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Sumser: It’s time for new approaches to engagement

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John Sumser
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He can be emailed at [email protected].

The headlines are appealing: Employee-engagement scores are up across the board. It’s both true and not the whole story. Your engagement questions from six months ago probably won’t tell you much about what is really going on with employees in the middle of a pandemic.

With U.S. unemployment surging towards Depression-era highs, anyone who has a job is grateful. They are also busily trying to protect their piece of turf. They’re scared, uncomfortable and in transition.

It’s unlikely that workers are feeling better about their work in this trying time. Work is harder. Productivity is harder. Collaboration is harder. And even the immediate future is hard to see. This is not a recipe for improved employee attitudes.

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Engagement analysis depends on self-reporting as the data source. They are surveys after all. You ask, they answer.

We’ve spent the past few years studying what correlates to employee satisfaction and then developing surveys to get repeatable questions in order to track the same data over time. We asked employees what we wanted to know. We encouraged, reminded, then coerced them to respond, whether they wanted to or not. We told them explicitly or implicitly that we wanted them to say they were happy and everything was great. If we didn’t like the results, we changed survey vendors.

We didn’t really want to know the truth. We never had any intention of changing things. And we rarely, if ever, asked people what they wanted to tell us.

Self-reporting bias is a well-understood thing. Like eyewitness testimony, self-reported data is interesting but never the whole picture. In the rush to have something positive to say about our current situation, the pundits have overlooked the obvious: Everything has changed, and we don’t know when, if ever, work will look like it did before COVID-19.

More so than ever, employees feel pressure to tell employers what they want to hear.

I asked a few engagement company executives whether or not they would be offering tools to counterbalance the skew in the data. “Now that the power balance has shifted back from employees to the employer, are you helping your clients validate their results?” It’s apparently a little early for that. They all either dodged the question or just said “No.”

To really understand what’s going on in the workforce, you need multiple data streams. Asking employees is a good start. But we need different questions, to be willing to listen to what employees have to say and to be committed to doing something to address the issues we find. Interpreting and validating survey responses requires a level of depth that is best executed with intelligent tools.

There are several offerings that can help you gain a deeper, more balanced perspective.

Ultimate Software’s UltiPro Perception uses language analysis to unearth the meaning behind survey responses. The tool encourages companies to ask open-ended questions that generate a free text response. In the aggregate, these comments are much more likely to show the qualitative state of the workforce. UltiPro Perception is the industry leader.

KeenCorp’s Heat Maps looks at what is actually happening during work rather than what employees say on a survey. The tool runs in the background, analyzing changes in language across the full sweep of communications and detects where there is stress, discord and also where things are doing well. KeenCorp’s offering is not sentiment analysis. Rather, it looks at behavioral change expressed in language and is a compliment to sentiment analysis.

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This is a time of both great change and opportunity to look at our processes and figure out what we should be doing differently. When our workforce shifts from centralized to distributed work, we need better, different and deeper tools and ideas.

See also: Tech tools in the age of COVID-19

Understanding how the workforce is doing requires individualized connection and dialogue. Taking a pulse can no longer mean just finding out if people have one. We need to find better ways to understand what is really happening, connect with each other in meaningful ways, and build the trust needed to move forward in a time where listening, curiosity and having the right information are the foundation to adapt and innovate.