With remote work making communication challenging, better listening by employers can help workplaces thrive. New research reveals ethical and strategic listening helped employees feel better connected and organizations make better decisions.
The pandemic has led to an uptick in remote work at many associations, forcing an abrupt change from the face-to-face communication people were used to. While most organizations have survived the change, some may be wondering if they’ve done it well. Research published in the Journal of Communication Management looked at how several organizations, including a trade association, communicated during the pandemic.
Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University, said two critical listening skills were present among workplaces that communicated successfully during the pandemic: ethical listening and strategic listening.
“Ethical listening is being sincere when you’re getting input from an employee and being open to feedback,” Neill said. “Strategic listening is using those insights to make better decisions for the organization.”
So, why is listening important? The paper, “Ethical Listening to Employees During a Pandemic: New Approaches, Barriers and Lessons,” noted that “scholars have found connections between organizational listening and employee job commitment, satisfaction, and retention.”
How They Listened
Organizations managed to achieve ethical listening in several ways. Because workers went remote and office interactions like stopping by a colleague’s desk or kitchen chats at the coffee maker went away, organizations had to resort to other methods.
“While it’s great to continue to do those annual surveys, and make comparisons from year to year, during the pandemic, there was more of a need to check in with folks more frequently,” Neill said.
Pulse surveys, where the organization sent short surveys to staff, were popular and frequent ways to check in. Some organizations had town halls, using apps that allowed employees to upvote the questions they most wanted to have answered. Other organizations had managers check in face-to-face (via video, often) with their reports to get a pulse.
The one drawback for larger organizations using pulse surveys was that open-ended questions required more bandwidth from those aggregating the information. “Employers did talk about having to read through that line by line,” Neill said. “Someone actually had to look through those comments for frequency of similar comments and themes.”
While ethical listening was important, the strategic listening was critical, as it would determine if an organization would continue to get feedback. “Some of the organizations would deliberately communicate: This is the channel where he heard this information, this is what we heard, and this is what we’re doing about it,” Neill said. “We refer to that as closing the feedback loop. It is critical for organizations to do that, so employees understand that their feedback did make a difference, and then they are more willing to share their feedback in the future because they feel like it’s going to make a difference.”
If organizations don’t close the feedback loop, employees clam up and feedback dwindles. One organization in the study found it had difficulty getting participants because feedback collected several years prior had disappeared down a corporate blackhole. “So, not closing the feedback loop can have consequences even years later,” Neill said.
Tips for Getting Feedback
When soliciting feedback, Neill said organizations must make it clear that they actually do want feedback—even if it’s negative. “Employees remain silent and don’t raise their concerns if they don’t think management wants to hear bad news or that management isn’t interested in their feedback,” Neill said.
A good history of closing the feedback loop can help combat silence. Finding the best channel to reach staff can also increase participation in pulse surveys. For many organizations, email was a great channel, but in businesses where staff are on the move, mobile apps or texts worked better.
The report warned to beware of decentralized feedback that stops without getting to the right people. “Silos are especially a concern in the context of organizational listening because an issue can be raised at the department level, but the issue may be more widespread and require a coordinated response across the organization,” the report noted. It encouraged employers to have a process for managers and department heads to share feedback they receive across the organization.
Finally, Neill said allowing anonymous feedback helped increase employee participation. “Employees tended to like anonymous channels because of that fear of retribution,” she said. “You have to make it safe to share some information that may not be welcome.”
How does your organization listen to staff? Share in the comments.