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How to breathe life into an employee survey

This is one truth I must let you know; when employee engagement surveys started to gain notoriety, I didn’t believe much in their value and usefulness. I just saw them as another momentary trend that created lots of noise but in reality, didn’t really offer much.

However, as luck would eventually have it, I joined an organization and just as they were rolling out their annual company survey, I was laden with the responsibility of leading the proceedings for my business units. Since I was still a newbie at the company and this would actually be one of the first projects given to me, I wanted to perform well and that meant replacing my skepticism with a willingness to ensure that the survey process brought value and impact for the leaders and teams of my client’s company.

It actually worked! I now have a full conviction that employee engagement surveys can be a helpful and highly effective tool for gathering relevant data about the way your employees feel about certain aspects of the organizations.

However, you should know this;

The potency of the survey process is not in its ability to gather information or for you to understand the results. The main potency is in your ability to translate the information into a meaningful action. Employee engagement surveys will only have a lasting impact on your organization if you support them with feasible plans of action to which you will be able to hold leaders accountable.

The use of the employee engagement survey is a practice that has become common to many organizations. It’s not surprising since we have been able to establish the link between employee engagement and company performance. According to Gallup, companies whose employees are highly engaged have 3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate of those with low engagement rates. However, a problem lies in the fact that there is no common agreement on the many aspects of the process, what parameters to consider or even what engagement really means. However, there are some guiding principles that you can follow which will help in increasing the value gotten from using engagement surveys. Take a look:

Confidentiality and Anonymity: People must be able to complete the surveys anonymously and without any exception. Make use of a third party to disseminate the surveys, collect the results, and collate the resulting data. You should keep in mind that the power of an engagement survey is to obtain truthful and uncut feedback. This form of feedback is much easier to get when employees don’t need to worry about getting found out.

Leadership Commitment: You must be completely sure that the leaders are in full support of the survey process. This essentially means that:

  • You must understand the leaders’ definition of engagement and the parameters they’ll like to measure. Identify all the issues where they’ll not want to solicit feedback. A general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t ask a question you’re not interested in discussing.
  • Leadership must be ready to “listen” to the feedback. They must also have a willingness to communicate the results (whether positive or negative) and act upon those results. There may be situations in which the company does not choose to act on specific feedback. If there are, those reasons must be stated.

Timing: There are three primary things to consider when timing is concerned:

  • First, talk to your business leaders in order to evaluate the “rhythm of the business. “Are there times when a large percentage of workers won’t be at the office, when the deadlines for the launching of key products or tradeshows are looming, or any other event that will have an impact on customers’ participation? Schedule a time that works best with your business cycle.
  • Second, look at the HR calendar. No one wants to be inundated by HR initiatives, and that means you won’t want to overload your team. Avoid scheduling the engagement survey at the same time as when there is other significant HR work.
  • Don’t think you need to conduct a survey every year. The real value of the entire survey system is when employees trust that their organization listens to and acts on their feedback.  You don’t necessarily need surveys at close intervals that won’t allow the organization time to have great follow-up on the last one. While an annual survey might be effective for some organizations, it is generally more effective to space them between but eighteen to twenty-four months.

Identify the various Employee Groups: While this may seem like an obvious step, it is one that will definitely require some reasoning. Remove contractors from the distribution (this is because including contractors in an engagement survey may jeopardize their non-employee status). Are there specific business categories of employees that have characteristics that are too different from the overall organization and who should be handled differently? Once you have identified these types of people, make sure that they receive a survey as well-even if it means using a different method of delivery.

Designing or Selecting the Right Survey: Now that you have been able to sort out the basics, you are ready to make the major decisions about what the survey will entail. Whether you design the survey in-house, select a product off the shelf or hire a service to help you prepare the survey, all of this will have to depend on several factors such as the size and complexity of the organization; its internal skills, available resources and the allocated budget; there might also be a need for language translation; in-house availability of people trained in survey development and similar issues. One consideration that is often overlooked in the decision process is the need for benchmarking. Regardless of the format of your survey, you will need to include a number of core questions that will also appear in subsequent surveys. These core questions will become your internal benchmarks and will help you in monitoring specific long-term trends.

Some organizations also have the habit of placing a premium on external benchmarking in key areas. If this is the case with yours, it will be better for you to hire a vendor who specializes in employee engagement surveys. They will be able to provide specific major questions and provide results from other organizations that you will be able to use for external benchmarking. If you are interested in external benchmarking, make sure that you define the kinds of organizations that you’ll want to compare with and select a vendor that will be able to give you accurate data.

