Pivot. Pivot. Pivot. Like a mass ‘Ross from Friends’ impression, countless businesses are changing how they operate. In many cases, it should be said, this is borne out of necessity, rather than opportunism. Whether it’s pubs now offering takeaway and delivery services, or fashion companies making protective face masks, it’s all too often a case of change or die for small business owners whose worlds have been turned upside down.

The need to change and adapt to the ‘new normal’ isn’t just an issue for small businesses. With some notable exceptions, even some of the most established global brands have been struggling to remain relevant and gain a foothold during a crisis which has engulfed much of the world and is seemingly far from over.

Yet despite their size, many have been successful in realigning their operations, the most obvious example being a wholesale shift to home working for many workforces. Technology has undoubtedly made this shift easier than it would have been at any other point in human history. Collaboration tools, online video conferencing and even the humble and underappreciated email have enabled many of us to roughly maintain our productivity levels, if not our usual approach to work dress code.

One must, however, acknowledge the anxiety-inducing global context, with the various pressures of coping with social distancing and lockdown inevitably taking their toll on employees. Moreover, with new ways of working often being implemented rapidly or ‘on the fly’, there’s a real danger of some employees being left behind, so it’s far from a simple scenario. In the face of all these challenges, there’s one simple trait which will stand business leaders in good stead with their workforces: the ability to listen.

It’s unlikely this is the first time you will have heard the argument, or oft-shared wisdom to ‘talk less, listen more’. But what does it really mean to be a listening leader, and why is this so crucial now?

Listening leaders

Put simply, a listening leader is anyone who gives their employees a voice. Organisational leaders who, as a key part of their leadership strategy, enable and encourage their colleagues to voice their opinions and ideas about the business in a constructive, mutually-beneficial way. This is vital, because given an adequate channel of communication, employees are able to positively affect everything about a business from the top challenges to the bottom line.

Of these myriad benefits, often the most valuable outcome is increased employee engagement. This helps drive employee recruitment and retention, which can save a business thousands for every employee retained, not to mention being able to avoid losing skilled and experienced individuals. Furthermore, given the current challenges imposed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, employee engagement is undoubtedly playing a key role in smoothing the creases of rapid changes in the way we are – and will be – working.

In business, standing still is often the same as falling behind, and in this regard, change can undeniably be a good thing. But not all changes will suit everyone who has to make them. With widespread adoption of new technology to make working from home a more connected, cohesive effort, there will inevitably be a section of any workforce who may find it more difficult to adapt, resulting in feeling out of their depth or left behind. A good leader will be mindful to listen to these employees as much as those who have taken to the new working arrangements like a duck to water. As with much in life, work processes are only as effective as they are inclusive. Listening and responding appropriately to employees’ difficulties with adjusting to the ‘new normal’ will not only help your business to operate smoothly, it will also improve morale and the feeling of belonging which are so integral to successful teams.

Listening is clearly crucial, but a vital component of being a listening leader is how you do it. There needs to be a structured, consistent way of listening, which involves establishing the framework within which employees can voice their thoughts and opinions. Again, the communication method of many firms plays a key role here, with apps like Slack, Workplace by Facebook and Microsoft Teams enabling transparent and open dialogue to not only be sparked, but to be tracked and recorded, too.

How to start listening, well

Remember, everyone – including employees – are acutely aware that businesses are still adapting to the daily and ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19. There are bound to be problems and niggles leadership alone can’t quite solve. But no one knows the day-to-day operations of a business like its employees, so engaging them for specific insights is key.

One of the most important steps when considering how to be a listening leader is to begin with top-down engagement. After all, if business leaders are never reaching out to their employees, chances are employees won’t feel like they can reach out to leadership, either. This is all the more true with a scattered workforce under strain.

An incredibly effective way to do this is with a targeted employee ideas campaign, where a specific business challenge is presented to employees and their innovative ideas are requested to help solve the challenge. The targeted question or problem posed to employees could be anything from how to improve customer experience, to exploring and discovering ways to speed up logistics. Centrica saved over £5 million in operating costs through just one employee idea, and Balfour Beatty saved £4 million and 119,000 working hours using crowdsourced ideas. By asking employees for input on a specific headache, listening leaders can benefit the bottom line not only through the innovative ideas that come rolling in, but through the improved engagement garnered in the process. 

It goes without saying that the medium of communication is central to the success of a campaign like this. Any leaders serious about listening to what their employees have to say should also be considering the best platform or forum to use. Whether it’s Slack or Teams, deskless should never mean voiceless and you can integrate your enterprise social network with specific tools to give remote workers a platform from which to share their thoughts and ideas.

As with any new initiative, a little encouragement goes a long way, so a leader who wants to listen should first find the best people to head and support campaigns. These can be from different levels of seniority, but fundamentally should be individuals who will inspire engagement across the business, and ensure everyone is given the chance to involve themselves.

Once the ball is rolling and the conversation is producing ideas to improve the business, it’s time to really dial up the impact. Arguably the most demonstrable way leaders can show they are really listening is by acting on what they are hearing. In other words, they should ensure the best ideas are put into practice and become a reality. This includes accepting ideas that may be difficult for leadership to swallow. Opening oneself up to criticism is never easy, but to really iron out the kinks, earn employees’ trust and benefit from the knowledge they have garnered collectively, it’s essential – as perfectly demonstrated by the CEO of TooJay’s Deli, who simply asks his employees “What are we doing that’s stupid?

When insecurity is everywhere, so many of us are untethered from our normal social and societal structures, and the future is perhaps less clear than any other time in recent memory, channelling employees’ combined experience, insight and creativity can truly help to galvanise a workforce. Not only that, but will help your business improve and better prepare it to weather the storm. It really is that simple: all you need to do is listen.