Best practices of active and passive employee listening from the 20+ top People Analytics and HR experts.
by blending quantitative data with passive and active listening in the hybrid reality.
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Many businesses put creating exceptional employee experience high on their priority list as it directly positively impacts employee engagement and retention. Remote and hybrid revolution and its challenges made it to one of the key business imperatives across the globe.www.linkedin.com/in/anita-zbieg
– 64% of employees are willing to leave without another job lined up. (MCKINSEY, 2021)
– challenges of hybrid work: collaboration & cognitive overload, context switching, no quality deep work time, (HBR, 2021), eroded connectivity and peer-to-peer learning, cross-team knowledge brokerage, alignment & cohesion. (NATURE, 2021)
Over the past decade, companies have treated active listening (the process of proactively listening to opinions) as the main source of employee feedback. However, to get a full, more objective overview of the employee experience, it’s vital to add passive listening (a method of using data on work patterns from a company’s communication and collaboration ecosystem) to this equation.
A timely evolution from Employee Listening 1.0 – basic annual engagement surveys, to 4.0 – continuous response action platforms as depicted in the illustration below, seems to be critical for a continuous improvement of the employee experience and thus for making sure employees feel heard out and genuinely cared for.
With that in mind, we’ve decided to create a one of a kind resource on how to do a cross analysis of quantitative people data with quality active listening methods and emerging passive listening tools and insights. We’ve reached out to People Analytics experts to learn how they blend quantitative data with passive and active listening in the hybrid reality, and contributed our very own, diverse, practical Network Perspective team experience. In this ebook, we also share the key lessons we at the Network Perspective team have learned through over 10 years of conducting Organizational Network Analytics (ONA).
Annual engagement survey
Focus on benchmarking
Pulse surveys with mobile access
Focus on feedback
MOBILE, EASY TO USE
Intelligent dashboards and action plans
Focus on behavior change
USEFUL DATA & LEARNING
Continuous response action platforms
Focus on action, also preemptive
INSTRUMENTED ACTIONS AND ALERTS
based on Bersin (2020), Employee Experience 4.0: Shortening The Distance From Signal To Action (joshbersin.com/2020/11/employee-experience-4-0-closing-the-loop-from-signal-to-action)
Active listening to employees using surveys has revolutionised employee experience a decade ago. It’s now passive listening that’s coming into play – at a large scale.
revolves around data gathered with surveys, and focuses on asking employees about their experiences, perceptions, opinions, and feelings.
methods use data from a company’s communication and collaboration ecosystem (e.g. e-mail, calendar, chat, code repository, system for project management) and describe work habits and patterns with big data.
Passive listening complements active listening methods and gives an additional, invaluable, objective lense on collaboration practices. While the latter tells us what people think and how they feel, passive listening tells us why they likely feel the way they do in terms of collaboration, teamwork, individual work and many others.
Since active listening revolutionized employee experience a decade ago, it’s high time to further explore the potential of passive listening. Both Microsoft and Google are introducing passive listening solutions to analyse employee work habits. As the two giants begin the race, it’s time for People Analytics experts to closely investigate the risks and limitations associated with both, active and passive listening.
With hybrid working now a reality around the world, HR now has the opportunity to embed People Analytics in all areas of the business, and allow the Employee Experience to guide strategy at the highest level. Identifying the underlying networks and motivational drivers of a workforce will help organisations better attract and retain talent and provide a competitive edge, and this has never been a more critical business priority than it is now. 2022 can be a monumental year for HR.
The time has now come for organisations to seriously connect and listen to their workforce. The pandemic has impacted upon everyone across the globe in some way, and people no longer feel as reliant upon their organisations as they used to. Employee listening strategies are even more vital now to fully understand how the workforce is feeling and it is the analysis of that data that can provide insights that are not obviously apparent. Ignore this data at your peril!
It’s time to think about the gains and limitations of active AND passive listening.
I believe that the time has come to ask People Analytics experts and HR practitioners about the lessons they’ve learned so far in their employee listening projects. It would be particularly interesting to collate insights from active listening (surveys) and passive listening (data from company’s communication and collaboration ecosystem).
