Retire Your Annual Employee Engagement Survey: Why And How

Michael Dean
Retire Your Annual Employee Engagement Survey: Why And How

The annual employee engagement survey stands to face a vote of no confidence. Unloved by everyone who completes it, and unable to improve stubbornly low rates of engagement, it sticks out like a sore thumb when we use real-time data as the basis of our decisions in finance, marketing, product development and more.

That’s not to say companies aren’t taking engagement seriously. Considering Right Management studies show engaged workforces return 33% higher profits, and enjoy 44% higher staff retention, it’s no wonder leaders consistently place the topic as their top priority in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends – while The Economist reports that 87% of C-level executives recognise disengagement to be one of the biggest threats to their organisations.

With all this will, why is there no way? A common set of charges against the annual survey is now widely agreed upon:

  • The speed that modern organisations need to innovate, change and grow, allied with shorter employee tenures, means that surveying once a year simply doesn’t give you enough data points to understand your business. You’re left trying to solve last year’s problems with last year’s data.
  • They’re forced to ask too many questions to cover a broad range of topics, but can still fail to capture enough detail to make an action plan easily decipherable. Employees often grow tired of answering after ten-or-more questions, resulting in lower quality feedback.
  • The time it takes to run these surveys, combined with the difficulty of generating actionable insights from their responses, often sends these initiatives on a downward spiral: When management can’t confidently make changes based on the surveys, employees grow cynical about their usefulness, the quality of feedback gets worse, making it harder still to act on.

I believe, however, there’s another equally important factor behind the failings of the annual engagement survey. As a process run out of the HR department – which is often swamped by the demands of administering and reporting on the survey – engagement is wrongly seen as purely an HR issue.

Gallup estimates that more than 70% of the variance in employee engagement across business units can be attributed to the manager, and Interestingly, managers tend to hold the most pessimistic (and realistic) opinion of how engaged people are: when asked if they thought 60 percent of staff were highly engaged, only 26 percent of managers believed so, whereas the senior managers estimated 29 percent, and executives 40 percent.

For tangible employee engagement improvements to be made, a concerted effort is required by all levels of management – something that big, centralised, surveys fail to promote.

A problem that’s been solved before: Learning from the customer satisfaction revolution

How then, can this realisation help us find an alternative to the annual employee survey? The data-driven transformation of how businesses work with customer satisfaction can provide an answer.

Not so long ago, customer support was commonly seen as cost to be kept to an absolute minimum (no doubt it still is in some businesses) and the thoughts of customers and product users would be periodically gathered by sending out long surveys. Three trends then completely turned the process on its head:

  • In the digital economy many businesses realised that retaining existing customers and making them happy, is far more profitable than constantly chasing new business. (To anyone who’s dealing with the cost of losing key employees and struggling to find their replacements, does this sound familiar?)
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) became established as a simple, common metric for measuring customer satisfaction, with well documented links to improved customer retention.
  • The rise of tools like Zendesk and SalesForce gave teams the analytics capabilities to better understand their customers and their business.

When the responsibility for customer satisfaction sat with a small team, efforts to improve were constantly hamstrung – all the troubleshooting and apologies in the world, can’t fix a poor product.

Today, real-time data feeds both the efforts to retain customers and develop new products. Everyone from product managers to CEOs has a stake in the key metrics around customer satisfaction (like NPS) and support teams are seen as the crucial first point of contact with the wider business.

For a similar, unifying, transformation of how we work with employee engagement, we can see that a constant stream feedback and shared metrics for all levels of the organisation to work towards is essential. The annual survey – whose findings rarely provide guidance to the managers who have the greatest influence on engagement – isn’t the answer, so what is?

The solution: Making engagement a coordinated effort throughout the organisation

In place of a long annual survey, short pulse surveys (often run on a weekly basis) are gaining popularity – giving employees the chance to share their thoughts without a lengthy, disruptive, process.

Recent years have also seen pioneering companies such as Apple and RackSpace adapt the NPS methodology as the basis of measuring employee engagement. While NPS asks customers, “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this company’s product or service to a friend or a colleague?” employees are asked a variant of “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend working in your company to a friend, given that they are suitable for the job?”.

Peakon takes this approach further – using dynamic pulse surveys that combine the eNPS (employee Net Promoter Score) methodology with questions around company culture, work environment, and management practices. Rather than blindly asking questions to uncover trends, the platform learns organisational norms, in order to instantly follow-up with more-detailed questions should an employee indicate they’re particularly dissatisfied with an aspect of their worklife.

This drastically shortens what we refer to as “time to insight”, how quickly we can provide clear recommendations – unique to managers at all levels of the organisation – that show how engagement can be improved in their team. Adopting this approach, businesses report an average 11 percent increase in engagement in their first quarter using the Peakon platform.

While annual surveys provide a macro-level view of an organisation’s culture (albeit and out of date one), they fail to improve (and potentially even harm) engagement when feedback doesn’t lead to change. A real-time, decentralised alternative, rightly makes engagement a shared responsibility, while giving managers the insights to act confidently and make tangible improvements.

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