Surveys have long been a fixture in organisations to understand employee engagement. But with many companies experiencing falling engagement scores, drops in survey response rates and increasing apathy in the process – it’s no wonder that HR teams are looking at other methods such as chatbots and crunching big data to help understand employee opinion.
Why ask a time-consuming survey when only few employees respond and you don’t get the insight you need to make real change?
We totally agree. But our issue is not with the medium of employee engagement surveys, it is with the way they are asked. Our point is simple. Many surveys have design problems. They can be boring to complete, poorly structure, go on far too long and never lead to any tangible change. To get more employee survey participation, you need to fix that.
They can be too frequent, time-consuming, boring and poorly-structured. Plus, if you don’t act on any of the feedback you get, there’s simply no point.
When used effectively, surveys will help you be more successful, with better customer service, productivity and financial results. Our own research spanning 2000+ organisations proves this.
We believe it’s the duty of all leaders to listen to their people, so they can shape their organisations to be as fit as possible. The survey is still the best way of doing this, but only if you do it the right way.
These are the reasons why many surveys can be ineffective, and even damaging.
It’s now cheap to send an employee survey. All you need is some free software, an afternoon to write questions and a list of email addresses. The cost feels low, but without careful thought and planning, it’ll be a waste of time and productivity.
You could actually waste the time of an entire organisation. A 20-minute survey, completed by 100 people is equal to 4 days of effort.
When something is quick and doesn’t cost much, it’s easy to do them too frequently. People think it makes us prolific communicators, but all we’re doing is transmitting.
As employee surveys become cheaper to send, we see organisations sending more surveys. Some even let individual managers send their own surveys. Many organisations also ‘pulse’ their employees every week.
When the speed continues to increase, people get survey fatigue, which hits your response rates and the quality of your feedback. It completely erodes trust when your employees are showered with endless surveys that don’t lead to anything. Plus, if they’re too long, people won’t get to the end of them.
If you ask more questions, more frequently, you have to make changes just as quickly. Feedback requires a response and if you don’t respond thoughtfully, trust is the casualty. You’ll see it in 2 ways:
This is typical of pulse surveys when they’re not done properly. Recently we saw an example where response rates fell from 60% to less than 20% in 2 years. The rapid pace of monthly feedback was unsustainable.
It’s possible to use pulse surveys well. The case studies are compelling, but the companies who can pull it off all have one thing in common – they are themselves, fast-paced organisations with huge capacity to change and adapt rapidly.
Very few organisations deliver on the promise of change. Technology lets you ask more questions, more frequently, but that’s only part of the process of improving your business.
The question we get asked most is: “How frequently should I survey my people?”
A better question is this: “How do I improve survey quality and make meaningful change?”
Quality surveys start with thoughtful question design. If you ask meaningless questions, the survey becomes pointless – you can’t make decisions on what to change.
Here’s a somewhat extreme example – we’ve seen this question:
It’s obviously meant to be playful and spark interest. But for someone who’s given up valuable time on a busy day, it’s a frustrating waste of their time. It has no purpose.
There are other bad questions, including ones that have been asked for decades, for example – “Do you have a best friend at work?” There’s no insight here, so you can’t do anything useful with the information.
Questions should have purpose and insight. That starts with well-phrased questions that can find issues in a workplace. Or great questions that uncover new ideas about improving every-day processes.
Poorly constructed surveys, with bad questions, send a strong signal to your employees. It tells them that you don’t really care about their opinions.
There’s no effective alternative right now. We’ve been experimenting with a chatbot for years and whilst this tech has enormous potential, it is not yet mature to be trusted with what can be sometimes a very delicate conversation.
Indeed, many new technologies have the possibility of disconnecting many large employee populations – for example, older people are often hesitant about using a chatbot to share confidential working experiences.
Some leaders believe they can replace the survey with lots of personal conversations. A positive intention but you can’t always speak to everyone, and conversations can’t replace hard empirical measures. There’s also the very real issue that people aren’t completely honest when they’re speaking to managers in person.
Surveys can be a democratic process.
Surveys are a fantastic tool and are closer to being a democratic process. Everyone has an equal chance to have their voice heard. They’re the basis of shaping culture and people analytics.
That’s why their reputation should be resurrected. That’s why we’re advocating for higher quality, more meaningful surveys.
These principles are the best way to conduct a great survey. They need to be adapted to each organisation, but are a great starting point.
Learn more about how to run more effective employee engagement surveys, or talk to the team to learn more: