6 methods for learning what’s on your employees’ minds

Here’s how to cultivate a culture that solicits and addresses employees’ concerns—without making them uncomfortable about pointing out flaws in your organization and its leaders.

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If you manage employees, you want to maintain good relationships—not just for their sake, but for yours, too.

Happy employees will be more productive and more likely to stay with the company. However, your position on the totem pole can make it difficult for staff to approach you with problems. After all, no one wants to seem like a complainer.

Here are six ways you can find out what your staff really wants and improve your company’s morale and productivity in the process:

1. Check in frequently. Annual performance reviews are becoming a thing of the past. You can’t preserve a good relationship with anyone—let alone your employees–by talking just once a year. That’s why many companies realize it makes sense to have supervisors set up ongoing conversations with staff, for example checking in every 90 days rather than waiting until year-end for an official performance review. Some companies find that quarterly isn’t enough. Deloitte switched to a system of frequent, informal check-ins, and Halogen Software meets one on one with team members every four to 12 weeks. It even created software, Halogen 1:1 Exchange, which makes organizing and documenting these conversations simple for businesses of every size.

2. Amp up your internal communication. Research shows that around 70 percent of employees aren’t engaged at work. By opening a constant channel of communication between management and employees, internal engagement within a company can increase significantly. Internal communications can help increase engagement, but as you may have noticed, that same templated newsletter you’ve been sending out since 1986 doesn’t always do the trick.

Backstitch bridges the communication gap between managers and employees. It enables organizations to create customizable intranet sites for communications, from newsletter writing to job training. It also helps employers optimize engagement by alerting them to messages that are not being read. The service is a solution to overflowing and unread emails, as well as outdated intranet models. 15Five is a web-based example of this type of tool. The service improves internal communication by creating one-time polls and regular pulse checks, enabling employees to “high five” each other for a job well done and integrating with all company Slack channels.

3. Use little questions to garner big results. A great way to stay on top of your staff’s satisfaction is to email them a weekly question about their well-being. That way, you can gauge overall work satisfaction on a regular basis, rather than waiting for complaints to bubble up to you. At the same time, your employees will know that they are valued within the company. Tools such as Tinypulse Engage can make this process easy. The platform sends out a weekly survey and allows respondents to remain anonymous. Plus, they can upvote issues that matter the most to them. Sample questions include, “How much opportunity for professional growth do you have in this organization?” and, “How would you rate our organization’s culture?” It’s one of several online platforms designed to measure and improve employee engagement.

4. Maintain anonymity. “One of the reasons surveys are so prolific is they are an easy way to gain a lot of information,” Tinypulse founder David Niu says in Forbes. Yet people often won’t offer criticism if they know their response can be traced back to them. That’s why it’s crucial to let your employees know that they will remain anonymous when offering feedback. Aspire Team, a consulting firm for small to mid-size businesses, used surveys to get feedback from employees about how the company was running.

The resulting data showed that, when asked whether they saw the whole company working together as a team, many employees saw two different segments of the business working on two different teams—which management had not considered before the survey. This discovery highlighted the need to create an atmosphere that encouraged more collaboration. If you don’t have the budget to pay for a tool like TINYpulse, SurveyMonkey is a free, effective alternative.

5. Use text analytics software. Another way to measure morale within your company is to search through the type of language used in internal communications, to get an overall sense of how satisfied—or dissatisfied—employees are. For example, Clarabridge software scans for keywords in customer mentions of a company, and it can look for positive and negative terms throughout employee interactions. That way, you can gauge how your staff’s mindset is changing about their workplace over time.

6. Have regular get-togethers. Despite all these high-tech recommendations, face-to-face conversations are still valuable, particularly those outside the realm of official performance reviews and meetings. Keeping the atmosphere casual with regular, low-pressure meetings and get-togethers will allow people to speak freely about what motivates them. It doesn’t have to be complicated; a weekly lunch with your staff or a happy hour will do the trick. Either way, people will feel more comfortable voicing their concerns than they would in a boardroom.

As John Baldoni of Harvard Business Review says, “Many executives fear being blindsided by what they do not know. … Those executives who spend time out and about with their people have few such fears.”

A version of this post first appeared on Open Work, a nonprofit inspiring companies to continuously improve how work is done.

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