How “Feelings” Became the Hot New Metric: Inside the Empathy Economy That’s Disrupting Business and Revolutionizing Work

Photo by Arun Prakash

A quiet revolution is underway in the world of business. Companies have long focused ruthlessly on metrics like revenue growth, profit margins and shareholder returns. But a new philosophy is emerging that puts qualitative human experiences at the center of corporate strategy. This “empathy economy” aims to deeply understand both employee and customer sentiment in order to drive growth through better meeting human needs.

The seeds of this movement were planted during the tumult of 2020. The pandemic and recession threw into stark relief the importance of physical safety, mental health, work-life balance and other basic human priorities. Lockdowns forced businesses to shift operations online, accelerating digitization trends. Meanwhile, a societal reckoning on racial injustice compelled companies to confront issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In this environment, leading firms realized they could no longer remain tone-deaf to the experiences of their stakeholders. Workers expected management to care about their wellbeing. Customers sought brands that authentically shared their values. And shareholders recognized that happy employees and loyal customers were the foundations of long-term prosperity.

Forward-thinking enterprises thus developed capabilities to actively listen to their people. Some appointed heads of “employee experience” to gauge engagement, belonging and productivity. Others conducted regular surveys to identify pain points across operations. Leading customer service teams were trained to pick up on emotional cues and empathize with clients. And customer relationship management software was refined to analyze and act upon feedback.

These “listening organizations” obtained vital insights that spurred innovation. They uncovered frustrations with remote work tools, enabling them to enhance collaboration systems and policies. They discerned anxiety about returning to the workplace, allowing them to implement safety protocols and hybrid arrangements. And they discovered concerns about children’s education, inspiring them to provide flexibility for parents.

Such organizational empathy also paid dividends externally. Companies that bothered to ask what customers truly wanted were able to tailor offerings to evolving needs. Brands that engaged sincerely with communities on issues like racial justice earned trust and loyalty. And firms that treated suppliers and business partners with care built resilient supply chains and distribution networks.

Looking ahead, the empathy economy will only grow in importance. Digitization continues to accelerate, making it easier to gather data on human experiences. Younger socially conscious consumers increasingly demand that brands align with their values. And talent is flocking to employers that provide purpose and flexibility rather than just paychecks.

Some sectors will struggle to embrace this cultural shift. Industries like manufacturing and energy remain dominated by old-school operational metrics around productivity and safety. And despite talk of stakeholder capitalism, many Wall Street veterans still prize earnings and investor returns above all.

But creative destruction will force adaptation. Startups centered on understanding human experiences are disrupting incumbents across healthcare, retail, entertainment and more. And research shows that empathetic organizations enjoy higher productivity, innovation and financial performance over the long-run.

The coronavirus pandemic expanded societal awareness of our shared vulnerability. Meanwhile, automation is freeing humanity from repetitive industrial labor. The conditions are thus ripe for a new form of economics built on care rather than exploitation. But constructing a true empathy economy will require more than hollow corporate slogans. Companies must devote resources to continuously listening, learning and improving. And governments can play a role through taxation, regulation and education policies that incentivize long-term thinking.

The path forward promises challenges but also opportunities. Businesses that tap into the human experiences of their stakeholders and wider communities will unlock innovation, resilience and sustainable growth. A new form of conscious capitalism is emerging – and our collective future may depend on its success.

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