Giving employee surveys a radical re-think

Hugh Tonks, CEO Thymometrics

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
– Albert Einstein

Now and again, it’s good to take a step back and view things from a new angle; looking at problems in a different way can help to uncover fresh insights (it certainly helped Einstein). And if we wish to make progress, it is sometimes necessary to throw out well-established ideas in favour of more radical alternatives that open up new possibilities. Giving up something familiar can be a wrench, but if there are benefits to be gained then taking the plunge can be well worth it.

The traditional survey methodology is a series of discrete serial tasks: plan survey, administer survey, create statistics, collate comments, develop action plan, present to employees, implement actions plan. For larger organisations, this list can take almost a year to get through. To compensate for the low frequency, we may add in pulse surveys on shorter timescales, perhaps on the order of one to three months, but these still follow the same pattern. And the pattern is not unreasonable; each task really is dependent on the one before.

But we have a choice in how we apply this pattern. Traditionally, it’s been applied once a year; each task takes its turn, running for a few weeks or months, in a sequential process, and then the next year’s cycle starts. However, that’s not the only way in which it can be applied. As an alternative approach, the innovative “always-on” methodology (AOM) starts from the premise that engagement intervention should not be an annual event, but an on-going process. The pattern is not rejected: far from it, the pattern is embraced wholeheartedly – but applied many times over, in parallel, as resources permit; all the tasks happen all the time. It’s not like running lots of tiny surveys; the difference is the same as the difference between “continuous” and “continual”.

This change in methodology has profound consequences for the nature of the survey itself, starting with its psychology. The traditional survey is one where employees are asked (or told) to fill out an engagement questionnaire by some deadline, usually extended several times, with the company firmly in charge. There is no employee ownership; it’s just a corporate data collection. AOM, however, puts the employee in control of both the timing and the extent of their contributions, and that changes the whole feel of the survey. It’s no longer there just for the benefit of the company to discover information; it’s primarily there to provide employees with a safe way of saying exactly how they feel (and should be promoted as such). It’s the company’s role to listen and act. (For these reasons, we do not recommend applying corporate branding, as it sends the wrong message.)

What else changes? If we now expect employees to contribute more often, we need to do something about the format; the multiple-choice questionnaire doesn’t lend itself to this style of contributing. A different mechanism is required, which must allow employees to accurately express their views (via comments, or some scoring system) whenever they feel like doing so.  The issue of frequent contributors skewing the statistics does not arise, because additional contributions change an employee’s current scores, rather than giving them additional scores. Anonymity is still part of the deal.

More frequent use is further encouraged by keeping the survey ultra-short and easy to complete - so long tedious lists of questions are deprecated. Because the giving of opinion requires the employee to be motivated to take the initiative to do so, the issue of over-surveying does not arise, and as a result the response is likely to be more timely and authentic. The design of a suitable mechanism is left as an easy exercise for the reader (I am happy to assure them that it is possible).

AOM neatly removes all the angst surrounding survey timing and frequency - an AOM survey has frequency the way that a circle has sides, and its timing is always “right now” – so these things have become non-issues. AOM improves the survey logistics too. Everything about the traditional survey screams “hard work” (particularly for large organisations), from designing the questions, the administration of the survey itself, the rush to collate the results, through to the formulation and execution of a grand action plan. It takes a lot of effort, which technology is helping with, but even so it’s more of a brontosaurus than a velociraptor. AOM, once set up, requires no maintenance other than minor admin tasks for joiners and leavers. Because analyses are always fresh and up-to-date, keeping on top of the most pressing issues is easy, and engagement interventions can be implemented as a rolling programme of smaller, better targeted projects aimed where they are most needed, thereby eating the elephant a bit at a time. A steady stream of visible outcomes helps to give the (correct) impression that the company is always listening and acting, and reinforces the point of taking part: the feedback loop must be closed for maximum benefit and good participation levels.

Experienced practitioners know that a good survey is not the end of the story, and that translating the survey results into an action plan is the second hardest task (the hardest being the execution of the action plan itself). Trying to work out what’s going on using a traditional survey is akin to trying to fathom the plot of a play from a series of still photographs.  With AOM, more help is available: every contribution now has an additional piece of information (namely, a timestamp), which leads to a richer dataset, and the potential for new kinds of analyses capable of answering time-based questions such as “how have feelings on job security changed in our various offices since we made the re-org announcement?” Indeed, there is valuable information to be gained simply from observing a spike in contributions levels, especially if this spike comes from a single demographic - this tells you something has happened that probably needs investigating.

AOM will not be suitable for every organisation; because it’s necessarily IT-based, internet access is required in order to contribute. Ten years ago this might have been a show-stopper, but with the advent of smartphones, the rise of cloud computing, the “Bring Your Own Device” movement, satellite communications and the proliferation of WiFi, this is a rapidly diminishing problem. In another ten years, it’ll be those companies still clinging to annual paper questionnaires (or computerised versions thereof) that will begin to look outdated. Sic transit gloria Likerti, as the Romans might have said.

In conclusion, there is still a place for multiple-choice questionnaires; they undoubtedly have their uses. But this doesn’t mean they are the most appropriate tool for assessing engagement, even if they can be used for that purpose. (The same applies to social media: it definitely has a role in the workplace, but it’s not a replacement for any kind of survey.) Engagement surveys are an area in which there has been too little innovation for too long; now, at least, there is a choice between traditional and innovative, whereas before there was none.

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