You’re almost certainly thinking about your engagement survey the wrong way

Employee engagement surveys

Employee engagement surveys don’t have to be something you do to your workforce to learn about them, according to Murray Priestman, who says there are four steps HR can take to actively increase engagement in the process

Let’s start with some questions about employee engagement: How do you define “engagement” within your organisation? What model do you use to measure it? Do you prefer global or industry-specific benchmarks?

These are questions that many HR functions wrestle with, and there is an industry valued at over $1.5 billion dedicated to answering them. But here’s one more question; what if none of these things matter, and instead you should fundamentally change the way you think about your engagement survey?

Instead of treating it as a way to understand more about your employees, see the survey as an opportunity to talk with them. It’s an engagement survey, in other words, not because that’s what you are measuring but because you are engaging with your people.

Here are four ways to change how you think about your engagement survey.

1. View it as a chance to talk with your people, not learn about them
What if the survey was not a measurement exercise, but a chance to have a conversation with your workforce? Good managers have regular catch-ups with their teams, discussing how the work is going, how they are feeling and what improvements can be made. That’s it; they don’t produce a report showing trends in team attitudes or track responses against global benchmarks.

Think of the survey as an organisation-wide version of the performance check-in. Consider ditching the driver analysis and the monitoring of statistically significant shifts in scores. Focus instead on having a conversation.

2. They’re not just questions, they’re opportunities
Asking a question prompts an answer. But more than that, choosing to ask a question on a particular topic makes the respondent think about that topic. This makes the survey an opportunity to show employees what matters most to you, and to think about the subjects you want them to focus on.

“Don’t just view the survey as a way to collect answers, see it as a chance to raise awareness and drive action”

If you send out a 50 question survey with no questions on diversity then you’re telling your employees that you don’t see that as a priority. But if the survey contains the question “my manager has discussed flexible working with me” then both the employee and their manager will understand that you’re asking that because you expect that’s what should be happening.

Don’t just view the survey as a way to collect answers, see it as a chance to raise awareness and drive action.

3. Discussing the results can generate understanding as well as action
After sharing the results almost all organisations will aim to involve employees in action-planning. They offer a valuable perspective on the issues, and involving them generates a sense of ownership.

But it can also lead to improved understanding and awareness; for example, survey questions about learning and development invariably result in respondents bemoaning the lack of relevant courses offered. Our experience is that this is often due to a lack of awareness rather than gaps in the curriculum, and discussing with employees gives you the chance to show the breadth of development opportunities available – to educate them, rather than jump to changing the curriculum.

This needs to be done carefully to avoid it seeming like management defensiveness and resistance, but when managed effectively it can be very powerful.

4. Only share the survey results with your employees
If you’re serious about engaging with your employees rather than measuring them then why would you present the results to other audiences? Why not scrap the Board presentation, the detailed analysis of drivers and the global benchmarking, and just share the results with the people you want to talk to; your workforce?

This might be a step too far, at least in the first instance. But think about what reports and analysis you are doing and where you are spending your time and effort, and consider whether the balance is right. If you’re serious about engaging with your employees then you shouldn’t be spending most of your time on analysis and reports for your CEO.

Doing these four things will help change the way you view your engagement surveys. They don’t have to be something you do to your workforce to learn about them, surveys can be a valuable way to engage with them; not just to measure engagement but to increase it.