How Employee Listening Is Undergoing A Fundamental Transformation 

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, both employers and their people have faced enormous challenges, particularly when it comes to working effectively during lockdown. As we move forward to achieve some semblance of normality, we will undoubtedly be looking back to learn important lessons from the entire experience. What will they be for employee listening? Most importantly, will there be a lasting effect on how companies listen to employees in the future? From what I can see the impact will be positive – we will see an accelerating trend towards more regular, agile listening replacing what has gone before.

What this means is that the days of ‘Annual Survey Only’ listening strategies are numbered – they simply will not be part of the new normal.

Looking back

Apart from moving from paper forms to online surveys, there’s been virtually no change in employee listening strategies since they were first introduced at the end of WW2. HR teams handed out surveys every year as part of a list of things that had to be completed as a tick box exercise. Results were then analysed, conclusions were drawn, action plans were constructed and often…not much happened afterwards in practice. In fact, when I started in the industry over 20 years ago, it wasn’t unheard of for clients to tell me off-the-record that ‘survey results were just put away in a drawer’ straight after they had been delivered.

The current position

Research we carried out before the pandemic suggested that the annual employee survey remains the most widely used method of getting employee feedback. However, HR teams highlighted a growing desire to supplement it once a year survey with more regular listening. This has led some organisations to add to their annual exercise with frequent pulse surveys. But despite being welcomed by HR teams, the gradual transition towards more regular listening still raises concerns and push-back from senior leaders.

Now that we are coming out from country-wide lockdown, I’m hearing three key messages from HR directors about employee listening in the current environment:

  • It has never been more vital to listen to employees.
  • Organisations need to focus more on some key topics, such as health, financial stability, strategy communication, well-being, etc. Understanding the employee voice in these areas is central to ensuring that organisations are fit-for-purpose and can bounce back quickly into the new economy.
  • COVID-19 may actually help accelerate the adoption of employee listening: many HR chiefs have spent years stressing that the employee voice needs to be more valued and it’s finally taken the current crisis to hasten that understanding into the minds of board level directors.

Looking forward

In the future, it’s very likely that the vast majority of organisations will still run an annual survey. That’s because they continue to provide a deep, rich set of data on a wide range of issues and they allow enough time between waves to implement substantial changes. On the flip side, however, they are clearly not regular enough, which means important employee insights do not get picked up quickly enough for businesses to react. If the old saying was that a week is a long time in politics, it certainly is a long time in every industry now.

Pulse surveys

Alongside the annual survey, it’s likely that many more organisations will join those already running monthly or quarterly pulse surveys. The number of people surveyed will generally depend on the sector and the culture of the organisation. For example, some will listen to a sample of staff while others will run census surveys. The advantage of pulse surveys is that although they normally cover fewer topics, it presents frequent opportunities for employees to provide feedback, and can track levels of employee engagement as well as enabling organisations to get views on current ‘hot topics’.

Continuous listening

As well as the annual employee and regular pulse surveys, I also predict that more organisations will take advantage of the latest technology and move towards running continuous listening programmes.

Given the circumstances and need to quickly know exactly what is happening on the ground, some organisations may have been carrying out continuous listening manually during the crisis – by encouraging team leaders or managers to check in with individuals on their teams via weekly emails or calls. However, as we move towards the new normal, this can be overly-time consuming. As well as reducing the need for additional resources, switching to employee listening platforms makes the process much more powerful, giving teams the ability to ideate – so they can drill down into any challenges or issues and work on addressing them.

For example, at a team level ‘weekly vibes’ can create specific actions for team leaders and enable a programme of ideation which creates actionable insights that can be used to drive improvements. As individual team members are given an opportunity to provide feedback on the effectiveness of any actions that have been taken, weekly vibes can also close the feedback loop.

In conclusion

We may well see that companies will combine an annual census, plus pulse surveys, plus continuous listening. Using a bespoke listening platform can be relatively light touch, being efficient on resources and cost.

The pandemic has transformed the world of work, forcing organisations to make huge changes in the way employees have gone about doing their jobs. As a matter of urgency, it was much needed for employers to have a better picture of the employee experience during this difficult time and to show staff that they were listening.

The current disruption has also brought into sharp focus the understanding that, more than ever, a comprehensive, actionable programme of employee listening is now essential. That means more regular and continuous listening has changed from being a ‘nice to have’ to an essential requirement. Both employees and HR teams now expect continuous listening – reverting to just an annual exercise is not going to meet their needs or keep them motivated.

Author bio: Peter Wilde is Head of Employee Experience at Questback,and has a proven track record of managing and delivering high value insight solutions. To download his e-book on Focusing on the employee voice to thrive in the new normal, click here.

Photo credit: Mimi Thian on Unsplash

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