Now, more than ever, we live in a world where our employees demand to be heard. Read any article you like on the relative virtues and perils of the Millennials now flooding the workforce (and if you want to read one, this one, by Benefex’s very own Gethin Nadin, is a great one to pick), and the theme that comes through loud and clear is that here is a generation who has a voice, and wants it to be heard.
So far, so good. As employers, we’ve likely attempted various techniques in recent years to elicit employee feedback, but have ultimately generally fallen back on that fail-safe approach of the annual employee survey. (And, while we’re on the subject, let’s not knock the annual employee survey too hard here, contrary to what a number of HR practitioners have claimed and written. Much has been made of how the annual touch point is dead and buried, but I actually think there’s a lot to be said for that ‘stick in the ground’ each year. More on that to follow…) Historically, we may well have had workforces who have been reluctant to share their opinion, either through apathy, or through fear of ramifications. Now, allegedly, we have a whole new generation who are champing at the bit to tell us exactly what they think.
So what’s the problem?
The issue here is that, while we know that feedback is A Good Thing… we don’t yet know quite how to handle it. We understand that our employees have a voice, we understand that they want that voice to be heard, and we probably even understand how we can help them to put their thoughts and their ideas forward.
But then what? So they put their ideas forward, they tell you what they believe you need to do as a business in order to transform the employee experience/charm and delight your customer base/sell more goods or services and become more profitable. Having shared their views, they then sit back expectantly and wait for your response. And…?
Where does that feedback go?
Herein lies the challenge. We’ve asked for feedback, and we’ve been given it. I would argue that even the most out of touch organisation can fairly easily introduce a process through which their employees can let you know what they think. The difference therefore, between an organisation who is really, genuinely listening to their employee body, and an organisation who is merely paying lip service… is what happens next. What happens to that feedback? Does it sit in some HR vault somewhere, never to be referenced again? Or, is there a real mechanism to respond to it, to bring it to life, and to find a means of properly reviewing, sharing, and implementing agreed suggestions which are put forward?
You only get one chance
The thing is, you see, you only really get one chance to get this right with the people who work within your business. I am a firm believer that employees are willing to do just about anything for the organisation they work for; provided you don’t give them a compelling reason not to. The studies show that today’s workforce is more willing than ever before to proactively voice their views. We can give them a mechanism to do this, but if, having shared those views, they don’t get a response… they’re highly unlikely to bother to do so again.
What it therefore comes down to is being a little bit careful about what you wish for. Keen to hear what your employees think? Great, but play the movie through to the end first. Let’s imagine you get a fantastic response from them. What processes are you going to put in place to ensure you can respond to that feedback? How are you going to set their expectations regarding how and when you will come back to them? What will you do to prioritise the feedback you receive? And how regularly are you going to ask for that feedback? The trend towards ‘real-time’ feedback is great, but if you don’t have the frameworks in place to also be able to respond to it in real-time, then you are better off sticking to an annual, quarterly or monthly feedback framework, which will allow you to genuinely respond to every piece of feedback which is given. Employee feedback is often touted as the cure for all ills, but, unless handled correctly, it actually creates more issues than it solves. People need to feel that their voice is heard – but that means really heard, and responded to, as opposed to them merely shouting into a void.
When employee feedback really makes a difference
With that framework securely in place, all of a sudden, employee feedback starts to take on a life of its own. Individuals see their feedback being heard, responded to, and acted upon, and become incentivised to provide further feedback, along with other employees who see this feedback loop playing out, and see the mutual benefits which are being delivered as a result. Your employees know then you are listening… and an organisation which truly listens to its people is one which starts to give itself a serious competitive advantage.