New Ways to listen

The New Way to Listen to Employees

In a world of analytics, workplace surveys are going extinct. If you really want to learn about the people in your organization, you’ll need to start monitoring them—with their permission. 

By Brian Kropp, Ph.D.

For as long as you’ve been tasked with learning about your employees, you’ve undoubtedly used large-scale surveys to get the job done. In 2016, almost 90 percent of companies had some version of this approach in place to better understand what employees were thinking, feeling, and experiencing about where they worked. While some organizations have conducted pilot projects to collect similar insights, this has clearly been the predominant approach.

But real change isn’t just on the horizon—it’s already here. In the past two years, our researchers have started to see a steady decline in the number of companies using these large-scale survey instruments, and a steady increase in the amount of organizations beginning to experiment with more technology-driven techniques. 

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In fact, the rate of change is so fast that more companies are now likely using technology-driven approaches to listen to their employees rather than rely on traditional survey-based methods to ask them about their experiences.

That doesn’t leave you a lot of time to prepare for the imminent revolution. So what will it look like, and how can you get ready?

Imagine this futuristic scenario that could actually play out in your office sooner than you think: As an employee sits at his desk, the camera in his laptop senses his mood through facial recognition technology, the thermostat in his office measures his body temperature to assess his stress levels, and his keyboard measures his anxiety levels based on how hard he’s typing.

Using this information, the employee’s smart desk then adjusts the images he sees on his computer screen, suggests whether or not he should take a break from his daily duties, and makes other intelligent adjustments in his environment to create a better overall working experience for him.

While these technologies are rapidly being introduced into the workplace, HR hasn’t yet caught up to them. Your job, then, will be to turn all the powerful new data into actionable insights that you can use to create a better experience for employees. And the first step is learning how to think differently about what type of employee data you collect and how you manage it.

The difficulty of this quest, of course, is compounded by increasing regulatory scrutiny over privacy and data protection.

HR heads will need to balance this growing capability with the risks of infringing on privacy concerns by setting new expectations with employees around what data will be collected, how it will be used, and what course of action employees can take to address grievances. However, as our research shows, organizations have actually become more risk-averse than they need to be.

In other words, it’s time to stop believing you shouldn’t use these tools because employees don’t want to be monitored. 

Instead, you need to start asking a bigger question: How do you use the tools in a way that not only meets the needs of the company to improve performance, but also meets employee expectations about how we manage their information?

The New New Analytics Area

Many HR functions already have plans to invest in existing or new digital and analytics capabilities. Our research indicates the following:

• 66 percent of HR functions are expected to further increase their investments in talent analytics over the next 3 years. 

• 44 percent of HR functions plan to embed analytics into employees’ workflows, enabling them to receive and act on business intelligence in real time. 

• 44 percent of HR functions plan to customize employees’ digital workspaces (i.e., digital tools and work systems) to their unique needs or work styles.

This is a far cry from HR’s traditional approach of understanding employees through large-scale employee engagement surveys. The advent of talent analytics, however, has opened a new world of possibilities for the HR function to generate insights from data to drive decision making in the business.

The biotech company Genentech, for example, created a model predicting voluntary turnover among employees living around its Bay Area headquarters by measuring the time they spent commuting to and from work.

Then there’s the international consumer goods giant Unilever, which has developed a cultural listening platform that monitors and analyzes real-time information about its employees. This platform has allowed HR to identify immediate interventions and coach the executive team on issues related to the organization’s culture.

Armed with this new ability and the potential benefits that it can bring in terms of making better talent decisions, organizations are dramatically shifting the types of data they collect and analyze for talent management activities, including fitness metrics, calendar usage, social media usage, organizational network analysis, and internal emails and phone transcripts.

This is very different from just two years ago, when HR functions relied mostly on data from traditional employee surveys. In fact, when compared to the prevalence of data used in talent management activities in 2016 and grouped into broad categories, one trend is immediately apparent: HR is moving away from active data collection, where it engages employees through surveys and focus groups, to passive data collection, where it analyzes data continuously collected in systems and workplace sensors.

