Everything you could ever want to know about your employee engagement survey strategy
It doesn’t matter what industry you work in, this guide will help you create or improve your employee engagement survey, quickly and easily. It’s full of practical, step-by-step information and is divided up so you can find everything that’s most relevant for you. You might be starting out, or maybe you want to get a better understanding of how surveys can improve your business – either way, this is your one-stop shop.
Everything is based on the work we do with brands like Virgin Media, the Financial Ombudsman Service and Deloitte. They’re all using our strategic frameworks to optimise their employee engagement. We’re sharing our proven strategies that we use to improve business performance, response rates, inclusion and retention of employees.
This playbook is for anyone involved in shaping their company’s employee engagement strategy, including:
If you don’t have to read this guide in one go, choose what feels relevant, go there and take what you can. Navigate using the links on the navigation on the right hand side of the page.
Engaged employees have an emotional connection with the company they work for. It means they’re satisfied and motivated by what they do, as well as proud of where they work.
Employee engagement is a process of measuring and tracking this emotional connection, as well as how it affects business performance..
The evidence is overwhelming – strong employee engagement makes businesses more profitable, and creates an advantage over anyone who doesn’t take it seriously.
Research shows that strong employee engagement leads to:
Engagement isn’t a fad. It’s as relevant today as it was 30+ years ago when it was first talked about.
If you believe in employee engagement – but have been frustrated with the process and results, we hear you. A lot of companies prioritise engagement but don’t see results.
Understandably, this creates scepticism of surveys. Too often, they don’t result in a more engaged and productive workforce.
These are the 3 most common reasons why surveys don’t work:
As surveys have become cheaper, we’ve seen organisations sending more surveys. Some allow every manager to send individual surveys without limitation.
Others now ‘pulse’ employees every week. This only works if you make changes weekly, and everyone can see those changes. Otherwise, people answer questions, don’t see results, then stop replying. Survey fatigue.
Feedback requires a response, and if an organisation fails to acknowledge or respond thoughtfully, trust is the casualty.
You can see this in 2 ways:
Recently we saw an example where, over the course of two years, response rates to pulse surveys had fallen to less than 20% (from over 60%).
It’s definitely possible to ‘pulse’ successfully. Companies that do it well tend to have one thing in common though – they are naturally fast-paced organisations with a huge capacity to adapt rapidly.
For most organisations, frequent surveys lead to excessive data, not enough time to analyse, and no changes happening. Feedback must be acted on and it should be incorporated into the People Strategy.
Ask your survey at the right time.
Plan around decision-making cycles. If you plan your business decisions by the quarter, send surveys every quarter. Insight is redundant unless it informs key decisions.
Be relevant. Make sure each survey has a relevant, topical purpose and focus.
Nudge people into responding. Make a communication plan that explains the reason for it, when it’s happening, and reminders to complete.
They don’t ask the right questions
If we ask meaningless questions, we will never gather meaningful data and the survey becomes pointless – it cannot deliver change.
In a recent employee survey we found the question:
This is ridiculous. Who cares? Why is that important to anyone?
If someone has given up time on a busy day to answer survey questions, it’s a frustrating waste of their time.
If you want effective results, you need to invest in quality.
That starts with well-phrased questions that can clarify if there are issues within a workplace. Or questions that uncover new ideas about how every-day processes can be improved or transformed. High-quality questions that can shape working days.
Poor surveys send a strong signal to your employees. There’s a very real cost when you rush to send out a quick, poorly-designed survey, just to tick the box of gathering feedback. Low-quality surveys reduce engagement, and produce poor data to act on.
Ask fewer, better questions.
Surveys should be short. Try to keep all surveys 25 questions or less.
Make questions count. Ask clear, meaningful questions that are proven to be insightful (on average).
Quality shows you care. Poorly designed surveys send a signal of indifference, while great design shows care.
It’s hard to understand what employees actually say
Imagine coming home from a long day at work, and your partner gives you this questionnaire:
We don’t communicate like this. We use actual words. It’s the best way of understanding feelings, and what drives them. If you ask your partner, “how was your day?” You’d get a specific, honest, human reply.
Yes/No questions have become the norm in surveys. The obsession with scores, benchmarks, and comparisons means lots of information is gathered and measured about ‘what’ is happening, but there’s little understanding of the ‘why’.
Closed questions are good for creating scores and creating comparable measures of progress, but they can’t capture complex feelings and experiences. You need to let people use their own words.
There are a few problems to overcome though. It’s often difficult to collate all the answers, and they’re time-consuming to go through. What’s even trickier to deal with is unconscious bias when interpreting results.
