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:
- The survey is properly designed.
- The workplace's leadership acts on the feedback they receive.
Let's dig into what these mean!
Proper Survey Design
A properly designed survey should:
- Get a strong sample from employees in all parts of the organization. It's very important to deploy surveys across the entire organization, and to take steps to ensure uniform, high participation rates. At a minimum, effective surveys need greater than 50% participation from all departments and teams. Low or no participation from certain areas of the company leaves clusters of employees who are not being heard, so those employees will not have input or buy-in when the organization takes steps to act on feedback. When beginning surveys, we start at the top, working with leadership to prepare their respective areas of the company for participation. Top leaders then work with their team leaders and managers to get their teams ready. It's best done with brief meetings in each team, getting people excited about the opportunity to speak up.
- Be anonymous. Researchers consider anonymous surveys to be the gold standard—the best way to get accurate results. There's a good reason for this: when employees are worried they can be connected to their answers, they are not likely to give true and candid responses. They are also less likely to participate at all. So, surveys are best when the individual identifications are encrypted and the results cannot be reconnected to individuals after completion. Here at Amazing Workplace, we do this kind of encryption. We also work with leadership to make sure employees know their responses are anonymous.
- Be easily understandable to employees. This may seem obvious, but surveys must be understandable by the people completing them. They should use simple words and terms that everyone knows. For example, they should not ask employees if they feel "engaged" because most employees do not know what that means. Similarly, they should not use terms like KPI (Key Performance Indicator) because not everyone has the same understanding of that term, and some may not know it at all. In Amazing Workplace surveys we use words that everyone knows. We never use acronyms, abbreviations, or confusing buzzwords. We also provide a definition for any term we use that might be confusing.
- Be fast to complete. Surveys need to get completed. For a high participation rate, a survey should take less than 10 minutes to complete. Surveys that take longer have much lower participation and completion rates. Our survey takes about 7 minutes on average.
- Measure the drivers of the thing you want to improve. You don't ask someone a question without having an idea of what you want to know. To do a survey, you need to know what your goal is. Frequently surveys contain a jumble of questions about satisfaction, amenities, time management, company sustainability, team relationships, and other things. Some of these might be relevant, but are they suited to the goal of the survey? Our Employee Happiness Survey has the goal of measuring and improving employee happiness, so our questions are designed for these purposes.
- Provide actionable feedback. As we cover below, surveys are worse than useless if you do not act on the results. Surveys should be configured and deployed with the intent to take future action. Questions should be aimed at getting information leaders can do something about. Surveys should also provide opportunities for written comments from employees. Our Employee Happiness Survey does all of this and includes the ability to label and sort written comments. This makes it much easier to identify action areas.
Acting on Feedback
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.