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Jenny Baker
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Listening to Employees to Confront Postpandemic Turnover

Kimberly E. O’Brien & Krystal N. Roach, Central Michigan University, & Julia B. Haas University of Georgia

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, many organizations were faced with the question of how to adjust to remote work. As the pandemic becomes more manageable, organizations are now grappling with how to move forward in a postpandemic world. Organizational development using survey feedback can improve these transitions via employee listening (e.g., Allen et al., 2020). Employee listening is defined herein as

the creation and implementation of scaled processes and systems that enable decision makers and policy makers in organizations to actively and effectively access, acknowledge, understand, consider and appropriately respond to all those who wish to communicate with the organization or with whom the organization wishes to communicate interpersonally or through delegated, mediated means. (Macnamara, 2019, p. 5191).

In other words, listening involves both the solicitation of data and a response to the findings. There are a variety of employee data solicitation techniques that organizations can use including annual surveys, pulse surveys, reviewing social media (e.g., Reinikainen et al., 2020), and fireside chats with leaders and managers.

Listening to employees provides a foundation for critical organizational processes (e.g., team coordination, follower engagement; Yip & Fisher, 2022) and has been associated with an abundance of positive outcomes for the organization and employee, including increased retention, job commitment, organizational identification, and job satisfaction (e.g., Macnamara, 2020; Reed et al., 2014). Furthermore, poor listening can inhibit the benefits of employee voice behavior (expressing change-oriented ideas and suggestions; e.g., Yang, 2017). Thus, during a time when voluntary turnover is on the rise and competition for quality talent is high (Grant, 2022), organizations wanting to improve employee retention, morale, and performance may wish to better understand employee perspectives via employee listening.

Employers are increasing the question quantity of their employee surveys, with a 2021 Glint Inc. report showing a 207% increase in surveys between 1 and 10 questions and a 158% increase in surveys between 10 and 20 questions. Likewise, Glint Inc. (2021) found that employees are being surveyed more frequently, with averages rising from four times a year to seven times a year. However, more employee listening does not necessarily imply better employee listening. In a 2022 SIOP Annual Conference virtual session, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Employee Listening to Address Postpandemic Turnover, panelists (Lisa Black and Drs. Dana Auten, Stephanie Downey, Lauren Harkrider Beechly, Rana Moukarzel, Olivia Reinecke, and Pooja Vijayakumar) representing various national and international private companies (e.g., Energage, Glint Inc., The Predictive Index, Perceptyx, PepsiCo, and Papa Johns International) discussed employee listening strategies as well as methods of addressing postpandemic turnover. The purpose of the current paper is to share information gleaned from this session. Specifically, the first aim is to describe and evaluate common practices in employee listening. The second goal is to suggest reasons for employee retention and turnover identified by our panel of listening experts. In doing so, this article disseminates information collected by practitioners representing multiple employee listening platforms. 

Employee Listening Practices

In order to address our first aim, we asked our panelists about their organizations or client organizations’ employee listening strategies. Based on their responses, we identified common practices related to data collection and enacting change. Panelists also evaluated the relative success of these various strategies, from which we delineated some best practices (see Table 1).

Table 1

Best Practices Identified by 2022 SIOP Annual Conference Employee Listening Panel

Theme

Practice

Considerations

Data collection strategy

Consider the needs and resources of the organization

There is no one-size-fits all strategy for employee listening. Organizations should consider their needs when crafting what questions to ask to whom and also if they have the resources to examine the data they receive.

 

Use targeted listening techniques                                       

Many employee listening tools stop at asking employees about their intentions to stay or leave. Diving deeper into the “why” (e.g., how much does pay impact your intention to stay) can help organizations get a richer understanding of their employees.

Additionally, use stay surveys, which ask employees why they are choosing to stay in the organization. 

 

Develop tools for hourly and professional employees

Aim to examine the unique perspectives of hourly and professional employees. 

 

Utilize onboarding surveys and exit surveys

When used effectively, organizations can begin to understand what they may do differently to retain employees.

