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Behavioral insights from employee feedback can help organizations identify and drive new, data-informed priorities.

Pervading nearly every facet of our personal and professional lives, the impact of COVID-19 is made worse by the fact that there is no playbook for companies and their leaders to follow, including leaders who have successfully navigated quick and crashing waters in the past. Seemingly overnight, employers had to direct their workforces to work remotely as governments imposed widespread lockdowns.

People’s confidence in the decisions you make as a business leader has never been more important: The recent 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that employees in 10 countries see their employers as more trusted, reliable, and credible channels of information during the COVID-19 crisis than traditional media or government sources. This invaluable trust could easily be squandered through uninformed decision-making. Therefore, it’s crucial that employers continue to disseminate information with clarity and consistency to their workforces, clients, and shareholders.

Many Fortune 500 companies and professional services firms that I work with are well versed in the tremendous impact of making decisions that are informed by big data and behavioral insights. Decision makers must now act swiftly and pragmatically, using data to help navigate financial, operational, and personnel challenges that lack clear resolutions. Leaders are being forced to make unprecedented decisions in the short term, knowing that these actions will lead to adjustments to their businesses, operations, people strategies, and plans in both the medium and long terms.

One of my clients, a tenured CEO, invited me and my team of researchers on the journey to navigate COVID-19 by harnessing behavioral insights to support and manage workers through what is, one hopes, a temporary — albeit highly stressful — situation. Our work began with delving deeply into the analytics of the organization’s workforce, and we paired this analysis with quick surveys to get an immediate pulse on how the company’s employees were responding to the crisis. This approach allowed us to identify and drive new, data-informed priorities for the organization.

Several important insights emerged that confirmed that both managers and employees within the organization were facing difficulties. The pandemic was affecting their well-being and their anxiety levels, which runs counter to operating a highly functional organization, or what my colleague Amy Edmondson has termed a fearless organization.

First, the company’s employees wanted to know that their leadership had a clear action plan for the company. They were eager to receive communication from their CEO, leadership team, and managers about what was going on within the organization, their business units, and their teams. In other words, they wanted information about where the business was going, why it was headed there, and how leaders planned to get there together.

Second, the employees wanted to feel a sense of safety and security about the future of their jobs. This connected directly to a need for belonging and inclusivity within their organization and teams.

Third, the employees wanted to be provided with the right information in a helpful way by the right person. Clarity, specificity, and context are important here. Employees wanted to know about changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic and what the company was doing to help — both through work policies and for communities at large. Setting clear expectations around priorities and boundaries is also important, given that people are working from home with competing responsibilities.

Finally, employees indicated that they wanted to feel that their organization cared about their well-being and that the company’s expectations around productivity and billing would not be the same during this time. It’s already a challenge to stay productive while balancing home, work, and the fear and anxiety of the changing environment. Added to that is the growing number of internal team meetings and videoconferences that have replaced canceled in-person meetings. Employees wanted their employer to understand that remote working, with no immediate end in sight, is testing their well-being and productivity in new and complicated ways.

Armed with the knowledge of employees’ pain points, we designed several interventions, or what I call inclusive vision nudges. Inclusive vision refers to making employees and their contributions a cornerstone of the organization’s future. One major component in conveying an inclusive vision is how leadership teams speak with their employees — including the format, language, and frequency of communication.

We divided the employees into groups to first test format and language. One group received an email, while another received a short video from the CEO and other members of the leadership team. Both groups were further randomly divided, and for these smaller groups, we modified the language used by the CEO and leadership. In one instance, the language used was more personal (using “I” and “me”), whereas the other used collective pronouns (“we” and “us”). Finally, we further randomly divided the groups by modifying the frequency of communication, the third focus area of our nudge. Groups received the leadership messages once a week (Monday morning) or every other day (three times a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).

The result was astonishing. Employees who received video messages were 1.2 times more likely to trust company leaders, 2.5 times more likely to feel supported by leaders, and nearly one-third more likely to feel that they had been provided with helpful information by the right person(s).

