Taking the Organisational Pulse

Paul Edwards is an expert when it comes to understanding people through data. 

Over his career, he has served as European CEO of Omnicom’s largest research agency Hall & Partners, Chairman of the WPP-owned research company TNS, Chief Executive and Chairman of Lowe UK, CEO of Research International UK, and Publicis’ Chief Strategy Officer. He has also been a Planning Director at BBH and Young & Rubicam.

Paul is currently a non-executive director at several companies including Brightblue Consulting and JKR Design. 

We had the chance to speak with Paul about his thoughts on employee listening.

QUAL OR QUANT, WHICH IS BEST FOR TAKING THE PULSE OF THE ORGANISATION?

I think you are always trading off sensing/feeling and measuring, which correlates a bit with the size of the organisation. 

If it’s a big organisation, you have very little alternative but to collect feedback quantitatively, due to the scale. But qualitative is always better. You get the nonverbal cues, and can dig deeper into the ‘why’.

The Romans organized themselves into centuries (100) within legions (6,000), so an organization might look to try and organize themselves in a way such that the qualitative side is still possible through their ‘centurions’.

More and more I tend to believe that one tool, one type of methodology, is never enough. You always need to have different ways of looking at the same thing to truly understand what’s going on. 

HOW EFFECTIVE DO YOU THINK TRADITIONAL SURVEY RESEARCH IS IN UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT? 

I think the concern with quantitative surveys is that they can get gamed. It becomes very predictable, and individuals may use the surveys for their own personal goals/motivations – whether it’s about pay, benefits, or something else. You’re not truly unearthing the way people really feel – especially if you only do it once a year and are asking them to reflect on feelings from the whole year.

Therefore, I’m really interested in quick polls – they are frequent, and it’s about going below the conscious radar and getting people to respond implicitly. You’re getting the pulse, with lots of data, frequently. You can then model the data and look for real changes vs. fluctuations, and then take action.

The survey world is moving more and more to observation, even when you are asking traditional, old-fashioned questions, you’re often being timed on how long it takes you to respond in order to understand the extent to which it is reflective.

Measuring emotion is not a paradox anymore because there are lots of interesting interactive tools to help one understand. 

CAN YOU TALK TO US ABOUT SOME OF THESE INNOVATIVE WAYS TO LISTEN? 

There are some really interesting behavioural/passive data collection techniques that could be applied in the workplace. 

For example, facial recognition is a trend in research, so perhaps a company might look at scanning employees’ faces to establish a benchmark on employee happiness. Or, you could monitor noise levels around the office or in the canteen at lunchtime. You might notice one department is particularly quiet, and want to explore why this is. 

Social media feels like an obvious one – invite people to your social media platforms and ask them to share #howtheyfeelatworktoday.

There is some interesting stuff around fitness through the use of activity trackers. You might give all your employees a Fitbit and monitor heart rates, or certain activities. At a superficial level, it might be about productivity, but it might be a symptom of low morale or engagement. You could also then tie this into health benefits and insurance for your people and your company – so if you see that 70% inter-floor journeys are done by lift, you could incentivise people to take the steps. 

THIS RAISES AN INTERESTING POINT AROUND PRIVACY? ANY TIPS ON NAVIGATING THIS? 

Every company of course has a basic employment contract, which does in fact give companies the right to monitor certain activities, such as online use. That said, it is definitely a grey area and should be approached appropriately. 

I think it goes back to being open and transparent about what you are doing, why, and what’s in it for the individual, so your people don’t feel like the company is acting as a ‘big brother’.

So, in the Fitbit/activity tracker example, get people to opt in and make it a fair value exchange. You might give them vouchers towards a gym membership, something in kind. If you are doing it openly, and they see the benefit for them and the company, then it feels like (and it is) a win-win. I think that’s really key to so many of these things – reciprocal benefit – those are the ones that have the most mileage. 

In regards to social media, you would be silly not to monitor what your people are saying about you. There is a line you cross when you invade personal space and privacy, but if you do it sensibly and use it benignly, then I think there is no wrong done. 

DO YOU THINK THERE IS A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL FOR EMPLOYEE SURVEYS? DO TEMPLATED EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT SURVEYS REALLY WORK? 

I would say horses for courses. It depends what you are trying to find out, and why. It’s important to be clear about what you are trying to achieve and make the the data collection method relevant to that. 

If you are just doing a survey to tick the box, then it works. If expense prevents you from collecting data quickly, often, and more bespoke, then it might be right for you. So, there is a place for it. 

More frequent, and wider data is definitely more rich. 

What really matters is what you do with the feedback. Don’t just collect it and leave it. If you are asking people to give feedback or you are measuring engagement, deal with the issues and check in again to be sure things are happening. Action is more important than words in dealing with the ‘problems’. 

ANY OTHER TECHNIQUES YOU THINK A LEADER SHOULD USE TO LISTEN TO THEIR EMPLOYEES AND FEEL THE PULSE? 

Never underestimate the basic management by walking around. You can often pick up the nonverbal bits and you see what people are doing, ‘are they chatting and cooperating’?

It really does allow people to give you things there and then and that matter to them. You’re giving them the opportunity to not have to get a meeting with you or send an email. If you do it regularly enough, people do talk and open up to you. Both utterly trivial and amazing things come out – from 'come feel how cold this air vent is', to a solution to a big challenge. 

And, it shows you genuinely are interested. Gossip and rumours can fill the vacuum so communication is always a good thing. But every good manager knows that communication is both talking and more importantly, listening.