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How to Run Employee Surveys: The Ultimate Guide

Whether you're new to running Employee Surveys or want to refresh your knowledge of the fundamentals, our guide will help you confidently manage the processs with from start to finish.

What follows is a comprehensive guide to running employee surveys for people that are relatively new to them, or simply want to brush up on the fundamentals. We hope that it will answer some of the questions that you have, help you avoid some of the pitfalls, and help you to feel more confident about embarking on your survey journey.

In this guide, we cover:

  1. Employee Survey Design
  2. Driving Employee Survey Participation
  3. Turning Employee Survey Results into Insights
  4. Taking Action on Employee Survey Results

We're using the term 'employee survey' generically, in that it could be your annual 'employee engagement survey' or more regular 'pulse surveys'. In any case, the basic principles still apply. It's just at the more detailed level, that some of the specifics might need to be adapted for pulse.

Part 1: Employee Survey Design

Good survey design is critical to the quality of your results, the level of insight that you can draw from them and, consequently the impact that resulting actions or initiatives will have on the employee experience and engagement.

Design your survey with the big picture in mind

As you contemplate your employee survey you might be tempted to skip design and just take something ‘off the shelf’. In fact, some survey providers will be very insistent that you should use their model, that it’s the ‘best’, and so on.

But there’s no ‘gold standard’ model for employee engagement, which is what many pre-written employee surveys aim to measure*, and the research into what drives engagement provides inconsistent results. You must, therefore, use judgement to decide what to measure. Relevance is critical, and that means you have to judge potential measures against your people strategy, values and / or desired culture.

(*While we do have a ‘standard’ question set that you can use, it’s only really there to avoid starting with a blank page. We advise and support our clients to tailor it to their own needs.)

What’s your ‘why’?

This really boils down to the question of why you’re running your survey. You might be running it because there’s an expectation that you’re report a number in the annual report, but hopefully there’s a bit more to it for you than that.

We use our three-level People Experience framework to guide conversations about what really matters to you. For example, it is an assessment of your people and organisational and cultural practices, how your people actually feel at work, or is it about understanding how well you’re doing against particular measures of success (e.g. readiness to change, innovation or commitment to stay).

In fact, at this stage, it shouldn't be assumed that a full-company survey is what you need to do. It might be that you're better served by pulse surveys (say to track an issue / measure), something event-driven such as onboarding or exit interviews, or even qualitative research (interviews and focus groups).

After the why, the what: Themes and Indices

Once it’s clear why you’re running your survey, it becomes easier to describe what you want to measure. Sure, you probably want to measure ‘engagement’, but when the CIPD advise that employee engagement should be treated as a broad concept that’s roughly the same as ‘people strategy’, it pays to be a bit clearer.

This is where your own people strategy, values and / or cultural aspirations become useful. If you don’t have these things in place, a discussion about your business strategy and / or some focus groups with stakeholders can help to tease out potential themes. In this case, your results will be more useful in helping you develop them.

The themes that you develop, are what we call indices in our platform, and these are what your questions hang off. Examples of these might include my work, my team, belonging, or growth.

What makes a great employee survey question?

So, now that you know why you’re doing your survey and what’s important to you, the next question is ‘how’ you ask your questions.. In other words, they should be accurate and well-written.

Validity and employee surveys

What we mean by ‘accurate’ is that they measure what they intend to. In the academic world, this quality would be described as ‘validity’ and would be statistically assessed. The bottom line, though, is that employee surveys are usually not aiming for the same standards of validity as academic research for a number of reasons - but not least because in an employee survey you tend to cover a wide range of topics with a very limited number of questions. And so, we tend to work with ‘face validity’, which means that the questions, to the best of our judgement, look correct.

Choosing the right number of employee survey questions

There’s no hard and fast rule about the number of questions you can ask in an employee survey, but we’d recommend no more than around 40-50 in most cases, though ‘it depends’. If you can demonstrate that employee feedback is valued and leads to change, your people might be more willing to spend more time on your employee survey than if you have a poor track record or are doing it for the first time.

The trade-off between the breadth of topics in your survey and the limited number of questions you can reasonably ask highlights why it’s really important to take care over your questions, and to spend time making sure that people will interpret the questions as you want them to.

A recent study where people were observed completing a survey suggested that they struggle much more than we might imagine, to understand the questions asked, and often find them ambiguous, irrelevant or misleading. But, of course, they still complete them, which raises questions about the results.

