The future of employee engagement surveys

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