What's your workforce worrying about?

Designing an effective employee listening strategy for COVID-19

building a better employee experience

April 22, 2020

This is a time of great uncertainty. COVID-19 is changing the way people work—with travel bans, social distancing, skeleton crews, and remote work becoming the new norm. In many organizations, employees are worried.


If you haven’t asked your workforce how they are feeling, what their concerns are, and what support they need right now, you are missing out on critical information. During times like these, it is important to give your employees an opportunity to voice their questions, share their concerns, and identify emerging issues. Various studies have found that social support increases our resilience and ability to cope. Listening to your employees is an effective way to provide support and solve organizational problems.


So what’s the best way to listen to your employees during a pandemic? Taking a business-as-usual approach won’t work. If your next engagement survey or quarterly pulse doesn’t ask employees about their here-and-now concerns—if it doesn’t convey a sense of compassion and concern for the challenges created by COVID-19—it may be perceived as callous or tone deaf.


Ensuring your workforce feels heard during this pandemic requires an empathic approach to employee research. Asking the wrong questions, using the wrong methods, or taking the wrong actions at the wrong time could squander your organization’s ability to provide the support and comfort so many employees are seeking right now. Based on our experience, the best way to design an empathic employee listening program—one that is in tune with the current needs of your workforce—is to focus on four questions.


How is this pandemic disrupting your organization?

Across industries, COVID-19 is a disruptive force. But this pandemic is affecting different organizations in different ways. Some organizations—like hospitals, health care providers, and grocery stores—are experiencing a dramatic uptick in demand. Others—like restaurants, brick-and-mortar retailers, and airlines—are struggling to make ends meet. Some organizations have implemented mandatory remote work for all. Others are going to great lengths to keep their onsite staff safe and healthy during this outbreak.


The first step in developing an effective listening program is to consider the various ways COVID-19 is affecting your organization. From a market perspective, how is this pandemic impacting your customers and clients, your competitors, your business strategy, and your industry? From an operational perspective, how is COVID-19 affecting the way work gets done, decisions are made, and people collaborate? By identifying the external and internal changes and challenges your workforce is experiencing, you can start to clarify the critical business questions and people priorities you need to explore. 


What are your employees’ most pressing concerns?

Various polls show that COVID-19 is a growing concern for people around the world. For example, one recent survey found that seven out of ten Americans think the coronavirus is a major threat to the US economy.  Another recent global poll found that 61% of respondent from France, 54% of respondents from India, and 48% of respondents from the UK are concerned about catching the virus. In our own research, we found that nine out of ten employees are at least moderately worried that COVID-19 could affect themselves or their families. Research participants expressed concerns about a range of topics, including layoffs and pay cuts, mental and physical health risks, work-life balance, and remote work.


As you develop your listening strategy, it is important to focus on topics your employees want to talk about. Otherwise, you run the risk of conducting research or launching conversations that miss the mark. Depending on the disruptions your organization is dealing with, we recommend focusing conversations around four main topics.


  • Safety: To what extent does your workforce feel physically, mentally, and financially secure right now?
  • Community: Do your employees feel they have the information, social support, and sense of connection they need to focus on work?
  • Performance: How is this pandemic affecting work routines, decision-making, collaboration, and organizational effectiveness?
  • Change: How does your organization need to adapt and evolve during and after this pandemic?

What is the best method for listening to your employees?

Organizations often assume the best way to listen to their workforce is to conduct a pulse survey.


That’s not always the case. Surveys are effective for measuring attitudes about topics that are well known and empirically established. But for new, emergent, or ambiguous events like this pandemic, exploratory research techniques using qualitative methods often generate better insights.


Considering the complexity of current events, we think the best way to listen to your employees is to take a multi-method approach. During one-on-one conversations and team meetings, managers should ask employees about their coronavirus-related concerns. On-line focus groups and digital discussions can be used to have broader conversations across regions and business units. Q-sort and conjoint methodologies can be used to help employees identify and prioritize their critical needs. And targeted pulse surveys can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of your organization's response to the pandemic.


The way you listen to your employees matters. As Michael Nichols writes, “Being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeling isolated.” Now is the time to conduct research in a way that makes your employees feel accepted, supported, and understood.


What is the most expedient way to respond to your employees' concerns?

Employee listening campaigns are only useful if they generate strategic insight and action. Surveys, pulses, and focus groups create expectations for change; employees expect something to happen as a result of providing feedback. If your research doesn’t lead to insight and action, employees will quickly become disengaged.


Now is the time for organizations to be nimble, responsive, and efficient. Considering the dynamic and chaotic nature of events right now, it is important to develop a rapid response strategy to complement your research efforts. In many organizations, post-survey action planning efforts take weeks or months. Given current conditions, a long lag between feedback and action isn't going to be effective. If your traditional actioning process is slow and cumbersome, find ways to streamline it. Flash reports, rapid report outs, pre-designed best practices, micro-learning and micro-lessons, and discovery and action dialogues can help.


If you are in charge of employee research in your organization, you are in a unique position to help your workforce cope with one of the most profound global challenges we have faced in decades. The only way to support your employees while ensuring the long-term success of your organization is to balance deep empathy with economic realities. The four questions presented above can help you design an employee listening campaign that will allow your leaders, managers, and employees to express their concerns, identify emerging problems, and work together to find new solutions and meet the challenges of the day.

Patrick Hyland, PhD
by Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research


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