It’s been a rough morning. You forgot to set your alarm so you overslept a bit, causing you to rush through your usual morning routine. Then the stress compounds when you get stuck in traffic, or the subways are delayed and overcrowded (New Yorkers, we feel you). You head to grab your favorite morning pick-me-up, but the barista made a mistake and your drink isn’t quite what you were hoping for. Your preferred parking spot is taken; the elevators take forever. It’s barely 9:00 AM, but it’s already “just one of those days”.
You sit down at your desk, log in, and check your email. And there it is, in big, bold, unread type, all its glory: “We want to hear from you!”
It’s the dreaded employee survey.
The employee survey has grown from being an individualized company tactic to a massive industry itself. That’s not a surprise. Companies want their employees to be as productive as possible, and happier, more engaged employees do better work. According to Gallup, companies with engaged employees outperform those who don’t by 202%, and highly-engaged business units have higher customer ratings and do better in sales. It’s imperative for any business to know how its employees are feeling about the company, its culture, and policies—the things that make up the total experience of working at a company.
Soliciting honest, valuable feedback from your employees on how satisfied or engaged they are with their work is very difficult. Unless you’re an incredibly small company, (and even then, there are other obstacles), it’s virtually impossible for a company to gather one-on-one feedback, not to mention processing all the results and turning them into relevant actions. Enter the MOOSE (Massive Open Online Survey on Engagement)—the way to get feedback from all your employees in an efficient manner. By the way, I just made up MOOSE while writing this blog post. Maybe it will stick?
First came the annual employee survey. Once a year, companies send out a long survey asking their employees a litany of questions to try and glean some insights on if they need, and how, to improve morale. It is true that there are problems with this approach, but the sheer scale of the operation is perhaps a bigger impediment to its efficacy. Analyzing survey results consumes a lot of resources, and by the time that process is done, employees’ concerns may very well have changed from when they were first surveyed. Implementing changes based on a general survey you did a while ago might also rub some employees the wrong way, inadvertently achieving the opposite intention of the survey in the first place.
A lot of companies still utilize annual employee surveys, but many have graduated to what’s known as the pulse survey. The idea behind these is certainly strong: pulse surveys are shorter, administered more frequently, are intended to gather more specific information, and are often targeted to certain subsects of employees rather than the entire group. These can be staggered time-wise across departments, which lessens the burden on those responsible for processing and analyzing all the results.
Pulse surveys sound like they should be incredibly effective, but they unfortunately fall prey to some of their own problems. Since they’re done more often than annual surveys, employees can develop survey fatigue. And since company changes can take a long time to implement, employees can begin to feel that their responses aren’t being considered at all. Pulse surveys also share some of the same limitations as annual surveys: namely, we’re human beings, and we are biased, fickle, and not always totally forthcoming.
Remember the wonderful morning in the first paragraph? That person might not be in the best state of mind when he or she receives the survey in their inbox. As much as we’d like to think we could put all that aside and answer questions as honestly as possible, we’re all susceptible to recency bias. Just as having a rough day could cloud our responses in an employee survey, having a good one could alter the tenor of responses in the other direction. Recency bias also comes into play in terms of what’s happened with the company lately. If the company has just undergone a series of layoffs, survey results very well may be skewed. We can’t help it, we’re humans—we’re far more likely to base our emotions in the very recent past than take an honest assessment of how we’ve felt throughout a prolonged period of time.
Another phenomenon that can affect survey results is negativity bias. Research from North Carolina State University showed that open ended survey questions, which many pulse surveys utilize, are particularly susceptible to this effect. “Results revealed that relatively dissatisfied employees were more likely to provide comments than their more satisfied counterparts”, the study says. Additionally, open-ended responses tend to be disproportionately negative in tone. “Moreover, open-ended responses were disproportionately negative in tone and tended to echo commenters’ closed-ended satisfaction ratings.”
What you get by adding up all these limitations is the fact that employee surveys aren’t very effective, particularly when factoring in the associated costs. The data you receive is too causality-based, too subjective to be truly valuable and actionable.
There are more efficient and revealing ways to measure your employee engagement. Pardon the use of an old adage, but actions speak louder than words. Focus less on what your employees are saying to you, and more on what they’re doing—are they exhibiting the behaviors of those who are satisfied with their job, engaged in their office culture, and proud of the company they work for? What should you be looking for? Here are some examples:
Are your employees referring friends and colleagues to positions at your company? Many companies provide incentives for referring colleagues to open positions, but make no mistake: someone who is truly unhappy at their company won’t urge others to join the team.
Do your employees attend and participate in work events and other “extracurricular” functions? Engaged employees often show enthusiasm for the company culture, spending out-of-office time with others in the company at leisure, charity, and other events.
Are your employees active on social media about your company? Those who are proud to work for the company often spread positivity about the company on their social feeds, while those who are disengaged often leverage social media to network for a new opportunity.
This is only a sampling of the behaviors that are indicative of employee engagement, but none of these are a perfect indicator alone. In the aggregate, they paint a more relevant picture of whether or not your employees are happy to work where they do or potentially a flight risk. Employee pulse surveys are susceptible to all sorts of causality-based noise. Rather than collecting a bunch of iffy data, get to know your employees through their actions.