r.i.p annual engagement surveys

If I ran a company which made its revenue from promoting yearly surveys, I would be seriously thinking about Blockbuster and the lessons that could be learned by ignoring disruption. Surely, companies selling annual satisfaction/engagement surveys can not keep expecting significant chunks of ever-tightening HR budgets, armed only with promises of design validation and top quartile benchmarking...can they?

Like a lot of HR professionals, I used to think of the annual ESS survey as being a panacea for employee engagement. The survey consultants I bought from always made such a compelling argument. They would assure me with “Get all of the employees to fill-out 25 or so questions once a year, learn all this great information regarding the employees and associates to change the way they feel, making everyone more effective and engaged”. Obviously, the reality was quite a bit different to the sales pitch. Even if you can ignore the absurdity of only checking in with employees once a year, the process of administering the engagement survey was unpleasant in the extreme.

Is there anybody out there that still believes the yearly engagement survey is an effective use of time or money? Is there anybody left that still thinks that the yearly engagement survey betters engagement?

Anyone recognise the following scene?

Initially you have to get the questions agreed. But, not so fast – Department A just moved offices and therefore would like to include a tonne of questions in conscerning this, while Department B felt there were too many issues last year, and Department C could not care less and will not provide you with any feedback at all. Subsequently the timing never seems right given the usual outcries of “the re structure that is coming up in the sales team” or maybe “the end-of-quarter pressures in finance”.

You eventually believe in the agreed questions and the launch day and then the poor HR team has three or so weeks to convinvce the employees to fill out a survey  form. One year while working for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company the HR team actually designed, produced and wore polo shirts with “Ladies and Gentlemen. Please fill out your survey” emblazened across them – and only achieved a 60% completion rate. After what feels like (and really is) an era, the results come back. And what can they teach you? They let you know what they tell virtually every other business? Employees want better communications, better training and better career opportunities.

The executive team get the results presented and then commit to the dreaded cascade and remedy action planning – but do not want their results to reach the press. Line Managers are typically confused by way of the information is reported or maybe it is at such an aggregated level that it is meaningless for many of them. The internal communications and HR teams remind employees of all of the great improvements that have been implemented with rarely hidden resentment that the scores have hardly shifted. Ultimately, the cascades are actually done, and the action plans are properly hidden in a draw and it is already time to begin planning for the next year’s survey.

And yet, we question why engagement levels have pretty much stagnated for the last decade. Fortunately, the days for this particular HR dinosaur are numbered. HR professionals have realised that gathering insights regarding into an employees’ thoughts and level of engagement isn’t an annual event. Our consumer insight colleagues have taught us that engagement levels is an area to obsess over relentlessly.

Smiley face touch pads, normal pulse surveys on smartphones, text messages to a sample of men and women each week asking, “How is work for you at the moment?” – som businesses I meet are already piloting brand new means of ramping up contact. They are blending qualitative and quantitative study and performing in depth analysis on the crucial moments in their employees’ work days. They are providing Line Managers the resources to do things for themselves with great, affordable apps including CultureAmp, Glint and TINYpulseIn at least one case,  they’re cutting out engagement surveys entirely and encouraging employees to make use of Glassdoor and then reviewing what the comments to create action lists to address any patterns of concern.

Is now the time to question the value you’ve derived during the last couple of years survey seasons? Aside from the executive team feeling better for having ticked the box labelled ‘Staff Engagement’, what has actually changed? For those interested in understanding what employees believe and how they’re feeling, is there not there a better way? 

If we were to adopt a customer mind-set to the workforce, then we would consider the requirements to actually get relevant and actionable employee insights:

  • We would want fast, real-time feedback which promote significant interventions by Line Managers
  • We would gather their views on a range of subjects which they are truly able impact and shape
  • We would request in-depth analysis on what drives and motivates them to enable us to design HR products and services that are meaningful and relevant
  • We would expect to be able to provide Line Managers with a range of tools and techniques that they can easily encorporate into their operations, to develop thier teams effectively

Actually, the resources mentioned above are already available and we can be excited about the brand new generation of employee insight tools, like those offered by the London-based relationship expertise firm Laws of AttractionThey’ve moved past the basic questionnaire and have created methodology which assess emotional, subconscious responses, that provide organisations with a real-time dashboard of the levels of trust, passion, stress and empowerment that prevail within the organisation.

NB: Even though this post contains links to products and services, we do not receive commission for promoting these companies or from purchases made through these links – we just regularly rave about these apps and service providers and want folk to know about them.

If you could do with some help, WINC HR consultants really shine in employment arenas. We pride ourselves on being our clients’ most valuable partner in the attraction, retention and engagement of their current and future staff members. We offer quality end-to-end strategies and solutions including resource managment, hr operations and change communications, especially within the Organisation Design and Development space. Find out more about what we’re up to on the WINC website – and keep up-to-date with our latest news and views on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter

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about the author


Karl Wood is a global HR and employment professional who has an impeccable record in delivering HR solutions for industry leading firms. Known for his charachteristic creativity, Karl champions ideas that promote growth, profit and a positive organisational identity.