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Use Empathy Mapping to Help Restore Employees’ Trust

Use Empathy Mapping to Help Restore Employees’ Trust

  • Design Thinking /
  • Research /

The sudden onset of COVID-19’s first wave left us all raw. For businesses everywhere, strategies and ideologies were turned upside down in a flash. To a large degree, the dramatic failures we encountered stemmed from a lack of planning. Industries across the board were unprepared for the fallout.

Now, as we move past our shock and fatigue, it’s essential that organizational leaders prepare their organizations for post-pandemic life—especially as it relates to the health and the safety of workers. Where do we begin? I believe empathy mapping is the missing piece that can help us rebuild trust, respond to disruptions, and plan for future uncertainties.


Empathy mapping provides context for how people think and feel.

Empathy mapping is widely used in some of the world’s highest performing design and technology organizations. These powerful, fundamental tools help leaders and teams understand different audiences, uncover needs, and design solutions that align.

Empathy mapping helps organizations visualize and articulate the things that they know—or need to uncover—about customers. But, what happens when the audience you need to know about consists of employees? In such cases, empathy mapping can be extremely effective when your goal is to prioritize and focus your efforts, making better decisions that will positively impact workers.


Right now, trust in leadership is at an all-time low.

Organizations in every vertical face challenges—as do their employees. And, among the greatest challenges organizations must grapple with involves rebuilding trust.

Loss of trust is one of the most critical issues at the heart of building a cohesive recovery response to COVID-19. We first discovered this fact through empathy mapping on behalf of a large healthcare client in the first weeks of the pandemic. Weeks later, our continued use of empathy mapping across multiple verticals has helped other clients understand what’s happening for their workers as well.

Why have people lost trust? Uncertainty and misdirection at the top have bred distrust. We can all agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has been riddled with changing guidelines, starts and stops, and an onslaught of conflicting reports and viewpoints. Workers feel they’re being tossed around. They don’t know where to look for direction, and have grown skeptical of what they hear.

As trust diminishes, and reputations degrade, workers turn to their own circles of experts, leaders, and fellow colleagues whose ideas and insights align with their own. And why not? After all, it’s hard for anyone to feel confident about their health and safety when cases continue to rise. Some people have even concluded that the U.S. is simply unable to lead an effective effort to defend against, and bounce back from COVID-19. 

Organizations must take these overarching concerns into consideration as they bring employees back. Otherwise, their future, and the health of their people, will remain at risk.

They must also take into consideration the fact that employees will be coming back to massive changes. Equipment and workspaces will be different, while new policies, safety measures, and procedures will—ideally—help them adhere to social distancing. To compound this reality, policies may change on a weekly basis, as new information becomes available. Are your workers equipped to navigate so much disruption? What can you do to help them?

In many ways, you can get to the bottom of these types of questions through empathy mapping. Having led a number of empathy mapping initiatives for clients in recent months, we have identified four key themes that continue to bubble to the surface, in relation to trust, safety, and what employees want and need.


1. To rebuild trust, employers must put the safety of employees first.

When workers lose trust in leadership, they also lose trust in leadership’s ability to keep them safe. If your organization wants to re-establish trust with your employees, you MUST put their safety first. There is no other way around it. The most important problem facing businesses is knowing how to protect employees and customers from infection. You will not have the luxury of getting safety wrong.

By putting safety first, you can also help reduce employee anxiety, and combat fears by addressing things head on. That includes identifying tools that spur smart, contact-free, and integrated interactions. 


2. Employees want to know what you’re doing to protect them.

When you proactively identify plans and procedures—and share these plans with your people—employees will know in advance about the steps you’re taking to help them navigate serious unknowns. 

By communicating your steps, you’re also telling employees that you are working through the current challenges, and prepared for future disruptions. You’re effectively reducing their fear of the unknown, supplying them with knowledge and confidence, and showing that you are responsive and decisive.


3. Workers want a consistent voice and method of communications.

Communicating is one thing. Focusing on how you communicate is perhaps even more essential. Businesses have a lot of channels for communication—and employees have access to more content than ever before. Sending out information across all channels can make people numb to the notifications they really need. Your business must communicate with accuracy, speed, and consistency.

Having a single communication channel on handheld devices that both traces interactions, and assists employees in navigating day-to-day problems, can help drive employee engagement—and encourage trust. Implementing a single channel for all COVID-19 information will be key when you need to get a message out quickly—and ensure that employees read it.

For instance, a tool that allows employees to access all COVID-19 information via their smartphones will accelerate adoption, and help your business and your people to take action when necessary.


4. People are grappling with a ‘what’s next?’ mentality.

Nearly everyone seems certain that things will continue to change for the foreseeable future. Today’s ‘new normal’ is tomorrow’s ‘old idea.’ As your business pivots to incorporate best practices, you will need to be proactive to meet new guidelines and requirements. That means equipping your people with the right tools to ensure safety, while also gathering data to help make quick decisions that will mitigate risks before they become a problem.

This fact makes the accuracy of contact tracing, for instance, and daily check-ins even more important. That’s especially true when you consider that the chance of infection can come down to being within a few feet of another infected person.

Every business will require different levels of safety and contact tracing, depending on the nature of various workplaces, campus settings, and office norms. It’s important that you find the appropriate parameters in order for employees to feel comfortable, and trust that their safety is truly your top concern.

Being able to make tactical decisions in a period of massive disruption and change is crucial. Having the real-time data to see what is happening with your staff and business will allow you to be proactive, agile, and decisive. Therefore, it’s vital to have tools that correspond with what you need today, and are flexible enough to handle what may come later.


Empathy mapping helps you bring new focus to the employee experience.

When you review the four main themes we’ve gleaned from recent empathy mapping exercises, safety, protection, and communication rise to the top as the most essential components of rebuilding trust. By emphasizing these themes, you can reassure employees that their health is your top priority.

Meanwhile, as you continue to find new ways to improve protocols, and mitigate risk, you can also equip employees with tools, data, and know-how to better navigate the workplace. Doing so will help employees work effectively, while adapting to the changing environment. However, to get there, you need to know what your employees are feeling and thinking, specifically as it relates to returning to work.


Empathy mapping can put employees’ insight to work for you.

Gathering raw data from people is a critical step to empathy mapping. However, that’s all it is—a step. From there, it’s essential to overlay the data in order to drive change and, ideally, find more successful outcomes in the future.

From an opportunity standpoint, empathy mapping points toward a number of potential short- and long-term changes. For instance:

  • Creating (or repairing) a trusted network of information within and across institutions and the public.
  • Increasing access to credible guidance.
  • Building strong plans that include flexibility, and being present in an emergency.
  • Delivering on promises, especially when it’s about safety.
  • Creating alternate plans when the ideal doesn’t happen, designing for moments of crisis.
  • Designing and manufacturing new products that are versatile, affordable, and sustainable.
  • Developing better systems to assist workers in transition.
  • Responding to the physical and the emotional stress and anxiety of workers and community members.
  • Improving the patient experience in medical settings.

The bottom line is that, like you, your employees must navigate quite a bit of change right now. Before you give them information about your plans for the new normal, find out what they need in order to make smart decisions for their health and safety. Doing so will impact your ability to navigate change with agility, speed, and compassion.