Writing 'good quality' employee survey questions

There’s much more that could be said about writing the actual survey questions, but our four starting tips are:

  1. The majority should be ‘closed’ statements that people can easily agree or disagree with, judge the frequency of, and so on.
  2. Avoid asking more than one question at a time, for example, “Or leaders communicate clearly and inspire me to do my best work”. It can be really tempting to do this when you are trying to keep your question count down.
  3. Be clear and concise, using only enough words to get the question across, with language that all of your employees can reasonably understand and avoiding jargon.
  4. Have representative employees of your largest groups check your questions for relevance and clarity.

Don't forget visual design

Image of an iphone showing an employee survey Finally, it’s important that you present the survey in a way that doesn’t confuse people or cause cognitive fatigue, so that their responses actually reflect their opinions. People might abandon a poorly presented survey or, perhaps worse, they might lose interest and just click through it as quickly as possible. This is all the more likely if your survey design doesn’t take neurodiversity for example, dyslexia or other potential barriers (such as language) into account.

It can be very tempting to use gimmicky tools in your surveys, like ‘sliders’ that change as users change the score, but we advise against it as it has more to do with ‘theatre’ than good survey design.

Gathering qualitative data from Employee Surveys

It’s important to remember that surveys are, by definition, better suited to capturing quantitative data than qualitative. If you ask open text questions you can expect a lot of unstructured data in return, which you’ll have to spend time and effort making sense of.

Therefore, limit the number of qualitative questions you ask. If you need qualitative insights, use qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups. Then, be specific. If you ask, “Is there anything that you would like to add?”, you’ll get all sorts of responses which may be very difficult to analyse, even with appropriate tools. If you ask, “what do you like most about working here” or “what one thing could we do to improve the culture?” you will get responses to those questions and if you do use a catch-all question at the end it won’t be used as much and give you such a headache during analysis.

Part 2: Driving Employee Survey Participation

So now you’ve designed your survey, now you need to maximise the reliability of your results by driving up participation rates. The last thing that you need, after putting all that though into your employee survey design is to find that you’re hampered by a lack of response.

What is a good participation rate for an employee survey?

There are many different views on this, but a variety of sources suggest that over 70% is ‘good’ for an annual survey, and less for pulse. However, context is everything and rather than focusing on the number itself, you should really be focused on the things that will affect participation.

What factors affect employee survey participation?

Assuming that your survey questions are well designed, the main reasons for poor survey participation rates might include:

A lack of trust

If trust is poor, people might not feel safe giving their true opinion on a survey, even if it is genuinely anonymous and you tell people so. There's no real short-cut to building trust, but this is an area where using an external provider, that can be seen as independent, may be helpful.

Under-communicating the survey

John Kotter, change guru, famously stated that change tends to be under-communicated to the power of 10. His point was that we always underestimate the amount of communication that’s needed. If you’re running the survey, it’s front of mind for you, but not for everyone!

An example of a video to communicate an employee survey

A lack of visible sponsorship from leadership

Communication is important, but it’s also important to have visible commitment from senior leaders to show that your employee survey is important to them, and not just to HR. That senior sponsorship needs to be reinforced all the way through management, to first-line supervisors.

Survey fatigue / low motivation to complete the survey

Survey fatigue can certainly be a factor, and while it can be because you’re running too many surveys it’s probably more likely to reflect cynicism or a lack of belief that their your people’s opinion is valued because of a lack of follow up on previous surveys. If so, acknowledge it and make sure that action is taken.

Technical issues or barriers to participation

Sometimes, a simple lack of planning means that little things, such as access to email, browser compatibility or emails being caught in spam filters, can make a big different. All of these can be avoided.

In this blog we go into more depth on boosting response rates using behavioural science, while in another our Client Success Manager, Jemma, gives her practical tips for a successful employee survey launch.

Why do people fail to complete an employee survey?

When people start, but fail to finish, the employee survey, it is likely to be down to poor survey design. Too many questions, ambiguous questions, poor presentation of the questions and, of course, system errors.

When should you run your employee survey?

While managers and teams can act upon employee feedback at any time, if the employee survey is seen as a strategic tool, then it makes sense to run the survey so that its results feed into the normal planning cycle. If not, it can be difficult to get leadership team attention, buy-in and accountability for action.

It’s also important to make sure that your survey doesn’t conflict with any other major business initiatives and, more obviously, times like holidays when people might not have the opportunity to take part.

Part 3: Turning survey data into insight

We believe that you shouldn’t need to be an expert in people analytics or data science to get insights from your employee survey results. Data visualisation is key to getting insight from your employee survey

An employee data will create large amounts of data so it’s really important that your survey platform turns that data into meaningful and consumable information,. For example, our standard dashboard starts with participation statistics, followed by what we call our ‘Index Analysis’.

