Listening Through a Crisis: Employee Experience When it Matters Most

Our clients have continued to prioritise employee experience (EX) through the coronavirus crisis.

They have run surveys on key topics like working from home, communications, and well-being. They have explored issues like resilience and agility.

In terms of how the surveys are being used:

  • Results have been analysed at a business level, so leaders can immediately address concerns and identify hot-spots
  • Managers have received team reports, so they can act locally
  • Employees themselves can be nudged towards specific resources and tools, for example, to support their well-being or to access benefits

So what are some of the learnings from this period?

Change leadership

An immediate focus for many companies was ensuring new work arrangements were effective.

Nomad Foods, for example, quickly deployed a pulse survey focused on well-being and productivity:

“The objectives of the survey were to gather insights from employees who are working from home, understand what we could do differently and gather ideas on how ways of working may change as we move out of lock down.

The results were really encouraging. Most people believed that working from home was going well and felt extremely well supported. In fact, we saw a desire for ongoing flexibility in the future. As a result, we’re now accelerating our smart working initiatives.

The survey helped us identify some groups who were under more pressure, which included those managing issues like childcare (including home schooling) and supporting elderly relatives.“

Tim Kensey, HR Director at Nomad Foods

From a change leadership perspective, organisations viewed the crisis in terms of three phases:

  1. Managing through the initial challenges
  2. Restoring stability
  3. Rebounding strongly

Surveys have provided a way to listen to and involve employees in each phase. This has been the case at Virgin Money:

“In Virgin Money we ran a pulse survey in April to assess our agility in creating new ways of working and serving our customers, and we also looked at how we can best support and connect with colleagues.

We achieved our highest ever response rate for a pulse survey, and colleagues told me the content of the survey was superb.

Our Executive Leadership Team and Board found the feedback really helpful.

We’re will also integrate some of the questions from the COVID-19 Leading and Accelerating Back surveys into our all-colleague survey in June.”

Edwina Emery, Employee Engagement Manager at Virgin Money

Analytics and narrative insight

Looking across the survey data that’s been published, it’s clear that employees had a generally favourable impression of their company’s efforts in the early stages of the response. There’s a kind of “grade inflation” effect that you need to consider when analysing results.

It’s also important to examine the drivers of stress and anxiety. Over 90% of employees express some level of anxiety from the coronavirus, with 55% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety. Key driver analysis shows where you can focus to have the most positive impact.

Comments analysis provides a narrative insight into key concerns. One organisation that has done a good job of using text analytics is the train operator LNER:

“We analysed our survey results to understand how well people are dealing with this crisis. We found that employee engagement at LNER is not just holding up, but it is improving. In fact, we have seen engagement improve over the course of several years. We’re far more resilient as an organisation.

The results told us that communications are working, people believe our health and well-being programmes are effective. We can also see that many front-line managers are doing a great job of staying in touch with their teams.

We analysed the comments feedback to understand where there were concerns and opportunities. We could see if we had any hot-spots. This showed which things contributed to people’s anxiety about the coronavirus. These insights were especially for staff who are in customer facing roles.”

Jennie Pitt, Inclusion and Engagement Manager at LNER

Agility matters

A key feature of the crisis has been the speed at which events have unfolded.

What’s critical from an EX point of view, is being able to survey people on an agile basis, in the moments that really matter to them.

Agility and responsiveness was critical at ARM, for example:

“We have started to implement a continuous listening strategy at Arm and we were able to quickly measure how well people were managing changing working arrangements.

The response to our pulse survey was overwhelmingly positive. People really appreciated being asked for their opinions.

We also asked people for tips and suggestions, in terms of what was working well. People came back saying that all those tips should be made public as a way of sharing creative ideas and best practice. This kind of in-the-moment feedback and knowledge sharing is really critical.“

Hayley Whitwood, Director, Organisational Effectiveness at Arm

There was a similar focus at Avon:

“We were able to run a short survey in ten languages in a matter of days, with great support and guidance when we had queries.

We got instant feedback from more than 2,000 associates across the globe.

This kind of agile insight is critical for understanding the experience of our associates during this critical time.“

Anne-Elisabeth Jehl, Learning & Talent Manager at Avon

Accelerating back

In the third phase of the crisis leaders are focusing on how to rebound strongly.

This includes planning for how to operate as conditions improve, and how to manage through ongoing uncertainty. There’s a focus on effective risk management. Leaders also want to learn from what’s worked well during the earlier stages of the crisis.

Key topics include:

  • How do you reconnect with people who have been working from home and who may want to continue working from home in some fashion?
  • How do you “re-board” people who have been furloughed?
  • What’s the best way to support key workers who have remained on site?

Many companies have been measuring levels of anxiety and stress through all the stages of the crisis and will to continue to track this.

Leaders also want to make sure that the organisation does not simply default back to the way things were before the crisis. Instead, they want to learn from the prior months about the experiences that have led the organisation to be agile and effective.

Leaders also want to ensure that people are not just drifting back into established work habits, but are coming in with a growth mindset. This is critical, given the need to rebound quickly.

Tags: #COVID #EmployeeExperience #EmployeeSurveys

This article was first published in June 2020.

