The future of employee engagement surveys

Samantha Arnold , 02 Aug 2012

Engagement scores

How many companies currently running an employee engagement survey can honestly say that it is making a difference to the strategic direction of the business? Not many, I’ll bet.

A change of focus is needed in order to deliver true business value in future and avoid such surveys being dismissed – by managers and employees – as a tick-box exercise. This means a move away from the cottage industry of response rates and data collection.

If engagement surveys are to facilitate real business improvement, they must be designed in alignment with strategy. Also managers need support to identify insights not data and then guidance on how to act on them.

Don't get hung up on response rates

Stop measuring managers based solely on the response rates of their teams. As long as more than half of your employees respond and it is proportionate across the business, you will have more than enough data to make a start on identifying relevant actions.

I have come across managers resorting to all sorts of tactics to make sure they achieve high response rates. The irony is that these managers are often the ones that have little interest in doing anything with the results. Such an approach jeopardises the authenticity of the whole process.

Where this has been a problem, and to avoid it becoming a sideshow, we have advised our clients not to share response rate scores with their managers.

Create a results focus

The focus for managers should instead be on what they do with the survey results - namely, creating relevant action plans and keeping them on track. This means putting greater emphasis on the creation of insights. Managers need to better understand what motivates their teams and makes them want to go the extra mile.

In order to do this, you need to think about what data you are looking to get from the survey and how it will be used.

Think about the metrics you might have to evaluate business improvement and how the survey data can feed into this. Could the data be used alongside performance appraisal scores? Or could it be combined with other HR metrics, such as absence and retention, customer metrics, such as Net Promoter Scores or financial metrics, such as revenue and bonus figures?

Consider who owns this data in the business and what state it is in. Even if you just pilot this process of linking the data, it has the potential to add a lot of strength to the data. It would certainly have a strategic value for senior leaders when creating business plans.

Make it easy for managers

Getting buy-in from managers is a particularly common survey challenge. You need to get a clear message across to managers with a small number of key insights. Don't bore them with overly long reports that go through every survey section in sequence – much of this will not be relevant for them.

Use a statistical (key driver) analysis to pull out survey questions which managers should focus their efforts on. You need to help managers to identify the actions that will improve engagement.

Create a summary report that incorporates just the survey headlines and most relevant areas for managers when developing action plans. You can still make a full report available to them should they need it, but it is important not to overwhelm them with data.

Make it business-relevant

It is little wonder that many managers and employees are cynical of engagement surveys, as the questionnaires so often lack meaning or relevance. Organisations will get far more from their survey if they ensure it is designed around their business strategy. Tailoring the questionnaire in this way will mean the organisation gets greater insights and feedback from employees on real business issues.

Of course, there is still value in including several more generic questions to enable scores to be benchmarked with other organisations. Ultimately though, managers, the organisation and employees stand to benefit more from a survey that is more closely aligned and relevant to the business strategy.

By switching the focus, managers should see a more tangible benefit for themselves personally 'buying in' to the survey process and taking action on results. Employees can expect to see and be updated on action taken as a result of their survey feedback and an improved workplace. And for the organisation, it should lead to a more engaged workforce and improved bottom line.

Until this change of focus happens though, engagement surveys will remain – for many companies at least – a missed opportunity to facilitate significant business improvement.

Samantha Arnold, Business Psychologist at HR consultancy ETS


9 comments on this article

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EE Engagement Surveys

Sheri 03 Aug 2012

Interesting article which is spot on! I recently ran a series of surveys to measure engagement for a newly deployed process. Questions were designed to map to the "change commitment curve", however, insightful enough to actionable, including a limited number of open ended questions. As a result, I was able to meet with each part of the organization and review both quantitative and qualitative data to action plan with leadership... very effective! Yes, there was a focus on the level of response rate, but more focus was placed on the open ended commentary provided by both managers and associates which facilitated each action planning session. Next step is to circle back with the teams to get a pulse on progress.

The future of employee engagement surveys

Wayne Kehl 03 Aug 2012

I once conducted a survey of approximately 600 employees in one company. Response rate was approximately 85%. We were able to boil the responses down to 4 areas that were of particular concern throughout the organization. Had we not responded to those concerns, we would have been in trouble. However we addressed each one of them and communicated what measures would be put into place to correct and improve the situations. I am pleased to say that it worked and the fortunes of the company improved. However, had we not followed up on the concerns it was clear that we would have created greater disengagement than existed prior to the survey. When you ask a question, you must expect an answer and you absolutely must provide follow up!

Common sense stuff

HR_B 06 Aug 2012

Thanks for a good article. @Wayne - I think the point you make is a good one: that essentially, getting employee surveys right is not rocket science! If you have a questionnaire designed to measure the right things, you get data that is relevant to your business and can be acted on to affect change. You then tell employees what you've done to address their concerns. Pretty straightford, no?

It's about quality and quantity

Jo Ayoubi 07 Aug 2012

Whilst I agree that employee engagement surveys are not just about response rates, a reasonably good response rate is important for two reasons: 1. Because survey data will be more valid, therefore 2. People will be more likely to take note of the results. The point about mapping engagement survey data with other HR metrics is excellent. There is usually a lot of data sloshing around organisations and having good systems that will allow you to combine data and create new insights is really critical. For example, one organisation has combined 360 Degree Feedback data with length of service and time qualified to create a snapshot of managers who are potential future leaders in the business.

