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A Year Since COVID: Our Top 5 Lessons For Employee Survey Pros

It can be too easy to move on from successes without learning anything. But by understanding how we overcame one challenge, we can learn more than any expert could ever tell us about how to meet and rise above future challenges. All growth experiences are investments of our time and talents, and the value of those efforts deserves to be carried forward, not forgotten.

As we learn to navigate new parts of our world in 2021 and beyond, its critical to highlight major successes from 2020, and become students of our progress.

When the normalcy of our day-to-day was unseated, we were forced to do away with the status quo and set out on new paths. By becoming critical consumers of “best practices” and experimenting with new ways of doing things, we often uncovered great new solutions. This not only taught us that there is another, better way to work, but also that we are capable of much more.

Let’s not let moss cover this new growth just yet. Let’s keep that momentum and capitalize on the lessons learned from COVID by doing away with outdated “rules” we broke to make it work. The top five broken “rules”-turned-lessons learned from 2020 for employee survey professionals and organizations were:

1. A majority remote/flexible workforce is not possible.

What seemed ill-advised (and essentially impossible) was accomplished over and over again in 2020. Employers sent 90% of their workforce home with no notice. Can you think of a bigger disruption to employees’ work lives? That kind of transformation (or even a fraction of it) would traditionally have needed 18 months or more of extreme change management. Employers eventually learned they needed to keep many employees remote indefinitely. On top of that, employers couldn’t afford to skip a beat. They needed to keep people connected and engaged, manage productivity during a pandemic, and see the future.

What made this possible?

  • Unified adoption and advocacy by senior leadership. Leaders agreed on the major moves needed to adapt to the new circumstances.
  • Visibility from senior leadership through clear messaging and transparent policy-setting that gave confidence to employees even in uncertain, evolving times. Nobody knew the future, but employees could understand how decisions were being made, and they felt cared for and considered in the process (not an afterthought).
  • Many organizations achieved new highs in cross-team communication, coordination, and collaboration to lift mammoth projects off the ground. After decades of silos and enduring challenges, teams achieved new levels of synergy and community as they united to help the organization through the pandemic.

2.Only listen to employees at ideal times.

Before the trials of 2020, many employers were highly selective of the “right time to survey.” Swerving timelines to avoid open enrollment, stalling to avoid holidays and vacations, speeding to provide new leadership with the latest data were all acceptable tactics before COVID-19.

One year later, we're all witnesses to how possible, and beneficial, it is to keep (and even enhance) listening during the worst time imaginable. We would have been much less effective during the pandemic if we had chosen not to listen. We learned from our employees and about our own skills and ability to take in, interpret, and share data with vigor. We proved there is no such thing as survey fatigue. As long as survey content is timely and relevant and employees have faith in the actions taken, people feel valued when organizations listen.

What made it possible?

  • One of the most prevalent drivers of engagement during 2020 was “I feel valued.” A large part of helping employees feel valued (beyond the obvious of equitable pay, benefits, and access to career development and advancement) is making them feel heard—demonstrating the organization cares enough about them to listen and incorporate their input into subsequent changes to the organization.
  • When employers launched countless wellness and well-being surveys, DE&I surveys, return-to-office surveys, remote working surveys, etc., they showed employees they wanted to hear from them because they cared.

Learn more about how to ask the right questions at the right times. Download our guide to continuous listening now.

3. You cannot just revamp/pivot the business if you have to.

We learned that employees, leaders, children, people can and will adapt in times of crisis. When the need for change was clear we all rose to the challenge.

One of the lessons learned in 2020 is that people will “hang in there” and adapt if they have these key things in place: a united experience, a community where they find support (information + empathy), and connections made by visible and communicative managers and senior leadership. This isn’t to say organizations draw from a bottomless tank of productivity and fortified culture. We also learned lessons in focused communication and education, showing gratitude and empathy, and the cost of burnout, imbalance, and unsustainable stress. If we accept these lessons and pave a more enduring path, we can achieve a more ambitious, agile, and healthy workforce.

What made it possible?

