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Managing times of crisis using active and passive listening

As COVID-19 continues to unfold, employees are asking for a sense of connection and open communication on employment, structure, opportunity and change. Now more than ever it is critical to meaningfully listen to employees.

A recent (2020) study of 5,000 U.S. workers by Thrive Global showed that 80% of employees feel “helpless and like things are out of their control” and even more wish “their employer would do more to help them adapt and manage.”

Team leaders and line managers need to make decisions about how best to support their teams in this highly fluid situation, one that is likely beyond anything they have previously experienced. And they need to act without eroding employee trust.

Trust requires leaders to focus on what matters and to track whether actions being taken are resulting in positive change. That means responsive, timely decision making supported by empathetic, open communication.

Dramatic workplace and business model change (with immediate and long-term implications) has placed an urgent spotlight on data-driven decision making for complex, fast-changing situations. Decision-making in this environment benefits by combining data from both active and passive listening.

Active and passive listening – the ‘yin and yang’ of meaningful employee experience management?

A combined approach of active listening (surveys/experience data) and passive listening through Network Analytics (ONA), provide two important lenses for identifying and responding to organizational stress-points.

The combined approach enables leaders to ‘triage’ areas of concern by analyzing organizational dynamics around engagement, collaboration and resilience. Network analytics becomes a leading indicator to guide targeted interventions to the groups which need them most.

Survey data can then enable a more nuanced understanding of organizational sentiment and highlight critical gaps in morale and engagement. Together these represent the ‘yin and yang’ of listening – bringing together “how employees are feeling” with “how employees are collaborating.”

A senior HR analytics manager at a leading global health care provider recently shared what had changed for her following a complete organizational shift to remote working.

In addition to noting infrastructure challenges, she reflected that while her activity level was now higher than before, she was now collaborating with a narrower, more restricted set of colleagues. She wasn’t sure if other team members were experiencing the same.

In this situation, for example, an initial, low touch survey could identify first-order gaps in infrastructure while the telemetry of passive network analytics could quickly identify changing collaboration patterns across internal teams as well as customer and partner networks.

TrustSphere - Network Diagram - Qualtrics May 2020


Based on patterns that are uncovered, this would alert line managers to which teams are at risk of isolation or possible overload. More targeted surveys could then further address issues of individual burnout risk, gaps in mentoring support or for example the need for flexible work practices within teams previously identified ‘at risk’. This would enable sophisticated pulsing while reducing overall organizational fatigue.

Network analysis might also identify the HR manager as a ‘boundary spanner’ – someone who regularly acts as a connector between different teams and departments. As an influencer in the organization, she could also be enrolled as a change ambassador to mobilize cross-functional learning and interventions. At an individual level, nudges could remind her to maintain key relationships within their broader network.

The combination of employee sentiment alongside a network view would allow managers to develop appropriate organization wide as well as tailored responses to ensure organizational resilience during these challenging times. The iterative combination of experience data and network analytics can provide a dynamic barometer of employee well-being and connectivity.

To help companies battle the challenges they face in the current crisis, Qualtrics has embarked on a mission to leverage its software to empower humanity in the new world of work. Since mid-March, more than 8,500 organizations have created 30,000 unique projects taking advantage of these solutions to manage through the COVID-19 crisis and keep connected to their entire workforce – for free. The consumption of these no-cost solutions clearly showcases the need for organizations to learn from their constituents and adapt at an accelerated pace.

Active and passive listening 2


For example, in Turkey, a Qualtrics customer launched one of the free-to-use COVID-19 solutions and within hours received tens of thousands of responses representing a sizeable chunk of their total workforce that helped their workplace strategy as Coronavirus unfolded in real-time. Other Qualtrics customers are using the insights gained from these solutions to plan for a return-to-work strategy, which will undoubtedly be a very different environment in the post-COVID-19 era.

In a fluid environment, when complex, cascading factors are impacting the well-being of your employees and teams, the combined telemetry of active and passive listening allows continuous listening to support adaptive, timely and flexible decision making.

But is now really the time to survey employees?

Yes. Now is absolutely the right time to connect with your employees and facilitate dialogue and action. A recent article by Qualtrics partner Bill Erickson of Workforce Science Associates referenced the experience of companies that canceled or postponed survey activity during the 2008 financial crisis.

After the economic downturn lifted it became clear that trust and engagement across these organizations had suffered long term damage.

The combined active and passive listening approach allows managers and leaders to engage with employees quickly and meaningfully – ensuring timely, responsive and participative decision making to support individuals and teams.

Meaningful listening builds trust and empowers employees to be part of the solution making process – at a time when physical distancing increases the risk of isolation from their peers and support groups.

How can you quickly support your people during this difficult time?

The Qualtrics COVID-19, Remote + On-site Work Pulse can help. It’s free to use by any organization worldwide. You can sign up to use the free solutions at

TrustSphere’s Collaboration Pulse can help provide the network view during the current crisis and as part of a ‘return to work’ strategy. For further details visit

Access complimentary solutions to better listen to employees and customers

James H. Killian // Employee Experience Solution Strategist

Dr. James Killian functions as a special leader at Qualtrics as an employee experience solution strategist. In his role he helps organizations intersect content, best practices, technology and consulting to produce superior employee experiences. Prior to joining Qualtrics, James led the global business for IBM Kenexa’s employee engagement survey offering. With 20 years of experience in human capital and HR technology space, he also held leadership roles at HR Chally as Chief Psychologist and VP of Consulting, and led the employee selection consulting division for Hogan Assessment Systems. He has also helped lead several startups to successful growth. James holds a Ph.D. & M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Tulsa and Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University and is a member of the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Killian has published over 25 journal articles and book chapters and is a frequent speaker at conferences around the globe. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Manish Goel // Co-founder & CEO of TrustSphere

Manish is the co-founder & CEO of TrustSphere, a pioneer in Relationship Analytics & ONA. Manish is passionate about helping organizations innovate by leveraging one of their most valuable assets – their collective relationship network – to enhance both the customer and employee experience. He can be reached at

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