When you think of it, whom do we need more than People Analytics experts? They’re well equipped to teach us about the most ethical ways of measuring work analytics in a remote/hybrid setting. We should put their huge experience and knowledge to use!
In this resource, you’ll find insights that we’ve collected from several dozen practitioners. We’ve asked them about their opinions and lessons learned in the area of active and passive people data collection.
I also share some of the findings we, as the Network Perspective team, have learned throughout the last 10 years of conducting Organizational Network Analysis. We’ve engaged in both passive and active listening, and believe that both of these methods are complementary towards one another when it comes to listening to people and measuring their work experiences.
Active listening is the process of proactively seeking to hear out the employees, to listen to their ideas and opinions. You put in all the necessary effort to fully comprehend the other party’s perspective. In terms of people, network, and workplace analytics, it circles around gathering the data from a number of sources. We mention some of the most common active listening methods below.
Asking simple questions, and waiting for written responses
We run employee listening surveys among subsets of our employees on a quarterly basis. Our team leaders can launch their own Engagement Pulse survey, if needed. We then research and analyse this data at a large scale to provide aggregate insights to our leaders on areas such as engagement, leadership, and team performance.
Listening in an individual talk
Regular one-on-ones with your direct reports are invaluable in building relationships and culture, provided they’re done right as in structured and weekly. They can also be a way of gaining better insights into your organisation. Then learnings from other sources of data, linked to people, can help re-frame questions, bring out insights and strengthen understanding. And combining these activities can help drive more effective and impactful strategic workforce planning strategies.
Listening in a group talk
Our senior leaders conduct their informal touch points (aka “AMA” sessions) with employees across the organization. Additionally, people managers also have an opportunity to collect feedback during their 1-on-1s and performance reviews with their team members.
Focus groups are a fantastic way to get the context behind the data, and often provide another dimension into the story. For example, most companies conduct exit surveys and interviews for employees leaving the organization. People Analytics can identify employee pockets within the company who are most likely to leave, and partner with HR business partners to conduct stay interviews in focus groups. By conducting these focus groups preemptively, we can discover why these employees may consider leaving and what is convincing them to stay. During analyses like these, we must be cautious to not over-index on specific groups, and still keep the overall study diverse.
Let’s now look at the possible gains and limitations associated with active listening among remote/hybrid teams.
Active listening is a perfect method of gaining subjective data. It’s an irreplaceable way of talking to your employees on a large scale, and lets you in on their opinions, perceptions, and feelings.
Due to its proactive nature, people feel they are being listened to.
The very act of listening is the first step towards change (people start thinking about the problem and solving it).
Online format is fantastic when it comes to big town halls, and for all other big group meetings. Before the move to hybrid work, town halls were set on the headquarters premises. Due to technical limitations, there was a very limited number of people who could participate. The digital town halls we see today are much more efficient, as they are able to accommodate as many people as possible, with room for asking as many questions as deemed necessary.
If surveys are conducted without employee anonymity, there is a high risk for employee privacy, or limited employee honesty for that matter.
Comparing results among teams (leaders do not feel good when they are compared to one to another, even if their teams deliver great results).
Some people will not express their opinions in surveys, or discussions due to limited capacity, bad experiences with giving feedback or some other reasons – they will just ignore them, and the results might not show the whole picture of a given phenomenon, or can be biased.
You know how people feel, but you often don’t know why they feel a certain way, they often are not able to pinpoint it themselves.
Subjective data seen as opinions rather than facts are not easy to implement – discussing opinions takes time and delays implementation of changes.
I always suggest to start with the business objectives. HR people should articulate how the analytics and the actions flowing from it will improve the business.
Keeping a 2-way communication stream at the beginning, during and at the end of the process is crucial to ensure the overall employee experience is successful (and positive). There is nothing worse than losing the trust and buy-in of your people if there isn’t a smooth and regular flow of information.
This is a way too common issue in traditional office set ups, which means it could be even a bigger challenge in a fully distributed or hybrid environment.
