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New Year. New Thinking.

You can’t walk past a newsstand this time of year without seeing the covers: “New Year, New You!” or “Start 2021 Fresh!” This is the time of year that inspires many of us to reflect on the year past, turn the page, and embrace a new beginning. The logic is certainly there. New year, new thinking, new actions.

If adopting a fresh approach works for us as individuals, it can certainly work for our organizations. A look back at 2020 is a reminder that the world of work we thought we understood can change rapidly and without warning. What worked in the past often no longer made sense in the remote-working, socially-distanced, and essential-worker arena in which we suddenly found our organizations. All of us in the HR function needed to change our thinking so we could create solutions to challenges that we never anticipated and perhaps we never even considered.

Seismic shifts in the understanding of our world take place from time to time; sometimes they are specific to our organization (think M&A, massive restructuring, or significant business downturn or upturn), and sometimes they apply to business in general (like the financial crisis and recession). Though they can be jarring, these shifts often turn out to be largely good for us. They make us shake away the cobwebs and force us to come up with new understanding, fresh insights, and innovative ways of working. Change is a wakeup call for all of us to question what we know, and ask if maybe, just maybe, we might be missing something. I think perhaps, we should ask if this may be the case with continuous listening.

Prior to the pandemic, the focus of most continuous listening programs was employee engagement: measuring it, tracking it, and linking it to business performance metrics. Employee engagement is critical to business success, as decades of research have demonstrated. But as organizations navigated the pandemic, the focus of listening shifted to how to support the productivity and well-being of employees. Companies collected insights into remote work, and opinions about the return to the workplace, and diversity, equity and inclusion, to name only a few. The data collected and the analytics completed informed senior leaders and drove quick actions, including innovative programs, new resources, and shifts in the ways in which many of us not only worked, but thought about the work we did. While some of these surveys included metrics of engagement, the surveys themselves were not focused on engagement. They were focused on productivity, and employee and organization success. Many of us witnessed increases in survey participation even as the number of surveys sent to employees ramped up. Clearly “survey fatigue” wasn’t an issue when employees witnessed leaders listening and, most importantly, acting upon what they heard.

If employee engagement made sense in the past, what makes sense in 2021? Join us for an enlightening discussion that may alter your own new year’s resolutions. Learn more, here.

All of which should make us wonder…what have we been missing?

To be sure, most of the surveys that were conducted pre-pandemic focused on engagement plus elements of the employee experience that are the most common barriers to engagement. While this practice provided some insight into productivity, it certainly didn’t cover all aspects of the employee experience. And if I’m honest, some survey content didn’t provide managers and leaders much to work with when it came to planning and implementing actions. That’s where pandemic-era surveys differed: the topics were timely, the survey content was actionable, and the results drove swift and visible change in organizations.

The notion of employee experience has emerged as both an influence on engagement and an end in itself. Companies speak of employee experience as an attractor of talent and as a differentiator in the marketplace. While this makes sense, maybe we need to think of the employee experience as being more than that. Employee experience is a rich construct that can have many facets. There is the employee experience that results from onboarding; research suggests that challenging early assignments that make a meaningful contribution to the business are highly engaging, and also drive retention and productivity. Employee experiences that include active collaboration, or the opportunity to participate in decision making, or the chance to openly debate ideas, can drive innovation and change. Many surveys include a small number of questions on these topics, but does a small number of questions go deep enough?

My point is this: Why should the focus of so many of our surveys be engagement? Engagement is important to companies, but so are productivity and innovation and efficiency and safety and quality and customer service and dozens of other topics. Instead of focusing on drivers of engagement, maybe we should focus on understanding the elements of the employee experience that drive these other outcomes which are critical to our companies’ success. The latter focus would certainly appeal to our senior leaders who are looking for insights to help them solve organizational problems. Take, for example, how we may recraft an onboarding experience survey:


The 2020 Way: Measures Engagement, But Less Actionable

The 2021 Way: Drives Business Outcomes and Highly Actionable

I am proud to work here.

I met with my manager on my first day to discuss how my role supports company goals.

I would recommend my organization as a great place to work.

My first work assignments made a meaningful contribution to the business.

My work gives me a sense of personal accomplishment.

I am satisfied with the training I received to perform my role.

I intend to stay at this organization for at least the next 12 months.

My team openly debates ideas to arrive at the best solutions.

An adjusted focus would mean expanding how we think about employee experience. We would have to work with leaders to determine which problems or concerns that are most important to them. We would need new survey content that is both relevant to the new issue and highly actionable. Additionally, our analytics would need to understand elements of the employee experience across many moments that matter in the course of the employee lifecycle, and link those moments to measures of business performance. We would also need to reshape the thinking of senior leaders and others in the HR function. We would have to redesign processes and tools, and reeducate both employees and managers.

It’s a big change, to be sure. But hey, we’ve successfully managed big changes before. We lived through a pandemic, right?

The beginning of 2021 is the perfect time to apply some fresh thinking to what we measure and action in organization surveys. Let's continue this conversation on strategizing for the new year.

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