Engage Teams - Employee Survey

Your quick guide to a great employee survey

In this guide we show you how to make a highly effective employee survey. The principles apply to all types of organisations.

Employee surveys require a proper commitment of time by managers and employees. In large organisations they often require specialists to come in and help with survey design and delivery. Despite the effort that organisations go to, studies have shown that nearly half of all managers spend little time acting on the results that they get. This can have significant adverse consequences and result in negative employee attitudes. Employees may feel like their responses aren’t really required (because no action is taken) and this can lead to public and private dissatisfaction.

Before you even decide to run an employee survey, ask yourself whether you will take action on the results. If the answer is yes, ask yourself why you are doing it. Is the reason aligned with your business goals? And what do you hope to achieve by doing it?

If you are not sure whether you will action the results, you should probably not conduct the survey. It’s better to wait until you’re in a position that allows you to take action. Otherwise you will end up creating a pointless feedback loop that isn’t appreciated by your employees.

Survey design is crucial, so start with clear goals and ask specific & relevant questions

The biggest pitfall we see is poor survey design. You may get away with poor process and communication, but getting the survey questions right is critical. If you ask garbage questions you will get garbage data.

Be very clear about your survey goals? What data do you need to support your goals? And consider how the data will be used? Then start drafting questions to achieve each survey goal. Make sure you think carefully about the type of questions to ask that will get the information you need to support your goals.

Consider who are you targeting? Think about their ages, genders, locations, languages, the devices they are most likely to use. Make sure you include demographic questions that will allow you to filter and analyse the responses. Demographics are also important for planning how to engage your employees?

Craft questions that are meaningful to your employees on two levels. On the one hand they must be strategically meaningful; and on the other, they must be locally, and personally, meaningful.

Beyond this, keep your questions simple, clear, direct, and relevant. Stick to the focus of the survey project, and don’t deviate – even if you’re tempted.

Run a pilot before rolling out an employee survey

Conducting a survey pilot is essential. Failing to conduct a pilot is another major pitfall we see regularly. Piloting the employee survey and the communications helps confirm the validity of your questions and the effectiveness of the messages in your communication. The survey pilot should identify questions, messages or instructions that don’t make sense, or will lead to biased responses. It can also be useful to identify areas that may have been missed when designing the survey.

The pilot should aim to cover, and get feedback about, the entire survey process, not just the survey questions. That includes the survey invitation, the instructions, questions, response options, messages, emails, reminder messages and the thank you messages.

Once the survey pilot has been completed, review the feedback and refine the survey, instructions, key messages and the communications. Depending upon the pilot feedback, it may be necessary to conduct a follow up pilot, particularly if major issues are identified.

Once satisfied with the survey, it is important to get sign-off by the project key stakeholder.

Get buy-in from the highest management level

Our advice is to get leadership buy-in – or don’t run the survey. If your organisation is one in which the survey is considered a pointless exercise, then the most likely reason for this is that those at the very top – including the Board – feel that way too. If the most senior executives are really driven to deliver great customer value, and improve employee engagement, then they will be interested in the data, and will act on it when they get it. The nature of leadership largely determines the nature of an organisation; so if you want a really successful survey, you will need buy-in from the very top.

Create the right context and communicate more than you think you should

In order to get valid feedback, you have to create the right conditions to encourage people to share their true thoughts, feedback and ideas. Otherwise, you won’t get the information and ideas that you really need. Or, people may tell you only what they think you want to hear. Failing to create the right context for people to give feedback is another common pitfall.

A great communication strategy for an employee survey cascades down from the top. The CEO will send messages to the teams talking about its importance, and managers will do the same. But in larger organisations, even better is to show people the success of such exercises. Publish stories that all teams can read, encourage comments and feedback about past surveys, and even interview people from the organisation. If it’s important enough to your organisation, then you will need this communication to be continuous: Before, during, and after the survey. In some organisations, employee surveys are so central that the communication never stops: They are always somewhere in the data cycle, so there is always something to say.

If your organisation is small then a simpler approach may be needed. But always make sure that you broadcast the survey results, planned actions and progress to staff.

Carefully choose the timing for your employee survey

There are a lot of factors that will determine when, and how often, you survey your employees. Some of them include the number of employees, how distributed they are, the resources (time, money, people) it takes to run the surveys, and how capable you are of acting on results.

Most organisations run their employee survey annually, but some do them biannually, and others twice every year. The types of surveys you run may go some way towards determining frequency. You might, for example, decide to run multiple surveys in a year, to make them highly focused: One on communication, one on management, one on innovation… the list goes on.

Maximise the survey response rate

A high survey response rate is imperative. Low survey response rates raise many questions about the validity of the data and can become an excuse for leaders not making decisions or taking action. Or, the quality of decisions and actions may be impacted by low response rates and missing important feedback.

The most important factor to get a strong survey response rate from employees is to create the right context for them. Carefully communicate the survey aims and policies (like the level of anonymity, how the feedback will be used, who will see the results, etc.).

Then, send friendly survey invitations and reminders (and ultimately urgent reminders) encouraging employees to complete the survey. Reminders should be targeted at only those employees who have not yet completed the survey. Continue sending reminders and then urgent reminders as the due date approaches.

Another key to getting a good response rate to your employee survey is to demonstrate a commitment that you will act on its results.

Give management the right tools

Helping managers to drive and act upon the survey results can make or break the exercise. Find a way to develop a set of tools that will enable them to do this independently. Some organisations create toolkits that simplify the entire exercise: from roll-out to action. Others get much more detailed, with clear guidance about what to do if surveys return certain levels of responses.

Successful employee surveys often give management a framework and some recommendations, but ultimately leave it up to them to decide how it will play out. That freedom of adaptation will give your management real incentive to engage with the survey and be able to use it in ways they see fit, within the overall strategic actions taken.

Finally: Act on the results of the employee survey

Running an employee survey and doing nothing with it is a really fast way to adversely affect employee engagement and confidence in management. If you are not going to do anything with the information, don’t ask for it. Just running a survey isn’t going to do anything to improve engagement, or identify opportunities to strengthen your organsation.

The best practices that exist suggest that giving managers some kind of structured framework for putting changes in place is a great way to create action quickly and easily. Others allow managers to make suggestions, take action, and report back on how they’re going. This has the added benefit of creating a feedback community that supports management to make change, which can help action to be taken with less friction.


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