 

Consider linking different business metrics together

Linking employee attitudinal surveys with administrative data can help organizations understand the bigger picture of an issue.

 

Consider shorter surveys 

Short surveys are likely to take up less employee time and be less prone to attention issues. 

 

Reconsider the frequency of your surveys                               

If you have not solved the issue you identified in a previous survey, it is likely too soon to do another. 

A quality employee listening program is not entirely about frequency; it is about identifying what questions you are trying to answer and what channels you need to listen to.

Surveys could be conducted based on need. If you do not have a question, reconsider a survey.

 

The fresher the data, the timelier the solution

Organizations might aim to develop strategies to see feedback in real time. This means having the resources for employees to promptly analyze data and pass it along to leaders.

Utilize data to inform change

Be open to hearing employee perspectives

Be prepared to develop for problems that were unknown and for diving deeper into employee concerns.

In a time of extreme competition, organizations may need to look at their pay structure.

 

Be prepared to act on employee concerns              

Employees recognize when organizations are listening. But they also recognize when an organization knows and does not take action on resolving their concerns.

 

Address survey results before surveying employees again                   

Frequent pulse surveys are very common, but if the organization is not addressing employee concerns before sending out additional surveys, it may send the impression that employers are collecting data but not actually listening.

 

Data Collection Strategy

Each panelist described their organization’s methods for employee listening, using at least some of the Five Ws and How Questions to collect information about a problem. That is, successful employee listening strategies explained who the organization aimed to listen to, what information they wished to procure, when and how often employees would be surveyed, where data would be collected (e.g., online, in-person chats), why employees were being surveyed, and how the organization planned to gather this information. These six questions are valuable to most employee listening strategies because they provide structure for the organization to build and evolve their program. For example, employee listening techniques can offer insight into employee attitudes, intentions, and behaviors, but there should also be a purpose to the listening (why) or a question that the organization wants to address. Each organization may have different questions, but it is helpful for the organization to identify what they want to know and to understand that if the organization has not addressed a challenge discovered in the prior survey, perhaps it is not appropriate to survey employees again.

Also, the organization needs to identify who are its target employees. For example, an organization may be concerned with high rates of turnover specifically in their hourly (versus salaried) employees. In order to address this specific question, it might be more feasible and cost-effective to survey the hourly employees about their intentions to leave, instead of utilizing a broad, organizational-wide annual survey. An organization may also wish to know if individuals prefer remote versus in-person work. In this case, the organization may prefer to seek information from employees at all levels of employment. It is only worthwhile to target or exclude certain employees if (a) relevant (e.g., jobs that require the use of in-house equipment or software) and (b) the employees can be identified efficiently (e.g., the entire janitorial staff versus a few designers in particular).

Next, organizations might consider when they should be listening to their employees in terms of timing and frequency. Depending on the job and industry, ideal survey timing may be affected by day of the week, season, quarter, or other calendar concerns. Additionally, panelists discussed the criticality of fresh data, so data must be collected sufficiently frequently to ensure they are not outdated. Collecting data in real time can help the organization better understand the employee’s perspective on timely issues. For example, if an organization was in the midst of implementing a new performance appraisal system, using pulse surveys (e.g., Jolton & Klein, 2020) could help the organization understand if employees are frustrated with the new program or need additional training. This is useful to the organization because an annual survey may be too late (and too broad) to address the employees’ concerns. That is, the time to give employees additional training on the performance appraisal system was at its inception, not after employees were disgruntled or resigned to the system. A caveat is that when the organization collects this data, they should be ready to discuss them and develop a plan to move forward to address the data. This suggestion is contrary to some research designs in which multiple baseline measurements are used in order to represent fluctuating variables (e.g., workload for professors). Listeners are encouraged to carefully consider timing given these competing concerns.

