One of the simplest ways to improve customer experience is to improve the experience of employees. Implementing a voice of employee, or VoE, program gives leaders insight into the lives of workers, all the way from onboarding to ongoing learning initiatives to carrying out their daily tasks.

Similar in many ways to a voice of customer program, a VoE program is about enhancing and improving the employee journey, all the touchpoints and interactions employees have with their employer. The VoE process enables employees to have a voice in the business and see that their ideas and opinions are valued, that changes will be made based on their feedback and that the business cares about them.

VoE: Creating a Human-centric Experience

Though many leaders delve into VoE programs with financial ROI in mind, ultimately VoE is about improving employee well-being, which translates into a positive financial return. It also translates into a more engaged and productive workforce.

A recent report from Limeade, an employee experience research company, indicated that only 31% of employees feel their employer cares about them as individuals, and one out of three employees have quit a job as a result.

Many workers are dealing with a multitude of new experiences including working remotely, having their hours cut, dealing with children at home due to school closings, and having to wear protective masks when out in public. Add the emotional turmoil that staying isolated has caused, and many people feel battered. They are trying to pay the bills, put food on the table and continue to live their lives the best they can.

Michael Bukach, senior manager of employee engagement at CoverMyMeds, said it's important to connect with employees on equal footing as fellow human beings.

“With these trying times, and even during the easier times, empathy is one of the most valuable tools to help avoid employee disengagement and burnout," he said. "Simply taking a moment during weekly meetings to ask how the humans on the other side of the screen are doing goes a long way. If you don’t have weekly team meetings or 1:1s with your reports, it’s time to set those up and start building a stronger rapport with your people. Listen for trends in their feedback, be curious, repeat and the issues, then set action plans to resolve.”

Brad Killinger, CEO of Sapience Analytics, said there has never been a better time for businesses to implement VoE programs. “We’ve seen employees having to shift as co-workers have been furloughed or let go due to reductions in force (RIFs), and work volume has increased," he said. "The employee journey has been completely disrupted.”

The use of workforce analytics is one way to discover pain points in the employee experience. A data-driven platform provides an understanding of employee effort vs. hours worked, Killinger said, and can provide insights into whether or not employees have the support and tools to perform at their best. An employee that is valued and respected by their employer has a more positive self-image and greater sense of belonging, which helps them maintain their mental state of mind through crisis.

"A solid closed loop employee feedback framework is critical so if an employee struggles, management can bring the proper training, resources and support to their aid," Killinger said. "Given the additional stresses that employees are facing given shelter-in-place orders, keeping a pulse on employees’ mental wellness is critical."

The success of a business is inextricably tied to the well-being of its employees. “[The] No. 1 goal is to make employees more productive and happier at work, which in turn improves retention, performance and overall company financial returns,” said Josh Bersin, author and global industry analyst for the Josh Bersin Academy.

Related Article: Great Design Drives the Digital Employee Experience

Leadership Must Play an Active Role

A successful VoE program works from the top down. Leaders create a culture of caring that includes every employee, from team leaders to those at the bottom of the pay scale. That includes an open-door policy that encourages constructive criticism and honest feedback. Even more importantly, they must take action based on feedback.

Because leadership defines the culture of a business they must be actively involved in any employee experience program, said Janine Marchi, head of marketing at Workgrid.

“It transforms the idea of caring about the employee experience from simply a to-do list item into something that’s foundational to the company’s DNA, especially when leaders back up their actions by imbuing the organizational culture with those values,” she said.

Her company, Workgrid, grew out of a VoE initiative at Liberty Mutual Insurance that showed employees were overwhelmed by the number of systems they had to use. By using VoE, design thinking and agile methodologies, they were able to develop a more engaging and productive digital experience for employees. "The success of this initiative is a testament to the power of VoE initiatives when they’re approached with a sincere desire to understand employees’ needs and create experience that support their long-term success,” Marchi said. 

If a VoE program doesn't already have visible leadership backing, program managers must find it, said Jessica Day, co-founder of IdeaScale. "These leaders will be the decision-makers and roadblock eliminators when it comes to delivering on real change," she said. "In fact, it’s even better if innovation permeates the entire top-level of an organization. There is no better indicator of program success and program longevity than leadership committed to its course.”

As a CEO himself, Kevin Lee of JourneyPure, a provider of addiction treatment services, takes the feedback he receives seriously and is motivated to take the wheel of change in hand. “CEOs and top leaders of a company must be aligned about the importance of the voice of employee program," he said. "They must be willing to make decisions and implement initiatives quickly to show employees that their feedback is taken seriously and that the company truly wants to improve.”

Middle managers and team leaders also play a big role in success. They can set the tone for how employees perceive the VoE program, Lee said, and leaders may need to take action if middle managers are not responsive to feedback or discourage employees from sharing.

It’s not easy for organizations to pivot away from a more traditional, old-school view of employees and the culture, but keeping focus on employee experience can make a huge impact on the success of a VoE program. “High collaboration and engagement with staff may take a lot of time and effort, particularly gathering metrics from VoE channels, but it’s important in keeping the approach active, and continuously steering from an us vs. them sentiment towards a one team mentality,” Bukach said.

