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Employee Experience

What comes next for EX: How people teams build on successful immediate responses to COVID-19

Something strange is going on out there. As companies reel from the effects of COVID-19, markets struggle to rebound, and nations are divided on how to respond, employee engagement is on the rise.

In a Gallup study released at the end of May, the percentage of employees who are ‘actively disengaged’ was at a 10-year low and the ratio of highly-engaged to disengaged employees was at an all-time high.

We’re seeing similar trends with many of our customers. In May, we profiled the telecoms giant Telefónica, who has seen an increase in Employee NPS in the last few months, and a general uptick in engagement across the board.

So why have many organizations succeeded in their immediate response to Covid-19, and how can they continue to develop new, better ways of working in the months and years to come? How can we take the lessons of the last few months and apply them to traditional drivers of employee experience (EX), whenever they resurface as focus areas?

Most organizations get an A-grade on the response

The important thing to note is that we’re only at the beginning of the story in terms of COVID-19’s impact on the world of work. Here’s what the XM Institute considers the four stages organizations will go through on their way to a new way of working:

Stage 1: React

The organization’s immediate reaction to major change: you’re listening more and taking action to close gaps at a micro level. You’re adapting in real-time to employee feedback as the situation continues to evolve.

Stage 2: Explore

As your organization prepares to go back to work, you’ll learn what employees need. At this stage, you need to be agile, trying new operating models and adapting as you learn as the new normal starts to settle in.

Stage 3: Reorient

As employees start to settle into patterns of behavior that will stick beyond the immediate crisis, organizations will reposition their existing offerings and messaging and create future-looking operating norms.

Stage 4: Normalize

At this stage, what was ‘work different’ is now operationalized as your new normal. You’ll formalize new offerings, look at the market through new customer segmentation models, develop new supporting processes, and go to market with a refined ecosystem of suppliers and partners.


There are no objective timelines you can place on these stages, as they’ll differ for every country, industry and organization. However it’s fair to say that across Europe, most organizations find themselves in stage one or transitioning to stage two.

When we think about why employees have responded positively to their organization’s immediate response, it’s worth noting few organizations went into the crisis consciously thinking that this was a great chance to improve engagement.

But that’s what’s happened nonetheless. Forced into a human-centered response, organizations increased communications, listened to employees on a more regular basis, and took fast, effective action to support employees through an uncertain time.

The organizations that have gone beyond top-down communications have seen greater success. Those that have engaged in meaningful two-way conversations at every level, have made better-informed decisions that have addressed their employees’ concerns.

At stage two and three, it’s not all about risk mitigation

As organizations move out of crisis mode, people leaders are turning their attention to ensuring they guide their businesses to return to work in a responsible way. And that it’s in line with both employee expectations, societal expectations and legal/national guidelines.

As an example, many organizations in the UK look to the CIPD, who has laid out three criteria for getting employees back to the workplace:

  1. Is it essential?
  2. Is it sufficiently safe?
  3. Is there mutual agreement?

By continuing a conversation with employees - and maintaining the frequency of listening from early in the crisis - organizations stand a better chance of ensuring that they pass each of these tests.

By demonstrating duty of care and getting visibility of what it’s like to work for the organization at a grassroots level, organizations are able to answer these questions:

  • Is it essential to be on-site?
  • Are customers and colleagues following safety rules?
  • Do employees agree with company policy or do they feel pressured to return?

But simply looking at listening as a way to mitigate the risks of returning to work is only half the picture. An ongoing two-way dialogue not only shows duty of care and improves decision-making. It also presents opportunities to build on increased engagement formed during the ‘React’ stage of the crisis.

Organizations that continue to be open, agile and communicative will be able to lead with empathy and shape employee experiences which are human-centered, further strengthening employee bonds and sustaining employee engagement long-term.

Stop, start, slow down - making the right calls in the next few years

Organizations around Europe are now trialing working environments and employees will start to settle into new patterns. As such, employee concerns will shift from anxiety around working-from-home, to their ability to operate effectively in a new environment.

Even the most brilliant plans on paper can fall apart in practice and leadership teams only have a limited view of everyday concerns. Social distancing may make perfect sense in theory, but it may present unforeseen challenges for your employees.

Without soliciting feedback frequently and at scale, you’re guessing at when your organization is in a position to move towards more normalized working processes.

We’ve all been subjects in a vast global experiment on new ways of working and every organization will have experienced this crisis in different ways, with few able to return to the old way of working.

Plus, many will have discovered that the old way of working wasn’t working for everyone, with this crisis uncovering issues that had existed for a long time. Whether it be commute times, work/life balances, or their ability to affect change in their organization.

Listening to employees means we can make the right decisions in the new workplace at the right speed, and communicated in the right way. Without employee insight, you might be rushing employees back to an old way of working they no longer want.

When old issues return - what will we do differently?

It’s impossible to know when the old, traditional drivers of employee experience will reemerge. When safety and enablement concerns will make way for issues around career development, long-term business strategy and rewards.

Listening to your employees on a more frequent basis means you won't be caught on the back foot and find out you’re still focusing on issues no longer of any concern to employees.

Moreso, in many organizations, the dynamic between employer and employee has permanently shifted. Employees are now used to being listened to and seeing their views reflected in the heart of strategic decision-making.

And as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, the results have been increases in loyalty and engagement.

So when the discussions shift from the availability of hand sanitizer, for example, to new employee benefits - a closed-door, top-down approach won’t do anymore. Managers won’t be able to do things in isolation, relying on gut feel and intuition.

Instead, let’s remember what helped people teams navigate the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and create a stronger bond with employees. And let’s use those learnings to power new, more EX-focused workplaces for the future.

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