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Why Employee Listening Matters So Much Right Now

May 28, 2021 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

We're at a pivotal moment at work. As economies shake off the effects of the pandemic and snap back to growth, employees are at a crossroads.

On one hand, their employers are looking for a return to a more normal style of working. On the other, employees continue to feel the lingering effects of the past year, including burnout and mental exhaustion. To boot, employee experience software Limeade’s Employee Care report revealed that 100% of formerly on-site employees surveyed said they are anxious about returning to the office.

To successfully navigate this next phase of work, some companies are implementing employee listening programs to gauge employee sentiment about the transition. But the benefits of an active listening program on employee experience has much farther reaching implications. Here are a few considerations for employers as they take on employee listening.

Listening Starts With Leadership Empathy

Employees today are anxious about many issues, including job security, the economy, and their own physical and mental health and that of those they love after months of social distancing and isolation. Business leaders need to lead with empathy and understanding, and be transparent in their communications with employees. 

Dr. Rob Fazio, a leadership psychologist, crisis consultant and managing partner of OnPoint Advising, said the approach businesses take towards leadership as people return to work will become part of their brand and affect the long-term contract between employees and employers. Companies should be proactive and anticipate anxiety by asking ahead of time what people are the most anxious about through an anonymous survey, he suggested.

“Companies need to genuinely want to listen or employee listening campaigns will backfire,” he said.

Equally important is taking action on what employees say, Fazio added. “Go a level deeper than surface level listening," he said. "Understand the different perspectives of employees."

Greater awareness of employee sentiment will help companies alleviate their anxieties when they return to the workplace. “You create an anonymous list of all the things that people are worried about and put together a team of people that can start to plan on how to work together to decrease some of the concerns,” Fazio said. “Flexibility is key. Some people are ready to go back to full speed work in an office today. Some won’t be ready for a while. Don’t let a fixed mindset get in the way of building goodwill and creating the climate your people need to perform.”

The last year has caused many employees to feel burnt out, exhausted and some have experienced COVID-19 directly or felt the impacts of social justice issues personally. “By implementing employee listening programs, HR teams can keep in touch with what is top of mind for employees to create a feedback loop and open communication,” said Mindy Honcoop, chief people officer at TCP, an employee scheduling software company. 

When HR teams actively listen, they can respond in real time to employees, reinforce a company's purpose and create a more aligned and engaged workorce, Honcoop said. When senior leaders lead with empathy, it’s because they want to understand what employees care about and how it ties to the purpose of the company. "Brands that lead with empathy also lead with trust — empathetic teams are trusted teams, and trusted teams are happy,” she said.

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

Employee Listening Helps Build Trust

Actively listening to employees and taking action based on what is being said builds the trust vital for better relationships between employees, managers and leaders. A lack of trust can lead to a strain on employee mental health and engagement, said Jess Keeney, senior vice president at UKG, an HR workforce management technology provider. 

“According to the Workforce Institute [a UKG think tank], 55% of employees cite a lack of trust in their managers as negatively affecting mental health. But it doesn’t stop there: 68% of employees report a lack of confidence as hurting the amount of daily effort put into a job,” said Keeney. 

Employee listening enables companies to better understand what employees are feeling, especially when used along with the appropriate technology. “Tech tools with natural language processing (NLP) capabilities that can detect frustration in workforce language can be leveraged to detect other aspects of burnout such as fatigue," Keeny said. "This includes both direct and indirect factors, such as manager feedback language and actual hours worked, like back-to-back schedules or excessive overtime.”

While sentiment-sensing technology and frequent surveys play important roles, much of employee listening is about interpersonal connections and relationship building. Now is an important time to re-establish workplace connections that existed before the isolation and separation of the pandemic.

"We encourage managers to have routine check-ins, one-on-ones and ongoing conversations with their direct reports and teams," Keeney said. "Much like with the surveys, this helps identify and address any employee concerns before they become greater issues. It also builds trust among employees, which serves as the foundation for successful, long-term relationships."

Related Article: Trust Me: You'll Want to Read This Article About Trust at Work

Employee Listening Is Not About Convincing Employees

Given rising COVID vaccination rates and loosening social distancing guidance, there is a tendency among business leaders to think that companies can now return to normal and that employees will be happy for things to go back to the way they were. That makes listening to employees right now particularly important.

"There is a tendency, even when managers listen well, to want to return to conditions as they were — and to convince employees to do the same," said David Bradford, Ph.D, Eugene O’Kelly II Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Leadership at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "But there is evidence that not all who have experienced working at home want to do it. One-third of the respondents said they preferred working at home. Another third said they wanted a hybrid model of a couple of days at the office and the rest at home.”

Bradford, who helped develop Stanford's interpersonal dynamics course and and recently co-authored the book "Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues," said companies must avoid falling into the trap of appearing to listen to employees, only to turn around and try to convince them to pick up where they left off last March. Flexibility is one of the keys when it comes to understanding the needs and desires of employees.

“It is not just a matter of ‘listening,’ but of being willing to consider other arrangements," he said. "That will require some changes for management and the key questions are: How flexible will they be? How willing to reconsider procedures? They don't have to do whatever the employee wants, but will this be joint problem-solving or the manager trying to convince?”

Employee listening is an ongoing initiative that allows both managers and employees to engage and learn about each other, which enhances the employee experience, increases loyalty and employee retention.

“Even though this reconceptualization can be felt as an added burden for managers, it can also be an opportunity to build increased satisfaction and performance,” Bradford said.

Related Article: The Real Engagement Challenge Is Just Beginning

How to Obtain Employee Feedback

Dr. Ted Sun, president and chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University, said employee listening is something that must be done on a systemic level within a company, and that it should not depend on individual managers. Many companies tend to rely upon pulse surveys to obtain feedback, but it’s also very important to have one-on-one conversations with employees.

“From the design perspective, the way employers approach this has to show authentic care. It cannot be some impersonal survey, which only gets data on the variables it sets out to measure. This should have some one-on-one discussions at the high-mid level management and some focus groups at lower levels. All questions asked should be open-ended questions that show care while exploring employee ideas that are actionable later.”

Another area where companies fail is when they simply listen to feedback, but do nothing with what they have heard. Employees need to see that they are being heard and that what they are saying is leading to actions in a public way. 

"The worst thing that employers have done is do nothing with the ideas they receive," Sun said. "To show integrity and also care, timely actions are needed and employers should measure action rate from the ideas to hold managers accountable. Taking action in a timely way is the feedback loop necessary to address some of the anxiety. It also gives employees emotional pay."

A successful employee listening initiative shows employees a company cares about their well-being and is actively working to improve their job satisfaction and alleviate their concerns. It should be a regular part of the brand’s performance management system. Employee listening has to be a regular, ongoing process.

“Showing authentic care should be part of the accountability structure that is rewarded," Sun said. "Managers should be held accountable to gathering information while employees are rewarded for sharing ideas. This is part of the inclusive leadership that all employers need to reflect in the current D&I movement along with ESG scores."

It's important to recognize that employees are facing issues that have not existed in many decades, if ever, and their needs must be addressed as companies re-establish working conditions and bring them back to the office. Employee listening initiatives enable companies to hear employees in a way that provides actionable insights that improve the employee experience while re-establishing and strengthening working relationships.

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