Extraordinary times call for extraordinary employee support. Listening to employees doesn’t just show your organization’s genuine interest in helping reduce anxiety or stress; it also builds trust. Effective employee listening can improve mental health, aid productivity, create compassion and even lead to greater empathy.
As optimism grows with the reduction in the virus infection rate across Malaysia and businesses begin to reopen, employers are tempted to encourage or require their employees to return to work. But are employees ready? The road to recovery is likely to be a long one, with organizations continuing to be plagued with viral resurgences and volatility for some time to come.
During continuing uncertainty, companies that seek to balance economics with empathy will make sure their employees have the stability, flexibility and support they need. Providing appropriate support benefits the business as well as its employees and their mental health, ultimately leading to improved brand reputation and increased talent retention.
Organizations offering better support are improving engagement by using employee listening to help shape a new reality, address employees’ concerns and anxieties, and put the right initiatives in place to enable a safe return to work. However, our research shows that Malaysian employees are not necessarily the most engaged of those in Southeast Asia.
Malaysian companies, while generally exceeding global satisfaction ratings, have a ways to go compared with other Southeast Asia organizations.
Mercer Sirota’s research reveals that overall employee satisfaction for Malaysia is 71% — just 4% lower than the global average. However, in comparison with its Southeast Asia counterparts, Malaysia appears to have the lowest overall engagement score in the region, as countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia rate their satisfaction higher than the global average.
Although 82% of Malaysian employees say they feel “proud to work for their organization” (1% lower than the global average), when asked if they would stay with the organization if offered the same pay and benefits elsewhere, the response was as low as 59% — significantly lower than the global average of 68%.
According to the Mercer 2020 Global Talent Trends Study, “Energized employees are three times more likely to be satisfied with the company, with no plans to leave.” However, while employee motivation and energy generally suffer in times of stress, challenging times can also provide opportunities for innovation. For example, as the New Straits Times reports, “Businesses with progressive leadership create all sorts of initiatives that keep their staff connected to each other and the organization’s mission.” For example, in May 2020, PNB’s president made working from home a permanent option for employees, according to an article in Business Today.
Finding the underlying causes and creating a framework for improvement requires companies to listen carefully to their employees’ needs and see the employee experience through their eyes.
Natasha Yusof, Talent Strategy Lead at Mercer Malaysia, believes that conducting employee listening surveys is critical for business improvement. However, merely asking questions isn’t enough. In her experience, organizational attitudes to employee listening vary widely. Some companies view employee surveys as little more than a tick in a box — and employee responses often indicate a commensurate lack of engagement. But other companies in Malaysia are acting on feedback, considering everything from employing on-site psychologists or counselors to encouraging employees to work from home until further notice.
DHL Express provides an exemplary local example of how employee listening can work effectively in a Malaysian context. The organization believes that “feedback should be given from the heart,” and employee listening is firmly embedded in its business. With an average participation rate of 97% to 98% year on year, DHL ensures feedback is collected appropriately. The company sends out surveys using different avenues to accommodate online and accessibility needs.
More importantly, DHL is committed to ensuring that surveys aren’t just conducted internally, engaging an external third party to improve anonymity and encourage openness. Furthermore, the company follows up with focus groups and action plans.
An empathic approach to employee research that asks the right questions, using the right methods and taking the right actions at the right time, is critical to success. Getting it right requires a combination of culturally appropriate tools and a systematic listening approach.
Although conducting surveys is crucial, data may not always be reliable. Are employees open about their concerns? Not as much as they could be. “In Malaysia, people tend not to speak up. I think it’s a cultural norm,” says Natasha. “I feel Malaysians are not confrontational.” It can be challenging to ensure anonymity and encourage participants to speak openly and honestly. The odds of success often improve when an external third party conducts employee listening.
In tough times, it’s critical to stay connected with employees (digitally, if necessary). Let employees know you’re still there for them despite the crisis. The key is to communicate with transparency by sharing “the good, the bad and the ugly,” celebrating wins together and working together to find ways to manage the crisis and identify areas for improvement.
Organizations that survey their employees on a more frequent basis tend to report a higher level of employee satisfaction. For example, many companies across Malaysia are asking for regular feedback. That’s an excellent start, but words aren’t enough. Following up and taking action based on employee feedback improves employee engagement.
When organizations are clear about what they want to measure and committed to taking proactive steps to remedy issues revealed by the data, employee listening has real potential to improve engagement. For example, by deploying pulse surveys during a period of rapid change instead of waiting for responses to the annual engagement survey, organizations can take prompt, effective action.
Acting on employee listening data sets companies apart. For example, DHL Express acted swiftly and proactively during the COVID-19 lockdown — sending out healthcare packages containing vitamin C, vitamin D, sanitizer and facemasks to all employees; organizing flu vaccines; sending Raya hampers and meals during Ramadhan; and more. This action didn’t just keep employees physically safe; it also gave them peace of mind.
Organizations that respond proactively to survey feedback tend to report an increase in engagement scores compared with those that do not. Many Malaysian companies have implemented short-term initiatives to improve employee health and morale. A few exemplary companies have also committed to long-term action. For example, one leading employer didn’t just develop remote working guidelines and assistance; it set up a mental health helpline. Going further — and regularly assessing the anonymous, aggregated data from the company’s telehealth program — lets it identify the challenges employees are facing and find ways to support them further.
Employee engagement surveys are not new in Malaysia; the real value lies in what happens next. Following up and taking action is what matters most to employees: reassuring them that not only are you listening to them, you’ve genuinely heard what they have to say.
Using the right employee listening tactics provides real, honest feedback and leads to organizational change for the benefit of employees, the workplace and the business. DHL Express Malaysia is just one example illustrating how active employee listening and sympathetic communication lead to tangible action and create a compassionate atmosphere. Allowing employees to express their opinions honestly and openly relieves stress and aids mental health and well-being. Listening with empathy also benefits organizations in the long term, because those that lead with compassion are likely to notice that their employees reciprocate in kind, providing more focused, dedicated work.
But how can organizations ensure they’re using employee listening and engagement effectively? Begin by using the right approach and asking the right questions.
A proven, research-driven model like Mercer Sirota’s Engagement Snapshot survey is an excellent place to start. This technique leverages more than 40 years of experience in employee research, delivered online. Accessible from any device and available in 19+ languages, survey results are presented in a workshop that also reveals top priorities for business action.
Mercer active-listening platform Allegro allows organizations to gather rich content and benchmark data to guide actions for improvement. Allegro enables tailored, impactful listening strategies with a census tool, a recurring “pulse” on critical action items, a targeted ad-hoc diagnostics tool or a full employee experience program designed to gather feedback at moments that matter (onboarding and exit surveys).
An alternative or complementary listening tool is the Mercer Digital Focus Group (also known as Remesh). This scalable, agile, smart technology allows for in-depth data analysis and real-time conversation with an online moderator. It encourages honesty and authenticity, providing complete anonymity, and the data from many employees can be distilled and delivered immediately.
Never has listening to your employees been more important than in these times of unprecedented stress and the associated challenges facing employee well-being. Without effective employee-listening strategies, employees are less engaged, loyalty levels decrease and absentee rates increase. Fortunately, those in charge of employee research are in a unique position to help their workforces cope with one of the most profound global challenges we’ve faced in decades.
Employee listening helps you balance deep empathy with economic realities to support your employees and ensure the long-term success of your organization — contributing to increased productivity, reduced recruitment and induction costs, and improved talent retention.