Four years before COVID-19, a new annual employee sentiment survey helped New South Wales’s 400,000 public servants vent about their workplaces – but as the pandemic reinvented the workplace overnight, a more frequent and responsive approach was needed.

As remote work took off and many employees considered abandoning their middling public-service salaries for better-paid roles, the once-yearly insight provided by the People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) could no longer meet fast-changing employee expectations.

“Attrition is a major concern for government,” NSW Government chief data officer Simon Herbert, head of the Department of Customer Service (DCS) NSW Behavioural Insights Unit, explained during a recent Economist Impact webinar.

“We pay the median prices in the market, and that leads to a number of people knowing that government is the place to come look for new prospects – and that has been a real challenge for us.”

To avoid losing them, DCS worked to gather better, more timely data about employee sentiment that would foster buy-in and avoid losing talented staff.

Even as managers began reaching out to remote employees monthly or fortnightly, data scientists and HR experts explored new ways to measure employee sentiment.

Fortunately, those measurements were easy to find for those who know where to look.

With most employees working from home, for example, a new online learning platform tracked how many courses those employees had enrolled in versus how many were completed.

“It was a fairly good indication of how engaged they are in the learning process, but also in their careers,” Herbert said. “And that gives us a bit of a proxy to how some people are feeling.”

Another valuable metric came from tracking how frequently employees were booking desks in flexible-work offices.

“When somebody is not coming into the office at all, that’s normally a sign that they are disengaged,” he explained. “All of these different data sources can be used to understand more about how that employee experience is progressing.”

All told, Herbert’s team identified eleven key “moments that matter” that are linked to employee longevity: their first impression coming into the office, for example, or the first time they connect to a virtual meeting, or ask how their learning and development will be supported.

“Doing a mix of face-to-face plus the digital experiences, for the employee to understand those key moments, makes us far more understanding of how the employee is feeling and what they really want,” Herbert explained.

“If you get those moments right, your engagement and your retention goes up significantly.”

Treat your employees like customers

HR retention strategies have become crucial for organisations that face increasing competition that, a recent Skillsoft survey found, increased APAC IT salaries by 10.2 per cent last year alone.

If they can’t keep employees onboard, companies end up funding the ongoing talent war out of their hip pockets: according to a recent Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI)-Elmo Software study, the cost to hire an employee has more than doubled over the past year – from $10,500 to $23,860.

“After two years of ups and downs, employers may have been hoping for some semblance of stability in the year ahead,” said Elmo Software CEO Danny Lessem, who blamed the “perfect storm” caused by a skills shortage, inflated wage growth, and historically low unemployment rates.

“Unfortunately, they are going to face some significant cost increases as the cost of the war for talent looks like it will be paid by businesses….Having a clear dollar amount for the cost to hire new people may just be the reminder some organisations need to prioritise their people.”

This becomes easier with employee sentiment data that may already be out there, or can be easily added using some of the same techniques companies already use to measure customer satisfaction.

Salesforce – which became a global software behemoth by helping companies use data to improve customer service – has been tapping data-analytics subsidiary Tableau to use the same techniques on its more than 50,000 employees.

Every day, for example, employees are invited to share how they’re feeling using a stoplight system that, Tableau APJ vice president of strategy and growth Robert Wickham said, has provided “a very quick pulse check”.

Data, he said, “gives you enough information to start tracking the zeitgeist of your employee base, and determine whether or not interventions are required.”

“When you think about how you manage your customer experience, many of those paradigms are now appropriate to your employee experience: just as we think about having a 360-degree view of the customer, it’s important to have a 360 degree view of your employees.”

“We’ve seen a dramatic correlation between the ability to deliver inspiring outcomes for customers and having engaged, motivated, empowered employees.”

Ultimately, says Herbert, employees want to stay when they’re made to feel part of a community – and this may not always be what you expect.

The social media group ‘Pets of DCS’, for example, became extremely popular amongst homebound DCS employees that bonded during the pandemic by sharing photos of their pets.

“It’s all about developing connection,” Herbert said, “and it is that connection that allows you to build the culture and create engagement when you are remote or hybrid.”