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How to design employee experience for empathetic conversation

To create an empathetic and understanding workplace culture, HR leaders must listen to employees and encourage them to bring their whole selves to work. Employee experience technology is key to uncovering new workplace wellbeing challenges and facilitating productive conversations.

“What are employees going to say when we empower them to tell us things?” is a question that keeps many HR leaders up at night – and for good reason. Organisations that understand the power of a positive employee experience know that employees who feel heard and valued create change; they fuel greater productivity, positive customer experiences and better business outcomes.

However, there is now an element of fear creeping into HR departments around how to respond when employees raise new, unconventional or private matters in work environments. The way HR leaders tackle these challenges will make or break their company culture.

The modern workplace conundrum
There is a positive trend among companies today to encourage employees to “bring their whole self to work” and find personal fulfilment in their jobs, whether that’s joining an employee resource group or volunteering with colleagues. The message from these organisations is that they care about the individual and want to celebrate what makes them unique. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when this positive change encourages employees to want to ‘talk back’.

Today, people will more readily share details about their gender identity, neurodiversity and, in general, about who they are as people. The pandemic has also introduced a new work-life dynamic, where employees in hybrid or remote roles bring new stressors into the (virtual) workplace, from doing chores between Zoom calls to home-schooling sick children.

The breadth of questions and concerns employees are increasingly raising with their employers won’t be solved through mindfulness seminars or offering paid time off though – it’s a matter of encouraging open dialogue.

Time to have some difficult conversations
To lay the foundations for solution-oriented two-way communication, HR leaders must first establish open channels for employee feedback. Traditionally, these have been done through annual employee surveys.

A few years ago, if an employee used a feedback form to share their issues around childcare, commutes or parking, these would have been removed from the survey because they were not seen as being work-related concerns – though of course, they did affect people’s work.

Today, the issues being discussed have widened in scope and seriousness. And while the issues are not new human conditions, as people talk more openly about them, HR leaders have a responsibility to empower employees to talk more broadly in surveys, too, should they want to.

Surveys are not going anywhere but the wider organisational strategy around them must evolve. Going forward, employee experience tools will play a vital part in not only facilitating workplace dialogue but also removing the ‘fear factor’ from these conversations.

The role of AI in revealing the unknown
Employees are already talking about topics of identity and wellbeing in surveys, but this might not be apparent to HR professionals, because they can’t identify the words and sentiments relating to these issues.

To solve this problem, HR leaders must look beyond the survey questions and seek out information in the wider context of employee feedback. For example, it’s unlikely that a survey will ask “Do you feel discriminated against?”, and equally, and employee might not directly say “I feel discriminated against”. However, they might say “Only men are promoted here”, conveying the same sentiment.

This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be a game-changer. By training AI to recognise keywords in wider conversations – with customers, patients and citizens – organisations could not only establish the right language and categorise feedback more effectively; they could also help HR professionals to offer an instantaneous and more empathetic response to employees, including the steps that can be taken towards a solution.

Fostering empathy and understanding in the workplace will be the single most significant use case for AI in human resources. But HR leaders’ toolkit doesn’t have to stop there; they can also take advantage of a variety of tactics to start conversations, including pulse surveys and idea crowdsourcing forums. These tools allow for more timely responses than annual surveys and can provide positive outcomes in a way that’s visible to employees and which celebrates their involvement.

Embrace new ideas
To paraphrase Tony Robbins, “don’t be afraid of new ideas – be afraid of old ideas that stand in the way of growth.” Topics of identity, belonging and wellbeing will always be prevalent in the workplace, but it is those organisations who seek to actively surface these concerns and work with employees to solve them that will create truly inclusive and empathetic workforce cultures.

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