Finally, organizations decide where and how they wish to listen to their employees. A variety of employee listening tools exist, including robust longitudinal surveys and pulse surveys, which have been growing in popularity. Additionally, fireside conversations between top leaders and employees may promote more intimate discussions about the organization’s direction and culture and allow leadership to get a richer understanding of employees’ perspectives. However, not all listening techniques are equally appropriate to answer the organization’s particular questions. For example, some employees may not be willing to share negative feedback about the organization via fireside chats, where they can be easily identified and may fear repercussions. In this case, a survey conducted online may produce more honest responses about organizational challenges, as long as the organization can assure individuals that their survey responses will be anonymous.

Utilizing Data to Inform Change

The next trend our panel identified was related to the use of information collected from employee listening programs. Although surveys inherently communicate to employees what the organization cares about, without adequate response to surveys, the organization does not meet the definition of listening. Ideally, the response might include taking steps to ameliorate the source of employee complaints, but an adequate response might also include leader efforts to show understanding and empathy and perhaps transparently communicating barriers to change. However, some panelists expressed concern that organizations were neglecting data altogether in favor of a gut feeling or desire to “return to normal,” referencing the prepandemic normal of the organization. For example, some leaders believe that the quality and quantity of their employees’ work has suffered due to remote employment, even when faced with administrative data to the contrary that profits and productivity have increased.

Furthermore, about 50% of organizational leaders want full-time in-person work, but this does not match with preferences for job seekers (Microsoft, 2022). Indeed, recent reports show that 60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home would prefer to work from home (Parker et al., 2022). This mismatch between leaders and job seekers might be of consideration when organizations ask employees their preference. Organizations should be reasonably prepared to at least consider it when making their decisions because it will likely drive employees’ intentions to stay.

Relatedly, employees may also need to be assured that their feedback is being collected in good faith. That is, panelists pointed out that employees notice when an organization is listening to them, but they also notice when the organization collects the data and does not address the issues identified. It is thus crucial for the organization to build trust that data is being collected to actually address issues employees face, not solely for the purpose of collecting data. This is not an uncommon sentiment, with articles on corporate listening reporting that perceptions of employee voice are useless to employees if the organization is not also employing active listening (Macnamara, 2020). Surveys can provide insight into employee perceptions of effective listening at the managerial and organizational level.  

Drivers of Postpandemic Turnover     

Our panelists also discussed the findings of some of their employee listening strategies as they pertain to turnover. One of the major contributors to turnover identified via listening was the loss of work-from-home arrangements. COVID-19 lockdowns introduced the highest rate of telework in U.S. history because many organizations were faced with the choice to allow their employees to work from home or to fully shut down. Some employees are now leaving organizations because of requirements to return to in-person work. In some cases, organizations have used phased returns or allowed for a hybrid work environment with some telework. However, even in those organizations that are not requiring full-time in-person work, employees are voluntarily leaving. Panelists reported that employees expressed that the cost to return to work in-person outweighed the benefit. These costs were varied, including monetary (e.g., gas) and time-based (e.g., commute to work) expenses. Individuals with children seemed particularly motivated to avoid a lengthy commute in order to minimize time away from the family and increased childcare costs. In fact, panelists inferred that a return to in-person work may be related to disproportionate voluntary turnover in specific demographic groups, such as women with children, who may have grown to embrace flexible working arrangements (e.g., flextime, flexplace). Thus, longitudinal employee listening programs paired with administrative data can help organizations identify whether flexible work arrangements, which have been shown to reduce turnover for a variety of reasons (e.g., McNall et al., 2009), would help alleviate their unwanted turnover.

Additionally, panelists cautioned that a lack of resources to support flexible work arrangements precipitated voluntary exit for some employees. Although many organizations did not have telework policies prepandemic, they were forced to adjust very quickly. Employees were generally understanding that they had to make due with limited resources temporarily (e.g., using a personal computer while awaiting company equipment). However, it has been almost 3 years since the initial pivot, and many employees who have left organizations reported a struggle to get the job done due to a continued lack of resources. For example, if an employee is teleworking but cannot reach their supervisor remotely for guidance, whereas they were previously able to walk down the hall for support, they may now be inclined to leave their jobs. Additionally, an employee may feel frustrated if an organization does not have the infrastructure to support work in the postpandemic environment (e.g., online conferencing software and equipment). Employee listening can be used to determine if there are gaps between employee needs and organizational supplies.

