The debate.

I had a heated exchange with a client last year about how quickly an organisational culture changes in medium to large organisations and whether relying on an annual staff survey as the main dose of engagement and culture insights was optimal for leadership and employees.

Her position was that culture changes slowly, taking multi-year cycles to bear fruit from change and transformation journeys. Based on this premise, she was quite comfortable with running a staff engagement survey once every 12 to 18 months. “What’s the point of asking staff again about what we already heard from them a year ago?” she argued. This client is one of the 64% of organisations who, according to a Deloitte study, still rely on an annual staff survey on which to base their people engagement and culture strategies. Are you one of them?

While I appreciate that an organisation’s story can unfold slowly over time, I’m also sensing in the stories I gather about employee experiences how the cadence of organisational life has smaller, yet significant, plot twists in the interim. These small stories have a serious impact on the grand narrative. This is the “fast and slow” nature of organisational development. There’s a long game you’ve got to be attuned to, but there’s also a short game you’ve got to be responsive to.

I also don’t buy the argument that staff get frustrated at being asked often how they are feeling about their organisation, except when staff know their voices are being heard but not genuinely listened to. Don’t ask me what I’ve already told you, is a sentiment that is symptomatic of not adapting an organisation’s story to the employee voice. This is Slow paradigm stuff. While an annual staff survey is indeed necessary, gathering key people insights in sparse, periodic bursts is not sufficient in a world that is paradoxically both fast and slow.

Here’s why …

Firstly, surveying staff in sparse, periodic spurts does not provide leadership with the relevant people insights they require to navigate their strategy in real-time. Decision-making in our modern world is becoming quicker, and as such leadership require relevant, real-time, useful insights now. Leaders know that the tools are available to make this happen, so they are less accommodating of traditional, out-of-date ways of collating and analysing key data. Financial data was first in line, but now that BI tools are sorting that out, insights about people, culture, climate, employee value propositions, and organisational health will be next in line. Are you ready to meet this need?

Secondly, our employees are consumers and as such are becoming accustomed to being heard and listened to. Your employees are equipped and willing to easily share and broadcast their experiences, with a concomitant expectation that people are watching the wires, ready to respond rapidly. These same expectations are porting into the employee experience. Along with flatter hierarchies comes a need to have a meaningful say in how the organisation is constituted, and for the organisation to adapt to our needs as employees.

Finally, modernity has given birth to a new era of participation, shifting our positions as characters in the unfolding story of organisations. Employees are no longer simply just recipients of decisions, but expect to be involved and participate as co-creators in the development, sensemaking, implementation and adaptation thereof. The days of the compliant, acquiescent employee are numbered. The dynamic between manager and employee is now a conversation. In fact, the organisation is a conversation! An annual staff survey is as far away from conversation as you can get. Slow paradigm stuff, really.

The solution.

The emerging trend is then to adopt a Continuous Listening Strategy as a means of refreshing how organisations gather, make sense of and implement people insights. These are the characteristics of a good CLS:

  1. Range. Without killing your annual survey (which are quite often holy cows in large organisations) a CLS aims to broaden the range of insight gathering mechanisms from employees, deployed in a more regular cadence in rhythm with operational business and employee life cycles. The current array of mechanisms used includes the annual staff survey, but also relies on regular pulse checks, opinion polls and social media scans.
  2. Social. A good CLS will not only gather feedback from employees, but it will invite and draw them into a conversation at the same time. Seeing my colleagues responses, commenting on the stories, sharing them and discussing them in both face-to-face and virtual spaces is the antidote to the “black-box” of annual surveys, where your individual response disappears after you press enter. Exciting tools are already available that spark scalable online facilitation and involvement for groups of employees participating at large scale in conversations about organisational issues.
  3. Responsive. If you subscribe to the Slow paradigm, leadership’s response to annual surveys will also be, well, annual. Sadly, mobility of talent won’t play by the slow game rules. Responsiveness in the Fast paradigm emphasises quick, small and experimental adaptations to the unfolding storylines from a CLS. The Slow paradigm is married to big, expensive, slow, complicated intervention roll-outs 😉

Appointing a dedicated Chief Listening Officer may be a stretch too far for your organisation, but at the very least you may want to consider appointing someone (*waves hand*) to assist you in developing the strategy and implement the gathering and sensemaking mechanisms that would improve engagement and employee experience in your firm.