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What you need to know before running an annual employee survey

18th Jul 2016
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These days, very few companies dare to ignore the topic of Employee Engagement. There are many reasons for that – but the most compelling of all is probably the simple fact that employees form a large -  if not the largest - cost base for most organisations. At the same time, we are living in a world where a lot of products and services have become commoditised. This means the skills, experience and knowledge residing with employees is a key differentiator, making retaining and engaging them crucial.

However, the notion of Employee Engagement is a fairly new one compared to, for example, Culture, which has been scientifically examined for centuries. There are still debates about what engagement actually means and there is even more discussion about how measuring engagement should be carried out.

The annual approach
Traditionally, the first step to measuring engagement is to choose a model that establishes a common understanding of how employee engagement is defined across the main stakeholders within a company. Many engagement consultancies have developed their own models – for example, Gallup’s Q12, Aon Hewitt’s Say, Stay, Strive, Hay Group’s Engage & Enable, etc.

These models usually consist of a set of standard questions, a way of translating employee responses into an overall score and a reporting format for executives and people managers so that they can digest the feedback from employees collected through the question set.

The process of a company-wide employee engagement survey is largely the same, regardless of the chosen model and content. A questionnaire is established and distributed, usually online or on paper. As answers are collected, response rates are monitored and encouraged, then data is aggregated and analysed and segmented by business unit so that line managers can receive reports about the levels of their team and compare these to external and internal benchmarks as well as to previous years’ results. Reports are produced according to hierarchal and/or matrix structures.

This leads to action management, with recommendations derived from the model put into effect. As this process is normally annual, the next time the defined questions are asked, an improved engagement score is expected. This should translate into an overall improvement in business performance.

Of course this is a very simplistic overview of an Annual Engagement Survey, and many other factors, such as remuneration, rewards & benefits, health & wellbeing, performance management, leadership development and training all have an effect on engagement. Essentially organisations are aiming to strike the right balance between their investment in employees and working conditions and optimised employee performance. Which is of course very difficult when you consider that large organisations have several generations of employees from diverse cultural backgrounds in very different roles.

The downsides of the AES
Carrying out an annual survey sounds simple, but for larger organisations it is a significant undertaking requiring a lot of resources. The planning and communication effort alone can be measured in weeks, and sometimes months.

Company hierarchies are complex and often change, meaning that to get meaningful, comparative results, organisations have to map their structure to enable correct segmentation of data. Again, this adds considerably to time and cost.

As well as the resources it takes, there are two main criticisms aimed at this annual approach:

  1. It takes too long and the insights are generated too infrequently so that before the new cycle starts, companies have to work with data that is almost a year old. In today’s business world, this is no longer fast enough to compete against nimbler competitors, or to retain key talent.
  2. The approach is generic by design, meaning that while you can compare scores with external benchmarks, there are not enough questions that are specific to your business in order to base real decisions on.

Moving beyond the AES
The annual survey still has a lot to offer, and is seen by many senior managers as a key part of engagement strategies. However, it can be improved by using smart, agile technology. This can significantly reduce the resource requirements and streamline the process so that costs are lower and insights are available much quicker.

What is required is the ability to:

  1. Better understand your organisational structure, reducing the need to manually map hierarchies which can take up substantial time and effort
  2. Create surveys that can be answered though digital channels, as well as paper. Giving employees the chance to respond online, via their PC or mobile device, pushes up response rates
  3. Make traditional quantitative survey questions more compelling by the use of better question design and features such as sliders to measure sentiment, rather than more rigid number scales
  4. Add in more qualitative questions – give employees the ability to provide feedback alongside quantitative responses, through features such as free text options and employee communities
  5. Embed action planning within the process. There’s only one thing worse than not collecting feedback – and that is collecting it and then not using it. Ensure that there is a clear link between feedback and action planning for managers, and that they are supported and measured to ensure that best practice is shared and improvements are made.

Annual employee surveys do deliver many benefits, but it is vital that they are made more effective and efficient if companies are to reap all the advantages of running them. Technology and automation are therefore key to ensuring they provide value for money and drive real improvements across the organisation.

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