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From Measurement to Problem Solving: The Role of Continuous Listening

From Measurement to Problem Solving: The Role of Continuous Listening

The workplace disruptions of the past two-plus years have reinforced the need for organizations to put their people strategy first. As a result, the practice of employee listening has evolved, allowing leaders to blend feedback from both active and passive sources, and uncover clear ties to how employee experience impacts performance. Organizations are now expanding their annual or bi-annual engagement survey to adopt a broader program of targeted, continuous listening including lifecycle surveys, pulse or ad-hoc surveys, and crowdsourcing.

In a recent webinar, Perceptyx VP for Enterprise Surveys and Analytics Sarah Johnson, and Forrester Principal Analyst for Employee Experience David Brodeur-Johnson explored the growing possibilities and promise of multi-channel listening. Topics discussed included: 

  • Why employee listening strategies must evolve to become more frequent and specific, making the transition from simple measurement to problem-solving
  • The value of a single platform for powerful cross-survey analytics and insights, and
  • The outcomes that are possible when HR leaders use data to remove barriers to success and can correlate people strategy with the business strategy.

Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Expanding our Understanding of Employee Listening

David Brodeur-Johnson: “The whole idea behind my [recent research on continuous listening] was to expand people's understanding of the options available to them to do listening. So many folks are focused on surveys, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. That's a great basis for a listening strategy. You have to have well-designed, well-crafted surveys, and so we talk about that. But really, it's about having a conversation with people. It's about putting out questions and listening to answers. It's not just filling in a Likert scale. It is listening to commentary, understanding sentiments, reading the comments, just to get a better understanding. And that's an ongoing thing. There are a lot more options now available in terms of channels for listening, both prompted and unprompted. So, we just want to expand people's horizons a little bit and give them an understanding of what's out there and how different things can be used in different ways to augment surveys.”

Sarah Johnson: “There is no end to the need that organizations have to understand what's going on in their organization. You can't pick up a newspaper these days without seeing some sort of clever headline about the new normal or the great resignation or quiet quitters. And you can understand how a senior leader and executive within an organization would read something like this and make the assumption that these things are happening within their organization. And that may not be the case, right, David? There's a lot of variability around organizations and industries in terms of what's happening and how people are interacting within that organization.”

The Problem with ‘Quiet Quitting’

David Brodeur-Johnson: “This term, quiet quitting has been a little bit bothersome to me, honestly. It's as if it's something new. What we used to call it was burnout or people feeling disengaged, but also it's been conflated with other things such as trying to just set good boundaries. One of the ways I've seen quiet quitting defined in the news media is not working after hours. Well, that's not quiet quitting. That's setting good boundaries that'll help keep you engaged for a long period of time. You have to understand what we're really talking about here. It really is disengagement or some of the symptoms of burnout. We used to celebrate something we call workaholism. But what psychologists understand now is that workaholism is anxiety-driven, which is not the same thing as doing incredible work. People are much, much more effective when they're not driven by anxiety, but instead motivated by the work itself, the enjoyment of it. And that's a completely different arena.”

Why You Need to Listen

David Brodeur-Johnson: “I've had a lot of conversations with executives, as you can imagine over the years in HR and other groups. I've heard the statement a number of times, ‘Oh, I don't need a survey,’ or ‘I don't need to listen. I already know what's going on and what people need.’ It's true that you may have some understanding of it. What you don't have are the nuance and the details. If you did, people wouldn't be leaving and there'd be a much better culture and a much better environment. It's about listening to truly understand. It's about codifying empathy frankly, and making empathy just part of how you operate. And that's different.”

Sarah Johnson: “It is absolutely different because we want to make sure that we truly understand the challenges within the organization and develop the right plans or actions to address them. But we also want to make sure that our employees feel heard within the work environment. Feeling heard is more than just being asked for your opinion on something. Feeling heard is feeling as though I've had the opportunity to provide some suggestions that the organization took seriously enough to implement. It's this opportunity to co-create solutions that make you feel that you've been heard.”

It’s All About Feedback

David Brodeur-Johnson: “Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines said that if we demonstrate once to an employee that we don't care about their ideas or what they have to say, we know that we're never going to get another good idea from that person again. And we need those ideas. We need those inputs to help us calibrate, and help us run our business more effectively. So, for Southwest Airlines, it was all about feedback.”

Sarah Johnson: “It's all about feedback. But when we talk about employee listening or continuous listening, how do we define it? Most of us will think of employee listening as a structured process. So, we schedule certain surveys to happen at periodic times within the organization. It's a very formalized process. There are steps to the process. It's methodologically sound, and it is purposeful. We're going out, we're collecting the data and we're getting that input. Now, that's all true. But at the same time, listening can also be something that's spontaneous.

It could be seen as an in-person forum with a senior leader. It could be something that's very spontaneous. A lot of the companies that we worked with at Perceptyx, within a couple of weeks of the onset of the pandemic, many companies quickly wanted to launch a survey about the remote work experience. What do you need for us to help make you successful? What questions do you have? This very spontaneous in reaction to a specific event. But also, something that's less formal. It's a conversation, as David said. It may be a focus group, it may be a digital focus group, but more and more companies are engaging with passive listening.

This is not just asking you for your opinion, but also collecting other data behind the scenes, whether it's calendars, your Slack, and evaluating the tone of your messages to link all of those pieces together to get a better understanding of what employees are saying, either to your face or perhaps saying a little bit outside of the hearing of the senior leaders of the organization. This space has exploded. There are so many more ways to listen.”