  • A focus on employee health (this started out as a health crisis, after all) and well-being. Working from home and living at work realizations led the way for more astute and intentional methods for providing work-life balance, things like flexible telecommuting and greater empathy for taking a moment to set up your third grader’s Zoom classroom session.
  • Organizations realized everything was off “autopilot.” Suddenly all options were on the table for how to continue working in new ways. (Picture most of the inspiring scenes from the 1995 Apollo 13 movie.) When we call upon our creative resources and ask people to come forward with us, we build community, resilience, and agility that, in this case, enabled a surge of unprecedented adaptiveness.

4. Innovation can’t just happen anywhere, any time.

Many organizations have been chasing the elusive spark of spontaneity. We built beautiful and inspiring common areas to entice employees to collaborate and, hopefully, create the next big idea. Creativity is good for business. It keeps products competitive and can drive continuous improvement. The ability to be creative and innovative is also rewarding and motivating to employees; it keeps them engaged and having fun at work.

But for many, 2020 forced common space spontaneity into the virtual worlds of Slack and Zoom. Some see this as an obstacle—how do we ensure creativity and collaboration when everyone is so far apart and distracted? Others see this as leveling the playing field—now everyone has an equal seat at the table. We can be more intentional about who is invited to contribute (now it’s less random who you run into in the hall); we can also find each other more easily. Instead of having writer’s block and hoping your collaborator is at their desk when you stop by, now everyone is more accessible—and they are probably sitting in a spot they have personalized beyond their office environment, providing more inspiration and creative thinking.

What made it possible?

  • When the status quo was disrupted, it not only allowed new thinking to come forward more fluidly, it also provided an impetus for action. People felt the clear need and call to action. Rarely is there such a unified approach to enterprise-wide initiatives. In this case, we benefit from seeing the surge of action and cohesive operations that can exist when we share a clear vision of the need and the objective.
  • In short, the turbulence of 2020 created space and focused motivation for innovation on a scale which we rarely see.

5. Inclusion and empathy are not imperative.

2020 was, in some ways, one big bonding away-camp. As a socio-historic event, this pandemic and peripheral activities have created a new cohort of professionals who have had to digest everything at once. We witnessed and survived new lows and climbed to new heights together, all the while taking in the heartbreak of health and social events around the world and peering into our coworkers’ homes. It was a momentous and intimate event the likes of which we haven’t had the opportunity to learn from before.

The year wasn’t easy on anyone, and we came through it together. Let’s not lose one of the most unique characteristics of working in 2020: the empathy, care, and genuine consideration we showed for one another.

What made it possible?

  • Technology and competing priorities made it possible to connect from almost anywhere, but the complications of home life meant many people were working from new environments at non-traditional hours. As a result, we saw laundry hampers on beds behind VPs on video calls, overheard childrens’ classwork during team meetings, and rescheduled calls on the fly when someone finally got that vaccine appointment. Work worked its way into our lives as never before, and lines became blurred. While it sometimes heightened stress and burnout, it also gave us glimpses of each other’s humanity and kindness. Let’s not leave that behind with the turning of the calendar.
  • We also learned empathy and inclusion are critical for attracting and retaining top talent. Managers who demonstrated empathy and championed inclusion have higher-performing teams and cultures more adept at overcoming challenges like those witnessed in 2020. We all got a crash course in applying these values. Now, there’s no excuse to not continue the momentum and sustain a more humane way of working with each other.

Lessons From Coronavirus: 5 New Rules To Live By

  1. We can be flexible at a moment’s notice. Nothing is impossible if we work together and commit.
  2. Employee voices are one of our richest resources. Listening to employees is a powerful strategy.
  3. We can pivot when we need to. Being uprooted is not always a bad thing, but it does call upon skill sets that are underused by most organizations.
  4. We can be creative as long as stay connected. There are significant benefits to virtual teaming that make collaboration and innovation both possible, and profitable.
  5. Treat others the way you want to be treated. When we treat each other well, we all contribute to delivering a great employee experience, acting as ambassadors of the workplace we’ve always wanted to see. (Picture a “Be the change you want to see in the world” bumper sticker!)

Follow the next five installments of this blog series about lessons learned from COVID-19 to read more about how organizations broke the rules and forged new paths.

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