Engagement, Culture, Pulse: How to Effectively Manage Employee Surveys

October 24, 2021
October 24, 2021 Jamie Notter

There are a three core rules when it comes to surveying your employees, and, as you’ll see, there’s an important contradiction among them.

Rule #1: don’t survey your employees unless you are going to DO SOMETHING with the data. Nothing erodes trust more than asking people what they think and then completely ignoring their answers. Even if you later discover you can’t do anything, you’ll at least need to explain why.

Rule #2: if you survey your employees too much, they will stop caring (survey fatigue). It’s just a natural human thing. If you ask me a lot of questions from numerous surveys, particularly when the questions overlap significantly, it will become tiresome, and eventually I’ll just start answering the questions really quickly just to get it done, which means your data will be poor quality.

Rule #3: the more data you have, the better. The more data you have around what your employees experience in your organization, the better you’ll be able to make changes that improve the organization and its performance.

Do you see the contradiction? We can’t survey them too much, and we can only survey when we know we can take action based on the results, yet we still want to survey them as much as possible! Obviously the way out of this conundrum is to find the right balance. We recommend a simple, two-year cycle that alternates between baseline surveys, and interim check-ins.

Baseline (year 1): Culture Assessment plus Core Engagement Survey

If you want your people operations to be data-based, then you need a baseline, and that requires two surveys that you can run either at the same time, or within a few months of each other.

The first is a culture assessment. This should be a measurement of “what is.” It captures how your employees experience the culture, and not necessarily if they think the culture is “good” or “bad” Some assessments will also capture what people think the ideal culture is, though we think that’s a mistake. Connecting the dots with the patterns inside your culture and your success drivers should happen later.

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Employee engagement surveys are very different, as they DO measure sentiment and how happy people are with how things work. There are TONS of these out there, and we think most of them are way too long (they lean towards the more data is better rule). When it comes to your baseline, you don’t need a deep dive into what people like or don’t like—just get the high level, because that will help you better understand your culture assessment results. In fact, in our WorkXO culture assessment, we simply add ONE engagement question at the end (“How likely would you be to recommend someone to work here?”).

With the data from these two surveys in mind, your next task is the “do something about it” part. Create an internal culture team and start identifying processes and structures to change that will improve culture and make people more successful. This, by the way, is the real root of employee engagement—having the right culture that makes people successful. After a year, you should have enough progress to enable the second round of surveys.

Interim Check-In (year 2): Culture Progress and Engagement Part 2

Roughly one year into your cycle, you can do two new relatively short surveys (that could be combined into one). The first will focus on what kind of progress you’ve made in the action planning that started after the baseline survey. You should be flexible on the timing of this one, as you may want to wait for some key projects to finish first. This should be short, focused on the results of the change, and may have more open-ended questions, rather than only gathering quantitative data.

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The engagement check-in, on the other hand, does not measure progress, but is an opportunity for a slightly deeper dive into one or two key engagement issues. Remember, your baseline engagement survey was intentionally broad. This allows you to go strategically deeper based on what you learned in the last year (without subjecting people to a 100 question survey in the baseline).

The results of these two surveys are fed directly into the work your culture team is doing to improve your culture. They might tweak some of the existing projects, or realize that some projects need to be put on the shelf and new ones brought in. You should always take new data and apply it to your action plans.

Then 12 months later, you’re ready for a new baseline (culture assessment plus core engagement survey). Over time, you may be able to develop abridged versions of these, presuming you’ve increased your skill in sensing culture shifts and friction through other methods, but even if you run the full versions, your employees will recognize that the data are being put to good use to improve the organization.

And since you only do major surveys once per year, there is room for the occasional issue-specific or pulse surveys (e.g., moving to a hybrid workplace) that can be deployed ad hoc during the year, but without creating survey fatigue.

Recap:

  • Only do major surveys once per year, and don’t run exactly the same one you did the year before.
  • Feed the analysis of all survey data into your efforts to improve culture and make people more successful
  • Choose your deep dives carefully, based on what you’re learning.

Photo by Celpax on Unsplash

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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