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Article | EX Insights

Listening through a crisis: Employee experience when it matters most

Employee Engagement
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Nick Lynn | July 2020

Learn how evolved organizations are engaging with employees through coronavirus, including Arm, Avon, LNER, Nomad Foods, RBS, and Virgin Money.

Leading organizations understand during times of uncertainty it becomes even more important to prioritize and stabilize the employee experience. One way they're doing that is by listening to employees via our on-demand pulse software.

In response to swift changes necessitated by the ongoing health and economic crisis, we have implemented template surveys on key topics like working from home, communications, and wellbeing. These short but impactful surveys, informed by Willis Towers Watson research explore key issues like resilience and agility.

High performing organizations are using the surveys to successfully:

  • Analyze results at a business level, so leaders can immediately address concerns and identify hot-spots
  • Provide team reports to managers, so they can act locally
  • Offer real-time advice directly to employees upon completing a survey, so that they are nudged towards specific resources and tools, for example, to support their well-being or to access benefits

So what has been the experience of our clients through this period? How have they continued to activate employee experience? What are some of their key learnings?

Change leadership

An immediate focus for many companies was ensuring work arrangements are effective.

Nomad Foods, for example, quickly deployed a pulse survey focused on well-being and productivity.

The objectives of the survey were to gather insights from employees who are working from home, understand what we could do differently and gather ideas on how ways of working may change as we move out of Lockdown.

The results were really encouraging. Most people believed that working from home was going well and felt extremely well supported. In fact, we saw a desire for ongoing flexibility in the future. As a result, we're now accelerating our smart working initiatives. 

The survey helped us identify some groups who were under more pressure, which included those managing issues like childcare (including home schooling) and supporting elderly relatives.

Willis Towers Watson on-demand pulse software allows us to get instant feedback from employees so we can take action quickly.

Tim Kensey, HR Director, Corporate Functions & Engagement at Nomad Foods

The Change Leadership Playbook is an essential guide containing practical tools for all aspects of managing people and performance. It is based on five leadership principles developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum at the start of the pandemic.

The Change Leadership Playbook is based on three phases:

  1. Managing through the initial challenges
  2. Restoring stability
  3. Rebounding strongly

Used in conjunction with template surveys, organizations can use the Leadership Playbook to seamlessly listen to and involve employees in each phase. This has been the case at Virgin Money.

At Virgin Money we ran a pulse survey in April to assess our agility in creating new ways of working and serving our customers, and we also looked at how we can best support and connect with colleagues.

We achieved our highest ever response rate for a pulse survey, and colleagues told me the content of the survey was superb.

Our Executive Leadership Team and Board found our results, along with the Willis Towers Watson benchmark data, really helpful.

We're looking forward to integrating some of the questions from the COVID-19 Leading and Accelerating Back surveys into our all-colleague survey in June, and I'm also really looking forward to using the Covid-specific real-time advice too.

Edwina Emery, Employee Engagement and Insights Manager at Virgin Money

Analytics and benchmarks

Our fresh benchmark data, derived from completed surveys to-date, show clearly that many employees have a generally favourable impression of their company's efforts in the early stages of the response. There is a general grade inflation effect that users need to consider, and these benchmarks take that into account, so organizations can identify genuine strengths and opportunities.

The surveys also examine the drivers of stress and anxiety. 91% of employees express some level of anxiety from the coronavirus, with 54% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety. Key driver analysis shows where leaders can focus to create the most positive impact.

Comments analysis provides a narrative insight into key concerns. Our text software uses natural language processing and works in more than 50 languages. One organisation that has done a good job of using text analytics is the train operator LNER.

We analysed our survey results to understand how well people are dealing with this crisis. We found that employee engagement at LNER is not just holding up, but it is improving. In fact, we have seen engagement improve over the course of several years. We're far more resilient as an organisation.

The results told us that communications are working, people believe our health and well-being programmes are effective. We can also see that many front-line managers are doing a great job of staying in touch with their teams.

Willis Towers Watson software allowed us to analyse the comments feedback to understand where there were concerns and opportunities. We could see if we had any hot-spots. The comments tool showed which things contributed to people's anxiety about the coronavirus. These insights were especially for staff who are in customer facing roles.

Jennie Pitt, Inclusion and Engagement Manager at LNER

Speed and agility matter

A key feature of the COVID-19 crisis has been the speed at which events have unfolded. Most of our clients already had a listening strategy in place, which includes the ability to run their own pulse surveys as and when they need to. Other companies have started using our Pulse Software for the first time. It is critical from an employee experience point of view to be able to survey people on an agile basis, in the moments that really matter to them. Our software is specifically designed for employee experience measurement like this.

Moreover, we can push relevant new content to our client survey designers in the form of template surveys. survey designers are often busy HR managers who need great content and suggestions at their fingertips.

In addition, our client super users get instant access to new benchmarks and analytics. super users are often part of a people analytics team and they require cutting-edge tools and insights.

Below are some of our clients' reflections.

We have started to implement a continuous listening strategy at Arm and we were able to use Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software to quickly measure how well people were managing changing working arrangements.

The response to our pulse survey was overwhelmingly positive. People really appreciated being asked for their opinions.

We also asked people for tips and suggestions, in terms of what was working well. People came back saying that all those tips should be made public as a way of sharing creative ideas and best practice. This kind of in-the-moment feedback and knowledge sharing is really critical.

Hayley Whitwood, Director, Organisational Effectiveness at Arm

With Willis Towers Watson on-demand pulse software, we can get insights from employees quickly and immediately act on the feedback.

Greig Aitken, Head of Colleague Strategy & Insight at RBS

We were able to run a short survey in ten languages in a matter of days, with great support and guidance when we had queries.

Willis Towers Watson surveys are easy to complete on a smartphone, and we got instant feedback from more than 2,000 associates across the globe.

This kind of agile insight is critical for understanding the experience of our associates during this critical time.

Anne-Elisabeth Jehl, Learning & Talent at Avon

Accelerating back

Many clients are now thinking about the third phase of this crisis: how to rebound strongly.

Leaders are recalibrating operations as conditions improve and adjusting as they manage through continuing uncertainty. Leaders want to learn from what's worked well during the earlier stages of the crisis and ensure they are effectively managing potential risks.

Key topics include:

  • Reconnecting with employees who have been working from home and who may want to continue working from home in some fashion
  • "Re-boarding" employees who have been furloughed
  • Supporting key workers who have remained on site

Our "Rebounding" template survey addresses these concerns with 25 available questions from which to choose. These cover arrangements for returning to the workplace and measure confidence and preparedness. There are also options for continuing to measure levels of anxiety and stress, which will remain critical through the next phases of the crisis.

Leaders also want to make sure that the organisation does not simply default back to the way things were before the crisis. Instead, they want to learn from the prior months about the experiences that have led the organisation to be agile and effective. Leaders can also leverage survey learnings to ensure employees are not drifting back into established work habits, but are coming in with a growth mindset—a critical shift in order to rebound quickly.

Rebounding survey sample on mobile device
Rebounding Survey

Our template survey includes a question that asks: "We have not simply returned to business as usual but are working smarter and faster."

Willis Towers Watson is the world's leading provider of employee surveys, having worked with thousands of the world's leading organizations. Our Employee Engagement Software includes a suite of COVID-19-related survey templates designed to help the world rebound from the coronavirus crisis. Clients can compare themselves to our Global COVID Lockdown Norm.


Nick Lynn
Senior Director, Human Capital and Benefits

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