Engaged employees are the driving force behind today’s top performing organizations. Yet recent Mercer research has found that employee engagement around the globe is at an all-time low. One tool available to help reverse this trend is the employee survey.
Surveys can play an effective role in helping organizations improve engagement. When conducted properly, the survey process itself demonstrates to employees that management is listening. And of course, surveys identify issues and priorities for follow-up actions. When organizations use surveys to do both effectively — listening and taking action — levels of engagement can increase dramatically.
Unfortunately, when surveys are poorly designed or there is no follow-up action, they can have the opposite effect. In this sense, the price of a failed survey is more than a waste of resources; it can erode trust and damage engagement.
Through our work on more than 2,000 survey projects, Mercer has identified 10 key aspects of the survey process that organizations often get wrong. By being aware of these stumbling blocks and adopting best practices to avoid them, you can significantly improve the odds of conducting a survey that produces positive results.
PLAN PROPERLY. A successful survey requires a realistic schedule and adequate internal resources for all stages in the process, from survey design to communicating results to follow-up action.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS. Reliance on off-the-shelf employee surveys risks capturing information that is of little value or fails to cover important areas. Survey questions need to be designed carefully to reflect unique business interests and specific employee concerns.
COMPARE RESULTS TO NORMS. Without the ability to compare your survey results to appropriate normative data, there is no way to gauge what those survey results mean. For example, pay scores are always lower than scores in certain other areas. The real question is, how do your organization’s pay scores compare to pay scores at other organizations? These comparisons will illuminate true areas of strength and weakness (scores significantly above or below the norms).
CLEARLY COMMUNICATE OBJECTIVES, RESULTS, AND FOLLOW-UP ACTION. Regardless of how well a survey is designed, it will have no impact on engagement if employees do not see the connections between the survey and resulting actions.
GET MANAGERS ON BOARD. Surveys are most successful when managers are convinced of the business relevance and know how to use survey results.
KEEP SURVEYS BROAD ENOUGH TO CAPTURE THE KEY DRIVERS OF ENGAGEMENT. Sometimes there is pressure to shorten surveys in order to reduce the burden on employees and managers. However, this can inadvertently communicate a lack of interest on the part of management. While shorter “pulse” surveys can provide a timely measure of topics of interest, these should be used to augment, rather than replace, company-wide annual or biennial surveys.
MAKE DATA ACCESSIBLE AND EASY TO USE. Surveys can yield large amounts of data. To prevent managers from feeling overwhelmed, organizations need to provide them information in a way that’s easy to find, interpret, and use.
COMMIT TO ACTION. The measure of success ultimately is not the response rate, but the action that flows from the survey. If an organization is not prepared to take action based on findings, it should not do a survey. But don’t try to boil the ocean. Employee surveys will add maximum value when the organization focuses on a manageable number of follow-up issues. It’s better to achieve full success in three areas than spotty success in 10 areas.
TRACK PROGRESS. Once goals for action are set, there needs to be a mechanism for tracking progress. Local action plans should be reviewed centrally to ensure that activities are aligned and to identify and share best practices.
REPEAT SURVEYS FREQUENTLY ENOUGH. There can be good arguments for doing either an annual or biennial survey. Leaving a gap of more than two years between surveys, however, makes it difficult for them to provide meaningful information.
Conducting regular surveys of employee opinion is a powerful means of identifying issues that impact engagement. The challenge is to avoid the pitfalls and commit to an active dialogue that will help raise performance levels, build your brand, and support business strategy.
Elizabeth Moberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal at Mercer in Seattle. She leads Mercer’s employee communication practice in the northwest, helping her clients engage their employees and promote the value of their total rewards.
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