Why your employee engagement survey needs an upgrade (and how to do it)

Are your employees truly engaged? Finding out is more important than ever.

Everybody’s worried about employee engagement—and for good reason. Employees can go to work every day, but if they aren’t truly engaged in their jobs, they’re simply wasting your organization’s time and money. Today many organizations struggle with something called “presenteeism”: Employees are present at work, but not productive. According to Carnegie Management, “Current research shows this to be a $33 billion loss to Australian industry.” And a recent survey by Aon Hewitt showed only a 65 percent engagement rate among employees of the Asia Pacific region. With so many employees present but not productive, what’s to be done?

Are employee engagement surveys dead?

The first step is understanding not only the percentage of employees in your organization who are engaged, but also how engaged they are. Many organizations start with the annual employee engagement survey. While such surveys may seem like an easy way to analyze the minds of employees, research is finding that they’re not as effective as you might think. In fact, 48 percent of HR professionals in a recent survey say they don’t believe employee surveys provide honest and accurate assessments. And 58 percent said survey results don’t actually help managers gain a greater knowledge of behaviors and practices they can change to improve. So, is the annual employee engagement survey dead?

Yes—or at least the way we administer it is.

Why is the annual employee engagement survey dead?

Because annual employee engagement surveys have been such an integral part of many organizations for several years, it’s important to truly understand why they aren’t working as well as we think. After all, changing the habits of decades is hard. If you understand why employee engagement surveys fail, you’ll be able to see how you can improve them and find more effective methods of accurately tracking employee engagement and gaining actionable insights.

Why annual employee engagement surveys fail

1. They’re not comprehensive.

If you want an accurate survey, you should poll everyone in your organization. It’s important to get a census and not just a sample size. This will allow you to understand what’s happening not only in each department, but in each position within that department. If you gather insights from every employee in your organization, you’ll be better equipped to help all of them succeed, and your organization will advance as a result.

2. They’re too long.

Ironically, sometimes employee engagement surveys can actually bring down employee engagement. If surveys take too long to complete, employees not only have to take extra time completing them and thus spend less time being engaged at work, but they become less engaged in the survey itself. If you want good results, don’t go overboard with too many questions. It’s more about the quality of questions than the quantity.

3. They’re irrelevant.

If a question won’t give you information you need to make strategic business decisions, don’t ask it! Try to ask specific questions tailored to each individual’s role. If employees find that the questions are annoying, too personal or irrelevant to their position, they’re less likely to answer honestly, if at all.

4. They’re not open-ended enough.

While “agree/disagree” statements and other close-ended forms of questions allow for easy statistics and data analysis, the most valuable information you get often comes in the form of answers to open-ended questions. Not only will you gain a more intimate insight into the mind of each employee, but based on the complexity and time given to complete answers, you may gain further insights into who is most engaged at work. Those who are passionate about what they do typically take the time to give detailed and candid responses.

5. You don’t follow up.

Following up on feedback and advice given in an employee engagement survey is absolutely crucial. Not only should you implement positive change as a result of survey responses, you should also use subsequent surveys to follow up on past surveys. If employees don’t see positive change and progression happening as a result of their participation in a survey, they’re likely to feel unheard and unlikely to want to give their opinion in the future. Follow through and follow up.

The solution: New ways to track employee engagement

With the advancement of technology and the pace of change in today’s business environment, organizations have to adapt constantly. Nowadays, a yearly checkup on engagement simply isn’t enough. The good news is that along with the rapidly changing times and fresh technology come tools and techniques to measure employee engagement more effectively.

Here are some ideas for continuously measuring engagement, along with some tools that may help:

1. Interpersonal interactions

One of the biggest problems with surveys is that they can feel extremely impersonal. Often employees feel that nobody is truly listening to them and that their voices aren’t being heard. Speaking face to face is typically the best way to discover employees’ feelings about the organization and gauge their level of personal engagement.

With surveys you miss the cues that the body language can give you, along with the more intimate details people are willing to share with a real human-insights that they might not share in a plain, dry survey. Google is one organization that does a great job of employing this kind of communication as an evaluation tool. The search engine giant uses people analytics to capture the human factor.

2. Employee pulse surveys

If you truly want to understand what employees are feeling on a more consistent basis, try giving surveys on a regular basis. Keep in mind, however, that they should be short and relevant. Employee pulse surveys are so named because, unlike the annual employee engagement survey, they allow you to keep a real-time pulse on the overall mood within your organization. Knowing where your organization stands on a more frequent basis will allow you to make strategic business decisions gradually instead of all at once (at the beginning of a new year, for example). This will allow you to naturally adapt to today’s ever-changing business world and maintain a relaxed yet productive company culture.

3. Real-time engagement surveys

Aon Hewitt takes the idea of pulse surveys one step further and offers real-time engagement surveys. Through its “Mood Ring” platform, Aon Hewitt delivers employers real-time insights and actionable results. The service allows employees to respond quickly and give feedback on meetings and events from their smartphone. With short surveys that take very little time and effort, employees feel more inclined to share actionable insights and feedback.

The results

Measuring employee engagement regularly and effectively with the right tools and in the right way yields many positive results that one large annual survey simply can’t.

Here are some results of regular engagement monitoring efforts:

1. It gives a good baseline

Regularly checking on employee engagement levels in a natural way helps you maintain a constant picture of the overall passion and commitment level of your entire organization. Knowing where you stand on a very regular basis will help you make informed decisions.

2. It can improve your bottom line

Knowing who’s engaged and who’s not can help you know how to start taking steps to keep the passionate ones going and help the weary and distracted become more engaged. It may even help you cut the fat by bidding farewell to employees who aren’t adding value. Getting each employee engaged and enabled will pay dividends. In fact, according to research from Hay Group, “Companies in the top quartile on both engagement and enablement achieve revenue growth 4.5 times greater than their industry peers.”

3. It’ll help you keep the good ones around

We’ve all heard the old saying: People are your most important asset. While investment in the latest technology and equipment may be important, investing in human capital is the most valuable step you can take for the success of your organization. A 2015 study by PWC found that the cost of employee turnover in Australia “was estimated at $3.8 billion in lost productivity and $385 million in avoidable recruitment costs.” Learning how high the cost of employee turnover can be will help motivate you to regularly monitor and ensure employees are engaged. Using techniques to measure employee engagement more regularly and personally helps you not only identify your best people and understand whether they’re at risk of leaving, but also allows you to act on frequent insights to improve those cultural roadblocks before it’s too late.

Measuring engagement in the workplace is as important as ever, but the annual employee engagement survey is no longer enough. Now is the time to step back and evaluate the way your organization understands its employees and implement positive change accordingly. Make regular efforts to keep your employees engaged, but remember that your tactics should change with times and technologies. Don’t get discouraged as you strive to improve. Get started now and success will come.

A version of this article originally appeared at blog.octanner.com.

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