Finally, panelists also reported that employees felt a lack of appreciation. It is important to note that perceived lack of appreciation can be a relatively stable job attitude, but it can also be a short-term emotion. Coupling an annual survey with pulse surveys throughout the year can help organizations understand long-term and short-term perceptions of appreciation. They can also identify factors that contribute to a perceived lack of appreciation. For example, during the pandemic, many employee recognition programs were digitized with often limited success. That is, it is helpful if an organization recognizes that employees are feeling unappreciated as well as why their employees feel unappreciated. This is crucial because an organization can waste time and resources investing in an intervention that does not target the reason employees feel unappreciated and thus exit the organization.

Conclusion

In order to move forward in a postpandemic world, it is greatly beneficial for organizations to listen to their employees and employ quality listening strategies that fit their goals and capabilities. Moreover, it is imperative that effective listening also utilizes data to guide organizational change (e.g., Allen et al., 2020). That is, listening is not simply data collection; it is essential to analyze the data and use it in real time to inform change. If unable to instrumentally address the problem, other forms of listening can include leader transparency, acknowledging problems, and communicating attempts to resolve workplace complaints. Especially in the case of postpandemic turnover, it would behoove organizations to better understand and respond to their employees’ perspectives and needs before they exit their organizations. Although expensive, the benefits of surveying outweigh the costs of unwanted turnover, such as losses to institutional knowledge, new hire recruitment and training, and decreased morale.

References

Allen, J. B., Jain, S., & Church, A. H. (2020). Using a pulse survey approach to drive organizational change. Organization Development Review, 52, 62–68.

Glint Inc. (2021). Survey frequency and length: Pre and post pandemic. Unpublished internal report.

Grant, A. M. (2022). The Not-So-Great Resignation. In Worklife with Adam Grant. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/the-not-so-greatresignation/id1346314086?i=1000557193263

Jolton, J. A., & Klein, C. (2020). Exploring the universe of pulse surveys and continuous listening opportunities. In W. H. Macey and A. A. Fink (Eds.), Employee surveys and sensing: Challenges and opportunities (pp. 357–376). Oxford University Press.

Macnamara, J. (2019). Explicating listening in organization–public communication: Theory, practices, technologies. International Journal of Communication, 13, 5183–5204.

Macnamara, J. (2020). Corporate listening: Unlocking insights from VOC, VOE and VOS for mutual benefits. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 25, 377–393.

McNall, L. A., Masuda, A. D., & Nicklin, J. M. (2009). Flexible work arrangements, job satisfaction, and turnover intentions: The mediating role of work-to-family enrichment. Journal of Psychology, 144(1), 61–81.

Microsoft. (2022, March 16). Great expectations: Making hybrid work work. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/great-expectations-making-hybrid-work-work

Parker, K., Menasce Horowitz, J., & Minkin, R. (2022, February 16). Covid-19 pandemic continues to reshape work in America. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2022/02/16/covid-19-pandemic-continues-to-reshape-work-in-america/#:~:text=Looking%20to%20the%20future%2C%2060,said%20the%20same%20in%202020

Reed, K., Goolsby, J. R., & Johnston, M. K. (2014). Extracting meaning and relevance from work: The potential connection between the listening environment and employee’s organizational identification and commitment. International Journal of Business Communication, 53, 326–342.

Reinikainen, H., Kari, J. T., & Luoma-Aho, V. (2020). Generation Z and organizational listening on social media. Media and Communication, 8(2), 185–196. https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v8i2.2772

Yang, J. (2017). From voice behavior to creative performance: Supervisor listening as a boundary condition. Academy of Management Proceedings, 1, 17012.

Yip, J., & Fisher, C. M. (2022). Listening in organizations: A synthesis and future agenda. Academy of Management Annals, 16(2), 657–679.

 

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