Plenty of research studies have confirmed that employee surveys are a potent tool for improving workplaces. But that's not the end of the story— many of the same studies have also revealed that surveys only show good returns on investment when two key circumstances apply:
Let's dig into what these mean!
A properly designed survey should:
Understanding the needs, wants, and feelings in a workplace empowers leaders to choose their actions wisely. They can take actions that grow employee productivity, employee retention, and company attractiveness to new talent. Employees feel heard and understood, giving them a sense of safety and fostering independence and professionalism. They'll tell others about these positive feelings.
But research also shows that failing to acknowledge results and take action in response to feedback can actually damage employee happiness, engagement, and retention. Employees who participate in surveys without acknowledgement or follow-up feel unheard and like their time is wasted. In fact, their time is wasted. The purposes of surveying are to increase communication both ways between employees and leadership, and to improve things in the workplace. So a survey that does neither is not only useless, but can make employees feel that their input is not truly desired or valued.
Many organizations fall into the trap of performing surveys just to check a box, or to tell top executives or a governing board that they have "been doing work on engagement." Some leaders may also manipulate negative results to blame lower-level staff and team leads to avoid accountability. When a company instead sets out to do a survey with the intent to take action, its leaders will be ready and willing to identify who is responsible for areas that need improvement.
Given the negative impacts of performing surveys without follow-up, organizations should be very careful to avoid doing surveys without clear goals in mind. Don't survey until you have a plan in place, or assistance from experts in deploying a meaningful, goal-oriented survey program.