Imperial College Business School’s Professor Sankalp Chaturvedi explains why it’s crucial leaders are trained in empathy and compassion in a world where, for certain industries, working from home is becoming the norm
Remote working and the role it could play in a technologically advanced world was already a hot topic when COVID forced society’s hand. But in April 2020, when the proportion of people in the UK reporting they worked exclusively at home suddenly jumped from 5.7 per cent to 43.1 per cent, a much-discussed possibility became a reality for large swathes of the population.
While these numbers have decreased since restrictions were lifted in 2021, for many, their working lives have changed dramatically – possibly for good.
Sankalp Chaturvedi has been with Imperial College Business School since 2008 and was made Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership in 2021. Having started his higher education in engineering, he discovered a passion for psychology, social psychology, and the behaviour of individuals within companies.
As a specialist in leadership, mindfulness and collaboration mechanisms in teams, Professor Chaturvedi believes business leaders will need to do a lot of work to ensure the switch to hybrid working is a success.
“When people are not able to connect physically, it's going to have an impact on how they are being treated. If the hybrid model is going to become mainstream, which looks likely, leaders need to do the hard work of learning to virtually empathise with their people and invest far more mental energy in influencing their team members,” he says.
Otherwise, he warns, staff are likely to suffer more stress and consequently, mental health issues will soar. When we aren’t frequently in the presence of colleagues and managers, these problems could go unnoticed and become more damaging to people and companies, as well as society at large, he says.
“The future is going to be more of a rollercoaster ride as we learn from trial and error.”
Managers need to consider the dynamics of leading and collaborating virtually. If there are people struggling with their mental health, managers usually will be among the first ones to learn, and they need to respond compassionately, according to Professor Chaturvedi. Compassion will go some way towards solving this miscommunication, mistrust and lack of engagement. This will develop over time, he believes, adding that this will also have an overall positive impact on a company’s culture.
“Unlike in the past, when traditional businesses treated employees as an asset or a commodity, it is now widely accepted that staff should be treated well – not only because they are human beings, but also because this will encourage them to stay at a company longer, be more committed and go above and beyond what is required of them.
“Many people have become more aware of their surroundings, more options, more competition, so they're comparing not only what they will get as a salary, but also the fringe benefits and company culture.”
Interdisciplinarity and research impact
His interest in how leadership in a new working environment is affecting workers is indicative of what Professor Chaturvedi describes as his “keen sense of purpose in what I do and what I believe in”. As Director of the School’s Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation, as well as in his own research, he says his work is driven by interdisciplinarity and impact.
“Academics are good at digging deeper into their own fields, but transformative ideas for social impact are going to come from the point where two different disciplines come together.”
A research project with academics in the health space, looking into how world leaders communicated during the pandemic and how their style of communication may have affected compliance with COVID restrictions, is one example of Professor Chaturvedi’s interdisciplinary approach to academia.
“The pandemic was terrible and we have seen a similar situation dealt with differently by political leaders. This is an excellent example of how leaders can impact our lives, and we’re interested in what it means for compliance with COVID regulations, as well as the number of infections and deaths.”
As Director of the Gandhi Centre, he has worked on initiatives focusing on research, collaboration and engagement that help create positive societal change in emerging economies where resources are not so readily available, such as the Ideas to Impact Challenge. This initiative, which aims to generate ideas that could “transform a million lives”, also helps social impact startups to survive the difficult early years in business when many startups fail.
He believes Imperial, with its focus on societal impact, offers the right environment for this kind of work.
“In academia, we see a lot of research that is good for academics, but Imperial and the Business School have a vision of doing impactful research that changes society for the better.”