Employee Feedback in the Digital Age: How to Get it Right

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marc_sowikBy Marc Sowik, Employee Feedback Research & Insight at Employee Research


You’ll probably have been invited to the pub by your colleagues via a WhatsApp group: ‘Drinks on Friday!’? The people you sit next to every day: and you wonder why they didn’t just talk to you like they used to?!

We don’t think much of this type of behaviour anymore, but it didn’t really exist 10 years ago because smartphone technology hadn’t enabled it yet – Google Play and Apple app store only opened in 2008! Once these apps hit the market the rate of take-up is phenomenal – they become embedded in popular culture and communication seemingly overnight.

Think of apps like Tinder, which reduces the search for a partner (long or short term!) to a catalogue set by age and proximity parameters – then maybe a date based on their ability to think of witty responses to text messages. Or Snapchat’s ever growing popularity – which means that people are happy to communicate in messages that exist for only 10 seconds, before all evidence of their ‘conversation’ is wiped away. I guess this is supposed to emulate a real-life chat – but one that can now happen remotely, meaning a real-time conversational response isn’t required.

The point for me is in how this technology changes our expectations and behaviour around communication. Thinkers like Sherry Turkle argue that we’re losing the art of face to face conversation – and with it our ability to emphasise. Our faculties of speaking and listening are being eroded by the high frequency, intensity and convenience of using comms tools.

Her perspective isn’t mainstream, and for many ‘easier’ communication means ‘better’ communication. I share Turkle’s concerns: for me the convenience and easiness of using comms tools can undermine our long-term ability to communicate properly. This is because communication is about more than simply relaying a message. It’s about a demonstration of having time for someone, actively listening to them, registering and responding to their thoughts and empathising – lots of which is done non-verbally. So I think that when new tech solutions appear to old communication challenges like employee feedback, I think we need to be mindful about how the tools we use will influence the behaviour of the people we entrust them to.

Employee Feedback Industry

It’s fair to say that the employee feedback industry has often lagged in its uptake of technology, with dogmatic agencies unwilling to invest in modernising. This has left managers and employees hearing nothing about the time and effort they invested in surveys until months later when all the ‘have your say stuff’ is a distant memory, and half of what they said has changed anyway. It’s an area in which technology was desperately needed to bring the process into the 21st Century.

The industry is now catching up: I saw an ad yesterday for an online platform that promised to drive engagement and motivation in my employees. There’s an abundance of new, app like platforms that firms can use to measure how their employees feel, and apparently engage them as a result. Most of these include feedback systems, but some go further – one makes teams input their plans for the week so their manager can keep track of them (in place of a team meeting) and others offer the chance to send a virtual high five as a form of recognition.

In the same way that convenient comms apps can detract from our individual capacity for conversation, I wondered if app style feedback systems will really improve our ability to have a true dialogue within an organisation – a dialogue being what a true, effective employee feedback programme should be. One where people talk, others listen, respond, and act.

My concern is that seeing tech as the solution to employee feedback will detract from the human side of the equation. Managers will be empowered in being able to collect data more easily, but the resulting behaviour may be that they relax behind an app, collecting feedback through it and even using it for recognition and in place of team meetings. After all, people are beginning to prefer communication through tech: recent stats show 32% of people would rather text than speak and 51% (!) of teens, the future workforce, would rather communicate in text than speak, even to their friends. Much like modern daters use Tinder at the expense of the human side of meeting someone in the park, careless leaders might be seduced by the gimmicks and convenience of gadgets – rendering employee feedback efforts one-dimensional and heartless.

Regardless of these concerns, the tech response to employee feedback will continue to gather pace. And I think it can be a positive thing: we just need to be conscious of the difference between what we should reply on tech for, and what is still an inherently human part of the process – tech in itself isn’t and can’t be a solution to engaging employees. Here are five things to watch out for:

  • Tech should increase the speed and frequency of data collection, enabling a more conversation like style of feedback to evolve. A conversation that happens in real time, allowing for real time responses to concerns.
  • Tech should also increase flexibility. We should be able to ask our employees exactly what we need to. Without this, how can we hope to respond to them with authenticity?
  • I think that a truly useful tech should allow us to ask more open response questions and make sense of the data more easily. Open text data has often been neglected in traditional feedback programmes, but this is where the richness really lies.
  • Transparency can also be improved – why shouldn’t all employees see how everyone else is feeling – this way they might take more accountability for their influence over the work environment.
  • And finally, I think we should be wary of tech solutions that encroach on the human side of the employee feedback equation. Thanks should be given in person or over the phone (people do have enough time to do this). Meetings, gatherings and forums, even if held remotely, should again be facilitated but not replaced by technology.

People talking openly, with each other and leaders about their feelings in and about work is far more effective than using any anonymous data collection tool or system – and this type of open, honest and communicative culture is one in which people will be truly motivated.

Marc Sowik, Sept 2016


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This post initially appeared on Employee Research blog