Creating a Continuous Listening Strategy

Don MacPherson, Partner – Employee Engagement, Aon Hewitt

Don MacPherson, Partner – Employee Engagement, Aon Hewitt

Executives around the world often say their employees are their most important asset. Yet, many use the annual employee survey as the main tool for understanding the employee experience. That’s a flawed strategy. To truly know what employees want and need, more frequent listening and conversation is a must.

To fill this need, the idea of “continuous listening” is gaining in popularity. This is where an organization gathers feedback more broadly across the employee lifecycle and at much more frequent intervals. After all, in any healthy relationship, conversation occurs more frequently than once a year. 

What Is “Continuous Listening”

Organizations with the most advanced “continuous listening” strategies gather a wealth of feedback at different points of employment. Often it starts by understanding the onboarding process during a new employee’s first days. It continues with frequently documented performance conversations. Annual engagement surveys are being replaced or augmented with quarterly or monthly pulse surveys. At the end of employment, exit surveys are conducted to understand why someone is leaving and their willingness to be recruited by the organization again in the future. Some organizations even choose to solicit feedback from candidates about the recruitment process whether or not the candidate gets a job offer. 

What’s Driving This Trend

Twenty years ago, organizations “listened” by administering paper surveys to all employees once a year. Those surveys were reserved for large companies with big budgets. Today, software provides the opportunity for employees at any organization to hear what they have to say by quickly and affordably administering a survey and getting responses in real-time.

"Organizations with the most advanced “continuous listening” strategies gather a wealth of feedback at different points of employment"

The technology advances are only partly driving this change. An entire generation of employees has entered the workplace with an expectation that their voice be heard and an impatience that renders an annual survey obsolete. When the movie that has just been seen, the shoes that were just delivered, and the driver who just dropped them off can be rated and evaluated instantly, so should their employer. Providing feedback about their company and their leadership is an expectation that will only grow in intensity as Baby Boomers are replaced by more Millennials and even younger workers. 

Volatility is another reason for this trend. Businesses need to quickly adapt and make changes to stay relevant. Executives and managers alike cannot wait for months to understand if their new strategy is accepted and being executed throughout the company. The agility to make adjustments based on employee feedback and contribution is necessary. 

Important Considerations

Before an organization rolls out their “continuous listening” strategy, content and action have to be considered. Many organizations fail to ask the right questions at the right time to the right employees. Not all survey items or questions are created equally so it is important that a lot of thought is put into creating the most appropriate content. At the same time, a “continuous listening” strategy will fail if all it is doing is “listening.” Without leaders following up on what has been said and creating a dialogue with employees once the message is received, employees will feel their voice is irrelevant and there is a risk that employees will become disenchanted. If someone asks how frequently employee feedback should be gathered, the answer ought to be “however frequently action can be taken on the feedback.” There is no benefit to listening to employees if nothing is going to be done with those messages. 

Data Integration

The organizations with the most advanced “continuous listening” strategies are not only getting frequent feedback across the entire employee lifecycle, they are also integrating the data to weave together a more comprehensive story of the organization’s health. Effectively onboarding new employees should lead to employee engagement, which should result in longer tenure. Effectively measuring and integrating these data sets enable this story to be told and visualized. Furthermore, the compilation of all this information makes predicting future employee behavior much more feasible. Data stored in silos can be valuable, but when integrated the value is exponentially higher. When considering gathering feedback at various points in the employee lifecycle, think about how all the data collected will fit together to tell a rich, comprehensive story. 

The Future of Employee Feedback

The way employees are heard now has evolved over the decades into a more real-time, always-on practice. Most organizations that have moved in this direction have put programs into place to safeguard that confidentiality is ensured and provide a comfortable environment so employees can be candid without repercussions.

The future looks very different. It will be more common to learn about the employee experience by exploring implicit data–the stuff gathered from social media, network analysis, video analysis, and wearable technologies. This is information that employees don’t necessarily volunteer, but can be used to understand employee needs, motivations, commitment, and performance. The organizations that get this right while ensuring confidentiality will be able to optimize the workplace for employees. The organizations that abuse this information will destroy trust and their employment brand. The advice here is to tread carefully. Just because the information is available, doesn’t mean it should be used. 

Starting Your “Continuous Listening” Strategy

Listening through wearables and network analysis may not be on your radar right now. In fact, you might just want to get your feet wet. Getting started is easy. Begin with a single solution–an on boarding survey or engagement survey, for example. Listen to what employees have to say about the organization and begin acting on the messages by making improvements and having clarification conversations with employees. As following up becomes easier, consider adding another solution to gather feedback or consider listening more frequently. By creating the muscle memory to listen and act, the ability of your leaders to hear more and more will evolve into the execution of your desired version of “continuous listening.” 

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