Related Article: Employee Experiences That Employees Actually Want

Hear, Listen, Act, Repeat

Tim Glowa, executive consultant for Clever Trout Consulting, said there are two key activities organizations should undertake with VoE.

“First, seek input frequently and regularly. This needs to be seen as an ongoing initiative and not just a flavor-of-the-month activity. It needs to be long-term and regular,” he said. A VoE program is iterative, much like design thinking where there is a process of empathizing with the needs of users, listening to what they say, conceptualizing, prototyping, testing, and then once again, listening.

Learning Opportunities

The second step is to share findings with employees. "Communicate back to employees both the feedback but more importantly what steps you are taking to address the feedback," Glowa said. "High level is fine. This reinforces the feedback loop and encourages future participation.”

Leaders need to practice empathy to truly understand their employees, Marchi said, and active listening plays a large role in the process. “Really putting yourself in the shoes of the person who’s giving feedback is a skill that takes a lot of practice to get right, and it’s even harder now that everyone is virtual and there’s no way to rely on the traditional visual cues that are so helpful in understanding how people are really feeling,” she said.

Active listening is the first step but without action based on the feedback it tends to make employees feel what they are telling leadership is not valid, respected or important. By participating in an open-ended dialogue, listening to employees’ constructive criticisms and taking action, leaders are telling employees they are important and they care what employees are experiencing.

Related Article: How Your IT Team Can Design Better Employee Experiences

Get Valid Data: Feedback, Surveys, Interviews and Discussion

One of the biggest challenges leaders face when implementing a VoE program is getting honest feedback from employees. They may be hesitant due to fear of retribution, ridicule or hostility. It’s important for leaders to create a culture of trust, inclusion, openness and transparency within the business that is free of judgment, defensiveness and repercussions.

“Give your employees a chance to share their honest opinions with you," said Michael Dadashi, founder of Infinite Recovery. "When talking to your employees, listen more and do less talking. For some people, big meetings can be daunting so have one-to-ones regularly so that they can express themselves openly.”

Along with implementing an open-door policy and an open line of communication, employees need a way to provide ongoing feedback. This may include surveys, feedback reports, one-on-one conversations and participation in open meetings where leadership, department leads and workers get to openly talk about their experiences and pain points. Other methods of obtaining feedback include:

  • post-onboarding surveys
  • an easily-accessible feedback box
  • exit surveys or interviews
  • use of a third-party anonymous feedback mechanism
  • employee engagement software

“Many Voice of Employee programs rely heavily on structured surveys but they do not give employees the freedom to voice out what they really think," said JourneyPure's Lee. "The effectiveness of surveys is heavily dependent on the questions you ask. Incorporate feedback from other channels such as Glassdoor reviews, comments, social media posts and emails. Do employee interviews and focus groups to gather qualitative feedback that highlights key issues.“

And when you do use a survey, ask or frame the questions appropriately, said Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of OnlineDegree. “Though frequent surveys can be an efficient way to gather data, the questions must be framed appropriately," he said. "The studies that collect the most useful data will have questions framed in a context relevant to the employee.”

Related Article: Connect Digital Workplace Strategy to Employee Experience

Incentivize the Feedback Process

Employees want to know the business they work for values their time as well as their feedback. At times, employees may feel undervalued if they are asked to fill out surveys during after-work hours and not many people actually enjoy filling out a survey. By incentivizing the feedback process, employees have a reason to take time to honestly fill out a survey on how effective they felt the onboarding process was or complete an exit interview.

“From an employee perspective, these open-ended survey questions take time," Aldrich said. "When you feel like you're giving a lot of your time to a company, a survey can feel like a burden. Therefore, it may be a good idea to offer an incentive to fill out surveys and give feedback.”

Leaders should show appreciation for the feedback that employees provide. “It is extremely necessary to recognize and appreciate the new ideas brought forward by your employees to motivate them," Dadashi said. "Pick the ideas that relate to company goals and implement them. For the ideas that were not chosen, follow up with those employees. Make them aware that you are still listening and you value their opinion. You want your employees to have an emotional connection with your brand.”

Incentives do not have to involve monetary or physical rewards. In fact, many business review websites such as Glassdoor do not allow them and will remove reviews based on such incentives. Often, one of the most effective, yet simple, non-monetary ways to incentivize the feedback process is by showing employees that leaders have taken action based on the feedback they received from those employees.

Another incentive is to provide recognition to an employee when their feedback is used to improve or alleviate an issue. When an employee is shown that their time and feedback are valued, and that the business made an honest effort to resolve the issue, they recognize the result is worth the time. Others appreciate the recognition given to their fellow employees who provided feedback and it becomes part of the business culture.

A VoE program can be an effective method to learn about the bottlenecks in business practices, the pain points employees deal with on a regular basis, and potential problems that are regularly occurring. More importantly, a successful VoE program can improve the employee experience for workers, increasing their personal satisfaction, engagement and feelings of belonging to an organization whose goals and ideals they can believe in.