Fortunately, there are new technologies that can do all of this for you. AI and Natural Language Processing mean we can understand employee language at massive scale. Employee Language Analysis can take hundreds, even thousands of survey responses and instantly:
Here’s an example of a sentence being correctly classed into 3 themes:
One of the key challenges in the past has been the ability to understand this data in great detail. Fortunately, technology now lets us do this. This is where you start to receive more valuable, contextual insight.
Create more than scores, reveal the power of language
There are hundreds of different templates, strategies and blog posts out there, all recommending conflicting ideas about the right way to create employee engagement surveys.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all template – every company is different. We’re here to show you how to plan and execute your survey so that it fits your needs.
Effective surveys should follow your company’s overall strategy, and should go through the same planning, rigour and scrutiny.
If it’s your first one, you need to keep it top-level. There’s no point diving into a particular topic before you’ve got an overview of your business. There might also be something far more important to look into that you don’t know about.
Here are some ideas on specific goals, which can be tracked with analytics through your engagement survey. When you can measure them, you can check progress.
There are other objectives that you may want to consider depending on the needs and objectives of your organisation. Having a defined set of objectives, which are linked to business outcomes, will help you get buy-in for employee engagement in the wider business.
Most companies don’t know what areas to focus on, or what their key strengths are. Getting an overall ‘temperature check’ is the best place to start for your listening strategy.
Set up a listening Strategy
Scan > Deep-dive > Action > Repeat
If this happens 2-3 times a year, that’s great for pointed, structured feedback. However, there will be times where employees want to voice their concerns outside a typical survey cycle. It’s therefore important to keep an open communication channel live at all times.
Knowing when to run surveys can be challenging. You don’t want to send endless questions, but you don’t want to wait too long before you get more feedback.
The key thing is making sure you can take action relating to the results. There’s no point in asking employees about something when nothing can be done. When employees are asked their opinions constantly but nothing changes, they lose faith in the process and don’t engage with it.
That’s why we recommend quarterly surveys – Scan, Deep-Dive, Scan, Deep-Dive
For each scan (20-25 questions), follow-up with a Probe (5-10 Questions). These surveys will do 2 important things:
Long surveys are a disaster. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an endless questionnaire at one point or another. Most people rush (or abandon) long surveys, which means poor quality insights.
We know this from our own data and research conducted by the University of Maastricht. They used a simple experiment that proved long surveys have lower response rates. Much lower, by c.43%. In other words, that’s one third fewer respondents, one third less feedback.
When surveys are infrequent and lack governance, they often end up being very long, as well as lacking purpose.
Ideal Survey Length
The average person’s attention span is 14 minutes – remember that when you’re writing a survey.
The reason why we don’t prescribe a specific number of questions is because different types of questions take more or less time to complete. An open text question takes far more effort for example than a simple yes/no multiple choice.
This is perhaps the most important part of any questionnaire. To get the most out of the survey, you can’t expect to ask any old question and get insight from it. The questions need to be designed to help get useful feedback, so you can take actions that address the feedback. Actions that will have a positive effect on the business.
Before you start creating your questions, it’s important to understand how best to structure your survey. Getting the right balance of questions is crucial. First you need to make sure you ask a mixture of closed and open questions:
Closed questions create data you can track. Open questions give context to inform actions. Make sure you include a mixture of both in your engagement survey.
Great surveys are short. They should use fewer, smarter questions that are proven to be predictive of organisational performance. The objective of any survey is to create reliable evidence to guide change.
It is important to have laser focus when creating your surveys. When thinking about what to include, we like to make the distinction between questions that measure employee engagement and those that understand the drivers of company performance – what we like to call Organisational Fitness.
For your initial scan survey, we have a tried and tested methodology that focuses on a mixture of closed and open question, as well as engagement measures and drivers.
We recommend measuring 4 engagement measures and 16 organisational fitness indicators.
Here are the 5 questions that we use to effectively measure engagement:
Once you’ve asked your measurement questions, you’ll move into the engagement driver questions.
We’ve identified 16 organisational topics that drive overall organisational fitness, engagement and other performance measures such as growth, profit and customer net promoter score:
These 16 company culture characteristics are indicators of Organisational Fitness. We show them in a map or matrix so that the results are visual – which makes it easy to communicate priorities. Once everyone has the same goal in mind, it’s much quicker to start changing culture within an organisation.
The scores of each indicator can be used to measure the overall fitness of an organisation and give you a traffic light system to show where to prioritise effort. But, it can also show scores that can be improved across a whole dimension (culture, for example) or for a single important indicator.
Each organisation then has a systematic path to improving the business KPIs by making meaningful change to their people model. You can do this by building on strengths, or prioritising investment in lower scoring indicators. We believe this is the key to developing HR as a strategic capability.