Feeling heard at work is a core part of employee happiness. It is one of the key factors that makes employees feel safe, respected, and integral in their workplaces. One study showed a strong correlation between feeling heard and being highly enthusiastic and dedicated at work.
At first glance, it can be a little baffling to understand what makes employees feel heard. A common initial reaction is something like, "They can talk to their supervisors, and the supervisors hear them. They can email Human Resources if they have a big problem. What more could they want?" They want to know that someone heard them, the person understood what they were trying to say, the person acknowledged them, and that someone is taking action on the communication if needed. That makes employees "feel heard."
Here's the catch: Providing the feeling of being heard does not come naturally in a workplace. Left to their own devices, staff and leaders tend to keep their heads down and focus on the matters in front of them. Leaders don't have the habit of proactively listening, acknowledging, and seeing things through to action. Staff don't have the habit of speaking their minds and ensuring they get through to someone.
So, workplaces have to build capacities for effective communication and encourage the culture of safe and open exchange of ideas. This could show up in many different ways, but let's walk through three proven strategies for making it happen in your workplace.
One or two ways to communicate is not enough. The most effective organizations have both regular opportunities to ask for communication and regular opportunities for spontaneous feedback.
Tell employees at hiring — and remind them regularly — who they should talk to when they need something. This should include the appropriate supervisors within their department, as well as any directors or executives who may be available when they are allowed to bypass the normal supervisory chain. Normalize asking for help and sharing ideas. Employees should know that they will always be welcomed when they reach out.
Offer email lists or messaging channels to reach out for help, but don't let these become dead ends. Make sure channels like this are clear about who is going to help them, what kinds of communications they handle, and how fast they should expect a response. If they are not carefully maintained, these channels can become abandoned or poorly covered and employees will learn to dislike them. That could even make employees feel frustrated with leadership. If channels become ineffective, close them and tell employees to stop using them and use other methods instead. Many workplaces have old message channels, suggestion boxes, or feedback email addresses that are out of use but never officially closed. Don't let those linger.
After providing the main communication contacts, provide specialized contacts for needs in departments like Human Resources, Information Technology, and Facilities. Recognize that sometimes employees will reach out to their supervisors for help with these things. While its fine for supervisors to redirect employees to dedicated contacts, they should be willing help employees see things through, not dismiss them to fend for themselves.
Have direct supervisors set some time for regular, open-ended feedback from employees, outside of any performance review process. Amazing Workplace recommends monthly or weekly "one-on-one" meetings between supervisors and staff. Let employees know that this time is for employees to bring questions, ideas, or requests for support. A rigid agenda is not needed, and supervisors should not use these meetings for feedback about employee performance unless the employee specifically requests it. By and large, these meetings can start with "how was your week?" or "is there anything you need or want right now?" Keep it light and short: if there is nothing else needed, they can joke around and discuss casual topics like weekend plans, fashion, or current sports news.
A note about less-experienced employees: If their supervisor is familiar enough with employee's day-to-day work, they should be providing mentoring and quick training tips in these meetings. If the supervisor is not well-versed in the work, it's a good idea to set the junior employees up with a mentor and have them meet periodically to get practical advice on getting things done.
The most common point of failure in workplace communications is not employees themselves, it is the leaders they are trying to communicate with. Leaders may fail to treat employee feedback seriously, falling into a bad habit of acknowledging feedback but not acting on it. The job of all leaders is to listen to the employees who report to them, understand the communication, acknowledge it, and take action when the employee expects or needs it. Set this expectation with leaders: their job is to listen, understand, acknowledge, and act. If they don't, they are not doing their jobs.
Share this philosophy with staff at large. They should feel confident that their supervisors' job is to listen, understand, and help them. Consider providing alternate leader contacts for all employees, to reach out to in the event that they are unable to get an appropriate response from their direct leader. This could be a department head, director, human resources representative, or even an executive. It is worth dedicating resources to this, because lost communication only causes lost productivity and makes for unhappy employees.
At Amazing Workplace, our Employee Happiness Survey reveals employee feelings about communications, feedback, and leadership quality. We also have leadership and 360 surveys that can help identify communication weak-points in the workplace. If you'd like to know more, reach out to us here and learn about our happy workplace vision.