What we learned from Airbnb and Curology about leading with empathy

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It is safe to say that employee expectations for office life, benefits, and manager interactions have changed forever with the pandemic. In order to stay ahead of the curve in the uber-competitive talent market we see today, organizations are reevaluating what role their seasoned leaders have in creating the employee experience the next generation needs to thrive at work. 

Last week, Cocoon’s COO, Lauren Dai, sat down with Carolyn Frey, Chief People Officer at Curology, and Q Hamirani, Global Head of People Operations at Airbnb for a conversation facilitated by PEER 150 to tackle the lofty question of how leaders can best to support their employees to foster loyalty and retention.

Here are some of the learnings gleaned from these incredible people leaders around how they’re rethinking manager training and developing support systems that empathetically serve employees of all ages and backgrounds.

Top tip: To access the full conversation, check out the full recording of the conversation here

Purpose: The great equalizer

All of the panelists agreed that purpose at work has never been more important than it is now. For some people, that’s working for a mission-based organization or taking a role they feel has a meaningful larger impact. For many others, it’s choosing to work for an organization with values aligned with their own. 

Carolyn said, when all the bells and whistles [of the workplace] went away with COVID, work became naked. How people spend their time and who they spend it with, both personally and professionally, fell under a spotlight. And when people don’t like what they see, they’re more motivated to change something. Purpose seems to matter to everyone, regardless of where they are in life. 

Creating support systems for all team members

In partnering with so many forward-thinking leaders, Lauren observed how the pandemic has been a moment of significant empathy building between generations. Whether someone is having their first baby, taking care of a child home from school due to COVID exposure, or caring for elderly parents, the pandemic has impacted all of us. 

These different ends of the spectrum have helped create empathy between generations. From the employer perspective, organizations are realizing that parental leave isn’t enough. A range of leave types and benefits demonstrates empathy by supporting all of your team members. 

What this looks like in practice will depend on your unique organization and demographics. Here are some examples of what empathy looks like within Curology, Airbnb, and Cocoon.

Curology builds support through trust and mandatory time off

At Curology, Carolyn’s team switched from unlimited PTO to mandatory minimum time off (MTO). Many teams can relate to the problem they were solving for: During the pandemic, with travel plans on hold, people weren’t taking time off. This led to widespread burnout and ultimately contributed to The Great Resignation. Carolyn emphasized the importance of setting the example from the top and leadership actually signing offline, not responding to emails, or calling into meetings when on MTO. 

Another way Curology builds support is by starting with a foundation of trust. While many leaders worried, and some still worry, about employees’ productivity while working from home, Carolyn emphasized the importance of trusting employees. She said, “If we don’t come out of this pandemic with the belief that people can work from home successfully, we have failed.” 

Airbnb supports its team with transparency and flexibility

From childcare cancellations to caring for sick family members, COVID has had a massive impact on every workplace in the U.S. In order to support its team members through the pandemic, Airbnb added 15 emergency days off on top of PTO for any pandemic-related activities (e.g. childcare or taking care of a loved one), with wellbeing days on top of that. 

It’s important to recharge and find time for joy with PTO, and Q’s team knew that having to use vacation time for stressful situations would ultimately drain team resources and morale. 

Additionally, during the early days of the pandemic, Airbnb’s leadership team held Q&A sessions where team members could ask the CEO anything. Q said that nothing was sugar coated, and this transparency—even in the face of uncertainty and a constantly negative news cycle—helped build trust among the Airbnb team. 

Cocoon helps companies make the leave process stress-free for their employees

The importance of paid time off—both in terms of vacation time as well as longer term leave—came up a lot throughout the conversation. People take leaves during major life events, so how a company supports someone through the experience is crucial. 

Cocoon makes it easier to support team members through leave by handling compliance, payroll, and everything in between. Instead of spending time wading through paperwork, your team member on leave can focus on the reason they took time off in the first place.

Carolyn reiterated the support her team gets from Cocoon, emphasizing the importance of partnering with vendors that help you scale empathy within your organization. By making the leave process more seamless, she said it helps show employees that Curology cares about their personal lives and wants their leaves to be carefree and successful. 

Leading for the future of work

The future of work acknowledges that not everyone works in the same way, and supports people with empathy and flexibility. Q encouraged us to remember, however, that there’s a difference between empathy and entitlement. Leaders can listen to feedback without implementing everything employees ask for. The key is responding with transparency. 

Even without implementing everything employees say would improve their work experience, it’s possible to lead in a highly supportive way. 

Now more than ever, purpose is crucial in the workplace. People want workplaces that align with their personal values, and those are easier to create and maintain with empathy and flexibility. 

For more great tips on leading for the future of work, check out the full recording of the conversation here

The ultimate guide to supporting team members through leave

Download our free guide to better equip managers at your company to approach employee leave with empathy and organization.

With Cocoon, employees can design their leave plan in private, share with their manager and HR when they’re ready, and rest easy knowing that all their paperwork will be submitted for them; in full compliance with federal regulation, state law, and company policy. Employers don’t have to lift a finger when it comes to compliance, claims, or payroll calculations.
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