Beyond the Pulse Survey: 3 Better Approaches for Employee Listening

“If only I knew what my people were thinking…” thought every leader ever. For years, the solution to this employee listening challenge was the “pulse check.” If unfamiliar, pulse checks are engagement surveys—oftentimes anonymous, to coax true sentiment—to assess how staff are feeling about any number of things. While this is a great way to surface the what and where behind your employees’ experiences, it falls short in grasping the why

Without the why, we are forever stuck in 2D. Sure it’s a nice image, but it’s not the real thing.

To add depth and better understand the root causes behind what is (and is not) working for employees, we use three different approaches for employee listening that draw on participatory design methods to invite stakeholders into the research and creation process.

Below, we’ll show you what they are, when to use them, and an example of each one, live in the wild, so all leaders (not just those in HR) can stop taking pulses and start seeing the full picture.

1. Organizational Ethnography: 

Ethno what now?! Ethnography is the study of customs and cultures within a population. Organizational ethnography is a highly rigorous and data-based approach to employee listening and learning that gives insight into what’s working and what’s not on a cultural—and oftentimes unspoken—level.

This refreshingly different take on an organizational assessment includes research activities from anthropology and design fields, such as:

  • Immersion into strategic documents, existing rituals, and team dynamics
  • 1:1 and Small Group Interviews that invite participants to share their perspectives and stories
  • Generative Research that goes beyond talking about pain points and begins capturing ideas and principles as future-facing inspiration

When to Use it: 

  • Before or during moments of change and transformation (mergers/acquisitions, reorgs, new leadership, new strategic direction, etc.)  
  • If you need a human-centered look at culture, either going deep with a specific team or broad with a cross-section of the organization
  • If you want to foster leadership engagement and accelerate trust building between leaders and employees 
  • If there’s a shorter timeline and need to get to outcomes more quickly

TDG Project Example: 

Like most large organizations, one of our largest Fortune50 technology clients had undergone a variety of re-orgs, mergers, acquisitions, and leadership shifts over the past 5 years. This change was compounded by a global workforce, hybrid challenges, and very different geographic working norms. The pulse surveys told us there were challenges abreast, but were incapable of explaining the root causes.

To help their leaders understand how the changes were impacting the team, we led an Organizational Ethnography, conducting both quantitative and qualitative research methods. This allowed us to triangulate the current state culture and identify strategic change opportunities like accelerating our baseline remote collaboration practices and isolating key moments in their project where the team needed leaders to be more hands on. This work informed a one-year culture activation roadmap that outlined strategic recommendations and experiments for realizing the team’s desired culture, and ultimately better organizing them to achieve their business goals.

Culture activation roadmap example from an Organizational Ethnography

2. Employee Design Research: 

A highly energizing, inspiring, and immersive employee listening approach that engages employees in design-led research 

This powerful method meets employees where they’re at to better understand the elements that contribute to their lived experience. Drawing from appreciative inquiry, emergent listening, and design research, activities include:

  • Employee-Generated Journey Maps that document how work fits into an individual’s larger life journey
  • Day-in-the-Life Shadowing of employees to get a sense of their day-to-day experience within and outside of work
  • Card Sorts and Artifact Share-Outs that use visual stimulus to facilitate a deeper conversation with employees about their experience

When to Use It:

  • If you need to quickly build empathy and connection with employees
  • If you need to understand the broader context of factors contributing to employee experience
  • As a way to better understand and scale positive outliers in employee experience 
  • As a way to re-establish trust with employees by “walking the talk” around employee experience

TDG Project Example: 

One of our global retail clients has set the benchmark for what a values-led, human centered work environment can look like. But as they look towards their next chapter, they needed help defining where to place their “big bets” that would model new ways of working for the broader business community.

To inform the priorities, initiatives, and investments on their strategic roadmap, they partnered with us to conduct Employee Design Research. We interviewed and shadowed frontline retail workers across the country to better understand their lived experiences and engaged them in co-creating ideas for their futures. This immersive research approach allowed us to paint a more holistic picture of the opportunities to both amplify bright spots and address previously hidden pain points. Along the way, we quickly built deep trust with their employee group and the insights helped to de-risk their investment decisions for the coming years.

Photo of people conducting Design Research using card sorts

3. Employee Co-Creation: 

A collaborative approach to brainstorming solutions alongside employees that fosters buy-in and ownership so that change is happening with your people, not to them.

By engaging employees in this way, ideas and solutions emerge that would otherwise not have materialized if the decision came directly from above and the outcomes are much longer lasting because employees had a say in them. Some of examples of employee co-creation activities are:

  • Design Brief co-creation to frame the challenge, outline desired outcomes, and define constraints
  • Co-Creation Workshops that invite employees to get inspired, brainstorm, prototype, and get feedback on potential solutions 
  • Service Blueprint development to document how prioritized concepts connect to the larger experience

When to Use It:

  • If you need to quickly develop actionable outcomes that are ready to test and launch
  • If you want to break down silos and foster a culture of cross-functional collaboration
  • In moments of transformation as a way to invite employees to contribute to, and see themselves in, the changes
  • As a way to generate buy-in and ownership around new ideas or ways of working

TDG Project Example: 

Amidst a major shift in their business model, a Fortune 50 technology company identified a need to find and retain future-driving leaders who understood the breadth of the business. We facilitated an Employee Co-Creation project to design a rotational leadership program. During ideation and feedback workshops, we leveraged the creative thinking of 19 cross-functional stakeholders, from interns to executives, to draft and refine the program details. Partnering closely with their team, the program piloted with great success. When the CEO witnessed the program first-hand during a visit to that market, he immediately told the team “More of this!”.

A virtual employee co-design session using Miro and Zoom

Just Because It Has A Pulse…

Oftentimes companies say they are embarking on “employee engagement” when what they are really doing is seeing how their people feel about a decision that’s already been made. Your teams can sniff this out a mile away. If you truly want to engage them, and if you really value their input, you can’t just check their pulse. 

Rather, you have to get in the muck with them, shoulder to shoulder; or better yet, you have to lead from behind. One too many pulse checks with no real substance turns you into the kid who cried wolf. Eventually, your people won’t come running because they won’t believe you actually care.

Bonus Goodies

Need some more ideas? Download our Customer Discovery Toolkit. We leverage many of the same tools and activities for customer discovery as we do for employee listening.

Kelsye Gould
[email protected]

Kelsye is a Manager at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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