What this means is that we show your overall People Experience score broken down into the specific themes (indices) that your survey covers, before breaking those down further by demographics (e.g. location, department, age, gender…). We also show the breakdown of scores by question and enable you to map index scores against others (a simple form of correlation).

Employee Surveys can create a lot of data

An employee data will create large amounts of data so it’s really important that your survey platform turns that data into meaningful and consumable information,. For example, our standard dashboard starts with participation statistics, followed by what we call our ‘Index Analysis’.

What this means is that we show your overall People Experience score broken down into the specific themes (indices) that your survey covers, before breaking those down further by demographics (e.g. location, department, age, gender…). We also show the breakdown of scores by question and enable you to map index scores against others (a simple form of correlation).

Your results must be easy to interpret

Even at the top organisational level, that’s a lot of information, and that’s before you start applying filters and drilling down into further detail. It’s therefore critical that the data is presented using appropriate graphs and charts, taking data visualisation and user experience principles into account.

You may be lucky enough to have people analytics experts in your business who can craft beautiful charts from your data, but most businesses don’t and it’s therefore important that your employee survey platform has well-designed dashboards as standard.

An example of employee survey results - heatmap

Making your information inclusive

When it comes to data visualisation, as with survey design, you must consider inclusion. For example, not everyone can read a RAG chart. In fact, approximately one in twenty of your people may struggle due to colour blindness.

Interpreting qualitative data

We mentioned the risks of asking too many open questions in Part 1.

There are software tools that can help you with your qualitative analysis but, in our experience, they don’t completely remove the need for human eyes and effort. Quick and easy tools like word clouds can be appealing, but really don’t add any level of insight to your data.

This brings us back to the ‘why’ of your employee survey. If your ‘big question’ is really a qualitative one, you’d be better off running focus groups and /or interviews.

Adding insight through statistical analysis

You might want to go to the next level and examine statistical relationships or differences, but this does take specialist expertise and / or tools. Applying data science in this way can certainly give you greater insight into, for example, what’s driving your engagement score or whether differences between groups are significant.

Use statistical tools with caution

Plenty of tools are available to help with statistical analysis, making data science more accessible, but it’s also easy to go wrong. Every test has certain assumption which, if not met, mean that their results are less valid. For example, they may assume that your data follows a normal distribution (bell) curve.

Another potential pitfall with interpreting statistics is when you assume cause and effect where none is implied by the data. For example, employee engagement might be correlated with perceived quality of food in the canteen, but that doesn’t mean that it’s driving it.

That said, adding the right statistical analyses to your employee survey results can add a great deal of additional insight, if used appropriately.

Adding business insight to your employee survey results

Ultimately, whatever numerical insights you are given, there is also a skill to interpreting what they mean for your organisation. If you’ve chosen your questions carefully, based on your People Strategy, then their implications are more likely to be clear.

Reading between the lines

It's really important to read between the lines of your survey results and consider their meaning in the context of your business. That’s one of the real benefits of facilitating insights workshops, drawing upon the experience and expertise of your colleagues, to agree on the implications of the results (defining the problem to solve) before deciding on actions (solutions).

Avoiding distractions

We see two major distractions when it comes to drawing business insight from your employee survey results. These are external benchmarking and focusing on the survey score. Benchmarking is a distraction because it means that you might focus on the things that don’t really matter in your unique business context, and it can lead to a focus on the score. Focusing on the score can lead to the wrong kinds of action and behaviour.

When you take a survey off the shelf, you’re more likely to be left wondering ‘so what?’ or end up focusing on pushing up the score rather than using it to create meaningful change. In other words… ..we’re back to the ‘why’?

Part 4: Taking action on results

Your employee survey results are in. The clock is ticking. People will soon start asking about action planning. And they should, right? That shows that they care. So, are you going to be ahead of the game and seen as taking a measured, proactive approach; or will you be behind the curve and reacting to pressure?

Without action, your employee survey is pointless. In fact, it might be worse than that and drive disengagement. After all, if people have taken the time to give you their feedback it’s plain rude to ignore it. Add to that the time, effort and money that you’ll have wasted running the survey. Yet, it happens.

So how should you go about action planning to maximise the benefits of your employee survey, both for employee engagement in general and for future participation in the process?

Plan for action planning in advance

When it comes to acting on your results, the first tip is that you need to plan your approach before you launch the survey. Otherwise your response will be slower, less clear and ultimately, less convincing. So, you employee survey should be governed, and that includes:

  • Who will interpret the results?
  • How will the actions be determined and prioritise them?
  • How will ownership be decided? By whom?
  • Where will actions be stored and monitored? By whom?

Making these decisions in advance of launching your survey will make your like much easier after you’ve launched it.

