beyond the theatre into a valuable medium by which to learn new skills. VR enables us to put staff into their customers’ shoes, playing out scenarios that customers experience in reality and requiring choices to be made and experiences felt.
So, for example, VR empathy training could be used by medical practices to develop staff’s understanding as to the anxiety patients feel in unfamiliar clinical environments. Retailers wishing to invest in the accessibility of their stores can use VR empathy training to ensure customers have a better understanding of how customers with autism experience the environment and front-line contact centre staff in insurance companies can develop a better empathetic response to customers dealing with a death of a loved one.
We believe a key strand in future customer experience will be in the emotional intelligence of those engaging with customers. VR empathy training will help to develop a true understanding, of what it is like in your customers’ shoes and helps you walk the miles together.
 Mathur, V. A., Harada, T., Lipke, T., and Chiao, J. Y. (2010). Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation.
 Decety, J., and Cowell, J. M. (2015). Empathy, justice, and moral behavior.
 Amodio, D. M. (2009). The social neuroscience of intergroup relations.
 Bird, G., Silani, G., Brindley, R., White, S., Frith, U., and Singer, T. (2010). Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism
 Main, A., Walle, E. A., Kho, C., and Halpern, J. (2017). The interpersonal functions of empathy: a relational perspective.