Employees need work spaces where they can be vulnerable

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, increased focus on racial injustice, political unrest, and environmental issues like the climate crisis, employees have largely had to bury their anxieties, show courage, show up for work and perform as usual last year. But nothing in the past year has been “usual”.

In such circumstances, the “usual” is not going to cut it. In 2019, the World Health Organization defined employee burnout as a medical condition, citing the cause as chronic stress at work. While many companies have taken an active role in prioritizing the physical health of employees during the pandemic, consumers are also calling on employers to take an active role in the well-being and mental health of employees. Our Customer Experience Trends Report shows that 54% of customers want to support brands that prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplace. It’s not only time for leaders to prioritize employee mental health, but to go further to create spaces where people can come to work, openly share their emotions, receive support from their peers and to feel seen, heard and, above all, understood.

Identify employee needs for safe spaces

At Zendesk, where we transitioned virtually overnight to a fully remote work environment, we realized that many employees were about to deal with intense emotions of stress, sadness and anticipation. Then the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – along with other racial and social injustices – rocked the world, leaving our employees unsettled and at times angry – and that’s understandable.

We knew it was time to make a public commitment in the form of a declaration about what we stand for as a company, emphasizing our values ​​of empathy, embracing diverse perspectives and being a continuous catalyst for change.

We also began to hold “circles of empathy“Around the same time. These gatherings are only by and for employees, with a singular goal of keeping time and space for each other. We can all donate money and change our policies, but let’s listen. we really the people around us, those with whom we work together towards common goals?

These safe spaces are something companies can initiate themselves, immediately, to help support employees in times of crisis, but only if done in a thoughtful and constructive way.

The practice of circles of empathy actually began when one of our employees, Delores Cooper from our Madison, Wisconsin office, invited colleagues to an impromptu “safe space” almost immediately after George Floyd’s murder. It was just meant to give employees the opportunity to come together, talk and listen. Delores expected a few employees to join in for an hour-long chat. However, more than 25 employees attended and the event lasted five hours, highlighting the critical need for more opportunities for people to get together and talk.

Circles of Empathy in Action

Zendesk has organized six Circles of Empathy over the past year, with approximately 1,000 participants worldwide. Themes ranged from racism in America to the role of intersectionality in EMEA and APAC, to combating racism and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community; but these discussions can cover any topic you want to highlight. Conversations are generally unstructured, which leads to an open dialogue; however, it is helpful to have a pair of facilitators to open the discussion with historical context or factual information. They can share personal stories or motivations to set the tone and build group confidence.

To date, we’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our staff on Circles, with 95% of participants saying they’ve helped create a safe space and empathy in the workplace, and 96% said that they would recommend the experience to a colleague or friend.

The power of listening to facilitate vulnerable conversations at work

As managers and executives, we tend to enter a discussion with the urge to lead the conversation. In circles of empathy, it is essential to define the expectation that business leaders will participate, but not in the expected capacity of speakers. Taking on a listening role has its own immense power, showing employees that those in leadership positions are just as vulnerable right now.

When it comes to customers, companies succeed when they understand the importance of listening, to recognize their weak points, know where they face challenges and, ultimately, offer them innovative solutions that lead to a better high fidelity and propelled growth. The same reasoning applies to your employee base.

If you are considering implementing a similar idea in your workplace, here are some ways managers can play an active listening role:

Plan ahead: Avoid awkward silences by preemptively reaching out to employees who are thought leaders within the organization and speak out on the topics covered, and encourage them to share their stories.

Think local: Organize circles of empathy by region and appoint local leaders as facilitators, while taking into account the crises unfolding around the world that affect your employees in states and countries outside of your headquarters. This ensures that the facilitator is well known to the circle participants and has a better understanding of the circumstances for which the safe space is required. Their own history and vulnerabilities will allow those affected to follow the conversation and speak out.

Establish ground rules: What happens in the circle of empathy stays in the circle of empathy. Before starting the conversation, it is important that the facilitators establish a no-retaliation rule and stress that this will be a space for sharing and learning without judgment. At Zendesk, our legal and HR representatives set the tone from the start by reaffirming that no retaliatory action would be taken based on shared personal stories and experiences. While each circle has its own nuance, we still stick to three basic rules: respect, privacy, and discomfort (be open to thinking differently).

Personalize: Choose the discussion topics carefully for each region; have a wide range of employee representations and provide time and space between sessions.

Another important step for leaders is to do your own personal work while making it easier for others. It means digging deeper into your motivations, values ​​and beliefs, and educating yourself about the day-to-day issues facing your employees. For example, use social media: read blogs, tweets, and news articles to stay on top of topics that are important to the communities you want to support. The real connection is in the intersection of personal reflection and creating space for others.

Understand that progress is a process

It’s important to recognize that no business is the same, which is why establishing your own circles of empathy will be an ongoing process. Conducting employee surveys after each circle and hosting brainstorming sessions will help you tailor your secure spaces to your unique groups of employees and their diverse perspectives.

Throughout our journey at Zendesk, we’ve learned that grouping circles by employee communities (what we call our employee resource groups) creates echo chambers within the same trusting groups of people. to each other. Instead, we created circles of empathy where we welcomed entire bases of regional employees. The curation sessions by location instead of already established groups hosted a more inclusive set of identities, with the participation of staff from diverse ethnicities, backgrounds and gender identities. This resulted in deeper conversations and a better understanding of the personal struggles of different employees.

The purpose of a circle of empathy is not to be able to reverse a quick change or a particular outcome, but to listen and learn, and to give employees a space to be heard. Conversations like these will naturally open up new areas for growth and change, but it’s not about tapping them for action items. That being said, employees may have some great ideas that you haven’t heard yet. For example, a central theme emerged from our first five circles of empathy on the topics of racism and intersectionality: the strong desire for more education and tools on how to be an effective ally. In response, we have introduced mandatory annual inclusive workplace training, as well as an Allyship Toolkit to our entire workforce through “The Lab”, our personalized virtual learning platform.

When you can’t build from scratch, partner

If not handled well, the effect of a distressing event can have a significant impact on the morale and productivity of your employees. If you aren’t able to create your own Circle of Empathy program entirely from scratch, another great option is to partner with organizations that are doing truly meaningful work in this space.

Modern Health is a great example of a workplace mental health platform that partners with companies to offer provider-led group sessions (in addition to other forms of coaching and therapy). In fact, over a quarter of Zendesk’s global workforce have used its Modern Health benefits.

With so much of our personal lives now tied to our working lives, companies must take responsibility for supporting the many facets of employee lives, in and out of the “office”.

Empathy can come to life even if we are not physically together – and this is perhaps even more important when we are not physically together. Leaders need to create spaces for employees to support each other when open dialogue is needed. When we do, the result is an organic, raw emotion that can power meaningful change and a happier, healthier workforce.


As Zendesk’s Director of Human Resources and Diversity, InaMarie Johnson leads the company’s vision to deliver a great employee experience. On a day-to-day basis, she is responsible for overseeing several functions, including talent acquisition, diversity development, equity and inclusion, and work experience functions.


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