Why would the staff want to take the survey?

Piers Bishop 22 Nov 2012

I’m not sure you should be satisfied with only half the staff responding – if staff do not want to engage with a staff engagement survey there must be something wrong with the way it’s being done. Instead, assuming that the business genuinely wants to improve the way it operates, and that the management agree that the staff are the most important part of that picture, it should be possible to design a staff engagement process which staff actually want to take part in. Staff have to be able to sense that it is genuinely in their interests to take part, in other words, and this means being completely open about the process you are using, and showing them how it will bring clarity, improved skills and better satisfaction to their work experience. If they can’t see how it might do that, they’re entitled to assume it’s a cynical exercise to squeeze more effort out of them, and they will resist it. What we provide in Team Insights is an engagement survey with two main distinguishing features. One, it starts from the premise that if the staff aren’t engaged it’s not their fault, but the employer’s, and our mission is to uncover what will have to be done differently in order for them to want to become engaged. Two, it not only measures how the culture and environment is working from the staff’s point of view, it also returns immediate, practical suggestions for improvement, by individual and by team. We suggest that this meets the basic criteria for any process of change involving human beings – there has to be a realistic expectation that doing something will meet our needs, and it has to be practical and achievable in a reasonable time frame. Otherwise you don’t have an engagement process at all, you just have another survey that irritates people! See http://www.howtomotivateateam.com for more on how we do this.

Engagement Survey Metrics

Dallas Trainer 28 Dec 2012

It's important to have metrics for a / employee engagement surveys /a , but it's equally important that these are business-relevant -- and are measured over a significant period of time. The number of respondents to the engagement is an indication of how well the survey was planned, written and implemented; but this is 'inside baseball' and doesn't pertain to real world organizational success. And one of the main benefits of these surveys is seeing how employee engagement improves over time, following changes implemented by management as a result of the survey(s).

Getting beyond pass/fail

Marcus Body 02 Jan 2013

I see a lot of employee survey results where people have been asked on a 5 point Likert scale of the "Strongly disagree-strongly agree" type, but then the answers are consolidated into a simple binary format (Agreed to some extent or didn't). Firstly, this is rude to respondents. Secondly, it's really dim, as you lose a lot of information. It tends to encourage the report recipients to divide staff into the "good" (those who agreed) and the thought criminals who didn't. Or in the current vogue "engaged" and "disengaged". Actually, they couldn't be more wrong. Someone who is strongly disagreeing is definitely not disengaged. They are very engaged, and frustrated. If you had to identify "disengaged" people, I'd go for those who answered neutrally to everything. One reason many managers are dismissive of the employee survey is that they are often right about the sloppy mathematics applied afterwards.

Response rates & survey comms

Samantha Arnold 01 Oct 2013

Thanks all for your comments on this - I've reflected on a few of these recently and have a few other observations. @Jo: I agree in principle about response rates but it isn’t good practice to encourage unhealthy competition as you want authentic feedback from employees. Ultimately, if you’re demonstrating that you’re acting on employee feedback, this should encourage even the more sceptical ones to participate in the next survey. @Piers and @Dallas: It’s true too that the level of response to a survey will often reflect how clearly the programme has been run and communicated. You might find the following four comms considerations useful in helping you plan comms before during and after a survey: 1. Be clear on the programme objectives so people know why the survey is being run 2. Understand enablers and challenges to communication so that you can remove barriers and strengthen enablers 3. Be clear on the strategy and think how many comms channels you should use to encourage participation 4. Tailor your messages for different audiences – i.e. making it clear for managers what they need to do and what they’ll get out of the process.

A few of our CSFs for engagement survey success

Greg Basham 16 May 2014

I'd like to add that with our clients what we see consistently is the following: 1. HR is already considered a strong business partner in the firm. 2. Top management commitment to the metrics being added to their dashboards and to action. 3. No external benchmarks to divert the conversation as these firms sets their own aspiration levels and benchmarks. 4. The survey results are used as a value added tool for managers - not punitive, not competitive across business units. We typically meet the CEO or Managing Director and often a COO depending on the structure along with the HR head. We present the results visually and in a neutral manner so that the executive can place value on the numbers and get ownership. We do as the article shows statistical correlations in a priority matrix for every question as to its significance on engagement. This visually gets a lot of attention. This meeting then ensures with our guidance that it does not become an HR initiative but rather a plan to extend it to their full executive team, country managers and business unit heads. Typically in subsequent years there is no need for us to attend the executive briefing as they have all made this a key metric. What NONE of our clients in Asia or globally have done is share results so that a business unit manager can see what his/her counterpart has scored even though they are all in attendance at the meetings. On participation rates. I get what the article is saying as we have heard horror stories (not our clients) where a manager will threaten staff for high participation rates and also if the scores are not high. We've not seen this first hand but we encourage our clients to let us manage the reminder schedules for them as we know what day/time via experience works best for busy employees to get that message. We get upwards of high 80% response rates overall that way.

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