Monday, July 22, 2013

The How and Why of Conducting an Employee Survey

No doubt you've heard of the substantial business benefits of having an engaged workforce. Let me give you some specifics, drawn from Gallup's recent study of 1.4 million employees in nearly 50,000 business units and almost 200 companies worldwide. Those business units in top quartile in engagement exhibited:
  • 22% higher profitability
  • 21% higher productivity 
  • 10% higher customer loyalty
  • 65% lower employee turnover
  • 37% lower absenteeism
  • 48% fewer employee safety incidents
  • 41% fewer quality incidents or defects
If you'd like to see that kind of improvement in your firm, the obvious question is: How engaged are your employees?

I find it puzzling that most A/E firms don't formally solicit feedback from either of their top two constituencies—clients and employees. Does it matter what both groups think of your firm? Of course it does! So why do so may firms neglect getting regular feedback from them?

If your firm is one of them, let me urge you to begin collecting feedback from both clients and employees. I provided guidance on getting feedback from clients in a previous post. This post focuses on the how and why of conducting an employee survey.

Define the purpose of your employee survey. There are at least two key reasons for clarifying why you're seeking employee feedback: (1) it helps you determine what questions to ask and (2) it enables you to better sell the value of doing the survey, thus increasing participation. If you've not done an employee survey before (or it's been a long time), employees will be justified in questioning your intent in doing it now.

So what should your purpose be? Looking at the numbers above, you could certainly make a case for gauging the degree of employee engagement. But that may suggest that company performance, rather than interest in your employees, is your primary motive. Be sure to frame the issue from your employees' perspective. You might also be interested in uncovering employee perceptions of your firm's culture, values, or leadership.

Most employee surveys focus on determining the level of employee satisfaction. Experts point out that employee engagement and employee satisfaction are not the same thing. Yet neither are they mutually exclusive objectives. So I advise combining elements of both, with the overall purpose of determining how to create a better place to work. That goal should help gain employee buy-in.

Determine what questions to ask. There's an art and science to asking the right questions in the right way when conducting a survey. I don't claim any special expertise in this area, but I've surveyed thousands of employees and clients over the years and have gotten useful results. The secret is following the lead of those who are the experts, adopting aspects of their approach and using their questions as appropriate for your survey.

In the A/E industry, a good resource to start with is the questionnaire that ZweigWhite uses in their annual Best Firms to Work For competition. Using their questions gives you the benefit of being able to benchmark the responses you get against those of other firms (the employee response summary starts on page 28 of the linked report). Which questions you borrow from this and other employee questionnaires will again depend on your stated purpose. For measuring employee satisfaction, you can refer to this sample questionnaire for additional ideas. 

If you want to gauge employee engagement, you want to ask questions that reveal employees' commitment and emotional connection to the firm. One expert suggests that six questions are particularly helpful in indicating employee engagement:
  • I am proud to work for my company
  • I intend to stay with my company for at least another 12 months
  • I would recommend my company as a great place to work
  • I understand how my job contributes to the company's success
  • My colleagues are passionate about providing exceptional client service
  • My colleagues are willing to go beyond that is expected to make the company successful
The third question above relates to what is often called the Net Promoter Score, which some consider the most important measure of all. It seeks to determine the relative proportions of "promoters," "passives," and "detractors" for your company, whether among employees or clients. Another take on this measure is the question, "I would recommend my firm's services to my friends or family."

Decide how many questions to ask. I've found no consensus in the literature on what's the right number, so I rely on common sense. One source indicated that a 50-question survey takes about 30-40 minutes to complete. Some surveys I've seen are over 100 questions. These lengthy questionnaires must get results, but I prefer high participation rates over an expansive set of questions. Could you expect 80% of your staff to spend 30-60 minutes on an employee survey? That's my minimum target participation rate.

Long questionnaires present another challenge—more things to analyze and more issues to respond to. Usually, responding to employee concerns made evident in a survey will involve further investigation, talking to people and asking more questions. So you don't need to cover all the bases in your questionnaire. In my experience, questionnaires are better at uncovering concerns than analyzing them. I suggest no more than about 25-30 questions.

Determine the type of questions. There are several types of questions that are used in questionnaires. You can read about them here. I tend to favor questions (actually statements) with a five-point rating scale. That's consistent with most of the employee survey questionnaires I've seen. The most recent version of ZweigWhite's questionnaire uses a combination of rating scale, dichotomous, and open-ended questions. You might want to consider a similar mix.

Make sure you adequately communicate to staff. You want to generate some enthusiasm for the survey by communicating your purpose and the expected result. Start this process well in advance and use appropriate frequency and multiple channels. I've seen firms undermine their employee survey by failing to do this, which can lead to widespread suspicion about the real intent or the company's commitment to follow through.

Make it easy for employees to respond, but don't give them too much time. These days, online survey tools like SurveyMonkey offer great advantages and will suffice to reach most of your staff. In some firms, though, there will be a handful of employees who don't have ready internet access or simply prefer a paper questionnaire. It's more work, but give them that option.

I usually advocate giving employees a week to respond, with a few additional days allowed to try to get stragglers involved. Giving them more time, in my experience, does little to improve participation. Be sure to give appropriate reminders; they make a big difference in response rates.

Carefully maintain anonymity for respondents. The one aspect of conducting employee surveys that has surprised me most is the degree of paranoia typically that exists, with some employees concerned that management will be trying to figure out who said what. Hopefully that doesn't reflect a breakdown in trust between leaders and staff. In most cases, however, I suspect that many of these people would remain suspicious no matter what firm leaders did.

Nonetheless, you can help the situation by taking steps to guard anonymity. One such step is to avoid asking for too much demographic information, which is obviously helpful in analyzing the results but may reveal too much in smaller offices and business units. Another step is to hire someone outside the firm to at least receive and compile the responses (but even this step will not assuage your most conspiratorial colleagues).

Above all, follow up appropriately! While I strongly recommend conducting periodic employee surveys, there is a risk: If you don't address significant employee concerns that are uncovered, you might be doing more harm than good. This is why many firms are reluctant to do employee surveys. But you don't become a great employer by avoiding asking employees how you're doing.

Responding to employee concerns does not necessarily require solving the problem. For example, when my former employer conducted its first employee survey, the number one concern was a sense that staff was not adequately compensated. In response, we compiled industry compensation data and compared it to our salaries. We found that less than 10% of our employees were paid slightly below industry median ranges and adjusted their salaries accordingly. 

When we surveyed employees the following year, the issue had gone away, although 90% of them had received no adjustment. That's because their concern had been a perception—as such concerns often are—that was appropriately addressed and corrected by the firm. In other cases, the firm was not able to correct a problem raised by employees. But simply listening to them and communicating why the problem existed largely alleviated the concern.

    1 comment:

    1. Most of the time when I take a blog the questions don't relate to me. I think that the questions need to be more relevant. Also surveys will help you grow your company. You need feedback to fix your mistakes! Thanks for the post!