The Use and Misuse of Surveys

David Brodeur-Johnson: “Surveys can tell you a lot, but one of the ways that people misuse surveys is relying on just what people say they need rather than also doing the analysis to derive what they need from other means. As humans, we're not always good historians. We're not always fully aware of our needs. It's important to do both kinds of analysis on survey data. But going beyond that, imagine being able to combine what you learn in survey data with other things. Let's say you learn through your surveys that people are feeling burned out in a particular group. Some of their comments that you're hearing through the listing channels are that we're oversubscribed, we've got more demands on our plate than we can meet.

You can combine that with another channel like their calendars or their email and realize, wow, they're getting 300 emails a day, and half of those are important that they're responding to. They're also in seven or eight hours' worth of meetings every day. There's probably some legitimacy to their concerns. Before people get burned out and leave, it's a really good time to intervene. You can use the data from these different channels to do that. 

You could keep reasonable limits on people. Help them keep reasonable boundaries and give them a chance to protect some space for what we call deep work, especially in knowledge work. We need periods of time when we have open blocks that are not subscribed with emails or with meetings to get things done. Being able to spot who doesn't have enough of that and help them set better boundaries is also part of what you can do with this. analysis.”

The Adoption of Passive Listening

David Brodeur-Johnson: “The adoption of passive listening is increasing and the kinds of platforms and technologies that are out there for it. Some of them have come from the security and risk space, where they were using it for compliance and for other types of purposes. And realizing that, wow, we could actually do some listening that could be useful through some of those tools. But the adoption is still not that high overall. It's still fairly nascent because people are still learning how to make sense of that data and the analytics capabilities. Those technologies are still evolving. I wouldn't say it's as highly adopted as we might like, but it's growing quickly.”

Who Will See Data?

David Brodeur-Johnson: “In the early stages of the pandemic, I had a lot of inquiry calls from clients who were trying to use tools to check on people's productivity. They were trying to discover who is working a full day and so on. And they learned some lessons from that. One of them was that it started backfiring. As a result, they learned that transparency is what maintains trust. When you do any kind of listening, people need to understand who is going to see the data. They need to understand what kind of information is going to be available and can be seen, and what kind of analysis is going to be done. And when they perceive the intention of the overall program, they can see that through what you're actually collecting and how you're using it to help them. They are going to be much more receptive to it and that will maintain trust. Because if you break that trust, that’s it. Trust is lost in buckets and regained in drops. This is really important if you're thinking about doing listening through passive means. You need to be very transparent about what you're collecting and how you're going to use it and stay true to that.

There are implications for who can see that data, the confidential data. I've seen situations in which a given executive had access to data that implicated them as being part of the problem. And then there's the tendency to retaliate, and that can cause other kinds of issues. The governance model around this needs to be well thought through. I agree that confidentiality is the way to link these things together with some kind of identifier. It's not just carte blanche in a way that allows every executive to see everything across the board, which is a mistake that I see commonly made.”

Digging Deeper into the Data

David Brodeur-Johnson: “I don't always like maturity models. But an organization that is really mature in its EX practice is routinely infusing these kinds of insights from listening into key decisions at the executive level. They're using this data to understand what's really going on. When I say codify empathy, what I mean is you're asking questions to understand. You're asking effectively what's really going on here. Let's say, for example, you're doing customer experience surveys and you see a dip in customer experience or customer satisfaction in a few of your stores. Let's say you're a retail firm or maybe a pharmacy.

The common next step for people is to assume that there must be something wrong with the people in that branch or in that location, or something wrong with a manager. You can't assume that. You have to look at things like that and say, what's really going on here? And look at it with genuine curiosity. I think that's a step that companies miss. They don't have the full picture, and they're not looking at it in that way to ask questions to better understand what’s really happening.”

Continuous Conversations at Scale

Sarah Johnson: Perceptyx developed a model that looks at four stages of employee listening. The first would be what was called episodic listening. These are organizations that maybe have a regularly scheduled census survey, whether that's once a year or twice a year. Stage two takes that episodic listening and adds to it by creating more opportunities for topical listening. We need to understand, say, DEIB in greater detail. We need to do a survey that helps us understand the return to office strategy. Strategic listening builds on those other two stages, but also thinks about what the organization needs to understand about its people to help them succeed. And how are they using analytics to pull those insights out, to connect the dots between not just the listening data, but also maybe passive data as well?

Finally, there’s continuous conversations at scale. The most mature model is an ongoing conversation with employees utilizing many, many different elements, many different methodologies, small scale, large scale, and a heavy reliance on analytics. Every organization, whether they are at stage one or stage four, needs to have clear program goals, and they need to get executive support for the process to get the ear of leadership within the organization. But if you're moving into stage two, you also need to define what is important to the organization and how do we make the connection of these issues to the overall business strategy. In stage two, you're also listening in multiple ways. As you move into stage three, all of those are additive. Plus, you’re investing in advanced analytics to understand the connection points. At stage four, it's again, all of the above as well as acting in multiple directions throughout the organization on large-scale and small-scale issues.”

Perceptyx Can Help You Create a Culture of Continuous Conversation 

As we continue to navigate the evolving world of work, Perceptyx can help you capture and activate the feedback, expertise, and data needed to understand the impact on your employee experience. To listen to the entire webinar, click here. To read our detailed 3-part guide to continuous conversations in its entirety — including all of the valuable case studies and reference material — click here to download a copy. To learn how Perceptyx can partner with your organization to create a culture of continuous conversation, schedule a meeting with a member of our team.

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