Simpler, faster, better

When it comes to employee experience, engagement and continuous listening, I am currently working with several large companies where we are helping them:

  1. Save money at this critical time (e.g. halving what they have previously spent on traditional engagement surveys with other providers)
  2. Become agile (e.g. collecting insights in the moment, flexibly, from key groups and then driving change via sprint sessions with managers) 
  3. Get far more value (e.g. through smart analytics and alignment to their business priorities and CX)

Simpler, faster, better. Three key priorities, especially now when cash-flow really matters.

I’ve encountered some leaders who think you cannot listen to employees during this crisis because it’s too difficult and expensive. That feels like an excuse. It’s certainly not the case with our tools and our HPEX framework.

My clients are keeping in touch with workers through pulse surveys and virtual focus groups. They’re providing real-time advice to employees and giving them access to resources. They’re personalising communications through mobile tools. They’re prioritising well-being.

Here are some of the guiding principles that we see the best companies following:

  1. Understand this as a defining leadership moment — to continue delivering the best possible outcomes for all stakeholders; staying true to your purpose, values, principles and culture, and embrace new ways of working
  2. Adopt an agile and continuous learning mindset – harness innovation and creativity that arises during difficult times
  3. Involve and engage all stakeholders in decision making (e.g., shareholders, employees, customers, supply chain partners, unions/works councils, healthcare providers, community)
  4. Focus on the intersection of employee and company well-being
  5. Balance immediate needs with the ability to rebound and remain viable long-term

One of my learnings from the Financial Crash is the importance of this final principle. The companies that rebounded the strongest had been able to keep their eye on the long-term. In fact, they took advantage of the opportunity provided by the crisis in order to re-imagine and re-invent processes and systems that had lain untouched for too long due to inertia.

In this scenario, two low-hanging fruit for many companies still are:

  1. Modernising a traditional employee engagement survey and moving to continuous listening and employee experience instead
  2. Re-tooling a traditional and tired performance management process so that it provides more ongoing, constructive and useful feedback

You could easily add to this list re-thinking skills and jobs for the future of work, and ensuring that your organisational design is fit for the future.

Some of my HR clients have told me that their to-do list has actually risen up the business agenda. That’s because people and organisational priorities are at the heart of how you need to respond to this crisis. Discussions that were hard to move forward are now getting traction. Just so long as you keep a focus on: simpler, faster, better.

Message me if you would like more information on any of this.

At WTW we also have a library of great resources related to the COVID-19 crisis that you can access here.

Tags: #EmployeeSurveys #COVID #FutureOfWork

This article was first published on LinkedIn on April 7, 2020.

Preparing for the Future of Work: Employee Voice and People Analytics

Many of our clients are preparing for the future of work. Technological, economic and demographic forces are causing disruption and change.  Companies are adjusting their strategies so they can adapt and capture growth.  They are also thinking about what it means for how they lead their people.

What are some of the things they’re thinking about?  We asked leaders in our recent Future of Work Survey and the answers challenge some widely-held ideas.

For example, when it comes to AI and robotics, rather than simply replacing people as many commentators fear, most respondents (57%) see automation as a way of augmenting human performance.  The big implication for many companies, therefore, is on improving the way people interact with technology.  It means focusing more on human-machine interaction, on combining human skills and machine tasks, and on improving user experience.

In addition, rather than automation leading to de-skilling – a new digital Taylorism as The Economist recently put it – many organisations (27%) are already changing the design of jobs to require more skills.  In fact, many organisations have a big focus on capability-building. They realise they need to make learning easier and more continuous. With a multi-generational workforce they need to support employees making different career and job transitions.

In the future, organisations will also rely a more diverse mix of worker types to deliver their services, including freelancers, contractors, and partners.  A lot has been written about the rise of the gig economy and new talent platforms such as Upwork. However, the contribution of free-agent workers is only set to rise from 4% to 6% in the next 3 years. This means that the focus that most leading organisations already have on employee engagement, employee commitment, and employee retention remains critical to their success as a business.

So what are companies doing to prepare for these future trends? For one thing, they are listening to employees more often and more continuously.  There is more interest in employee research now than there has ever been.  Last year was the busiest twelve months in the 40+ year history of the employee insights team at Willis Towers Watson.

Many of our clients are now licensing our self-service Pulse Software to capture employee voice on an agile basis.  Our Pulse Software allows them to run surveys as often as they like, as and when they need to, and to track engagement in real time.

Employee engagement surveys are also now part of a continuous listening strategy, which incorporates joiner, leaver, and key-cohort surveys. Clients are also using tools like our Virtual Focus Group Software for active listening and jams – creating conversation and dialogue with hundreds of employees at a time.

They are also using technology and analytics to understand their workforce better.  For example, we use smart machine analytics to suggest the specific actions that individual managers can take to improve their team’s performance.  We also connect engagement data to other workforce and business data, in order to reduce employee turnover, improve sales, productivity, customer retention, and so on.  Predictive analytics like these help companies transition from a point-in-time perspective to a process of continuous improvement.

