Annual employee engagement surveys are a regular event at most companies and have been for at least a decade. But maybe it’s time to review this approach and look for ways to improve the effectiveness of employee feedback collection and analysis.

The definition of ‘engagement’ has been hotly debated and most engagement survey providers have some sort of framework or model with standard questions and benchmarks and norms to tell you whether your workforce is engaged or not.

The claim is that if engagement scores are improved, it directly translates into all the good behaviours companies would like from their employees – being high performers, living the company values, putting in discretionary effort, being wonderful team players, keeping sick days to a minimum, etc; Improve your engagement scores and the desired business outcomes will follow,  so goes the theory.

But does this approach really generate actionable insights once the initial black spots have been identified and eradicated in the first two or three years of deployment? And does it make sense to continue focusing on an ‘artificial proxy measurement’ that few people understand and even fewer agree on?

Criticisms of engagement surveys

Engagement surveys have long been criticised for being too rigid, too infrequent and inflexible as well as often being shrouded by employee mistrust surrounding anonymity and how the collected data will be used.

There is also pressure on managers to keep improving their teams’ engagement scores.  With many left wondering how they can possibly do this when the engagement survey model is so abstract and somewhat removed from the real world. This inevitably means managers end up focusing on the scores, numbers and decimal points, often seemingly forgetting that they are leading people – who mostly don’t even know or care what the engagement score represents.

Does high engagement equal low staff turnover?

Often, there are contradictions due to over-simplification. For example, high engagement is supposed to reduce staff turnover and increase retention. But even a successful and growing business rarely wants to retain all staff.

Or conversely, the engagement score of someone who is successful, a proud advocate and has fantastic appraisal ratings might be high because she/he agrees with all the correct statements, except that she/he is looking to leave in the next six months.

There is also the issue of whether an annual survey can truly give you a holistic view of how engaged your employees are. So, how about building on the one-off annual study to create a more rounded approach, encompassing employee feedback collected in real-time across the year and driven by events such as promotions, training, office moves and pay changes?

A more rounded approach to employee feedback

By all means, keep the engagement surveys but bring the data together. Recruitment, on-boarding, training, promotions, change – all have an impact on individuals and thankfully modern technology allows you to look at all these together and evaluate the impact they have.

And how about also including employee surveys and feedback mechanisms that focus more directly on business outcomes? What insights can your employees provide which drive customer satisfaction or improve the workplace – or the effectiveness of their managers or specific training requirements? What can they tell you about what keeps people from doing their job properly, or hinders their ability to perform to their full potential?

One of the key benefits of this approach is that it enables you to quickly conduct strategic research that drives improvements in priority areas for business. For example, you need to know why there is an emerging shortage of staff with specific skill sets. You combine feedback from joiners, employer value proposition (EVP) and onboarding feedback with your engagement and exit surveys from the relevant employee group, and you should be able to at least get a hint of what’s been happening.

Another important step is to allow your employee surveys to act as an incubator for follow-up conversations that really engage your staff.  The idea would be to foster a more open culture, which we all know can lead to improved business performance.

In general these approaches get away from the abstract model of engagement that focus on a single index measure and are likely to be more meaningful both for team managers and staff.

Unify employee feedback with other business data

Another valuable step would be to look at ways of unifying data and looking at employee feedback and business performance in context – not just at aggregate levels. This might involve integrating HR performance data with customer data and with event specific feedback – to break down the feedback silos and create a more complete view of your people and business indicators.

Don’t just focus on the numbers 

Furthermore, when collecting and analysing employee feedback, reduce the focus on numbers and KPIs and ask more open questions.  Even more importantly, create reports for managers that allow them to focus on improvement areas that are aligned to business strategy and encourage communication within teams.

How technology can help

More frequent, shorter, real-time and event-driven feedback provides a more holistic way of keeping close to employee engagement and attitudes. And feedback technology makes it easier and less expensive these days to collate this kind of data and join it up to deliver meaningful insights quickly in order to speed decision making.

An employee feedback technology infrastructure is much more than just a survey tool.  It should allow you to map organisational structures – ideally create more than one of view of an organisation and allow you to unify feedback data from various sources. Workflow processes should be intelligent and flexible and of course the analysis,  dashboards, reports and action planning should allow you to focus on the results and insights rather than becoming a strain on resources and budgets.

Having all this data at your fingertips, while complying with anonymity requirements and data protection legislation, is where employee research is heading.

By Alex Wilke, Consultant at QuestBack, a provider of online survey and managed feedback technology

Alex Wilke
Helping companies to gain insights through feedback and dialogue with employees, customers and stakeholders

QuestBack Group is Europe's leading and one of the world's Top 5 Enterprise Feedback Management vendors. QuestBack provides online survey solutions, panel solutions and social CRM solutions - web-based services for relationship development through the collection, analysis, and follow-up of business critical information. QuestBack's clients achieve better financial performance through increasing the satisfaction and loyalty among their customers and employees.

Specialties: Employee Engagement, Employee Feedback, Customer Experience, Market Research