In the media

How empathetic leadership can help local authorities chart the future of work

By Ashley Harshak, Kate Lafferty


18 June 2021

This article was first published in Solace.

Local government has been on the front lines of COVID-19 relief, nimbly evolving processes to help struggling communities and meet increased service demands. And even before the pandemic, the business of government was changing faster than ever as public expectations, cost pressures and innovation refocused missions and service delivery models.

To explore how public sector leaders can best respond to this rapidly shifting environment, we hosted a webinar with Solace, the UK’s leading membership network for public sector and local government professionals. Chief executives, HR experts and leaders from local government organisations joined PA experts to share how empathetic leadership can help agencies adapt.

The business of government is changing fast

The discussions started with Georgina Cox, PA local government change expert, sharing three intertwined macro trends that have been disrupting government, and that COVID-19 has accelerated:

1. Citizen behaviours and expectations

Global movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have shone a light on racial, gender, identity and socio-economic inequality. Similarly, COVID-19 illuminated the deep divide between digital workers and front-line staff, the latter of whom faced greater risks every day as they exposed themselves to potential infection. Local government leaders will need to consider how these developments have changed people’s behaviours and expectations as they work to provide space for different voices, make workforce development and service delivery more equitable, and help communities become more connected.

2. Cost and demand pressures

Like other industries, local government is under pressure to do more with less. But it experiences more financial volatility than private sector organisations, with changes in political leadership, yearly budget cycles and complex procurement processes adding to the challenges. Pandemic-related lockdowns have strained funding and service delivery further, with at-risk individuals bearing the brunt of under-pressure services being discontinued or delivered erratically due to COVID-19 restrictions.

3. Environmental concerns

Local authorities are grappling with the impacts of climate change, such as growing resource inequity and uncertainty about the livelihoods and quality of life of future generations. However, organisations can embrace purpose-driven business models to rethink and redesign resource-intensive operational models and reduce their environmental impact.

The future of work is evolving

During the pandemic, local governments embraced remote working to protect staff and citizens. Now, those on our webinar said they’re considering how best to move forward – they’re running focus groups and surveys to understand people’s work preferences, concerns and needs.

Their aim is to empower their people with choice in how they work while balancing the needs of their communities – citizens will still want face-to-face interaction with local government employees, and office workers are essential to keeping town centres profitable. One way they’re thinking about this balance is by creating personas based on roles and other requirements. This can help people in different jobs prioritise when they need to be in the office and when they can take advantage of more flexible arrangements.

With distributed workforces, digital literacy will become essential to communicating with teams. And as communications become more digital, local government organisations will need to consider accessibility to ensure everyone can interact with new tools and messages.

By getting all this right, hybrid work models will enable local government to recruit and retain top talent while reducing unnecessary travel, supporting development and sustainability goals.

There’s a greater need for empathetic leadership

COVID-19 has made workforce and community wellbeing a more visible priority. As a result, there’s never been a better time for local government leaders to display empathetic leadership, said Ashley Harshak, PA leadership, culture and change expert.

Empathetic leaders are interested in their staff both professionally and personally, listen deeply to their challenges, and watch for signs of overwork. They then display compassion and act to help those who are suffering.

Numerous studies, from academic research to reports by the World Economic Forum and Journal of Leadership Studies, have demonstrated that empathetic leaders help create empathetic organisations. And empathetic organisations have more engaged employees who perform better. That’s because these organisations have a strong, purpose-driven culture, compelling brand story, commitment to transparency and ethical behaviour, and inclusive practices. They also use a human voice on social media accounts and ‘hug their haters’, engaging with unhappy customers to empathise and gain insight they can use to refine processes. Empathetic organisations, in turn, help build empathetic communities by fostering inclusion and displaying humanity in interpersonal relationships.

There have been great examples of empathetic leadership through the pandemic and beyond. One senior executive, Harshak shared, sends handwritten notes and small gifts, such as chocolate bars, to direct reports to recognise their efforts. Microsoft continued to pay its 4,500 hourly workers during the pandemic, acknowledging the economic hardship these individuals would face if their hours were reduced. Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate response to the Christchurch Mosque massacre won her worldwide praise and attention, and helped a grieving community start to heal. And, two years before the pandemic, Waltham Forest Council adopted a premature birth policy, enabling staff to take extra leave at full pay during what can be a difficult time, displaying sensitivity to workers in a high-stress situation.

Conversely, leaders who aren’t empathetic pay a high price through social media outrage, media censure and corporate reprimands. For example, Bill Michaels, UK Chair of KPMG, was forced to resign when he told staff to “stop moaning” about the pandemic and dismissed unconscious bias as “crap.” The virtual meeting leaked and went viral, harming KPMG’s brand.

Empathetic leadership is key to preparing for the future of work

Today’s society is more values driven. Local government plays a valuable role in creating community, both for their workers and residents. By listening, learning and then leading, organisations can help others adopt desired values and behaviours. By developing such empathetic leadership, local government leaders can better manage the pressures their organisations are facing and prepare for a radically different future of work.

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