3 Tips for Understanding Employee Sentiment About Returning to Work

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Over the last few months, you’ve probably received surveys in both your professional and personal email inboxes asking you to share your thoughts about various reopenings. And undoubtedly, they all ask questions like:

1. How many times did you typically work out at our gym each week?

2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to dine in our indoor space?

3. What date would you feel most comfortable returning to our store?

It’s a given that consumer-facing organizations need to run surveys to gauge customer sentiment, especially during such volatile circumstances. But it’s just as important for HR professionals. When it comes to reopening an office, simply following state and federal guidelines isn’t enough.

Whether you’re planning to return in a month, the next quarter, or for 2021, it’s critical to seek feedback from the people this change impacts most: your employees.

While routine employee surveys are designed to highlight top concerns, gauge morale, and inform general decision-making, the stakes are much higher during COVID-19. With HR tackling a sudden and complete shift to remote work, nuanced topics such as work-from-home flexibility and feelings around being in the office are elevated. Employees need their purest voices heard during the reopening process. In turn, leaders need to assess how to meet these objectives, all while satisfying regulations and policy.

With these considerations in mind, here are a few tips on how to most effectively uncover, analyze, and act on insights in employee survey responses.

Seek out open-ended feedback

If you’ve been advised against collecting open-ended feedback from your employees in the past, you aren’t alone. Historically, HR professionals–similar to marketing, customer service, and other non-technical, feedback-heavy functions–have been warned that unstructured text is difficult to analyze. And while there’s some truth to that, recent advances in text analytics have made it easier, faster and more affordable than ever to examine answers to open-ended questions.

Why is this important? Open-ended questions don’t lead or restrict respondents from expressing their true feelings on a topic or concern. When respondents aren’t limited to checking boxes, they’re free to express their underlying sentiment.

Analyze at a high level, and keep an eye out for unexpected detail

Some of the big picture open-ended questions you might ask your employees include:

1. Office vs. WFH: Who would prefer to remain at home versus in the office? Who needs flexibility for childcare and/or eldercare?

2. Timeframe: For those who want to be in the office, when do they feel comfortable returning?

3. Protocol-to-execution gap: How closely aligned with state and federal guidelines are the needs and wants of your employees?

4. Satisfaction: Based on the last employee satisfaction survey, how satisfied is your staff at this moment in time?

5. Employer support: What are the major ways which you, the employer, can help address the wants and concerns of your staff?

Identifying the high-level questions you need to answer helps you frame the actions you’re planning to take against the insights you’re about to discover. For example, if you’re readying the office to be open after September 1, but find that most employees won’t be ready or willing to do so by then, you’ll have to either think through your timeline. Will you want to extend your work from home timeframe, or dig into people’s top concerns about returning to the office and try to address them?

On the flip side, you’re bound to discover some nuances and unexpected surprises in the feedback you receive. Keeping in mind that every employee has gone through an extraordinary time over the last few months – from dealing with sick loved ones to juggling work with childcare–each may have different requests for how they’d like to be supported upon their return. And as an employer, it’s critical that you identify the macro needs of your entire staff, while also taking into consideration underlying factors and details that you may not have surfaced in your initial analysis.

Prioritize the changes that will make a difference to the largest number of employees

Responses to an employee survey will include everything from top fears and concerns about returning to work, to the types of changes employees would most like to see when they get back. Most importantly, you’re going to know how they feel you, the employer, can most effectively support them in their return.

By laying out a roadmap for the top reopening challenges to address first, you’ll be in a great position to map your feedback to high-level goals. Ideally, you’d be able to address each and every one of your employees’ concerns and desires around returning to the office, but there are bound to be some unexpected discoveries. If you can’t address them all at once, start with the most requested items.

For instance, if through the survey you see that the vast majority of your employees want the ability to work from home for a longer period of time, your team could put in place a program that allows people to work from home through the end of 2020, at which point you will look at extending the policy depending on the current conditions.

Here’s where segmentation becomes important. Are you seeing different populations emerge for preferences based on job function, childcare access, or other data? For example, technical teams might prefer to continue working from home, while business functions like sales and marketing might prefer to have in-office face time with each other.

While deciphering employee sentiment is difficult, it doesn’t need to be impossible. With these three key themes–open-ended feedback, high-level insights vs. details, and prioritizing overarching changes—this daunting task becomes an attainable goal. Keeping these considerations in mind, HR professionals will not only better understand employee feelings, but can also exceed employee expectations and needs when it comes to reopening their offices.

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