Listen up: how to find out what employees really want

Finding effective ways to understand what people really want from their employers is becoming crucial for firms as they struggle to retain skilled staff. Is your company a good listener? 


Taking employee voice seriously will be key to recruitment and retention success in a period defined by widespread skills shortages, high levels of job-switching and the mass uptake of hybrid working.

So says Neil Hayward, who has just come to the end of his four-year tenure as chief people officer on the HS2 railway project. In a world of work that’s transformed since he first became an HR director just over three decades ago, it’s impossible to improve the employee experience “without having embedded the idea that you’re talking – and listening – to your people” into the organisation’s culture. 

For a long time, “UK plc saw people as commodities”, observes Hayward, who is now “going plural” as an independent HR consultant. But the balance of power is shifting towards workers as the nation continues to suffer skills shortages, which will be here “for a long time to come. You can’t just assume that the right people will be out there. You need to keep hold of the ones you have, so employee experience and employee voice will be crucial in the war for talent.”

Yet in many organisations there seems to be a gulf between what employees are experiencing and what their employers think they’re experiencing. For instance, recent research by Gartner has found that, while 75% of senior executives believe that their organisations have a flexible culture, only 57% of their staff agree. Even more tellingly, while 77% of executives say that their employees have opportunities to give feedback on how to improve their experience of work, only 40% of their staff share this view.

You’re missing out if you’re not asking people what they think and understanding what could be done better

Helen Matthews, chief people officer at marketing agency Ogilvy UK, believes that ensuring that everyone’s voices are heard is “critical” in providing a positive employee experience. 

“You can only truly understand the needs and wants of your employees by talking to them – regularly,” she stresses. “Their needs evolve continuously.”

Yves Duhaldeborde, a senior director in Willis Towers Watson’s work and reward business, agrees. He considers it vital to seek feedback from employees to uncover “underlying intelligence and organisational insight. You’re missing out if you’re not asking people what they think and understanding what could be done better.” 

In other words, Hayward says, there are concrete business benefits to be gained from enhancing the employee experience and boosting engagement levels in the process.

“The cumulative weight of research suggests that, as well as offering performance and productivity gains, high levels of employee engagement have a positive impact on retention, innovation and customer service. They reduce absenteeism and make people more likely to be advocates for their organisations too,” he notes. “It’s also clear that engagement affects performance more than the other way round.”

Despite the obvious role that employee voice can play in enabling such engagement, many organisations are failing to make the most of its potential. That’s the view of Alexia Cambon, director of research at Gartner’s HR practice. She believes that a key inhibiting factor is that, “while classic techniques, such as annual surveys, worked when there was a consistent, office-based organisational experience, this static, quantitative approach isn’t helpful in the new working environment, which is very inconsistent.”

Under hybrid models of employment, where people’s locations and working hours can vary widely, the use of listening methods that are more dynamic and qualitative – for instance, frequent ‘pulse surveys’, focus groups and even one-to-one interviews – is becoming increasingly important. 

Matthews, who has adopted such processes at Ogilvy UK, says: “We see employee experience as a live, continuously evolving project. This entails continuously understanding what our employees want, so we look at any mechanism we can to collate feedback.”

Although it has yet to be widely adopted, the concept of segmenting the workforce and asking different groups particular questions has great potential, according to Cambon.

She explains: “It’s how you’ll understand where the gaps, tensions and divergences are, which is important to consider when you’re crafting your employee experience. You’ll never be able to satisfy everyone 100%, but you’ll be able to identify the ‘moments that matter’ for each segment, which creates more emotional investment.”

An important, yet often neglected, aspect of seeking people’s feedback is acting swiftly enough on the information provided and involving employees in implementing any changes. As Duhaldeborde says: “Listening is the easy part. Asking with a clear purpose and intent to act is crucial. Otherwise, you won’t reap the benefits.”

Hayward notes that there’s even a danger that, by raising expectations and not fulfilling them, a company could actually disengage its employees. “If you ask people what they think and then do nothing to address their views, that’s worse than not asking them anything at all,” he warns.

Trust is key in this context, If employees have little faith in their leaders to start with, they will be unwilling to share any useful information. Instead, they’ll either opt out of the process or simply tell their employer what they think it wants to hear.

Cambon’s advice for employers is that “you need to make it feel like a partnership to build something better. When you’re asking people for data, give them a clear reason why that is, stating a clear action plan. So communicate that ‘we’re collecting X data to do Y’, for instance.’

Claire Ross, head of culture and engagement at IT company Advanced, agrees that this can be an effective way to build trust. “Explaining the ‘why’ behind decisions brings understanding, even if people don’t agree with them,” she says. “It’s important to have a leadership team that’s less about pushing its views out and more about having a conversation with staff.”

As a final point, Hayward stresses that all members of the executive team need to be invested in the process of obtaining high-quality feedback from staff.

“The more that this is seen as ‘just an HR issue’, the more likely it is to go wrong,” he warns. “Instead, it has to be rooted in wider strategic business thinking and an awareness that creating a positive culture takes time and effort. You can’t just pay it lip service.”