Turn it “Always-on”: How a better listening mechanism can transform your company culture

Kyla Holcombe, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee Engagement, Pulse SurveysLeave a Comment

In most organizations, only about 64% of employees feel like senior leadership is genuinely interested in new ideas, or that employee feedback influences decisions[1]. Managers tend to be a better access point for new ideas—Newmeasures finds that about 85% of employees feel their managers are accessible and listen to concerns[2]. But even with accessible managers, there can still be communication challenges, including varying degrees of manager receptiveness, the difficulty of sharing highly sensitive concerns, and getting feedback to the right people for an appropriate response. “Always-on” listening can be a great mechanism for addressing these challenges.

What is Always-on Listening?

Always-on listening enables employees to proactively share feedback at any point in time (e.g., think of the traditional “suggestion box” as an example). Feedback may include anything from improvement ideas, ethical concerns, or compliance problems. The feedback is reported to a designated person at the organization who then filters it to the appropriate audience. The benefit? Always-on listening can create cultures of trust, creativity, and empowerment because it provides opportunities for people to act responsibly, use their strengths to raise important ideas, and reinforce continuous improvement.

Always-on Listening Mechanisms

There are several ways to be Always-on for your employees. Each mechanism may serve a different purpose, so it is advantageous to provide multiple Always-on mechanisms in your workplace.

Always-on listening is not a new concept, and organizations have played with a variety of ways to continuously listen to their employees. Unfortunately, these listening strategies have not all been executed well. You may have seen mechanisms like suggestion boxes that end up collecting dust in the corner and receive nicknames like “blackhole” because ideas that go there never come back out. Some attempts to continuously listen to employees have been wildly unsuccessful, resulting in numerous blogs encouraging companies to do away with them (e.g., fastcompany.com). However, don’t be quick to abandon Always-on listening mechanisms, as they provide an important outlet for employees to express their thoughts and opinions on a timeline that matters to the employee. It may just be time to refine your approach!

Before diving into what makes a successful Always-on program, let’s talk about some common challenges. First, Always-on mechanisms require employees to be proactive about sharing feedback, and the information shared may trend toward extreme experiences. Employees may bring to light extremely positive situations that warrant recognition or perhaps critical concerns such as harassment, safety risks, or toxic environments. It is important to be aware that extreme feedback can distort our understanding and send us responding to squeaky wheels rather than pervasive problems (not to minimize the importance of raising workplace safety or well-being concerns).

Second, because employees can submit feedback anytime, Always-on mechanisms require ongoing monitoring, and it can be difficult to determine when and how to respond.

Third, determining whether feedback should be anonymous or confidential (or not) can be tough – without a person attached to the feedback, the organization cannot respond directly and there is no accountability. On the other hand, some concerns are highly sensitive and more likely to be reported through anonymous means. These and other considerations are important to weigh when implementing Always-on listening.

Critical for Success

So what leads to effective Always-on listening? Here are some critical considerations:

  1. Culture. Your organization’s culture will play a large role in whether Always-on listening is successful. People are more likely to submit their ideas and concerns in trusting, respectful, open, and safe environments. If distrust, lack of innovation, or toxic interpersonal relationships are prompting your need for Always-on listening, it is important to navigate these mechanisms carefully. Those who receive and handle the feedback must be open and receptive to it; employees must feel respected and valued for their input.
  2. Leadership buy-in. If leaders are not on-board or unwilling to take action on feedback, your Always-on mechanisms are likely to fail. Not every idea or concern can be acted upon, but it is important that people see some action as a result of feedback and understand how decisions are made.
  3. Communicate what’s available. Clearly identify the purpose of different mechanisms and remind people of the outlets available for providing feedback. Employees can only take advantage of Always-on listening when they know it’s available to them.
  4. Listen and respond. Someone has to read and respond to the feedback. For example:
    • For each mechanism you implement, determine who is responsible for reading the feedback and how frequently. Establish how the responsible party will respond to employees and route feedback to the right people when appropriate. Having a cross-functional response team can help address a variety of suggestions.
    • For each mechanism, set good expectations with employees for what will happen with their feedback. Let employees know who is responsible for reading their input/concern and when they can expect a response.
    • For employee suggestions, require that people attach their names or team with their ideas. This creates a culture of openness, transparency, and accountability. If your culture isn’t ready for identified feedback, include an option for people to submit their contact information (e.g., ask for an email address) so you can follow up if they wish.
    • For general or improvement-related feedback, request that people pose practical solutions with their concerns or criticisms. Ask that they be part of the solution and create a norm that we need to identify solutions, not just problems.
    • Thank people – either in the prompt to submit feedback or by using automation to generate a thank you, ensure that people feel appreciated, heard, and valued.
  5. Share success stories. Share appropriate stories about how the organization responded to critical feedback, implemented new ideas, and addressed serious concerns.
  6. Solicit more information. Explore topics that surfaced through Always-on feedback in your engagement or pulse surveys to see if concerns are widespread. These other listening mechanisms can help you dig deeper, identify groups that need support, or understand root causes behind Always-on feedback.

Your organization may be missing important ideas without Always-on listening. By using one or several Always-on mechanisms, you convey value for employees’ feedback, nurture creativity, and prevent unsafe or unethical practices. It is essential to provide opportunities for employee voice and facilitate ongoing two-way communication with people who know the work best.

 

Want to know more about how other organizations are Always-on? Check out these examples and resources:

People Analytics Manager Max Brawer at BuzzFeed (one of Newmeasures’ clients) shared a great example with us about how they approach Always-on feedback at their global, digital media company. BuzzFeed uses Slack for all kinds of internal communication and collaboration, and recently started an open chat with their CEO. Anyone, at any time, can message the CEO. People submit questions, jokes, and feedback, and the CEO is diligent about responding. Max Brawer shared, “We can see from our free-response feedback that there is a direct connection between the existence of this Slack channel and the feeling that our senior leaders are more available to employees.”

The marketing agency, Quirk, has adopted a unique and creative way to empower employees to present their ideas (Kjerulf, 2014). Employees post their ideas in a public place. They must find 10 other people who support the idea. (If there’s not enough support, the idea gets posted in a “graveyard.”) Then employees craft a proposal that goes to the leadership team. Approved ideas are set in motion. Leaders have to provide rationale for why ideas are approved, not approved, or not approved at this time. See here for more information and images from the office.

British Airways created an employee suggestion program that was estimated to save them over $750,000 in one year on fuel alone (Zundel, 2017). See here for more information about effective employee suggestion programs.

Any publicly traded company is required to have a mechanism for employees to report questionable accounting practices. The Society for Human Resource Management, among other reputable sources, provides guidance on outlets for employee voice (Hirschman, 2008). See here for more information.

[1] Based on Newmeasures’ normative database (2018) which includes data from organizations across industries surveyed in the past five years (2,400 organizations and 1.4 million survey responses).

[2] Also based on Newmeasures’ normative database (2018).

References

Hirschman, C. (2008). Giving voice to employee concerns. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/0808hirscman.aspx

Kjerulf, A. (2014). Kill the suggestion box – There’s a much better way. Retrieved from https://positivesharing.com/2014/02/kill-suggestion-box-heres-much-better-way/

Zundel, C. M. (2017). Steps and best practices for creating an employee suggestion program. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/09/06/steps-and-best-practices-for-creating-an-employee-suggestion-program/#c9ef6d170bfd

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