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Jess Keenan | 19 April 2022

Building empathy with your people

Tools to get you started

Empathy. It’s a word that has been thrown around a lot these last two years and potentially lost some of its impact. It remains for us at Humankind however an essential concept that encompasses the art of understanding and sharing the feelings of others. It is the heart and soul of employee centred design; the ability to understand the parts of your employee experience (EX) that aren’t working and share the sentiment ‘I hear you’. In a virtual world our ability to empathise is somewhat harder as we’ve all got a lot on our own plate, yet we’ve been forced to combat challenges like offering crucial parts of EX virtually such as onboarding.

How do you build empathy with your people in a virtual world?

We turn to our employee-centred design toolkit

Nothing will beat talking to your people directly, though we use two tools in the employee centred design tool kit as a starting point: assumptive personas and assumptive journey mapping.

We often find our clients come to us (especially in a virtual working world) with challenges such as ‘I need to understand what it feels like to work here now’ or ‘I don’t know how to prioritise what to work on within our EX’. They have the great intention of understanding their people, but don’t know where to start.

Assumptive personas help you see diverse needs in your people

Assumptive personas are archetypes of groups of people or a fictional representation of a group of peoples’ needs. That word ‘assumptive’ refers to the fact that these personas are not research based, they are based on what we have heard or built-up knowledge about collectively. These are a great tool to build empathy and think about the diverse needs that lie within your organisation’s people. They are also a starting point to think about who you may need to talk to build your understanding of your employee experience.


Assumptive journey maps visualise how people feel

Assumptive journey maps again are based on what we know or have heard about the EX (or particular parts of it) across your organisation. It is a visual representation of the key steps your people go through, what they might be doing, thinking, feeling as they go through these phases, and highlights their pain points and opportunity areas.

Both personas and journey maps are incredible at building empathy as they take you outside of yourself and into the shoes of your people. I’m going to expand on journey mapping and use an example of my virtual onboarding at Humankind to bring it to life.

Virtual onboarding journey mapping example

I joined Humankind virtually in the long Auckland lock down last spring. I still have not been to our Auckland office or Wellington office and have been building relationships and working with my team and clients completely from my home. I’m sure many of you have onboarded your people virtually, and it’s not an easy task to make it a great experience.

Let’s use virtual onboarding to demonstrate what an assumptive journey map might look like.


From this journey map we can see there are two phases where we might first focus attention to improve the EX – when the offer is accepted and getting set-up. We can also see other pain points we might address and gain points that are contributing to a positive experience that we don’t want to lose.

What to consider if doing it yourself

There are a few key things to think about when creating an employee journey map:

  • What are the key phases across the journey and is this a reflection of what the employee sees/interacts with or impacts them
  • Does each element added to the map affect all our people or do different personas/groups of people experience it differently?
  • What are your employees feeling at each phase? Capture the true emotion during that moment or phase
  • What are their pain points? What frustrates them/upsets them/blocks them?
  • What are the ‘moments that matter’ or the key parts of the journey that really impact the overall experience

It’s ok to have gaps or areas where you’re not sure what is going on, this is part of the nature of it being an assumptive map. You can fill these gaps, as well as validate the unknowns, through research with your people.

Nothing beats talking to your people, but these tools are a great starting point

Talking to your people and truly getting to the heart of what their experience is like will always be the best way to understand and feel what your people are feeling, though these tools are a great starting point. They give you a gauge on what parts of the experience may be bringing down the overall experience; and point to where you may need to explore further. We would encourage to begin with assumptive personas or journey maps and then proceed to validating these via discovery with your employees.

If you have any questions about using personas or journey mapping to empathise with your people and understand your EX further, give us a shout.

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