Is the annual employee survey dying? Article icon

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In the wake of Brexit, employee engagement may not be topping the list of concerns right now but in some respects, it should.  With the vote to leave the EU, we have been promised a rocky ride ahead.

Employers and employees alike do not yet know what this will mean for their futures. Right now, getting people’s heads out of the news and back to work is a challenge. But in the longer term, getting business teams united to push through whatever challenges lie ahead will be the bigger test.  Employees will need reassurance, clear goals to work towards, and no doubt a chance to feel like they can contribute to managing whatever changes we face.

In this context, good engagement will be critical. Employers will need to be able to gauge the changing mood of their employees and adapt quickly to any issues that arise. Myriad concerns will have to be addressed clearly and openly – which means having a finger on the pulse in the first place.

Consequently, the fate of the engagement survey looks fragile – the mammoth annual one at least. More than two-thirds of all organisations conduct annual employee engagement surveys, but given the impact of external forces, it could be argued that those completed in recent months are now relatively worthless.

Organisations will be looking for a better way to connect with employees for the times ahead.

THE PROBLEMS WITH THE ANNUAL SURVEY

It is not as if the annual engagement survey was in great shape anyway. Andy Payne, head of consultancy at scarlettabbott, believes that annual surveys are not only unwieldy things to produce and manage, but they can also result in internal communications teams facing a mountain of data that feels ‘passive’ and ‘after the fact’.

And that is assuming companies actually act upon any of it; the consensus being that they typically don’t. ‘Imagine being asked a series of important questions, which you take the time to answer honestly and carefully, but you then see no result, no feedback, or no difference made as a result,’ says Payne. ‘Well that’s what too often happens with employee surveys.’

If the results just disappear into the boardroom, it will likely just add to employee suspicion about the purpose of a survey, which will not help generate future honest feedback. ‘However many lengths you go to in order to reassure people that a survey is confidential, some will always be suspicious and skip questions about their manager, for example,’ says Paul Jones, associate director of strategy at Sequel Group.

Isabel Collins, founding director of Belonging Space, was struck by just how expensive these third-party run surveys can be too. ‘I’ve seen large financial institutions with huge cultural challenges spending £500,000 every two years on these surveys that ask 12 or 24 questions, but don’t give any rich feedback on which you can base decisions. It’s a bad use of a lot of money.’

John Smythe, founding director of Engage for Change, agrees, but sees a significant change developing. ‘For decades, big survey companies have held on to doing very expensive annual or two-year surveys. They’ve had an absolute grip on it. But enabling technology is allowing companies to use a whole variety of other techniques and devices to get people’s opinions back. Agile technology is cutting through hierarchy, allowing more people to give feedback instantly, in an informal and on-going way.’

That doesn’t mean engagement surveys are dead as yet. ‘But the days of asking your people an opinion and ignoring it (in their eyes) are seriously numbered,’ says Payne. ‘And as technology makes ‘in the moment’ pulse checking easier, businesses will move to a little and often approach over the annual behemoth survey.’

THE GLASSDOOR EFFECT

No doubt this shift has been propelled by developments such as Glassdoor, which has challenged the traditional idea of employer-led surveys, while at the same time making employee views all the more important for brand reputation.

‘For a time, employee engagement surveys were popular but this no longer cuts it,’ says Joe Wiggins, head of communications at Glassdoor. ‘What employees are looking for is a forum where they can say what they really think in a way that is not going to have limitations on their career. Employees also want to feel that by contributing their views that they will be listened to and they can contribute to change for the better.’

Taking the conversations out of the immediate workplace has freed up employees to speak more openly about their experiences; Wiggins describes the content as ‘very influential and trusted by job-seekers more than employer-generated content’.

He thinks the site has also successfully avoided becoming a platform for disgruntled employees to rant. ‘The average company rating on our site is actually a 3.2 out of 5.0 and 70 per cent of employees tell us that they are ‘okay’ or ‘satisfied’ with their job,’ he says.

What is perhaps most interesting, however, is the way that employers are interacting with the site. Wiggins claims that many see the benefits of Glassdoor in terms of recruitment marketing.

‘Being able to direct job-seekers to a Glassdoor profile where employees are voluntarily leaving ratings and reviews is powerful advocacy,’ he says. ‘We now see recruiters acting more like marketers and using Glassdoor as content in that process.’

For Wiggins, the employer brand has shifted away from the traditional ‘inside out’ marketing approach to become ‘what your people are saying about you when you are not in the room’. For many employers, though, this will not be enough. Direct interaction with employees will still be critical, if only to help fuel positive content on third-party sites.

THE INTERNAL SHIFT

‘Businesses are craving more insight, not less,’ says Payne. ‘Teams in charge of employee engagement are upping their accountability, measurability and return on investment and bringing this to the boardroom. There’s definitely a desire to become more agile and informed with decision making – much like marketing teams are with their customers. But this will take some time. Internal engagement has got some catching up to do.’

Within this, Payne sees a gradual shift from away from the traditional survey towards high quality – and highly current – information. ‘Businesses are asking us to help them find new ways to get this data,’ he says. ‘Mobile devices and Intranets enable us to push notifications to employees and get more instantaneous feedback. But even the traditional survey is enjoying a facelift, asking fewer and more potent questions, rather than trying to get data on every facet of employee life.’