As well as listening more and understanding people better, when it comes to taking action on engagement, many companies are thinking about it through the lens of employee experience (EX).  What do we mean by EX?  It comprises all the elements of the employment deal and psychological contract.  This includes challenging work, effective rewards, strong teams, and a clear purpose.  Often our clients are thinking about EX as part of an overall culture transformation, because they are making a shift to a more digital business strategy.

It’s an exciting time for anyone involved in employee research and people analytics as both are key elements in helping leaders navigate towards the opportunities provided by the future of work.

See also:

Tags: #FutureOfWork #EmployeeExperience #EmployeeSurveys #PeopleAnalytics

This article was first published on LinkedIn on  July 17, 2018

Mercer Sirota marks the end of an era

Sirota joining Mercer is an end-of-an-era moment. Sirota is the last of a golden generation of employee survey firms to join a big consultancy and the move takes place as technology re-writes the rules for employee research and people analytics. As someone who has worked in the industry, it’s a moment that I feel is worth noting.

Sirota was founded by David Sirota in New York in 1972. It was the first of a group of firms focused on running employee surveys that emerged in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. International Survey Research (ISR) was founded in 1974 in Chicago by Jack and Gay Stanek, Valtera was established by Bill Macey (also in Chicago) in 1977, and Gantz-Wiley was founded by Jack Wiley and Gail Gantz in Minneapolis in 1986.

These firms had their origins in industrial psychology and sociology. They hired PhDs as project directors and applied scientific principles to the study of employee satisfaction, commitment and (latterly) engagement. Informed by management thinkers like Peter Drucker, Frederick Herzberg and Edward Deming, they tackled issues to do with deteriorating industrial relations, work quality, organisational change and globalisation.

These companies made a great contribution by introducing a discipline for listening to employees in many large organisations. The primary tool was surveys. Often, they were long surveys, sometimes over 100 questions in length. In the early days these were administered on paper, which required a supply chain to oversee printing, distribution and data entry. They built relational databases and developed their own benchmarks (in competition to consortium approaches). The growth of this group of firms was largely driven by geographical expansion. The founders travelled the world with briefcases full of example surveys and a well-honed pitch.

The Internet provided the first great disruption. The firms moved into online surveys and electronic results reports. (When I joined ISR in 1999, results reports were still printed and bound, boxed up and shipped on a pallet to the client. It’s the kind of thing I tell my kids to amaze them). Online technology opened up new opportunities for different kinds of research and there was a blurring of the lines as the survey firms aligned themselves with partners to measure culture, to move into customer satisfaction and to run assessments, and (after Gallup’s bestseller Break All The Rules) employee engagement.

By the 2000s, the firms had ageing owners, they faced new competitors and they required significant investment in technology in order to deliver an engaging online user experience. Gantz-Wiley was acquired by one of those new competitors (Kenexa) in 2006. (Kenexa itself became part of IBM in 2012). Valtera was acquired by CEB in 2006. ISR was acquired by Towers Perrin in 2007. And finally now, after an earlier management buy-out, Sirota is part of Mercer.

As I have written elsewhere, we are in the middle of a period of huge creativity in employee research. Surveys may still be part of the tool kit, but in order to measure and improve culture and engagement, surveys provide data for integrated people analytics. The focus has shifted to ongoing, continuous listening and to using insights to shape employee experience. There has never been a better time to do great employee research.

I am not a historian of the employee survey industry. (And let me apologise now for any inaccuracies above). But it does feel like an apt case study of an industry which has faced a period of creative destruction. And I am excited to see what will follow this golden generation of firms.

Tags: #EmployeeSurveys #EmployeeEngagement

This article was first published on LinkedIn on December 9, 2016

Employee surveys and people analytics

Although there has been speculation about their demise, I see employee opinion surveys, and the insights you gain from them, as being at the intersection of two exciting trends:

  1. People analytics: HR and business leaders want to make evidence-based decisions about people. Data science and predictive modelling provide new options for understanding how people impact performance. And insights from employee surveys are a crucial part of the people analytics mix. You can use employee survey insights to help answer key business questions: How do we attract, retain and engage the digital talent we need to achieve our strategy? What are the barriers to more effective collaboration and how can we overcome them? How do we build a performance management system that encourages innovation? How do we create leadership roles that are of interest to our next generation of leaders?
  2. Treating employees like consumers: The consumer experience has changed radically over the last 5 – 10 years. Employees are increasingly sophisticated consumers of their company’s employee value proposition. Understanding and managing employee experience is becoming a core focus for HR. Employee surveys are again an important means for answering key questions, especially when you spotlight key talent segments: Is this a company where I feel I can make a difference? Is it somewhere where I believe I can have an impact? Do I feel supported by my manager and encouraged to try new things? Can I see a future for myself here? Do I feel recognised and rewarded?

Employee survey data are a critical part of the people analytics picture, especially as it comes to measuring the employee experience and understanding how people impact performance. In fact, there has never been a better time in which to conduct creative and value-add employee research, as new tools provide new ways of listening and making sense of data, including unstructured qualitative data.  It’s a good time to be doing more with employee surveys.

Tags: #EmployeeSurveys #PeopleAnlytics #EmployeeExperience

First published on LinkedIn on February 11, 2016