Expert advice on crafting effective workplace surveys

Before you gather employee feedback, consider this helpful guidance regarding length, design, frequency and format.

Employee survey tips

Workplace surveys can reveal business-altering problems, possibilities and preferences.

There is an art to crafting an internal survey, however. How many questions should you ask? How often should you survey employees? In what sort of setting should you solicit feedback, and which platforms are best?

Pretty much anyone can take a poll, but it takes a savvy communicator to create a survey that captures honest, raw feedback that yields valuable insights. Here’s what a handful of experienced survey slingers have to say.

Expert workplace survey guidance

Steve Baskin, president and chief strategy officer of Tribe, recommends:

  • Most often, we use Survey Monkey to facilitate surveys. It’s easy to use and offers good analytics. However, once we get the data from the survey, we export to Excel to do the analysis.
  • The number of questions is less important than the amount of time it takes to complete the survey. We tend to include the opportunity to comment at the end of a series of related questions, and then include a few pointed, open-ended questions toward the end. We shoot for surveys that can be completed in about 10 thoughtful minutes. That could be between 20 and 40 questions.
  • What’s important about employee surveys is learning where the pain points (or happy points) are. How does one group of employees compare to another? We do that by comparing the answers of employee segments. For example, are front-line workers more engaged than customer service? Is the New York office more disgruntled about recent changes than the folks in Dallas? Spend time strategizing on what you hope to learn and how to get the most information with the fewest and least invasive questions.
  • Employees may assume or fear that their survey response is going to come back to haunt them. They’ll err on the side of caution until they learn that the company can be trusted with their input. If you tell employees that the survey is anonymous, make sure that it remains anonymous.
  • It’s important for leadership to quickly communicate results and show appreciation for employees’ input. Provide a timeline regarding how company leaders will address/act on what was learned in the survey.
  • The survey will likely generate enough information for a number of articles for the company’s culture newsletter or digital magazine. This provides internal communicators with the opportunity to build an editorial calendar and strategically roll out the action plan over the next several months. Also, employees will see that their input has resulted in ongoing, positive change.

Levi Olmstead, community manager at G2 Crowd, advises:

For conducting internal surveys, you have to make sure your employees feel like they can be honest. To do that, you must provide an anonymous channel for feedback. We use a tool called TinyPulse that asks our team members once a week two questions: How happy are you in your role, and then a second rotating question.

It is completely anonymous. Our CMO then responds to questions and feedback, and those answers are made public in TinyPulse.

Our directors and executive team members have also implemented changes based on our feedback in TinyPulse, which is important for obvious reasons, but also important to encourage honest and frequent feedback from the team.

Dunvegan Group CEO Anne Miner offers these tips:

  • Identify a senior leader as the sponsor of the survey—ideally, the president/CEO or business owner.
  • If everyone has access to a company email, then online surveys are best as you can control for one response per employee. If employees do not have company email, use paper version and provide envelope with pre-paid postage for mailing the completed questionnaire.
  • Make the survey objectives clear.
  • Make the survey concise; it shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes to complete.
  • Include everyone—all employees who will be affected by the outcome.
  • Guarantee anonymity—ideally, work with an external firm to ensure that answers are completely confidential and there is no opportunity for employee responses to lead to reprisal or hard feelings.
  • Use every channel available to convey to employees the purpose of the survey and the anticipated outcomes.
  • Provide paid time to complete the questionnaire/survey.
  • Ask objective questions. Avoid biasing the responses, and ensure that employees always have the option to answer: “don’t know/uncertain,” “not applicable” or “prefer not to answer.”
  • Prioritize the objective analysis of results, and ensure that analyses are aligned with the stated objectives.
  • Be prepared to share the survey results with everyone in the company who was asked to participate. Be clear about the actions to be taken, including when, where and by whom.
  • Use every channel available to convey to employees the results of the survey and the actions to be taken.
  • Fulfill your promises to take action based on the survey results.
  • Repeat the survey to measure the impact of the actions/changes that arose from the survey.

David Engle of LYFE Benefits and Insurance Solutions favors more detailed surveys:

Our general employee engagement survey is a little over 100 questions and covers over a dozen topics including career development, work engagement, compensation, team and supervisor performance, among others.

Our surveys contain many open-ended questions, allowing the employees to include answers in their own words. We are able to compare these answers with other employees and group similar responses together… We have found that Google Forms are a simple way for employees to complete the surveys anonymously and link the responses to a spreadsheet.

We recommend doing at least one employee engagement survey a year.

Ketan Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of Mettl, offers this advice:

You must conduct a survey at least once every quarter… When running a survey, keep the process as transparent and independent as possible. If employees suspect that the survey results … might turn out to be a recipe for a penalty, they get apprehensive in providing honest responses.

The number of questions should vary depending on the topic of the survey and the type of responses expected. If the surveys involve a lot of judgement and the personal opinion of employees, you must restrict the number of questions to less than 10.

To get honest, substantive feedback, base your survey on one highly specific agenda. If you keep a survey too broad, the responses you receive will be vague, and the insights won’t be actionable enough to help your case. Rather than creating one long survey with 50 questions, break down the survey with fewer questions and a sharper focus.

You can create surveys about specific problems such as work hours in the office, work culture, management feedback and so on. Broad topics such as “employee engagement” drains focus from your surveys.

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, says:

I think there are six overarching questions an employer needs to answer before administering an employee survey:

1. What business goal are we trying to achieve through collecting employee input?

2. Is a survey the best approach for collecting the needed information (versus some other method such as focus groups or one-on-one interviews)? An employer must ask: Do we need the ability to collect more detailed information and/or ask clarifying questions?

3. Who will collect employees’ input—an in-house department or an outside firm? Consider the “emotion” of the topic. Is it neutral or is it charged? If a topic has the potential to trigger anxiety or negative emotions, it may be worth investing in an outside firm to collect and analyze data and promising anonymity to participants.

4. Is this the right time to ask for input? Be sensitive to holidays, big projects and busy schedules.

5. How many employees need to take part in order for data to be sufficient for decision-making? An employer needs to have a clear number in mind before embarking on a survey process, with a clear plan for achieving that number and contingency plans if participation isn’t meeting the goal.

6. Is management committed to acting on the survey findings?

Once executives have the survey information, they must acknowledge to employees what they heard and what they plan to do in response. This executive communication needs to include the following elements:

  • Thank employees for their time in providing input.
  • Acknowledge that candor requires courage, and thank them for their courage.
  • Summarize the key messages you heard from the employee input.
  • Pledge what the company will be doing in response to the feedback and a timetable for those actions.

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