Once your organization has disseminated the survey and has been able to gather the feedback from the employees, it’s time to focus on the important components that will go a long way in determining the success or failure of the process. This is the analysis of the the survey results and following up with action plans. An amalgamation of skillful analysis and targeted actions breathes life into the survey process.

Analyzing Engagement Survey Data

Simply stated, the objective of analyzing the survey data is to be able to make use of the information to discover patterns, truths and insights that are revealed through the employee feedback. In other words, the numbers gotten will tell a story and it is the role of those in charge of analyzing the results to find the main story behind the numbers. A skilled interpreter will use their intelligence and curiosity as well as the analytical skills at their disposal to uncover the truth that lies in the data as well as the hidden opportunities that lie ahead. Here are a few tips that will help get you started:

1.         Whether you’re looking at total organizational results or the results that come from a specific group or department, it will be better if you look at the data on three separate levels; the overall results, the various categories (benefits, satisfaction with supervisor) and each the question of each individual.

2.         If you have reports from multiple departments, it is helpful to perform a comparison and contrast.

3.         Don’t rush the process of analysis. Provide enough time for you to make sense of the entire information.  Revisit the original objectives of the survey and see how you performed. Look at the data from the point of view of your personal experience at the organization. If something doesn’t make sense, look for the pattern that will brings it into perspective, even if you’ll have to look at it from a different angle.

The challenges that are faced by analysis can be demonstrated through an experience I had while working as the HR leader for a business team that was dispersed through various geographical locations. During our first year, the results were great.—or at least we thought so. The engagement scores had improved from the previous year and they were also generally higher than the overall organization, and in most cases, even higher than the external benchmarks. The reports also indicated that most of the working aspects and the business leaders had overall engagement rates of above-average. However, when I looked at the results from a geographical point of view, there were wide swings in satisfaction. So I conducted an analysis of my business team based on their physical location rather than the structure of reporting. The picture changed a lot! Once I turned the data around, it was pretty obvious that employees were feeling less and less satisfied with the quality and quantity of communication that they received and the resources that were made available to them the further they worked from the corporate office. People in the United States who were located in smaller offices that were away from corporate had lower rates of engagement. Those in Europe and APAC also had lower scores that corresponded with the declining trend when their physical location moved further from a “central office.” So an idea came up; if we were going to create an effective global business, our communication and processes for employees who were outside the corporate office had to improve. This insight turned out to be low hanging fruit and it was pretty easy for us to implement meaningful actions that were aimed at addressing the issues in less than a year. All we needed to do was find the need.

Action-Planning and Follow-up

Ultimately, the success and employee trust that will be generated from the engagement survey process will be determined by the actions taken by the leadership. Note that it’s not by the “action plans, “because the plans are useless if they are not implemented accordingly. The golden rule for action planning is that you must have a strong commitment from the leadership to meet your commitments. Some experts make use of the term impact planning instead of action planning and that’s fine. Whatever you use, just make sure you translate these results into feasible actions and make them happen.

The importance of the follow-up cannot be overstated as shown in a Gallup study on employee engagement surveys. In the study, they measured responses to the statement, “Action Plans from my last survey have had a positive impact on my workplace.” Companies that scored the highest reported an overall increase in engagement of about 10% over the previous year. Conversely, companies that scored the lowest had a 3% decrease in overall engagement and will undoubtedly experience negative ripple effects.

In addition to the “golden rule”, here are a few tips on how you will be able to turn action planning into impact planning:

1.         Keep it simple, targeted and dedicated. Identify the top 3 to 5 items that the company will commit to and execute them flawlessly. Don’t commit to implementing a long list of changes as this can have you achieving nothing.

2.         Get clarification on any feedback that is confusing to you. For example, if the organization scored poorly in the area of communication, ensure that you understand what the reason for this low score is exactly and focus your action on working on that exact aspect of communication.

3.         Designate an owner for each action item. Ensure that the person has enough authority and available resources that will enable him (or her) to handle the task to ensure complete accountability.  It may also help you to create a team of employees to work on the task. Consider adding performance and participation on the team to the objectives for every member of the team.

4.         Once you have communicated the action plans, make sure you track the progress made and provide timely and periodic updates to other departments in the organization. Also celebrate milestones whenever possible to serve as a form of encouragement and an incentive.

5.         Ensure that the actions you take have a direct link to the priorities of the business and are stated as goals that can be measured. Remember; an engagement survey is aimed at not just getting a better score every time! The actions you take should have a clearly-stated motive as well as metrics that will be used to measure the success of the survey and tie it to the organization’s business.

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