Communicate the action planning process

If you communicate the timetable and process for action planning in advance of the survey, that demonstrates that the survey has been well-thought through and helps build confidence in the process.

Additionally, remind people as soon as the survey has closed. Start by thanking employees for their participation, share the response rates, and outline the next steps. By doing so you will build accountability and increase the likelihood that your survey will deliver business value.

Clearly communicate key results and insights

A key next step should be to highlight company-wide results and insights. While you might not yet know what the action plan looks like, it’s an opportunity to highlighting what you would like to celebrate, as well as some potential areas of opportunity. Do you need to investigate some of these further to understand them fully? If so, say so. Manage the expectation and don’t create a vacuum for people to fill with their own reasons why you’re not doing anything.

Encourage and enable bottom up action planning

We see a lot of debate about a top-down versus bottom-up approaches to survey action planning, but would advise doing both, for different reasons. If you can quickly start a bottom-up process you can create ‘wins’ at an operational level, enabling people to influence their work environment feel and see some progress.

By being transparent with their teams, while allowing members to openly respond to the results and contribute to action planning, line managers can build trust and engagement.

A bottom-up process should begin with discussion of the results and what they mean from the team’s perspective, what:

  • Was surprising or expected about the results
  • They don’t see, or weren’t asked about
  • The team can celebrate or keep doing / stop and start
  • The team can / can’t influence
  • Mitigating actions can they take?
  • Needs to be escalated to the next level (without encouraging unnecessary ‘upwards delegation’)

A well-planned and executed bottom-up action planning process can feed the more strategic, top-down process with insight without adding excessive delay. We suggest taking an approach that encourages teams to take ownership of what they can, then carefully considering what to raise to their manager’s team, and so on.

Eventually, there will be action taken at each level in the organisation as well as passing up insights and issues that need attention – it’s often interesting to see what gets raised to the executive team!

AND consider strategic, top-down actions

While a bottom-up process gets the ball rolling, it can also give a bit of time for the executive team to take a more considered, strategic perspective. HR can play an important role as facilitators and advisors during strategic action planning, but overall accountability should sit with business leaders.

At a strategic level ‘employee survey action planning’ is a bit of a misnomer. What’s more likely to come from an executive team is a number of broad objectives and / or initiatives that need to be carefully defined, scoped and planned.

The kinds of questions that should be considered at a strategic level are different therefore, for example:

  • What broad issues does the data throw up?
  • Are there any business areas or demographics that need further attention?
  • What are the implications of any identified issues for the business and its vision / mission?
  • How could we respond to these implications? What are our broad options?
  • What further evidence / insights might we need?
  • Who would be an appropriate owner / sponsor for this (and why)?

Involve a diverse audience in solving ‘problems’

Sometimes, what you’ll get from the process is more of a ‘problem statement that requires further thought and analysis. These are excellent opportunities to build engagement, by involving diverse groups of employees and enabling them to influence their work environment; bringing new perspectives and stimulating more creative solutions, providing development opportunities, and encouraging cross-team collaboration.

Manage actions as ‘core’ activity

While action planning is likely to require dedicated workshops to take place, we strongly recommend that, wherever possible, they are integrated into existing management processes and viewed as ‘core’ activity.

By monitoring survey / engagement actions as part of a regular management team meeting, for example, or using the business’s normal task management tools, you make manging employee engagement part of managing the business and not an ‘add on’.

Communicate progress regularly

The potential risk associated with ‘normalising’ actions and projects arising from employee surveys is that people forget that any changes have come from their feedback. It’s important, therefore, to communicate continually on progress, making the link from employee feedback to strategic plans, change, and benefits delivered.

By providing regular updates as part of a continuous process of keeping people informed about what’s happening in the business, you will avoid the classic pitfall of rushing to tell people what you’ve done for them just before you launch the next survey. That’s as ineffective as it is obvious and can raise levels of cynicism exactly when you need it least!

Final thoughts

Employee Surveys can provide valuable insights into what’s happening in your organisation, but they also have their limitations. It’s important to recognise both of things and plan carefully to maximise the former and minimise the latter.

It's important that you don't simply plan to launch your survey as an event but treat the whole process as a project that includes creating and monitoring action, as well as design and launch. Communication needs to be baked into the plan.

If you don't plan in advance what you will do with the results - who will they be shared with, how will decisions be made, where accountability sits for overall success - then you will run into more problems trying to get the attention of key stakeholders and decision-makers, and you're less likely to generate action.

We hope you've found our guide to running employee surveys useful and thought provoking. If you have any questions why not tweet @ThePXHub or drop us a message.

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