As companies begin returning to the office, many struggle to determine their business resumption plans. The answer to creating those plans, however, is simple: Listen to your employees.
Listening to your employees — really stopping and listening to them — can seem excruciatingly slow in the frantic race to find a new normal for the organizations we belong to. But listening (or not) can also be the difference between running in the race at all or being left behind.
Constructing our new reality must begin with listening. But don’t walk away just yet.
We’ve all heard the standard aphorisms about listening — “You can’t listen if you’re thinking about what you want to say next,” or “Make eye contact and nod along to visibly show you are listening.” And we impatiently pay lip service to listening because we know it is something we should do as we try to get to “the real work” of whatever it is we are doing.
I counter that listening is the first of the real work. But, in this new world, where some of our known practices are suddenly hard to apply, when we need to implement social distancing and do so much work physically apart from each other, it’s time to think about new ways to listen to employees.
Changing how you listen to your employees at this crucial crossroads could (and should) transform your business and put you ahead of the curve as you redefine what your business needs.
Learning to Listen
For many, business resumption will really be about designing new ways of working that we hadn’t considered before.
While this may feel like a daunting task, taking a people-centered approach to the change by listening to your employees every step of the way can help pave the path forward. Let’s start with three essential listening practices:
1. Put off any assumptions.
Don’t assume what your employees have experienced and what will allow them to perform their best in the new normal. Let them tell you about this out of their own experiences. 1. Some of them have absolutely found their stride in a work-from-home routine and returning to the office nine-to-five will squelch their newfound creativity and effectiveness. On the other hand, some have just lost a family member to COVID-19, making any new normal seem bleak and purposeless.
Others are anxious to get out of the house but are equally as anxious about being in an office building unprotected from COVID-19. Some people have discovered incredible camaraderie and collaboration with their team and are eager to keep that going no matter what the plan is moving forward.
Walk into your listening sessions with no agenda but to learn. We might all be #InThisTogether, but that does not mean we have all been impacted the same way.
2. Don’t let previous company commitments or investments influence your organization.
Be mindful of the options your organization is willing to consider. Perhaps your company made a significant investment into a specific software that depends on an on-premise setup. If you hear a consistent desire for a cloud-based solution from your employees, do not write off their comments to preserve your previous plans.
The short-term loss of that investment made in the world of three months ago will be significantly less than trying to force a solution into a world with changed employees and customers.
The best plans in the world can be the wrong ones if they are laid on people unable to do anything with them. You can assess opportunity costs, sunk costs and all the other costs later. Listen first and give serious consideration to new options and ideas.
4. Listen with an open mind and heart.
This means listening across a wide range of employees, even if what you hear seems impossible to put into action. It’s the act of listening and fully taking in the employee’s perspective that is important.
People are honored when someone asks for their opinions, and of course, it is validating to see their employer turn that input into action. However, in all likelihood, you will be listening to many voices, and it will be hard to predict or promise that every piece of input can or will be acted upon.
However, that doesn’t devalue anyone’s individual input or its place in the process. Value all voices, and give thanks for the diversity of input, and people’s willingness to share it.
So now that you are armed with a few “advanced basics” to listening, how do you do this across groups of employees?
The Employee Listening Plan
Consider developing a comprehensive employee listening plan to provide outlets for employees to share their personal situation and their ability to return to work. This is also when they can discuss their level of interest in any needed roles (that may be different than the role they left) and their questions or concerns about returning.
There are a lot of creative ways to do this. Here are a few ideas we’ve seen work well, even with social distancing:
- Modified stay interviews by phone. The purpose of these is to create a personal touchpoint with each current and furloughed employee to understand their current situation and ability to participate in the business’s plans to resume or ramp up again. Gravity Payments in Seattle did just this. Facing the option of laying off 20 percent of his workforce or filing for bankruptcy, CEO Dan Price instead “called a companywide meeting to let employees know the state of the business and solicit creative strategies for navigating the next few months.” Alongside his COO, Tammi Kroll, he also scheduled 40 one-hour meetings with small employee groups to collect ideas and check in with people,
- Remote “focus group” meetings, pulse surveys, or both, for all employees. These create a focused dialogue with and among larger groups of employees and stay on top of employee concerns, questions and sentiments throughout a restart period. If significant changes in workplace, role or work status are happening for larger groups of employees, a targeted “readiness” pulse survey can provide a quick understanding of sentiments and potential issues prior to the change.
- Develop “always-on” employee listening channels. Use the organization’s intranet, or some other shared location, to provide a simple and accessible way for employees to provide input. The key is to build the internal processes to continuously monitor and report feedback from the channel, so it does not become a black hole of wasted energy that damages trust.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of managers maintaining direct connections. The importance of maintaining open communication with each employee has never been more critical.
If teams are large, making it impossible to check in with each employee every week, target making contact with a portion each week. And shift previously held in-person team meetings to virtual events using an online meeting tool like Microsoft Teams.
As we all personally know from the past three months, as much as we want to resume our pre-pandemic lives, there are a lot of potential barriers. By considering possible new listening practices, you may learn more about how the current climate impacts all of your people, and that can help inform your business’s plans for a new reality.
As Brene Brown states so eloquently, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”