Many organizations conduct employee surveys in silos, with different HR teams owning an individual survey. Decentralizing surveys in this manner makes it more difficult to see the whole picture about the employee experience and sentiment. By creating an overarching survey strategy that ties back to the company culture and values, we can connect the dots across the employee lifecycle, from attracting candidates to employee exits.
Passive listening is a one-way method of collecting insights, where you use the data describing work patterns directly from company’s communication and collaboration ecosystem or you use other types of data you possess. You don’t actively ask employees about their work or opinions, but passively listen to the digital traces of their work or opinions.
Analytics and graphic visualization of interactions between employees, cohorts, teams (who’s interacted with whom, and when), or other objects.
Data is gathered from company’s work ecosystem such as Office 365, G-suite, Slack, or Jira.
It allows teams to gain insight into verified collaboration and work patterns within and across teams, such as collaboration overload, deep work time, and work-life balance.
We’ve started ONA with active, survey-based data collection. Over the last two years, we’ve also been collecting and analysing email data. We use these insights to build and nurture our friendly collaboration culture, and make sure that it’s supported by data.
We collect data from our colleagues on every touchpoint in their employee life-cycle, but collecting and analyzing active listening data is not enough to build a better employee experience. Therefore, we gave access to every people-manager, directly to their team analytics (not raw data), and we built frameworks for them to take action on their results, thus allowing them to own their team analytics results and be the main drivers for people experience improvement, and giving us access to passive listening data revolving around their behaviour with the actions for improvement they set and take. When you need to cross a river and there is no bridge, you build one!
Sentiment analysis is conducted by analyzing data in text format. The content can come, for instance, from employees’ responses to open-ended survey questions, or public chats written in company intranet. The analysis is conducted to gain insights about employees’ positive or negative opinions on specific topics.
We run confidential content pipeline analysis of survey responses and comments protecting individual privacy. While running our scheduled study, we focus and look for traits of ten basic emotions and causes of the emotions. We measure the advanced sentiment on a 5-point scale, and seek to understand what makes people feel like the way they work (e.g. feeling happy with their current role/ manager). Incorporated into our content analyses Network Analytics allows us to better understand how opinions fall into specific thematic clusters.
Active listening usually provides us with results that we already knew about. It only changes the magnitude of the reported sentiment by X%. However, the real sentiment scale can be known by using passive listening techniques. For the best results, the analysis should be done around certain topics, all the while protecting employee privacy and anonymity at the highest possible rate.
Let’s now look at the possible gains and limitations associated with active listening among remote/hybrid teams.
Objective data on work habits, patterns, roadblocks, opinions & sentiment, and time management,
When done ethically, on a team-level only, people feel they’re listened to and supported with insights they would have no other way of getting through self-reflection,
More powerful, evidence-based triggers for change; people usually are more convinced by objective numbers and feel the need to question them less frequently,
Continuous measurement is a long-term, large-scale mechanism for change (people start thinking about the problem and solving it, and even if they go back to their old ways, they seek to correct them),it also, with time, provides invaluable predictive and prescriptive insights that help prevent/mitigate some undesirable outcomes of suboptimal collaboration habits.
We think a lot about and work on building smart hybrid teams, developing new resilience, reshaping our communication and the way we collaborate.
Relational Analytics is not only about connecting, breaking down silos and identifying key role players whilst solving business outcomes; it is also about providing actionable insights back to teams to help improve wellbeing, trust and collaboration throughout the workplace.
The next few years will see significant advancements in passive listening, and describing collaboration is the best direction I can imagine.
How we manage our time, energy and networks strongly influences our health and performance. Capabilities for mapping our digital activities to these 3 critical dimensions keep rapidly expanding. For People Analytics, developing proficiency in harnessing these signals from passive data in ethical actionable ways represents an increasingly important differentiator for improving employee and customer experiences in the hyper-connected world of hybrid work.
The rise of modern digital collaboration platforms like email, instant messaging, online meetings, shared documents, or project management tools has pushed our ability to navigate our social environment to the limit. These tools have created many new connections through which communication and collaboration can take place, and also enlarged the overall volume of collaboration activities. Nowadays it is thus very difficult for management to orient themselves within the scale of collaboration traffic in their company, make appropriate adjustments to the way employees work together, and achieve desired improvements in employee experience and productivity. On the other hand, the digital trails we leave behind on these platforms can be used in combination with appropriate tools such as ONA to measure, analyze, and ideally optimize our communication and collaboration patterns in terms of our wellbeing and productivity.
