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COO Blog // The Importance of Empathy in Business Support Services

In the complex ecosystem of UK schools, business support services such as finance, IT, HR and estates, are critical to help ensure the smooth operation, efficient resource management, and overall organisational success of what we’re all here to do – providing the best education possible for young students. While technical skills and expertise are undoubtedly essential in these services, one often overlooked yet crucial element is empathy. Since joining the Girls’ Learning Trust in September 2022, I’ve been struck by the important role it plays on a daily basis, and so I wanted to take some time to reflect on it in this latest blog.

Firstly, it’s obviously imperative to understand what I mean when I say empathy. At its core, it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It goes beyond sympathy and involves stepping into someone else's shoes, seeing the world from their perspective, and responding with compassion. In the context of business support services in schools, empathy enables professionals to establish meaningful connections with staff members and students, creating an environment of trust and understanding.

Finance: Balancing Numbers with Empathy

Finance professionals within schools most often deal with budgets, financial planning, and resource allocation. While numbers are at the core of our responsibilities, empathy allows us to go beyond spreadsheets and connect with the human aspect of our work. By understanding the needs and priorities of various departments, we are able to allocate resources and solve problems in a way that best serves the school community. Empathy also plays a role in supporting families facing financial challenges, helping us to provide guidance, and explore solutions that ensure access to educational opportunities for all students.

IT: Empowering Technological Integration with Empathy

In the digital age, support staff working in IT are vital in ensuring the smooth functioning of technological systems within schools. In this context, empathy helps us understand the technological needs and challenges faced by staff and students alike. By actively listening to their concerns, we can provide user-friendly solutions, comprehensive training, and timely support. This approach fosters a positive relationship between users and technology, encourages innovation, and empowers the school community to leverage technology for enhanced teaching and learning. We have moved beyond the notion that IT in schools simply refers to the computer on the desk – and if we are to get the most pedagogical ‘bang for our buck’, this inevitably requires a meaningful and deep collaboration between teachers and digital professionals.

HR: Nurturing People-Centric Support

Human resources leaders in schools (and within Trusts more generally) are responsible for managing complex staffing matters, fostering a positive work environment, and supporting the wellbeing of staff members. Empathy is at the heart of this work, allowing us to understand and address the diverse needs, concerns, and aspirations of the school workforce. By cultivating a culture of empathy, we are able to create an environment where staff feel valued and supported. This, in turn, enhances job satisfaction, retention, and overall success for students. The single biggest determinant of the success of any school is its staff – and as multi academy trusts up and down the country depart from the highly regulated structures that went alongside local authority control, it is imperative that we develop our HR support to meet the changing needs of schools and school leaders.

Estates: Creating Spaces with Empathy

Reflecting on periods over the past three years where schools were virtual or a combination of in person and online, the power that a high-quality school site can have to drive culture and ultimately results is more evident than ever. Estates professionals are responsible for maintaining and developing the physical infrastructure of schools, ensuring a safe and conducive learning environment for students and staff. Empathy enables us to consider the needs and experiences of the school community when making decisions about facilities, maintenance, and capital projects. By actively engaging with stakeholders, we can create spaces that reflect the values and aspirations of the school community, promoting wellbeing and enhancing the overall educational experience.

Enhancing Communication, Collaboration and Culture

Lastly, empathy within business support services plays a pivotal role in fostering effective collaboration between departments, staff members, and students. When we approach our work empathy, we demonstrate a genuine interest in understanding the perspectives and needs of others. This approach encourages open dialogue, active listening, and the exchange of ideas. It serves as a catalyst for promoting a culture that is open about ‘who is responsible for what’, and how we are able to best deliver this. Genuine partnership between businesses support professionals and those working at the coal face in the classroom is exactly that: a partnership.

In dynamic environments, where the resources are always stretched, and where people are passionate about the work they do (and the impact it has), it is easy to forget the challenges that others face. ‘Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes’ is a noble idiom, but it implies that you must have the same shoe size to do this. The power of empathy is that it requires us to communicate to genuinely understand the issue from a different perspective. And for those of us leading business support services – particularly in multi academy trusts where they are centralised to some degree – I can think of no other more important value.

Dr Thomas Flynn

Chief Operating Officer

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