Developing listening capabilities for the workplace


As today’s workplace continues to evolve, so, too, do employee priorities, preferences, and opinions. The Great Resignation and the continuing War for Talent are forcing organizations of all sizes and industries to navigate shifting economic pressures and increasingly difficult workforce of retention and engagement challenges. Employees are scrutinizing their benefits, considering their preferences for remote working, and rethinking their career paths. Organizations are also determining what their future workforce will look like, as they weigh the pros and cons of continued remote working.

On top of that, research suggests that over half of employees in the U.S. workforce are disengaged, and approximately 20% indicate that they intend to change jobs within a year. Yet many organizations waste an average of 20% of annual spending offering benefits that may no longer meet their employees’ needs, talent strategies or business priorities.


Fast facts on benefits & total rewards spending
  • Employee benefits are the third largest expense for U.S. organizations
  • Employer contribution health care has increased 22% over the first five years and is expected to continue increasing 5% a year
  • Average cost to replace an employee is approximately 33% of the position’s salary
  • Leading companies are being asked for more clarity into this expense by their board and compensation committees

One of the fundamental ways that organizations can begin to tackle these challenges is to further develop their employee listening capabilities. Effective listening allows organizations to identify strategies that are working well and opportunities to make changes on what matters most to employees. A comprehensive employee listening approach demonstrates that employees are heard, empowered, and valued.

In our recent State of the Work in America study of HR leaders, at least 50% say they’re going to perform various initiatives of employee listening over the next year, regarding business functions such as communication, culture, engagement, onboarding/offboarding, DE&I or total rewards surveys. But will they conduct the appropriate type of employee listening that will provide them with results to make data-driven decisions for their organization?

Before jumping into any employee listening effort, HR leaders should evaluate the key issues to be addressed and tailor an approach to employee listening that best fits the issue.

Many employers consider the key events in an employee’s experience as a framework to guide the topics and timing of recurring listening program. These events might include:

  • Moments that impact productivity: New hire onboarding, changes in tools, process, job change, exiting employees
  • Moments that impact compensation or rewards decisions: Performance, merit-pay, pay transparency, internal development opportunities and career pathing

For example, an employee survey may be appropriate if an organization is looking at how to modify its benefit or rewards package, as it can be used to learn how employees will respond to changes in features and what features are key for different employee segments. We have found that employee preference optimization studies create realistic “forced choice” trade-offs that an organization is considering when understanding employee preferences can be valuable. These surveys, or conjoint studies, ask employees to choose from competing packages.

Results from an optimization study models the trade-offs employees make by identifying the items that are crucial to have and those that are nice to have. It also determines the sensitivity to change, forecasts plan acceptance, and models preferences by any segment of employee population.

Other applications of ongoing surveys that employers use as part of their employee listening program include identifying those factors that are important to joining or leaving their company, employee satisfaction and engagement, or even how they view annual enrollment. When administered on a recurring basis, these studies can help identify drivers of satisfaction or engagement as well as program evaluation trends.

Other forms of employee listening efforts gather and systematically monitor more qualitative sources, including interviews, focus groups, leadership town hall meetings, internal social media channels, external social media, collaboration tools and social networks. Finally, today’s emerging workplace technologies generate a vast amount of data that can be incorporated into employee listening. These include streams of data to decode wants, needs and concerns, as well as predict concerns or issues before they reach escalation levels.

Finally, to help determine what type of employee listening approach to deploy, an organization should carefully review the issues to be addressed, the listening technique that is best fit for the purpose, and whether different methods are needed to include all critical work segments.

As human resource leaders strive to navigate the dynamic business environment, there is an elevated need to engage and communicate with the workforce to inform and manage expectations. In many cases, this has required organizations to accelerate their employee listening capabilities to gain a broader perspective of shifting needs, priorities and expectations.

The management challenge of engaging the workforce in broader management decisions about the workplace is not new. However, similar to other movements, we are likely at a breaking point with respect to how we manage internal communications. At the same time, the competitive landscape has elevated the need for employers to elevate their game to attract candidates and confidently explain their rationale for change.



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