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Why continuous listening is the key to a smooth transition back to work

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As states and businesses reopen in the U.S., many employers are faced with a difficult decision: Should their employees go back to the workplace? And if so, when? Amazon told their workers they likely wouldn’t return until October, while Google announced that their employees wouldn’t go back to the office until 2021. Twitter and Facebook decided most employees could work from home forever.

But once employers do make that decision, they’re then confronted with a more formidable one: How do they get their employees back in a way that is both safe and comfortable for everyone? In short, how do they successfully manage employee experience?

Most companies have coordinated COVID-19 task forces charged with making those decisions and helping their employees navigate the global pandemic. And whether they realize it or not, those task forces are broken down into two different functions: operational and experiential.

When COVID-19 first hit, the task forces had to deal with the operational challenge of moving massive workforces home overnight, and they worked to ensure employees had the equipment and software needed to function remotely. And soon after, many realized they also had another responsibility on their plate: employee mental wellbeing.

Leaders recognized they’d have to find new ways to keep their people sharp, productive, and happy. In fact, their employees’ experience with remote work was a central component in making that big operational move successful.

The same will happen as task forces bring people back to the workplace. In fact, managing employee experience will become a task force’s most critical responsibility. To ensure employees feel comfortable returning to the workplace, company leadership needs to know how they feel about coming back and what safety concerns they may have. Then leadership must act on that information.

But the current situation (and their employees’ feelings) can change rapidly. That’s why a method called “continuous listening” is essential to managing employee experience. At least once a day (if not more), employees should be able to respond to a few questions about how they’re feeling, and leaders can use that real-time information to successfully take care of their teams.

A large retail bank in North America has set up an always-on feedback channel for retail branch employees to identify safety concerns in different branches. The bank recognized that, when it came to health and safety concerns, employees might need to offer feedback immediately rather than waiting for a survey that came around once a day. Other organizations have used pre-screening tools that allow employees to self-report each day so company leadership can decide whether they should come into the workplace.

Continuous listening helps leadership communicate with employees, and vice versa. If there’s ever been a time to listen to your people and manage their employee experience, it’s now.

A Qualtrics study conducted at the beginning of May found that two out of three workers in the United States didn’t feel comfortable returning to the workplace. In fact, nearly half of all workers said they didn’t expect to go back to work until August or later.

Most respondents said they want assurance from public officials like the Centers for Disease Control or state and local governments before returning, while about half said they’d feel more comfortable once a treatment or vaccine is available. Nearly 70%, though, said they trust their company leadership to make the right decision on when to come back.

Once leadership makes that decision, however, employees expect them to enact policies and procedures that will protect workers’ safety. Almost 75% said they want their work facility to be thoroughly and regularly cleaned and disinfected, while 62% said they want strict policies about who cannot come to the office, including those who are sick and have recently traveled. Nearly 60% said they want masks available to everyone who wants one, while the same amount said they want all employees to be required to wear a mask at all times.

A majority expect their company to require those who travel to self-quarantine for 14 days, prohibit handshakes and hugs, and set safety measures around communal food. Almost 40% said they want employees to be brought back in phases instead of all at once.

Employees also want the freedom to take action themselves. Over 60% said they want to be able to wear a mask and maintain social distancing at work, and half said they want more flexible sick-leave policies that employees are encouraged to use, even with minor symptoms. Nearly the same amount said they want to be able to limit the number of people they’re exposed to in workplace meetings, and almost 40% said they want to be able to skip work without penalty or continue working from home if they feel unsafe.

These findings provide companies with a general idea of what their employees want to see before coming back to work, but gathering data specific to each organization is even more helpful. Before and after companies begin their initial return, they’ll need to listen closely and continuously to their employees and should increase emphasis on employee feedback.

After all, employees are an organization’s best ambassadors. Invest in them, and they’ll invest in you.

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Employee communications Benefit strategies Workplace safety and security Employee engagement
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