7 Employee Listening Strategies for a World Turned Upside Down by the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

employee engagement ideas

Our clients are worried.  Their employees are worried.  Our friends, families, and neighbors are worried. It’s frightening, and it’s tough.  In fact, I just noticed that “Coronavirus” is now a recognized word in my spell-check dictionary.  Will life ever be normal again?  Of course, things will improve, and a good slogan to follow comes from some English WWII propaganda.[i] 

“Keep calm and carry on!”

You’ll find variations on this theme everywhere, and some feel apropos, like: “Keep calm, oh who are we kidding?”  Yet, in some ways, these internet memes distract from this slogan’s powerful message.  We can do this.  As Dory, the hippo tang in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, says, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

In this blog, I would like to focus on the primary question in our business that we have been getting for several days now:

“How do we listen to our employees when it feels like the world has been turned upside down?”

listen to employees

1) Listen to Employees

First, rule number one is that you must keep listening.  Now, more than ever, you need to understand what your employees are feeling and experiencing.  Additionally, when done correctly, the act of reaching out to listen can demonstrate real empathy.  So, the key is don’t stop listening; instead, we need to change how we listen.  Our employees need to know that we care about them in good times, and when the environment is more challenging. 

2) Show Empathy and Care

Second, make sure your tone is empathetic and caring.  When you examine employee survey questions, they typically fall into one of two camps.  One set of questions is focused on scenarios that impact the employees on a personal level. For example, “I have the tools and resources I need to do my job well.”  These types of questions demonstrate concern and will likely be well received.  The other group of questions is focused on settings that involve the organization like, “I would recommend this organization as a great place to work.”  This latter question implies that we are more worried about the organizations’ reputation than about our employees’ immediate needs.  Try and use questions that are employee-focused. 

3) Follow the Goldilocks Principle

Third, follow the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little.  Try and balance how often you reach out and the length of your surveys.  Short surveys (1-2 questions) each week, and with the right tone, might be appreciated and welcome, but 20-question surveys each week would likely create additional internet memes that are to be avoided.  

Ask employees two questions

4) Include Two Open-Ended Questions in Your Surveys

Fourth, we recommend one or two open-ended text questions.  For example, “What is your experience like working remotely?”  Or, “Tell us about your experience right now.”  If you plan on using some standardized questions, you might consider adding something to the end of the survey like, “Is there anything else you would like to tell us?”

Good text-based questions come with no agenda, and they are neither positively worded, such as “Tell us what is going well,” nor negatively worded, such as “Describe what we could do better.”  Instead, a better question would be “Please describe your experience right now.”  No coaching one way or the other.  Just tell us your thoughts and feelings.

Historically, we have used questions that were either positively or negatively framed to help us categorize the comments.  Now, however, with stronger AI-driven text-analytics models, we can determine sentiment without having to prompt survey respondents one way or the other.  Anytime you avoid introducing sentiment from the question itself, data quality improves.  If you don’t have access to a robust text-analytics model, don’t worry.  Just ask the questions and then read them.  Instead of using AI to determine sentiment, you can use some HI (human intelligence). 

Listen to employees soon.

5) Survey Soon

Fifth, try and reach out soon – ideally within the next week or so (phase one).  Don’t bog down this initial survey by trying to gather demographics or other forms of metadata.  If you can gather hierarchy and demographics, great, but this survey isn’t designed for your data scientists.  Instead, this survey should be built to give senior leaders a quick snapshot of what is happening inside their employees’ heads and hearts. 

6) Follow Up

Sixth, once you get an initial survey out to your employees (phase one), focus on designing a follow-up instrument to be administered in 90-days or so (phase two).  See what insights you gather from phase one, and then use those insights to inform and guide your survey design as you develop and plan for phase 2.  Phase two might include open-ended text questions, but you might have the ability to add 15-20 standardized questions.  For example, maybe you discover a lot of negative comments about your messaging app.  Now, you might be ready to ask a standard question to see how people feel after emotions have calmed and time has passed, or, better yet, maybe your IT team has worked out the bug and you learn that the application is performing quite well. 

Share your ideas with employees.

7) Share What You Learned

Seventh, if you ask for feedback, the rule still applies that you need to share what you learned and what you are going to do with the feedback.  Continuing our hypothetical, if you discover that your messaging application is causing problems, then work with your IT folks to produce some short how-to videos, but don’t forget to say, “We heard you, and these videos have been produced to help you get more out of our messaging app.”

Again, now is the time to listen more than ever.  In six to twelve months, when things have somewhat returned to normal, our goal is to ask this question on each anchor/annual survey for our clients: “This organization responds well during times of crisis.”  We want to see as many favorable responses as possible!

Please contact us with any questions you might have, or if you have additional suggestions or ideas, please let us know and we will post and share your recommendations.  We are in this together, and we welcome any idea that can help each of us keep calm and carry on. 


[i] “The original phrase…”Keep calm and carry on,” [was] coined by the British government’s Ministry of Information in 1939 as part of an effort to boost morale at the outset of World War II.”  https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-xpm-2012-08-15-ct-tribu-words-work-keep-calm-20120815-story.html