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Yes, surveys are still the best way to measure employee engagement

Nov 23, 2018 | Blog

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.

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How effective are employee surveys really?

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.

The best way to survey employees? Avoid these mistakes

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.

High frequency, low quality

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.

Survey fatigue and low response rates

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.

“Before you ask me again, change something”

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:

  • Lower response rates over time.
  • Lower scores to questions such as “We made changes based on the results of the last survey”.

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.

  • You have to match the speed of feedback with how quickly you can make changes.
  • Act on feedback and make it part of your People Strategy.
  • Processes should change and the positive impact should be celebrated.

Asking the right questions

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:

survey example

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.

The future: what’s the alternative?

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.

Are employee surveys effective? Yes, if done properly

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.

Fewer, better questions…

  • Surveys should be short. The purpose is to listen, not to bore into submission.
  • Make questions count. Don’t waste people’s time. Ask clear, meaningful questions that are proven to be insightful.
  • Quality shows you care. Difficult and poorly-designed survey forms send a signal of indifference. Great design shows care.

Asked at the right time…

  • Plan for impact. Insight is redundant unless it informs key decisions, strategy and plans – schedule surveys appropriately.
  • Time to be relevant. General surveys without aim, are generally aimless. Ensure each survey has a relevant, topical purpose and focus.
  • Nudge people into responding. Response management is an exercise in understanding human behaviour.

Learn more about how to run more effective employee engagement surveys, or talk to the team to learn more.

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