There are a lot of conversations occurring about the evolving role of employee surveys. How do we make the best use of new, faster, and more advanced technologies without losing focus on what matters the most? Specifically, from a content perspective, there are conversations around whether the annual census survey is still relevant. From a reporting perspective, real-time dashboards for all managers and leaders is gaining much momentum. Is this a step forward or a risky distraction?
Workforce Science Associates’ view regarding the annual census survey is that this organizational diagnostic, when done correctly, is more important than ever. It is the one point in time when leaders can gain true insight into the level of progress, or lack thereof, at driving engagement and performance at all levels of the organization. Even more important, it can reveal precisely the key factors behind the changes. The results provide a roadmap for each report eligible manager as well as providing valuable insight into many sustained HR priorities such as diversity and inclusion. In organizations where there are divergent or competing interests, the annual census survey provides an opportunity for everyone to align, participate, and take collective action. When done well this is a powerful, unifying activity for the organization.
In addition to creating laser focus for the entire organization on the critical priorities for employee engagement and performance, the results can be an incredible teaching tool. Each company has a group of leaders who instinctively know how to grow engagement with their teams. These leaders should serve as the role models to those who are not as adept in this area. The census survey distinguishes the naturals from those that need help, and creates an incredible opportunity for mentoring.
Finally, the results of the survey also provide important insights for a comprehensive continuous listening strategy. For example, one of our client’s annual census survey revealed that their largest and arguably most important job family had a 7% drop in engagement with employees between six months and one year of tenure. Coinciding with the engagement drop, turnover rose within this same group by double digits. The annual census survey revealed these insights, which led to exploring the retention issue further. We recommended a retention strategy for this group and suggested more frequent listening to employees between four and five months’ tenure so that relevant information could be fed to each manager who these individuals reported to.
Implementing a continuous listening strategy within an organization can provide timely insights for managers. However, many organizations are hesitant to go in that direction because they don’t want to risk over surveying. In fact, ever since employee surveys began to take on momentum, execs at various levels began worrying about “survey burnout”. We would simply like to infuse a little reality into this discussion. Unless you have an unnecessarily long, cumbersome, and complicated survey, “burnout” is actually NOT an issue. Just to clarify, when individuals have the opportunity to participate in a process that they believe is important and meaningful, especially if it only takes a few minutes every month or two, they do not get exhausted and burn out, period. Instead, what company leaders should be aware of is “survey ambivalence”. This occurs when employees are asked to do a task, regardless of difficulty, that they feel will have no value and result in no benefit. The only similarity between survey ambivalence and survey burnout is that both result in lower response rates in the future. The solution is not to survey less than you would like to, but instead to make sure that the survey process is focused and efficient, that it addresses pertinent issues and questions, and that the results are communicated and applied in ways that are observable to employees.
The best continuous listening strategies aren’t always continuous. A much more useful description would be coordinated and responsive listening. This description implies that the pulse surveys are designed specifically in response to current questions relevant to workforce effectiveness and that they are aligned with the annual survey so that changes can not only be monitored more accurately, but can also be examined in more detail to better understand both the causes and consequences of the changes. Coordinated listening is focused, thoughtful, and actionable. Continuous listening can sometimes resemble the dog that just can’t resist chasing his own tail.
Workforce Science Associates is also concerned that what actually is most taxing to managers is being asked to focus on and resolve too many issues at one point in time. It is often difficult to garner the attention of managers to act on the annual census survey with a full 12 months to focus on it, let alone asking them to do so on a more frequent basis. IBM Kenexa has studied clients who have made the most consistent progress on engagement.
The learning is that one or two clearly articulated and executed actions per manager yields the best results. Trying to boil the ocean just doesn’t work. In the process of studying the best performing clients over time, the IBM Kenexa survey has incorporated a behavior change index that has led to an undeniable conclusion. When managers act and employees can see noticeable changes, they are rewarded with higher engagement scores. When they do not act on the results, engagement scores drop precipitously.
There is one final point on the potential pitfalls to avoid with your “coordinated” listening strategy. From a content perspective, there is a growing and overwhelming body of evidence that engagement still matters and will continue to matter to employees and organizations. The science is proven, whereas the science behind topical pulse-only strategies is still being compiled and studied. Just as with anything in business, hard work and a resolute focus on engagement yields results. Diverting attention to other topics may yield a lot of interesting but unimportant information that will not benefit the organization in the long run.
Always remember the cardinal rule of employee survey analysis—make a clear distinction between those things that are merely interesting and those things that are important to the performance of your business. Focus on the Important! Each organization will have its own needs and challenges and there is no one-size fits all approach. That said, we believe that, in order to get the most meaningful insights in today’s business environment, companies must leverage an annual census survey that is designed to incorporate the appropriate content for a strategic coordinated listening program, as well as one that is tied to key business initiatives and focused on the business priorities of the organization.
Let’s next examine the technology surrounding the delivery of survey results. Most organizations today are complex, matrixed companies that are in a constant state of flux. This landscape demands flexible, agile technology that can adjust to changes in real-time. Recently there has been a greater demand for real-time dashboard reporting capability so that managers and leaders can have “on-demand” insights into their data. While faster access to data is, in general a good thing, we recommend proceeding with caution. There are instances when real-time reporting is appropriate and other instances when it is not.
For example, with a combined sixty years of experience in the boardroom with senior executives, Workforce Science Associates can anecdotally state with confidence that senior leaders prefer to be the first to see survey results. This is for a whole host of reasons. If the company is publicly traded, the correct messaging is critical to employees and subsequently to the outside world.
Leaders want time to digest the data and determine the best ways to message the story, give direction, and prescribe actions to their workforce who will inevitably be looking to them for guidance. To best meet the needs of the senior leadership team, you may want to delay reporting so the appropriate cascading of results can occur in a manner that best fits your company.
A real-time release of results can create several unintended consequences downstream as well. This can not only be disruptive but harmful to the organization. Imagine a business unit with lower scores on engagement than expected. This situation requires a thoughtful reflection and digestion of the results in order to communicate effectively and make the best decisions moving forward. Without the right amount of time to do so, the leader of this business unit is at risk of his or her managers taking uncoordinated, knee jerk reactions that could lead in an outcome that results in more harm than good.
Real-time does have its place in survey dashboard reporting. Particularly in providing timely pulse survey results limited to specific and immediately addressable issues. The value of this type of pulse survey is two-fold. First, the organization can issue a quick survey that is relevant to a specific population within the organization. Second, it is designed for the results to be distributed immediately to the manager in real-time so they can take decisive actions based on the results. Pulse surveys can and should be tracked over time so that managers can determine the progress (or lack thereof) against the information they were wanting to understand.
Workforce Science Associates advocates a strategy that delivers sustained focus on engagement while immediately responding to the important issues that can be resolved quickly. The annual census survey, if done correctly, is the overarching “stake in the ground” for monitoring the entire organization’s progress on engagement. A well-informed coordinated listening strategy can give insightful guidance to managers so they can make the adjustments needed to keep their teams pointed in the right direction. Finally, when seeking a survey provider, remember that technology is the enabler, not the outcome. A sound strategy, meaningful content, and decisive actions are the most important keys to driving successful business results.