Furthermore, both in the video and email messages, when the CEO and leadership team used collective pronouns and language such as “we,” “us,” and “together” to communicate, employees were 3.5 times more likely to feel a sense of safety. They were 1.1 times more likely to feel more relaxed about their futures, and 5.0 times more likely to provide moral support to coworkers compared with those who received messages emphasizing the personal pronouns “I” and “me.”

Finally, the group that received communication once a week (Monday morning) via video as opposed to three times a week was 1.4 times more likely to define work urgency appropriately and 1.2 times more likely to feel that they had received the right amount of information. This suggests that more frequent communication is not always better in this changing and uncertain environment.

These findings are applicable to organizations of different shapes and sizes across industries. Here are four steps that CEOs and senior leaders can take right now.

  1. Take the pulse of workforce well-being regularly. Conducting quick and repeated surveys and polls can help employers understand where the stressors are for workers — such as work-life balance and mental health issues — and they can respond promptly to those challenges. Survey tools available for employers include Absolutys, Culture Amp, and Qualtrics, among others. Aim to keep these data-gathering requests as short and convenient as possible — for example, by limiting pulse surveys to a one-minute time commitment and polls to two questions at the beginning of a conference call. The data gathering should be overseen by someone who is trained on the ethics of data collection and assessing responses.
  2. Send regular messages to employees that emphasize “we” and “us.” Employees pay more attention to certain messengers than others. In this crisis, hearing from the CEO on Monday morning via a short video message can be particularly impactful. Setting the direction and priorities of the organization, including how it is adapting to the new operating environment, what measures it is taking to support workers, and occasional updates on official health guidance, can all contribute to a more fearless workforce. In addition, by using collective pronouns and language, leaders can help reinforce a sense of safety and moral support among workers.
  3. Managers should help their staffs understand where to focus their time and energy. One approach is having managers send calendar reminders of the week’s priorities to their teams. Managers who support their staffs in understanding how to prioritize their responsibilities and not feel overwhelmed reap increased overall productivity. Reminding staff members of their individual development objectives, as well as the team milestones and goals, is one way to do this. These calendar reminders can also further encourage people to block off time for lunch and breaks or for informal catch-up meetings with colleagues. The objective is for employees to use the calendar as a preferred way to assess what needs to be done on a daily basis, as opposed to relying on reading emails received in an inbox as a starting point. This simple-to-implement technique will ensure that employees start their days in a proactive rather than reactive mode and don’t lose sight of what matters.

These priority reminders should be supportive, clear, and concise and align with the mission and goals of the organization. The aim should be making desired behaviors as easy to carry out as possible, and the reminders make it more likely that people will pursue them.

  1. Encourage social interaction and highlight positivity. Leaders should support and facilitate social interaction to help combat isolation for remote teams. For example, all business units and teams could hold optional regular virtual meetups during lunch or during a happy hour, where instead of discussing work, people could share personal updates or watch a positive video together. In our research, sharing happy, uplifting content, such as the Some Good News series hosted by actor John Krasinski on YouTube, had positive effects on teams. The aim is to replace some of the small, informal ways people easily connected at the office before the crisis and steer the conversation toward positivity and optimism.

In just a short time, we’ve all borne witness to the impact of this insidious virus on our communities and way of life, and the pandemic will likely continue to dominate our attention for the foreseeable future. With most of us at home, separated from friends, colleagues, and sometimes family, companies have never been more compelled to lead and bolster their people with strong communication. By using behavioral insights from employees and communicating a clear, inclusive vision and plan, leaders can help their workforces navigate these uncertain times and feel supported in the days ahead.


Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio (@hlspaola) is the chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys (ELRIWMA), a senior research fellow at the Center for the Legal Profession, and affiliated faculty in the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) of Harvard Kennedy School. She is the CEO and founder of the decision-making consulting firm People Culture Drive Consulting Group.


May 18, 2020

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