One huge benefit of passive listening is the rapid, low-cost collection of objective behavioral data regarding social interactions. However, there are notable risks, one of which is building trust and belief in the approach among end users.
Employee preferences have realigned towards wellbeing, mental health, work-life balance, etc. after the pandemic. Companies have to adapt to the new ways of working and Organizational Network Analysis will be the most sought-after area in people analytics. It will help discover the unknown patterns emerging in new work settings.
Analytics run on a per employee level put employees’ privacy at a risks.
Analytics that don’t have the high security mechanisms create security risks.
Analytics that are not used for positive interventions, don’t serve employees and aren’t transparent, can be detrimental to your organization.
Analytics that aren’t communicated only as a help in decision making process, that cannot be challenged by people, and are not conducted in a bias-free way may result in discrimination.
If you want to do any passive listening, you must be always mindful of all aspects of data privacy.
Maintaining a strong focus on developing and instilling ownership in the path to action is critical. This starts with proactively facilitating the necessary conversations to reconcile business priorities around stakeholder objectives and capabilities. Putting in the work up front to establish a shared commitment to an inspiring achievable vision provides the foundation for effective design and execution.
When people see and experience the benefits, it generates “pull”, driving the evolution of People Analytics through virtuous cycles of trust.
What are some of my thoughts on passive listening?
1. The people in the organization should be at the center, not the employer.
2. Passive listening cannot be spying and not be “employee monitoring”.
3. Passive listening should not be the sole method. It can be a powerful part of a holistic “listening” architecture.
4. Employees are changing from submissive order takers to independent co-creators. How does passive listening help co-creators?
5. Listening to whom? Scope is important; do not only listen to employees, but also to flexible workforce, candidates, clients, community, society etc.
6. Total transparency is key.
ONA in itself is not the panacea to challenges facing the HR community but rather another tool that can shade a different light onto an already identified business problem. The ethical use of ONA requires collaboration and assessment with your legal & compliance department prior to analyzing anything; it’s not because one can analyze something that one should analyze it.
You can learn more about ethics and trust in our dedicated resources below:
4 pillars of ethics & trust in big data People Analytics
Ethics, safety, and trust in People Analytics – best practices and examples to draw inspiration from
Communicate WHY, make action plans, and deliver – so people know their voice matters.
Put the dialogue into the right context & use different channels and tools to encourage discussions.
Talk frequently – as the reality is changing very fast.
Let employees talk to teammates from different seniority levels & groups – seniors, peers, and juniors.
If you want to reach a high level of engagement from people in completing surveys, make sure they understand its purpose. Employees need to actually feel that their voice is being taken into account and making a real impact on the implementation of specific changes.
Business / Topic customization is the key in active listening to extract useful information. People should feel that their opinions count and we genuinely not just listen to them, but understand and act towards improvements. It’s about hearing out each individual, and ML helps to do it. Think of it less as a survey, and more like a conversation at scale. Once you customize the questions, the passive approach (e.g. text mining, sentiment analysis, Network analytics and ML) is beneficial, as you’ll now start to measure what the approach is at a larger scale.
Build a rock-solid communication from your HR AND management, alignment on the WHY is your end goal. There’s no such thing as over communicating new practices in your organization.
Use different methods of reaching employees – the easier it is for them to provide feedback, the more likely they are to do it. This means accounting for the various preferred communication channels and tools.
Different people like different channels to share opinions, concerns or emotions. Some people like surveys, as they are quick and easy to respond to, others are more comfortable in sharing their deep inner feelings in a conversation rather than writing/ typing it.
We often analyse surveys in isolation. Interconnection of multiple surveys to see patterns over time can be really insightful. Also, a wealth of information is available on job boards as employer reviews. There are sophisticated algorithms to perform sentiment analysis of the same.
For instance, you can use Yammer to create different channels and groups, and use the neighbourhood feature to share personal experiences and expectations.
