The empathetic CEO—building trust in the workplace as we rebuild employee connections

Tips for the CEO on unlocking talent, improving employee engagement, and reducing attrition.


This is a contributed article by Nicole Alvino, CEO, Firstup.

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that people are at the core of what we do. But the pandemic also revealed a rather troubling fact that we’ve been building businesses on a foundation of disengaged and unhappy employees. Streams of media content have led to a newly coined phrase “The Great Resignation” that has shone a light on the most dissatisfied of those employees. As we move forward, how can CEOs take charge and do more to lead their employees into their next phase of growth? How can they do more to build better employee engagement and reduce attrition rates? What can CEOs do to build trust and sincerity?

As the economy kickstarts and life returns to a semblance of normalcy, organisations must move forward through recovery and on to growth. Those companies that build deeper connections and free lines of communication with employees will thrive, and those that don’t, will be left behind. Indeed employees are demanding this communication, with as much as 66% of those surveyed for the latest Edelman Trust Barometer feeling that CEOs should take the lead on change. 

The employee experience really encompasses every element of an employee's connection to the business. It spans every aspect of the job, their workspace, colleagues and customers and unsurprisingly during 2020, we saw employee engagement decline. With trust central to employee engagement, CEO’s that recognise this decline as an opportunity to change and improve will reap the most rewards.

Here are seven key steps to achieve this success:

  • Keep employees up to date: deliver honest and straightforward information in real time, while encouraging employee input and feedback to help evolve processes and continue innovating.
  • Take stock: actively listen and communicate with sincerity to your employees. Reflect on your progress and note opportunities to improve. Employees will recognise signs of insincerity, and will lose trust immediately. This is especially important now as employees move out of isolation (working from home) to one of possible exclusion (working from home while others or in the office). Supporting a hybrid working environment is crucial, the number of remote employees is expected to be 40% in the coming years, up from 5% before the pandemic.
  • Communicating is listening: think of communicating as a type of hygiene. It’s the foundational layer that connects employees to the business and each other. Empathising, the ability to understand and experience other people’s feelings is a critical part of listening. Use formal and informal listening groups at every level, and be sure to include both frontline and remote colleagues. 
  • Take action: listening only takes you so far, next comes action. From an employee’s perspective, there may be nothing worse than a boss who claims to have an open door policy, and encourages people to come with concerns and suggestions but then never does anything about them. Action will lead to change, and change demands that leaders be open to things being done differently. Before you embark on a new policy of engagement make sure that you as a CEO, and the organisation are ready to embrace the change and rethink processes and policies to better meet not just your needs, but those of your employees.
  • Adapt for the hybrid workplace: Adapting to new workplace realities is the top priority for businesses and IT decision-makers. More than half of organisations are deploying applications that support employees, particularly those working from home. By creating a corporate culture that makes it clear that management respects and values all employees, executives can help workers feel a true connection to the organisation. This is especially critical right now for frontline workers including healthcare personnel, truck drivers, restaurant staff, and factory workers who have been pushed to the max for the past 18 months.
  • Support a sense of purpose: A great employee experience can make or break an employee’s decision to stay or go. Creating a sense of community and a sense of an individual mission is critical for employees to feel engaged. C-level executives must build trust through sincerity and authenticity. The best way to do this is through quality information. According to Edelman, the importance of information literacy has increased by 46% in the last year, and protecting the quality of information is the leading factor for increasing trust.
  • Adopt technologies to support dispersed workforces: As we move from a world in which we were all calling into our meetings from home, surrounded by pets and family, and struggling to manage emotions—to one in which only some of us are remote are meeting, socialising and innovating in person—we must make sure to treat workers equally. Creating a sense of belonging in virtual spaces, so that employees can receive and access information, as well as have a place to go for engaging with colleagues, managers and the company. Go beyond the corporate intranet or email blasts and instead deploy tools that make it easy to broadcast information in real-time, on multiple channels and devices. 

CEOs must shift from simply disseminating information to starting meaningful conversations that will inspire employees to take action. Technology that used to be “nice to have” is suddenly becoming a need to have. And it will pay dividends in the way employees work: productively, creatively, and with motivation and purpose. 

It must be remembered that employee engagement is not merely a measure of happy or generally satisfied workers who give a four or five on a five-point scale. Engaged employees act differently, going above and beyond to surpass expectations which gives organisations a competitive advantage. As we move beyond the pandemic, businesses are at a critical moment in time, and if they can unlock the talent within, it can be leveraged for unprecedented growth and success.