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Article | EX Insights

COVID-19: How should we approach employee listening?

Talent|Health and Benefits
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Stephen Young | March 26, 2020

In times of crisis, employees want to be heard. Surveys provide the opportunity to learn about their concerns and demonstrate that leadership cares about their wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic places us in extraordinary times. While this is not the first global crisis that organizations have faced, the nature of this uncertainty is different. It involves health and wellbeing; it is far more personal and far less predictable.

This is a time when compassion and careful listening are at their most necessary. So how should we approach employee listening, and what are we hearing from the market? Four factors are emerging:

  1. Companies are maintaining their listening strategies – Now, more than ever, is the time to listen.
  2. Response rates remain high – Indeed some clients with locations that have experienced significant disruption (e.g. China) are experiencing higher than normal response rates - colleagues want to be heard and share their views.
  3. Regular COVID-19 Pulse Surveys will become vital – Clients are moving rapidly to agile and continuous listening. We have a COVID-19 Pulse Survey, to help.
  4. People want to connect – New technologies, such as Virtual Focus Groups will become more normal. Now is the time to embrace agile and continuous listening.

Listening shows you care

As a rule, listening to employees during distressing and unpredictable times is an important signal that you care. It helps demonstrate that you want to understand how to help reduce anxiety and build trust. Employees are experiencing a range of concerns about their wellbeing, how to cope if they fall ill or simply how they will get work done if offices close and travel is restricted.

Should we survey?

  • As we learned during the financial crisis, leadership needs to hear from employees “now, more than ever,” and employees need an opportunity to voice their views.
  • Postponing surveys could send the wrong message to employees, erode trust and possibly exacerbate the anxiety that employees are feeling.
  • In fact, leadership should want to see data on the impact of the current crisis and be prepared when the board of directors asks for it.
  • Of course, in cases where there are immediate pressing needs, a short pause may be appropriate. But don’t allow coronavirus to become an excuse for longer-term inaction.
  • The decision boils down to whether you want to demonstrate you are operating “business as usual” as much as possible.

Companies are maintaining their listening strategies

  • Across our global client base, of those who have planned enterprise surveys in the next couple of months, the vast majority are proceeding as planned.
  • We don’t recommend wholesale content change, but we do recommend a pivot to include some of our COVID-19 Pulse Survey, items such as: “There is good coordination in my work unit on how we should respond to the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on the work we do.”

What impact might we see on response rates and scores?

  • Providing your surveys are online, we do not expect significant impact on response rates.
  • Indeed, in one global client with a survey live in the field in the middle of the crisis, their Chinese business had the highest participation (87%) of all. Clearly employees were relishing the chance to share their voices.
  • Paper surveys of course will be harder to administer if employees are working remotely.
  • Be prepared that scores on certain topics such as operating efficiency and enablement may be impacted by the crisis. However, this is a moment for leadership to shine, and there is no reason for scores on leadership effectiveness or purpose to decline.
  • Either way, your leaders will value understanding the impact on employees and be better able to manage through the crisis based on data and insight.

Regular COVID-19 Pulse Surveys will become vital

Many clients are rapidly pivoting to regular COVID-19 Pulse Surveys. We have designed a COVID-19 Pulse Survey that is available now to all our clients. It is based on our research on the impact on employee experience from China and around the world. It is a concise 20 item survey and covers:

  • Work arrangements
  • Wellbeing
  • Support
  • Business focus
  • Policies and impact

People want to connect, virtual focus groups are an AI-driven solution

For employees working from home, or in isolation, they may really appreciate virtual forms of connection. Virtual Focus Groups are a fantastic way to connect in an engaging way. You can find out how people are doing, share messages, and work on solutions to challenges. We have developed a standard script to allow clients to get started very quickly and keep the process efficient. Questions might include:

  • “What are the negative impacts of having to work from home?”
  • “What solutions can we implement to lessen the impact?”

This is a highly uncertain time, but it is not the time to stop listening to your employees. In fact, quite the opposite. The global response to coronavirus is evolving almost every hour, which of course makes any long-term planning almost impossible. Stay agile. Remember that modern software means you can set up a pulse survey in minutes if you want to check employee sentiment, and virtual focus groups allow you to stay in regular contact with people wherever they may be.


Global Practice Leader
Employee Insights

Dr. Stephen Young is the Employee Insights Global Practice Leader for Willis Towers Watson. He has a PhD in business psychology, and 20 years experience advising the world's leading organisations. He spends most of his spare time with his kids, cycling, and supporting Arsenal Football Club.

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