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Why design leaders say empathy is crucial for business

May 24, 2022, 12:53 PM UTC

As the world comes out of the pandemic and designers figure out how to adapt workplaces to the new reality still being determined, experts warn companies not to underestimate what workers have gone through in the last two years and to factor that into their plans.

The years of upheaval, sickness, and for many, isolation, have taken a toll on many Americans, leaving them battered and yes, traumatized. And that is causing new problems designers need to be aware of.

“The volume of grief of trauma that we’re all always swimming in, the longer that we suppress that and don’t acknowledge that, the longer this is going to continue,” Rachael Dietkus, founder of Social Workers Who Design, told the Fortune Brainstorm Design conference on Monday. “It’ll be a different kind of a pandemic.” She called on companies to hire social workers to help employees navigating all the trauma they might be feeling from upheaval and anxiety caused by the pandemic but to also employ them as designers to help integrate trauma responsive research practices. 

And empathy will need to be a big part of the equation, particularly because of how differently people may have experienced the trauma of the pandemic. “When we’re talking about building humility and empathy, we’re talking about how we unpack our biases, our unseen areas, our power, our privilege, and the spaces that we navigate in the spaces that we work,” said Antionette Carroll, founder, president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. She acknowledged it’s a skill people learn from experience rather than in school, alas. “I didn’t study empathy in design school.”

That informed how Ford Motor Co redesigned its campus in Dearborn, Michigan, seeking to offer a restful workplace that invokes the peacefulness of nature, particularly to promote healthfulness. “We’re going to keep the elements that promote healthy living, like a great facade with glazing that allows natural light to penetrate the depth of the floor plate, or like our interior courtyards, and the landscape,” said Jennifer Kolstad, global design director at Ford. 

But being empathetic doesn’t have to mean being slow and overly deliberate, especially given the urgency of re-inventing work spaces now that the pandemic is receding.

“You can be high performing and empathetic with your people,” said Paul Papas, managing partner at IBM Consulting Americas. Choosing between those two imperatives is a “false choice,” he added.

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