The Future of Feedback

As signs of a recovering economy emerge and greener pastures beckon, some talent pundits have predicted the long-awaited improvement will lead to a mass exodus of unhappy employees from jobs they’ve grudgingly performed for the last few years. Whether or not “The Great Recession” is followed by “The Great Walk-out” remains to be seen, but by updating the way employee feedback is gathered and — more importantly — acted on, companies have a powerful guard against turnover.?

Many of the tried-and-true tools talent managers have been using to gather feedback are still useful, but this is the 21st century. And in this world, the ever-growing reach of technology has left no aspect of life untouched. Employee feedback is no exception, and the following is a guide to the newest tricks and philosophies available to gather, analyze and act on the employee voice.?

Plot the Course

Direct feedback can be useful, but before companies draft lengthy annual questionnaires and create accounts with every social media channel, an overview of basic metrics is imperative. Sometimes, those numbers speak volumes — more so than any comments box. ?

“That is a key thing that we find, over and over again, is missing when it comes time to talk about the macro-level issues around employee dynamics,” said Trey Campbell, North American president of human resource services provider NorthgateArinso. Looking at these metrics is essential as an organization’s first stop when it comes to gathering feedback, he said.

?“Before we can even move to the higher-end questions of what’s motivating them, how happy are they, are they an attrition risk, we have to get the basics down,” he said.

Campbell said NorthgateArinso begins its work with a company by first using the core data set from a system of record that all corporations share: payroll. “A foundational building block that we get into very quickly is: ‘Do you know where everyone is and what they do?’” Campbell said this question is increasingly difficult for some companies to answer as businesses grow more global.

Using these numbers, the focus moves beyond a simple employee headcount to answer deeper questions. Build a foundation with this data. Provide access to information such as: Exactly how many employees are there in the organization? Where are they located, both within the firm and geographically? How old is the workforce? How much does everyone make? How long has it been since this person was last promoted or had an increase in pay? This should be done before a single employee survey question is written.

By culling these basic metrics, companies can use the resulting data to fill in basic information about their employees, enabling a more effective conversation in the direct feedback step.?

“Then, once you move into the talent management area and you’re getting into performance management, where they stack with their peers, you integrate some of this feedback loop into the process through survey instruments, through your ongoing communications cadence around how are they feeling,” Campbell said.

He said talent leaders can make use of technology, such as cloud-based storage sharing and social media, “so people can almost on a stream of consciousness basis get their feelings known.” Being able to ask these deeper questions in a format that workers are becoming increasingly comfortable with in their personal lives will promote more impactful answers.

Modern Feedback?

The journey to the world of future feedback now has a roadmap in the form of a company’s basic metrics. But no quest should be undertaken without the right supplies. Talent managers have some new options when tapping into the cloud-based, social experience that has come to redefine human interaction today.

Consider the Rypple company.

“Did you Rypple that?” is a common phrase in the offices of California-based home solar energy service provider SunRun. Much like today’s youth joke that a relationship isn’t official until both parties declare it on Facebook, SunRun’s Director of Customer Care Tom Asher said the Web-based social feedback tool for businesses has found its way into the company’s everyday interactions. Many SunRun employees now consider the recognition process incomplete unless the update is posted to Rypple.

“I’m a strong believer that there’s no substitute for face-to-face recognition, but if you’re in a bigger company where you’re not all sitting in one floor, like we are, it’s nice to be able to recognize someone more publicly than just an email to them and their manager,” Asher said. While the company still uses traditional feedback tools, such as the annual performance review, social media spaces such as Rypple provide employees with an everyday way to review and recognize each other more informally.?

Asher said SunRun employees also have found the social space Rypple creates is less intrusive than a mass email, but just as public. “Putting it in Rypple allows everyone to be more flexible about what they read and what they see, but still gives the person that’s received the recognition the ability to feel like ‘Wow, this is posting everywhere; it’s on the wall, and everyone can see it if they choose to look at that.’”

That kind of easy, ongoing feedback is exactly the point, said Rypple Co-CEO Daniel Debow. “If you want to gather feedback, you have to do it in ways that are familiar to people; you have to do it in ways that are extremely convenient and in ways that people see that value,” he said. “So for our clients, I think that means using well-designed social software tools that are mobile and that encourage access.”

While long, yearly surveys still have value, the process of providing and receiving feedback has evolved, Debow said. After all, other businesses don’t base their entire strategy around one set of information, so why should talent professionals? By harnessing the power of an internal social media network, managers can now adjust their focus on potential employee-related performance issues or items for celebration as they go. “I think there’s a lot more value to much more real-time feedback, both for people as they complete a task or complete a goal, and giving them the power to gather it themselves.”

Ready, Set, Implement

The final step to gathering feedback is to put the information and these new tools to work. The implementation phase typically works best when a company’s culture promotes openness, honesty and a genuine appreciation for employee input.?

The most important part of gathering feedback is what a business chooses to do with the information once obtained, said Dan Pontefract, senior director of learning and collaboration for Telus, a telecommunications company based in Canada.?

Telus uses a few internal tools to engage employees in feedback, including its own Twitter-like micro-blogging network called Buzz. The company’s newest customer-promises program was developed from suggestions the workforce submitted through that technology. These innovations work so well because employees turn to these tools to share with one another both before an idea is finalized and as a recognition tool afterward, Pontefract said.?

If anyone knows what can happen if a firm’s culture doesn’t support employee needs, it’s Beth Carvin, president and CEO of Nobscot Corp., makers of WebExit exit interview software.?

Companies shouldn’t embark on the feedback path unless they are prepared to change, Carvin said. Asking for feedback is akin to a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle once summoned. Employees will notice if they’re repeatedly asked for their opinions and no discernible effort is made to implement any of that information.

“You’ve got to build that culture up where employees know that you care about feedback, they know that you’re listening and they know that this is not just checking off a box of HR processes that you must do, but that senior management cares and listens and will act upon it,” she said.

Nobscot has turned away business from companies that wanted to survey their employees too often because they didn’t have the right resources in place to support the proper action.

One relatively easy way to reinforce a culture of listening is to let workers know when a change has been made in an organization as the result of a suggestion. “Take credit for it,” she said. “[Tell them:] ‘We’ve listened to you and made these changes.’”

While there are new opportunities available to talent leaders when it comes to feedback, it’s important that companies have the intention and means to back up what they say with action.?

Jessica Krinke was an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at