3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Employee Surveys

Think of your organization’s survey program as not only a valuable tool that helps managers troubleshoot organization challenges and engage with employees to implement improvements, but also as the engine for an HR Analytics program.

Employee surveys—whether focused on engagement or happiness or organization culture—have become commonplace in organizations today, and it is easy to see why. There is a lot to like about the survey process—from the opportunity for managers to debrief results with their teams and create plans for actions, to the promise of survey-driven people analytics. 

So why do so many organizations report that they are disappointed in the impact of their employee surveys? For many companies, the employee survey has become a “check-the-box” exercise, resulting in little change or meaningful insight. For others, the findings generated do little to provide new insights or prompt the organization toward meaning improvements. Conducting a company-wide survey is no easy feat; a lot of work is required of a lot of staff in the company—from HR business partners to executives to managers. How can we increase the payoff we get from the survey process?

A few simple changes can make a world of difference to create greater impact with your company survey.

1. Let organization strategy be your guide. 

There has been a lot of talk about the “best” survey questions or topics to include in a survey.  Some consultants advise keeping the survey to fewer than 15 questions. While that may make some sense if all we want to do is collect data to track a metric, it doesn’t do much to create survey impact. Surveys have impact if they collect data on issues that matter to the organization and when they provide insights into critical challenges that lead to problem solving. It is also critical for survey content to reflect unique factors for each organization, including size of the company, industry-specific factors, and what is most important to the organization now.

  • Start by reviewing company strategy documents to identify areas where survey data can provide meaningful insights. 
  • Schedule conversations with senior leaders to get their thoughts on what data and analytics would be of greatest value to them. Involve them in the direction of topics selected and analyses completed.
  • Ask HR executives and business partners to identify the challenges managers and employees face day-to-day.
  • Design survey questions to reflect the issues that matter most to leaders and managers.
  • A focus on the right data that unpacks critical issues will get the attention of managers and leaders.

2. Make survey results interpretation and action planning “excuse-proof” for managers.

Manager-led feedback and action planning is one of the most powerful elements of the traditional employee survey design. It provides real proof to employees that leaders and managers have listened and taken their input seriously. Yet many organizations find it difficult to fully engage their managers in this process. Managers have a lot on their plates. Analyzing survey results, preparing materials for a debrief with the team, determining the best actions, and then putting a plan into place just adds to their to-do list. If we want managers to fully participate in this process, we need to remove the excuses for why they don’t, such as “The results don’t make sense to me,” “I don’t have time to create a deck to review with my team,” or “I can’t figure out what to work on.” In our effort to be thorough, we may have made the process too complicated for managers. Simplify, support, and nudge managers to enable them to do the right thing. Let’s make it easy for them.

  • Design survey result dashboards that pull the most relevant information forward. Don’t make managers hunt for key insights; put the insights front and center.
  • Provide a presentation-ready deck of survey results for their team debrief, and support them with speaker’s notes to help them conduct the meeting effectively. A survey debrief can represent an awkward conversation for many managers. Speaker’s notes help them kick things off the right way, and even provide seed questions to get the conversation going.
  • Adopt a simplified approach to action planning. Encourage managers to adopt a 3-step process to action planning: 

> Identify 1 issue from the survey results.

> Plan 2 actions to address it.

> Follow up with the team 3 times to discuss the progress of the action plan.

  • Use simple nudges to direct them to the issues that are most important to focus on, and suggest simple actions that can be taken. Many managers are better editors than they are authors; provide simple templates they can adjust to reflect their team’s issues or use as is.
  • Build in reminders, such as auto-created calendar notices, to continue the conversation with the team to review action progress.

3. Unlock the power of survey-driven people analytics.

HR and business leaders are demanding people analytics. HR leaders see the value that facts and data bring to decision-making, and being able to influence the decisions and actions of senior leaders in our organizations with the results from people analytics research enables us to be true strategic partners. But most HR organizations struggle to implement an analytics strategy, or even use the most basic analytics. The cost of entry—analytics tools, database management, and the need for statisticians—seems too high for many organizations. The reality is that many organizations already have what they need to get started. Survey data combined with human resources information system (HRIS) data provides the basic database format required to do analysis.

  • Find a problem that needs solving. Maybe the organization is struggling to hang on to top talent. Manager capability could be lagging, despite the need to ramp up growth.  Elements of the work environment may be preventing employees from delivering a great customer experience. People analytics should provide insights and offer solutions to important problems.
  • Ask some questions. Have any actions been taken to this point? Which interventions have been put in place that can be evaluated? Which subgroups of the organization, such as job type or location, are most impacted or require the greatest focus?
  • Use the questions to guide your analysis. Identify survey questions that may provide insights into the problem. Slice the data by demographic questions to help to narrow the focus and test hypotheses. Pull in other business performance metrics, such as actual attrition or customer satisfaction ratings, to complete the story.

Organizational surveys are at their best when they provide more insight than just the current state of engagement. Think of your organization’s survey program as not only a valuable tool that helps managers troubleshoot organization challenges and engage with employees to implement improvements, but also as the engine for an HR Analytics program. 

Dr. Sarah Johnson, vice president of Enterprise Surveys and Analytics at Perceptyx, Inc., has more than two decades of experience in her field. She specializes in employee engagement, organizational development, and effectiveness and survey data analysisadvising senior leaders at Fortune 500 firms around the world.