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An Employee Listening Strategy is Critical to High Performance – Now More Than Ever

A solid employee listening strategy is imperative to organizational performance both when times are good and in times of crisis. Prior to the events of 2020, the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) groundbreaking study, Culture Renovation: A Blueprint for Action found that 41% of high-performance organizations used frequent and short employee pulse surveys to gauge employee sentiment while only 28% of low-performance organizations utilized this approach. The study also found that while 27% of high-performance organizations leveraged always-on continuous feedback technology, this was true in only 7% of lower-performing organizations.

With the multiple crises of 2020 and the numerous and various impacts on employees across the globe, the importance of a listening strategy has become even more pronounced. In a soon-to-be-published study by i4cp on leadership behaviors, we found that the attribute of being highly attuned to the opinions and feelings of employees was among the most cited by nearly 700 survey respondents as much more important in 2020 than previously so.

Kate O’Brien, Director of People Analytics and HR Operations at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard noted in a recent discussion of learning and development leaders facilitated by i4cp that one key to ensuring that employees felt as if they were being heard was a shift in listening strategy which has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

O’Brien detailed their approach: using their monthly “Broad Pulse” survey, standard engagement questions continued to be asked as an anchor while they began to ask additional questions that are a bit more personal such as: How overwhelmed do you feel? How anxious do you feel? Are you a caregiver? Of children? If so, what ages are they? Do you feel financially insecure?

In another i4cp-hosted discussion of learning and development leaders, Akil Walton, VP of Global Talent Management at Tech Data, shared that a shift in their listening strategy has been key to engagement during the pandemic. In this call, Walton said that Tech Data has also increased the frequency of pulse surveys, covering topics such as remote work, return to the office questions, and more. The organization is particularly interested in determining whether people are staying connected and engaged, and whether they feel the organization is building trust.

Similarly, a heightened focus on communication was among the first changes Lincoln Financial Group made in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and the migration of its employees from workplaces to work-from-home (WFH) settings. Within a week of the move to WFH, the company sent out an all-employee survey on productivity, asking how people were adjusting. Another survey sampled employees’ opinions of the company’s pandemic response and its support of its workforce. Positive responses noted increased communication between employees and their leaders and revealed workers’ desires for continued enhanced communication and connection.

Why is this important now?

As we start to emerge from the challenges of the past year, it might be tempting to fall back into old habits—perhaps stepping away from listening more often and moving back to considering engagement of employees once per year if at all. However, if your organization wants to emerge successful and strong, this would be a mistake. The world has changed forever, and the expectations of employees have shifted as well.

While so many organizations were compelled to start listening more often as the world around us shifted, the approach to how to do this was often built on the fly and with little to no real planning.

As you consider creating a more comprehensive employee listening strategy, it may be helpful to work through the following questions to determine the right approach for you and your organization:

  • Goals - What are our listening program goals?
  • Methods - What methods will we use for communication, data-collection, and response?
  • Benefits - What’s in it for the organization to make these changes? What’s in it for employees?
  • Plan - What will our high-level implementation scenario look like?
  • Measures - How will we measure the effectiveness of our approach?
  • Resources - What resources do we have now? What will we need?
  • Readiness - How ready are we to implement? What are the barriers to changing our approach and how will we mitigate them?
  • Next steps - What are our next steps to get started?  

Despite the many tragic events of 2020, one positive outcome is that so many organizations have seen the importance of assessing employee sentiment and listening more frequently. With the impending option of transitioning from WFH to returning to a workplace for many in 2021, it may be tempting to believe that a deeper listening strategy is no longer a priority or perhaps the effort won’t be worth the gain.

We assert that rather than move away from always-on or other more frequent listening opportunities, it’s time to redouble these efforts so that the trust and connection created over the past year is not lost but rather used as a foundation on which to build.

Kari Naimon is a senior research analyst at i4cp.