Yes, you can build an empathetic workplace. Here’s how.

No one should have to show up to work feeling excluded, undervalued, or unsupported.

Let’s face it — 2020 has been a rollercoaster of change and growth, personally and professionally. And companies of all sizes have been forced to critically look themselves in the mirror from an ethics standpoint on how they’re treating their people. As more people break up with their bosses and leave their 9-5 to escape stress and values misalignment, there’s a new cohort of employers who are learning and leading simultaneously: creative entrepreneurs. That’s why now more than ever, it’s critical these rising employers arm themselves with the right tools for leading with empathy.

Before we co-founded Wethos, my co-founders and I were at traditional, large creative agencies that upheld the old school system that still exists today. You know, Mad Men era type of infrastructure. While the folks in agencies are incredibly talented, many were drastically underpaid, overworked and undervalued. When we left, we wanted to forge something in pursuit of purpose, so we made it our mission to make sure we were building an empowering and more inspiring place to work.

person holding pencil near laptop computer

Today, Wethos is a team of 15+ employees working across four time zones, and even with a small team that’s always stretched for time, we make it a priority to dismantle the typical toxic workplace environment that exists in the creative and startup industry. As Wethos Virtual Studios™ continues to support small business owners who are hiring friends and peers, it’s important to be intentional about building equitable work environments for their teammates. While we’re not perfect, we’re always striving to improve., Here are some tips we’ve implemented to put our team first.

Start by creating an inclusive remote workplace built on trust. Cultivating that trust is hard work, but worth it.

We’ve extolled the benefits of remote work from the very beginning, because we’d rather put funds back into our employees’ pockets than make them spend it on rent in a city that isn’t accessible to many folks. As Covid has forced so many teams into remote teamwork, we’ve maintained that while it’s incredibly rewarding to successfully run a distributed office, it takes time, intentionality, and a strategic foundation.

Staying on the same page cuts down on so much miscommunication, and makes sure that no one feels as though they’ve been left in the dark. There are so many tools and techniques out there, but it’s the way they’re used that matters most. At Wethos, we’ve invested in:

🗣 Consistent Weekly Meetings

While we like to stick to our “war on meetings” and keep things asynchronous as much as possible, we do have consistent recurring meetings that never change including Monday & Friday All Hands, Tuesday huddles, and Wednesday 1:1s. More predictability empowers people to work on their own terms. 

📆 15Five

People can’t improve if they don’t get feedback, so constant feedback loops are crucial. Using a tool like 15Five helps you keep the pulse of your team each week while create space for people to raise their hand if they’re drowning and drive employee’s visibility into their performance every week instead of waiting until their annual review.

🤝 Bravely

Small teams can rarely invest in HR, but it’s important to enable folks to talk to someone candidly without worrying about the repercussions afterward. Bravely has been impactful for having a mentor who can talk with you through issues or needs. Kind of like a work therapist, without the therapy costs.

🧠 Mental Health Days (MHD)

In the startup and creative space, mental health is rarely prioritized. But people do their best work with they have a clear mind. We implemented mandatory MHD’s to make sure the team took time for themselves, and mental health would be a priority across the board. 

Building these standards into our day-to-day working hours have been integral to keeping everyone on stable ground as our company continues to grow. Even for smaller teams, or for friends working on a project together, having consistent and transparent communication habits can help avoid crossed wires and misunderstandings.

people sitting down near table with assorted laptop computers

No matter how roles or priorities shift, a commitment to upholding values is key.

To help inspire more successful work relationships, it’s important to create a set of guidelines for how you wish to collaborate alongside one another. And then — hold each other accountable for living up to those values on an ongoing basis. Even if this is a team of two, it’s critical to define values and boundaries early on before shifts in priorities or scheduling occur.

While our own Wethos company values were workshopped during an all-staff meetup, digital tools have helped us refine our current values and develop new ones. In our most recent virtual all-staff retreat, we relied heavily on FunRetro and Whimsical, to recreate the same vibes we’d get from whiteboards and colorful post-it note sessions. While there’s a natural evolution to our values, here they are as they’re written today:

  1.  Invest in the team around you
  2. Champion diversity & inclusion early & always
  3. Do the work to put the user first
  4. Lead with empathy
  5. Hold yourself & others accountable for growth
  6. Step back / step up for others
  7. Acknowledge and respect each other
  8. Be proactive about taking ownership
  9. Learn through experimentation
  10. Prioritize clear & organized communication

For creative independents who are only beginning to identify as employers, there might not be a clear place to start. However, with the inevitable shift in power that comes with hiring collaborators, it’s necessary to learn and lead simultaneously. And that’s okay! What matters is how that power is put into use.

Which leads us to: You have the power to set the tone for zero-tolerance policies within your team’s environment.

We set expectations early about what we expect for the people joining our team. And while collaborators may shift with the ebb and flow of different projects, it’s critical to ensure that the work environment you’re building is one that’s safe and intentional. 

At Wethos, everyone we partner with receives and acknowledges a strict code of conduct. The document outlines our standards for expected behavior, behavior that will not be tolerated, and ways to report a code of conduct incident. Being respectful toward one another doesn’t mean we lower our standards by being “too nice”. Our team moves faster and innovates more because we’ve created an environment where it’s okay to fail quickly and push new ideas forward.

Whether you’re running a multi-person collective or collaborating one-on-one with supporting freelancers, leading with equity and inclusivity in mind will touch every aspect of your work. Even if it’s tough to step into the power you have as an employer, dismantling toxic work culture starts with weaving empathy into the very foundation of your business early — and often.

Claire Humphreys
Claire Humphreys

For the past 4 years Claire had run marketing, sales, CX and customer management at Wethos - and now oversees our full company operations. Previously from the ad world, Claire and Rachel met working together at Havas Worldwide (on Hershey consuming far too much chocolate), and spent a few years at 360i working on Toyota’s CSR initiatives. Fun fact: she bartended in the East Village while bootstrapping Wethos so they could pitch clients and investors during the day. So yes, she makes a mean gin & tonic (tough, right?). Claire moved from NYC out to Montauk NY last year and is now learning how to surf, grow her first garden, and raise a puppy named Pluto!