Obviously, some employees may hesitate to share their candid feedback when they speak with some senior leaders. It’s all about trust, walking the talk and psychological safety in your organization.
Another important factor worth accounting for is that the hybrid work reality changes dramatically. That’s why it’s worth staying constantly in touch. And making it easy to share opinions through formats that are not overwhelming in terms of time investment needed or complexity of feedback expected.
We use a recognition platform (kudos) to strengthen the links between the different work teams, regardless of the area in which they are located.
Employee listening is today like customer feedback has always been. They say the customer is always right, so it is also with employees. The voice of the employee is one that in today’s environment, companies must treat as gold.
Protect the privacy of individuals.
Describe experiences, not people.
Focus on teams and share habits of the high performing ones.
Democratize results and provide valuable feedback, not just data.
Use passive analytics only for positive interventions.
You can think about protecting the privacy of people at every single stage of active listening: data gathering, processing, showing the results, and many others.
For example – when you think about ONA, you can limit yourself to metadata only to describe the traces of interactions. Don’t download the interaction content, and make sure that the metadata is hashed or encrypted, as it ensures the desired level of anonymity. All the stats should be limited to the team level or groups of minimum five individuals to ensure ethicality. The results should be shown in a feedback / key insights / recommendations form for a leader and their team, without any private data.
Here’s where maintaining balance can be challenging. If you don’t give leaders enough numbers, they will not trust your insights. If you give them too many, they’ll refuse to use it because of privacy concerns.
We applied this principle while analyzing the data of a company employing 5,000 people before, during, and after the pandemic. In our research, we noticed that leaders spend 34- 44 hours weekly in meetings. This represents a 100% increase to the numbers prior to the pandemic! It’s not the leaders who have changed, it’s their experiences.
What else did we find out? The data showed clearly that managers are overloaded with collaboration – this includes both meetings and synchronous collaboration. In contrast, an average employee spends 16 hours in meetings weekly. If you want to explore this subject further, then here is a dedicated article that we wrote: Oxygen mask for leaders first. Three lessons learned from advanced People Analytics.
It’s vital to focus on employee experiences (such as number of hours spent on meetings per week) rather than their individual characteristics (such as age, sex, or tenure). This is the approach we follow at Network Perspective.
If you want your organization to thrive, then you should build high performing teams. At Network Perspective, we analyzed 8,000 observations of team-level work habits categorized into 10 areas and 80 metrics. We compared them with 300 team-level observations of work done by highly performing teams. Here is what we discovered:
A company can build a really strong competitive advantage by evolving toward the best agile work habits and routines. If you have good leadership and a culture adapted to the hybrid reality, you are much better equipped to perform better and attract the best talent than your competitors. Especially now, in the huge transition we’re experiencing.
For leaders to be able to benefit from people analytics, they need more than access to data. They need actionable insights, feedback and recommendations which will not only provide them with stats related to their team’s current work habits but also some points of reference that will show them if these numbers are acceptable are not.
At Network Perspective, we’ve come up with Work Smart Index and Work Smart Reference Ranges for every single metric to help leaders understand how far from high performing teams their teams are. And we equip them with recommended actions they may consider to improve the areas that are out of a given range.
This fills the informational gap we’ve heard about from a Product Owner at an e-commerce company of over 4,000 employees.
Too often, people analytics is used in passive, reactive ways to deliver point-in-time, static data and metrics to leaders. We need to collectively shift the mindset to viewing people analytics as a strategic, proactive mechanism for providing leaders with insights that enable their organizational strategy.
The numbers describing my team are interesting, but how do I know if they’re good or bad? Firstly, I need some reference points to know if I should improve or not. Secondly, I need some tips on how to improve.
Organizations are changing constantly and need to adapt to new scenarios easily, efficiently and with the least possible disruption to their operations. To do this, leaders must have information that allows them to understand the momentum and respond to it in order to make the best decisions in People Management.
When talking about the measurement of employee experiences, or whatever other employee behavior or HR practice, I see practitioners struggling with the definition of terms. In research we then call this the conceptualization. I therefore truly encourage professionals to upskill themselves in conceptual modelling. How you define some phenomenon or practice – how clearly, how specific – determines what actual data you will collect. And that determines the outcomes, the – presumable – insights, and in the end the impact you will or won’t make. Garbage in garbage out.
