The pandemic and the period of lockdown has been a challenging time for employers and their employees. And, like in any crisis, as we come out the other side, we will undoubtedly be able to look back and take away important lessons from the experience. So, what will we learn about employee listening? And what will be the lasting effect on how companies listen to employees in the future? To me it’s clear that we’re going to see an accelerating trend towards more regular, agile listening replacing what has gone before.

More specifically we’re going to see that ‘Annual Survey Only’ listening strategies will not be part of the new normal.

The Past

With the exception of moving from paper forms to online surveys, employee listening has until now remained virtually unchanged since the end of the second world war. Surveys were handed out once a year and were seen very much as a ‘process’ to be carried out as part of a tickbox list of things that had to be done each year. Conclusions were drawn, action plans were constructed and often…very little was actually done. 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’ right after they had been delivered.

Where we are now

Pre-COVID research from Questback has suggested that the annual employee survey has remained the most widely used method of getting employee feedback, but that there has been a growing desire by HR heads to supplement that once a year survey with more regular listening.

So, in recent years, some organisations have been supplementing their annual exercise with regular pulse surveys. But this gradual transition towards more regular listening, although welcomed by many HR professionals, has continued to raise concerns and pushback from senior leaders, which I recently wrote about here.

As we emerge through the lockdown period, I’m hearing three key messages from HR directors about employee listening in the current environment:

  • There has never been a more important time to listen to employees.
  • There needs to be an increased focus on some topics; health, financial stability, strategy communication, well-being, etc. to ensure that organisations are fit for purpose and can bounce back quickly into the new economy.
  • COVID-19 may actually help employee listening adoption: many HR chiefs have spent years stressing that the employee voice needs to be more valued and it’s taken this crisis to accelerate that understanding into the minds of board level executives.

The future

Looking ahead it’s very likely that the vast majority of organisations will still be running an annual survey in the future.

These 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. It used to be said that a week is a long time in politics, but now it’s a long time for everyone.

Pulse surveys

In addition to the annual survey, it’s likely that many more organisations will join those already running pulse surveys, on a monthly or quarterly basis for example.

Depending on the sector and the culture of the organisation, some will survey a sample of staff and some will run census surveys. Pulse surveys tend to cover fewer topics but provide more frequent opportunities for people to provide feedback, track levels of employee engagement as well as enabling organisations to get views on current ‘hot topics’.

Continuous listening

On top of an annual employee census and regular pulse surveys, I also expect more organisations to take advantage of the latest technology and run continuous listening programmes.

It’s likely that some organisations may have been doing 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, employee listening platforms make the process much more powerful, giving teams the ability to ideate – in other words drill down into any challenges or issues and work on addressing them.

For example ‘weekly vibes’ at a team level can create local actions for team leaders and enable a programme of ideation which creates actionable insights that can be used to drive improvements. Because 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.

So, in future we may well see that companies will combine an annual census plus pulse surveys plus continuous listening. Using a bespoke listening platform can mean that incorporating these additional elements can be relatively light touch, use less resources and be low cost.

COVID-19 has forced those companies who have been able to stay operational during the lockdown to make huge changes in the way employees have gone about doing their jobs. Organisations have needed to have a better picture of the employee experience during this difficult time and show staff they are listening.

The huge disruption created by the pandemic has also brought into sharp focus the understanding that, more than ever, it is now essential that companies have a comprehensive, actionable programme of employee listening. More regular and continuous listening has moved from being a ‘nice to have’ to an essential requirement. An expectation has been created among staff and HR leaders – and they aren’t going to want to go back to just an annual exercise.



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