9 tips for compiling employee surveys—big and small

Whether you’re looking for quick answers to solve a pressing problem or gauging companywide engagement, these tactics will help you derive clear, important data to guide future decisions.


Compiling an internal survey starts with proper planning.

Follow these steps to elicit valuable data and insights and guide your organization’s decisions.

1. Be clear about the objective.

Ask, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Some targets:

  • High absenteeism rates
  • Low rates of employees using our product/service
  • Unknown employee sentiment about the company
  • Low participation in the volunteer program
  • A counterproductive rumor mill
  • High error rates

2. Know how the results will be used.

Your analysis method(s) will determine whether responses should be expressed as numbers—for example, whether results should be weighted (i.e., some questions carry more value than others) or combined with other data for a scorecard.

Also, determine how you will report back to survey participants. Always report back—to everyone, not just those who responded. Within organizations, this helps reinforce trust and demonstrates the survey’s value.

3. Determine timing, length and duration.

The survey release date, how long it takes to complete and employees’ completion/submission deadline all play a major part in your survey’s effectiveness.

Timing of release/start:

Pick a date clear of other distractions, such as major announcements/news (e.g., quarterly results or restructuring), prime holiday seasons, times of intense workload of most/all employees (e.g., March and April for tax-related companies).

Length of survey:

  • The longer the survey, the greater the risk of low participation. Make sure it takes no more than five minutes to complete.
  • Ask from five to nine questions. That will give you meaningful results yet won’t overwhelm the respondents.
  • Sometimes a longer questionnaire can’t be avoided, as with an annual engagement survey. In such cases, pay extra attention to the timing and duration.
  • Very short (three-question) surveys also have their place, such as when you have a specific, time-sensitive problem to solve. For example, registration for a valuable skills-building course is low, and you want to know why, so you can tweak (or cancel) the promotion or event.

Duration:

  • Offer a window of two to three weeks. Here’s why:

o It reduces the risk of missing respondents away on business or vacation.

o It helps employees plan their time.

  • Shorter timelines are suitable for very short (three-question) surveys.
  • Longer timelines don’t generate more responses.

4. Decide whether you must know who has responded.

Employees prefer responding anonymously, and generally the only time you need to know someone’s identity is when completing the survey is mandatory.

Identification can be done through computer ID or specific questions you ask (e.g., “What area do you work in?”).

Ensure anonymity by using a third-party online provider, such as Zoho Survey or SurveyMonkey. Most are free or low-cost.

When researching options, some aspects to look for:

  • Easy-to-use interface for creating and analyzing your survey
  • Unique URL to access survey
  • Ability to branch questions
  • Some control over look and feel
  • Number of responses allowed before the price level changes
  • Ability to customize thank you and “response required” pages

Paper makes anonymity easy, but you’ll need extra time to collect the paper and enter the data for analysis. There is also the risk that you can’t validate responses (or read some of the handwriting).

5. Choose a perspective.

To help respondents stay in the proper mindset, choose a viewpoint for the questions or statements and use it consistently throughout. Here are two options:

  • You. This has the effect of an interview. Examples: “How would you rate…” “How would you describe…” “What was your first reaction to…”
  • I. This has the respondent rendering an opinion. Examples: “I would rate…” “I would describe…” “My first reaction was…”

6. Make the questions neutral.

You lower the value of responses if you directly or indirectly influence the respondent. For example, “How difficult was it to learn the new system?” implies a degree of difficulty. A more effective way to identify problems might be:

  • “Learning the new system was…” (with choices such as “super easy, sort of easy, neither here nor there, not very easy, really tough”)
  • “Rate your experience learning the new system” (with a rating scale)

7. Keep questions simple.

To get clear, usable data, limit each question to one thought.

For example, instead of “How would you rate the quality and length of the workshop?” break it into two questions: “How would you rate the quality of the workshop content?” and “How would you rate the length of the workshop?”

8. Group question topics and types.

Topics:

To keep them focused, lead respondents through a natural sequence.

For example, if the survey is about how/whether they use a given benefit, follow this sequence:

  • How/whether they heard about the benefit
  • Their first impressions
  • Whether they have or haven’t tried to use it
  • What their experience was like
  • Have they/would they recommend it to colleagues
  • Other comments

Types

There’s nothing wrong with using different types of questions in your survey. However, if you keep all the “rate from 1-5” questions together and all the “yes/no/maybe” questions, you’ll help the respondent stay in the groove.

The major types of questions are:

  • Yes/No/Maybe
  • Rating scale
  • Choose from list
  • Free-form or essay (people writing out their responses within a constrained space)

9. Compose the introduction.

The introduction clarifies information to encourage participation. Here are key elements, with some explanation examples:

  • Purpose of the survey: “We are exploring changes to the benefits program, and your opinions will influence decisions.”
  • Who is receiving the survey: “All employees are invited to respond.”
  • Participants time commitment: “It will take about 10 minutes to complete.”
  • What happens to the results: “Executive leaders will review the results and use them in their decision-making process. We will also send all employees a summary of the results.”
  • Deadline: “The survey closes at 9 p.m. on July 30.”
  • Whether respondents are identifiable: “The survey is completely anonymous,” or, “Your responses will automatically include your network ID.”
  • Thank you and contact info: Thank you in advance for taking the time to provide us with this feedback. If you have any questions about this survey, call Mitzi at ext. 2345.”

Conducting effective surveys is crucial to employee communication. Therefore, they should align with your company’s strategic communications goals and fit into a broader plan. When done well, they reinforce broader objectives such as building trust, making decisions based on real input (not assumptions) and making it easier for employees to provide feedback.

A version of this post first appeared on the Lift Internal blog.

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