‘The key is to keep [surveys] short,’ agrees Jones. ‘A few people over the years have tried to persuade me that you only need to ask one question in order to measure engagement: Would you recommend a job here to a friend or relative? I’m not sold on that idea, but there’s no reason you can’t ask two simple questions regularly: one that stays the same, for easy tracking, and one that’s time specific.’

For Derek Irvine, vice president of client consulting at employee recognition company Globoforce, it is not just surveys that are changing, but the whole annual approach to employee interaction.

‘Large, well-respected companies, including Accenture, Adobe and Deloitte, are abandoning the annual performance management review and moving to much more frequent meetings or weekly reviews,’ he says. In his view, companies find performance reviews and surveys take so long that it’s much more effective to spread both processes out over the year, all the while encouraging honest feedback and collaboration.

Products such as Globoforce’s ‘Mood tracker’, which allows daily surveys of small numbers of employees, and its social recognition platform allowing peer-to-peer recognition, are helping to bring a multifaceted and always-on approach to employee engagement that makes the annual approach seem irrelevant, overly hierarchical and clunky.

The recent report Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 revealed almost 20 per cent of companies are already ‘experimenting with pulse surveys and open feedback tools’, allowing employees to ‘see each other’s opinions, vote and comment on each other’s ideas and freely share their own ideas’.

In a piece published online, Josh Bersin, founder and principal of Bersin by Deloitte, which offers research-based people strategies, described it as the emergence of an employee listening platform, which includes ‘information from surveys, comments, exit interviews and even ongoing performance discussions’.

There is perhaps just one issue here. The annual survey may be untimely and unwieldy but it presents exactly the same platform to all employees, giving everyone the same opportunity to contribute their thoughts on an annual basis.

Mobile and social platforms allow far more regular communication, but might they only really appeal to those who are more vocal or a digital native? What happens to those employees who are not so enamored of regularly broadcasting their views in this way?

Smythe warns against generational stereotyping though. For while the younger generation will take to these tools more quickly – and they certainly have outside the workplace – he thinks that they often lack the confidence to speak

up in work, wondering if it is safe to be participate in an enterprise social network, compared to older employees who are confident of their positions, understand the politics and are unafraid to voice concerns.

‘A key driver in this is top leadership participating and welcoming criticism without getting tetchy,’ he says. ‘Without that, nobody is going to use this stuff properly.’

THE BIG PICTURE

It’s probably a good reminder too, however, that the technology is only one part of a good engagement process – as are surveys.

‘Survey data provides valuable benchmarks for employee engagement,’ says Payne. ‘But there’s a ton of other places businesses can look to see how well (or otherwise) its people are engaging with the business. Look how many employees have signed up for volunteering. How many of them are putting themselves forward for training? What sort of interaction do you see on message boards, discussion threads and other collaborative sites? Employee retention rates et cetera

'There are lots of places to look to see if people are engaged with the business, and it’s important to look at the whole mix to get a true sense of where you’re at.’

There are also people-led processes around surveys that can make them, and general engagement, more valuable.

Get people involved before any survey, suggests Payne, by holding focus groups to understand the sort of questions that employees would like to see on the survey. ‘After all, the leadership team don’t know what they don’t know, so it makes sense that some of the areas you explore are the ones which are the real issues to employees,’ he says.

Jones agrees: ‘The balance is certainly shifting towards qualitative rather than quantitative. And I feel as though people are more likely to be open in, say, a focus group than in a survey – as long as the session is run by an independent researcher.’

This has shaped the approach at Belonging Space, which works with companies to help develop a positive culture with a sense of belief and belonging.

Its ‘Belonging Litmus Test’ aims to reveal what is helping or harming a business. It includes an employee survey, but is preceded by observations of day-to-day behaviour, as well as workshops and discussions to test what has been observed. The survey is followed up by further observations to test its findings.

‘It’s about doing a much richer investment in a proper culture survey with evidence-based data on which organisations can base decisions,’ says Collins.

Overall, the trend seems to be moving completely away from the hierarchical top-down approach. It’s no longer about polling employee views on an annual basis to check they’re not about to mutiny, and probably not trusting the results anyway. It’s about everyone collaborating to share honest opinions and, more than that, giving them a stake in the business’s future by allowing them to share new ideas and solve business problems.

With the post-Brexit challenges ahead, it is also a shift to collaboration that may well be much needed.

THE RESPONSE MYTH

British and American workers are more likely to lie to their employers in employee surveys, new research has shown.

More than half of British and American employees would lie when completing a survey for their employer, whilst 94 per cent of staff from India would be wholly truthful under the same circumstances.

Headlines such as those four years ago suggesting that American and Canadian employees were the most engaged in the world have been thrown into doubt following the research, as have those stating that just six per cent of Chinese staff are engaged. The research discovered that only two thirds of Chinese respondents said they were truthful in anonymous surveys.

The report also found that women in Romania, China and India want to use surveys to communicate their own concerns more than their counterparts from other countries. Women who work in these regions were far more reluctant to speak out in front of a manager, preferring to tell the truth and air their views in anonymous surveys and polls.

Many of the 300 employees surveyed also admitted that they didn’t believe ‘anonymous’ employee surveys were truly anonymous. Management consultant Michael Coates, who conducted the survey, said: ‘The discovery that not all employees are entirely truthful with their employers when it comes to anonymous surveys is certainly an interesting one – not least because many businesses base their policy decisions on such feedback and engagement surveys.’