It might be tempting to think that you no longer need to ask employees for their data. The truth is communication and expectation management between employers and employees have both become more important than ever before.

Employee Monitoring: Perceptions v. Realities

The need to balance business value with the risk of employee backlash will become greater as HR increasingly uses data that didn’t require approval by employees when collected.

If the expectations around HR’s digital capabilities aren’t managed properly beforehand, events where employee data is misused, abused, or leaked due to lack of protection can set off a firestorm of negative reactions among the workforce—not to mention regulators and society.

While managing this risk remains vital, our research shows this has led to more risk aversion among organizations when there are, in fact, great opportunities.

We asked hundreds of organizations and thousands of employees around the world about employee data collection for talent management activities.

This data included past employee experiences like background checks; publicly available professional data like LinkedIn profiles; employee medical data such as exam records and benefits enrollment information; work computer usage data; calendar usage data; employee fitness data; publicly available social media data like Facebook profiles; text in internal messaging systems and employee emails; transcripts from internal phone systems; employee genetic data like genetic tests; and employee biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition.

In short, we found the percentage of employees who accept, or are ambivalent about, their data being collected is higher than the percentage of organizations that actually collect such data.

Across almost every category of data collection that we could imagine, more employees found it was acceptable for their employer to use that data than found it unacceptable.

The only situation that was different was employee genetic data. Even with this highly sensitive data, almost 20 percent of employees were still comfortable with their employer having that information, while roughly 33 percent were uncomfortable.

While we aren’t able to measure how these preferences have been changing through time, based on the conversations that we’ve had with employees across companies, they’re more comfortable with this information being used now than they were in the past.

Even stronger than looking at isolated approaches, when asked whether organizations had “the right to monitor and listen to all communications that take place at work and on work-provided technology platforms,” and whether such a practice would “make the workplace better for me,” about half of the employees we surveyed were evenly split in agreeing and disagreeing; the other half were neutral.

There are two important caveats here. The first is a geographic difference. The data holds true across most regions except for Europe, where only 20 percent of employees believe their organization has the right to monitor their communications. This difference is likely a reflection of cultural differences and legislation about data privacy.

The second caveat is a level difference. Senior leaders are dramatically more likely to indicate that it’s acceptable for the organization to monitor their communications compared to individual contributors (36 percent compared to 12).

More concerning: Only 12 percent of individual contributors think this sort of approach will translate into a better workplace for them. But when we compare the views of employees where HR clearly communicates and manages the expectations of the workforce, we see a large increase (46 percent) in employees in favor of social listening at work. We also see these increases in the segments of the workforce that are the most skeptical (Europe and individual contributors).

While there will always be a small percentage of employees who will remain concerned about privacy, this doesn’t mean their concerns should prevent the organization from pushing forward with new listening approaches. To be clear, those concerns absolutely need to be addressed. But you can overcome them with the right strategies.

As the workplace continues to digitalize, you’ll be able to shift your data collection techniques from asking employees about their experiences and expectations to listening to what they’re saying and watching what they’re doing. It will be crucial to use this data to generate key insights for the business.

While employees still have significant concerns about how their employers track them and their behaviors, our data indicates that employees are starting to become more comfortable with this reality.

In employees’ lives outside of work, they’ve become accustomed to different organizations tracking them and then providing an improved customer experience for them. So why not HR?

The door is wide open to take advantage of these new technologies and approaches to improve employee experience and performance. But they’ll only work if you also tell your employees exactly what you’re collecting, exactly how you’re using it, and exactly how you’ll make their lives better.

Brian Kropp, Ph.D., is the group vice president for Gartner’s HR practice. He works with chief human resources officers, heads of compensation, and heads of benefits to develop strategic plans to attract, manage, and retain their top talent. Before joining Gartner, he worked in a variety of roles, conducting different types of economic analyses to drive critical business outcomes.