The impact the data & insights make on people should be only positive.
The most important point in passive analytics is to use it for positive interventions.
Recommendations for positive interventions should ideally be structured around insights on specific work habits dimensions (illustration below). Every of those dimensions has its integral components that we can then zoom in on to see how aspirational ranges and our actual work patterns compare, and what actions we can potentially consider to improve those patterns and impact teams productivity and/or well-being & development.
Every single metric is describing the experience of a work week for an average team member. It depicts the experience for an abstract team member, while protecting the privacy of individuals. This approach serves also for normalizing the results across different teams and different points in time.
Creating the synergy by cross-analyzing quantitative people data with passive and active listening insights.
Even the best quality quantitative people data combined with great qualitative insights from active employee listening (that is by its very nature subjective) will not show us the full picture, especially in remote/hybrid settings. Having worked at and scaled dynamic tech organisations I learned (also the hard way) how vital is multi angle cross-analysis of up-to date quantitative people data, active listening insights and passive listening (organisation network analysis). ONA is in my view the invaluable missing link that enables the synergy effect of all these data sources.
Quantitative people data, combined with active listening insights of increasing quality is what most people centric companies have been already heavily investing in. As some examples in the illustration below show, in the hybrid reality, they should ideally be further complemented by passive listening (ONA) data to give us an evidence based, unbiased view of the employee experience related to every day work habits, routines and rituals.
We strongly believe that only this full picture view enables synergy of people and collaboration insights-based improvements to employee experience that translate into tangible and less tangible but invaluable improvement to org culture, ways of working and ultimately business outcomes.
Recognizing the power of triangulation in improving the validity and relevance of insights from data offers perspective for incorporating passive data into the People Analytics “toolbox.” Standard reporting captures inputs and outcomes. Active data adds beliefs and perceptions. Passive data introduces a powerful third dimension incorporating dynamic objective measures of people’s interactions. Developing proficiency in ethically integrating all three complementary data dimensions greatly increases the ability of People Analytics groups to inform positive change.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Albert Hirschman’s 1970 classic, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty,” seems to have been written for times like this. Whenever an organization faces difficulties, its members have three options: leave, stay but voice their grievances, or stay and not say anything out of loyalty. Amidst the Great Resignation, employers are well-advised to listen to their employees - more often, more carefully, and with genuine concern. Combining active and passive listening and acting quickly on signals extracted from the listening to the employees’ benefit gives employees a voice, prevents their exit, and builds loyalty.
There is so much data being generated today. The #Peopledata – #HRdata space is impacted too. The volume of data is so much that we truly have to remember to “Spot the People in the Data”.
If we open ourselves to a combination of listening methods like ONA, 1-on-1s, and virtual town halls, among many others, we are much more likely to avoid falling victim to the employee well-being and organization performance information gap. However, what we should always remember is the PeopleFirst approach.
As a Network Perspective team, we have learned many lessons through over 10 years of conducting Organizational Network Analysis (ONA).
We see that many companies still don’t know how to implement ONA tools in their companies in an ethical and impactful way. And how imperative it is in the hybrid reality.
That’s why we’ve created this e-book - to share the lessons we’ve learned and combine them with experiences from other experts and practitioners in the people function and people analytics community.
We’ve developed a Network Perspective analytical software with a mission to give people leaders data & insights about their teams’ collaboration habits. The aim is to enable people-centric & high performing hybrid organizations. With strong ethics upfront.
Companies that use our application benefit from analytics describing experiences, which have impact on the two key dimensions: teams’ healthy efficiency and wellbeing. We analyze, among other things: collaboration overload, meetings time & quality, deep work time & context switching by work interruptions, work-life harmony, leaders’ guidance, teams’ routines and rituals, cross-team collaboration, and collaborative learning.
If you’d like to talk about the ethical and impactful use of passive listening or contribute to the second version of the ebook we are preparing, please contact us. We’d love to chat.
More about us and our team: www.networkperspective.io/about-us