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Employee surveys: moving from feedback to action
As HR commentator Sharlyn Lauby says, the worst thing companies can do after they survey their workforce is nothing. Why? It’s incredibly disengaging for employees, but it’s also a waste of time and money. If your survey drives no improvement, it’s added no value. This article helps HR ensure employee surveys drive the right type of action to improve both engagement and organisational performance.
Understand the different types of action
Senior leaders can get nervous about ‘taking action’ because it sounds expensive or might involve significant change. But often what’s needed is more subtle. If HR understands the different types of action required following surveys, it can better align the business case with senior leaders’ expectations.
Two types of recognition are relevant here. The first is better defined as acknowledgement. Is something in the workplace eating away at trust or preventing collaboration? Sometimes all that’s necessary is for the organisation to acknowledge a past mistake to stop it being the ‘elephant in the room.’
The second is around recognising achievement, success or potential. In surveys where there’s a clear sentiment of feeling unappreciated, or like a ‘cog in a machine,’ greater recognition of contribution to organisational success is a common action taken. Recognition can take many forms: don’t make the mistake of thinking it only means public recognition, as line managers should also be trained to deliver positive recognition where appropriate.
Don’t forget to avoid the ‘survey black hole,’ which is the sudden cessation of communication - following regular reminders to fill in the survey - after the deadline has passed.
Change means attitudinal change, for example the way senior leaders recognise talent throughout the organisation. It means cultural change, such as introducing flexible working schemes. It also means strategic change, for example re-engineering business strategy based on critical feedback from the frontline.
There are other types of change, such as digital change (including communication platforms or HR procedures), structural change (changing reporting lines or organisation charts) and leadership change (such as re-focusing on leadership development to drive better visioning throughout the organisation).
Say you get a lot of negative feedback on the business strategy. It could be that the business strategy is wrong or it could just be that employees don’t understand it properly. Both require very different courses of action: the first requires genuine strategic change, while the latter requires improved communication. And what type of improved communication does it require? Do you need to phrase your comms in a much more employee-focused way, or do you simply need to reinforce your messaging so that employees live and breathe the strategy on a daily basis and feel more connected to it?
Reflection and incubation
Sometimes the action you need to take isn’t obvious: this is when reflection and incubation become important, because the wrong action can be as damaging as no action at all. If it’s not clear, for example, why there’s resistance to a change in strategy, it’s time to ask further questions.
Is this resistance coming from one team, suggesting a potential line management issue? Is the resistance borne of a lack of understanding or a fundamental lack of belief? When leaders reflect and incubate following a survey, it’s still important to maintain communication and be confident about communicating this intent: taking the time out to truly understand an issue is never something to be ashamed of.
Maintain communication to drive momentum
Most organisations know how important communication is, but with staff surveys it’s often limited to reminders to fill in the survey delivered with increasingly regularity in the run-up to the deadline.
Survey communication must start with why - what’s the point of filling in the survey? Unfortunately many staff have had poor experiences of surveys, so it’s important to give people confidence that the survey will lead to genuine action. Your initial messaging should be around the process, with clear timeframes on when insight will be fed back to employees and when follow-up actions will be communicated and implemented.
Also, don’t forget to avoid the ‘survey black hole,’ which is the sudden cessation of communication - following regular reminders to fill in the survey - after the deadline has passed. This is when the data analysis happens but it’s crucial to maintain communication during this time, perhaps letting staff know where the process is, any early emerging insight or trends in the analysis and any action-oriented meetings that are starting to happen.
You need to be able to consolidate, rank and compare and contrast responses that don’t naturally fit into buckets and turn these into a business case for action.
Use quantitative and qualitative feedback cleverly
Qualitative feedback is great and this is why organisations increasingly put free-entry text boxes on surveys. But it can also lead to analysis paralysis because of the difficulty in finding common ground between various responses and prioritising information that has no natural hierarchy.
Using quantitative questions alongside qualitative questions can help address this issue. For example, you can ask individuals to rank their qualitative feedback by asking ‘How much does this affect your ability to perform at work?’ or ‘How disengaged does this make you feel?’
This can be powerful when taking findings to the board: “This issue was identified by 30% of the workforce, 85% of whom said that it very strongly affected their ability to perform at work.” It’s hard to argue with that, especially if you also estimate the negative financial impact on the business.
Don’t skimp on data analysis
This is linked to the point above. If you are asking qualitative questions, you need to be able to consolidate, rank and compare and contrast responses that don’t naturally fit into buckets and turn these into a business case for action. Senior leaders need to feel confident the data analysis is robust and that the conclusions drawn are relevant and significant enough to warrant investment.
Because of this it’s essential to have good data analysis skills for sifting and analysing the results. You may have these skills in-house, or can develop a member of the team, or you could outsource this aspect of your employee survey each time you conduct it. In the near future new tools will make data analysis easier, particularly sentiment analysis, which can analyse and categorise employee survey responses at scale.
Empower people to comprehensively complete surveys
The less data you have, the less you’ll be able to drive meaningful action. Unfortunately, a common scene in workplaces is employees frantically filling in the survey an hour before the deadline, which is not a recipe for a rich and useful dataset.
Employee surveys, first and foremost, require people to think, not just to provide information. It’s very hard to say something meaningful when you’re pushed for time. This makes it important to empower people to fill in surveys in the right way. This could include downing tools to give people time to think or initially getting people into working groups to tease out their thoughts together.
Another option is taking a nudge theory approach to surveys, often in the form of pulse surveys sent at opportune moments (for example in morning breaks, directly to staff mobiles) with incentives for completion.
Also, never apologise for ‘eating into people’s working time’ when sending surveys. They need to view surveys as fundamental parts of the workplace experience, as employee voice tools to not only improve engagement and satisfaction but also performance in the workplace, which of course should lead to better remuneration.
Make the link between questions and action explicit
Don’t assume that employees will know you have an appetite for change when they fill in the survey. For each question, give examples of the type of feedback that’s been given in the past and the types of action the feedback has driven. Be clear why you are interested in particular areas and how feedback related to these areas will be used to drive action.
You should also be clear that while the survey is a mechanism for engagement and employee voice, it’s ultimately designed to improve business performance. Helping employees better link their feedback to the effect on performance and productivity will give senior leaders much more of an appetite to dedicate budget to post-survey action.