What’s Missing in the Return-to-Work Debate? Empathy

Joanna Meyer

Have you followed the debate regarding corporate work from home policies? A number of prominent CEOs insist that after more than three years of pandemic-related changes, it’s time for employees to return to the office.

·      Elon Musk (Tesla/Space X) called remote work “morally wrong”

·      David Solomon (Goldman Sachs) called it an “aberration”

·      And Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) claims “people who work from home are not efficient”

Here in the U.S., we remember the pressure parents faced in 2020 when schools and childcare centers closed. Many spent harried days monitoring their children’s online education while juggling Zoom calls for work. “But in 2021 and 2022, as children went back to in-person learning, an interesting thing happened,” writes Bloomberg’s Claire Saddath. “More women joined the labor force than ever before. By early 2023, 75% of American mothers were working at least part-time, more than before the pandemic. A big reason for that shift? The combination of in-person childcare and remote work. Not all jobs can be done remotely, of course, but for [corporate] working mothers who mostly sat in front of a computer all day, the ability to work from home gave them newfound freedom and flexibility, the likes of which they’d never experienced before.”

 It's a freedom few workers want to give up. A study by the International Workplace Group found that “80% of female office workers say that working remotely allows them to better balance their work and caregiving responsibilities and 72% of them say they’ll look for a new job if their flexible and remote-work options are taken away.”

 So why are these CEOs so adamant about employees returning to the office full-time? While the value of in-person collaboration, the financial investment made in office space, and the challenges of managing a remote workforce are all factors, I think this conflict points to something deeper.

Their Insistence Flows from a Lack of Empathy

While these CEOs may be parents, they have not made an effort to understand the pressures that employees with caretaking responsibilities face. 

Do they realize that eliminating a 30-minute commute, made twice a day, returns five hours of time to an employee’s week? Do they understand how online meetings brought the workplace into employees’ homes, where they are not merely “workers”, but parents, neighbors, and spouses, too? Instead of insisting on old ways of working, it’s time for leaders to pursue a new way of understanding – the way of empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s feelings or experiences. It’s a deeply Christian virtue that flows through the heart of the Trinity. God the Father is named El Roi “The God who sees” (Gen 16:3) Through the incarnation Christ “became flesh” to share the experience of being human (John 1:14). And the Holy Spirit understands our needs, interceding for us when we lack the words to pray (Rom. 8:26-27). To be a Christian is to be drawn into the endless empathy of a loving God.

In this cultural moment, the need for empathy extends far beyond the return-to-work debate. Our social fabric is fraying, worn thin by political tension, racial conflict, and the differences revealed during the pandemic that we have yet to resolve. As commentator David French observed, “At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling [us] together more than it is pushing us apart.” (Divided We Fall: America’s Succession Threat and How to Restore the Nation)

Through our work and public lives, godly empathy equips us to reweave the social fabric, bridging social divides and soothing strained relationships through the gift of understanding. But how? Empathy is feeling with people, a vulnerable choice that asks us to consider the experience of others, rather than interject our own experiences or opinions into an interaction.

Four Principles to Help Us Grow in Empathy

1.     Seek perspective. Simply put, what has someone’s experience been like? Sociologist Brené Brown clarifies that this is different than the concept of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. “Rather than walking in your shoes,” she explains, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experience.”

Throughout the gospels we see Christ display this gracious curiosity as he interacted with others, often in the form of a gentle question. When he looked for the bleeding woman who touched his robe, “Who was it who touched me?” (Luke 8) or asked two blind men, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matthew 20), he drew them out, inviting them to reveal the desire or pain beneath a surface interaction.

2.     Be nonjudgmental. As our social circles become more circumscribed, it’s east to become stuck in an echo chamber of similar preferences and perspectives. We’re losing the ability to relate across differences. What if we chose to stay in conversation—not for the purpose of persuading someone to see life our way—but to seek the deeper “why” that shapes their convictions?

3.     Recognize emotion. What if the CEOs insisting on a return-to-work considered how more flexible working arrangements made their employees feel about their work? What if they asked employees to describe the stress or pressure the previous way of working produced? In tense interactions, ask: What fear is being triggered for this person? What do they perceive as a threat? What are they trying to challenge or preserve?

4.     Communicate that you understand that emotion. This doesn’t mean that you insert your own experience in someone else’s story. Don’t shift the focus back to yourself or distract from the individuality and intensity of another person’s experience. Something as simple as, “Shoot, that’s hard. I can see how much it [hurts, angers, worries] you” helps someone feel seen. Resist the temptation to swing into helper or problem solver mode, just be present in the moment.

How might God be inviting you to show empathy in your work or public life? Which person (or people) do you find it difficult to understand? What is it about their perspective that rubs you the wrong way?  Take a moment to pray, asking God for opportunities to be present to that person.


Joanna Meyer

Joanna serves as Denver Institute’s Director of Public Engagement, hosts the Faith & Work Podcast, and founded Women, Work, & Calling, a national initiative that disciples women for godly influence in public life. Prior to coming to the Institute, Joanna worked in global telecom, nonprofit consulting, and campus ministry with Cru. She served as associate faculty at Denver Seminary and as a sewing instructor at Fancy Tiger Crafts. A third-generation Coloradan, Joanna appreciates both the state’s innovative culture and its cowboy roots. She has an MA in Social Entrepreneurship from Bakke Graduate University and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also completed a certificate of Women in Leadership through Cornell University.

She is the author of Women, Work, & Calling: Step Into Your Place in God’s World (IVP, Fall 2023) and is a contributor to the multi-author book, Women & Work: Bearing God’s Image and Joining in His Mission through our Work (B&H Publishing, Spring 2023).