… ‘tis the Season — Survey Season!
At InterNations, the summer months aren’t just the perfect time for our team members to relax in a beergarden or on the beach after work. In July and August, it’s also time for the InterNations Barometer.
Our yearly employee satisfaction and engagement survey is currently running for the seventh time since it was established in 2015. Once again, we have the chance to let our employer know how much we love or loathe our working conditions. (Hopefully, the former rather than the latter.) But what’s actually in it for us?
An estimated nine in ten of Germany’s largest employers (89%) use such employee surveys. This figure stems from academic research for a 2018 paper published in Wirtschaftspsychologie aktuell. Another study from the same year, which focuses on English-speaking markets, found that about three in four companies (74%) conduct “formal, large-scale employee surveys”.
The description as “formal” and “large-scale” hints at the fact that these surveys are often time-consuming and labor-intensive. Brainstorming and setting up the questionnaire, as well as analyzing and communicating the results, may involve various teams.
At InterNations, it is mainly our Feel Good Manager Denise who is responsible for the questionnaire, while our Business Intelligence Team is in charge of analyzing the data. Then, Denise needs to discuss the results in detail with management. After the survey closes, it usually takes another six to ten weeks for the results to be presented.
Large corporations sometimes decide to save time by spending money on external service providers to conduct these surveys for them. The point still stands, though: Why do companies commit to this considerable investment at all? Research and advisory company Gartner even presented their 2018 data on employee surveys with the provocative title, “Is It Time to Toss Out Your Old Employee Survey?”
Why Employee Surveys Are Good for Morale
The reasons for employee surveys are often exceptional circumstances, with the company going through a transformation process or a crisis. But apart from one-off surveys on post-merger integration or change management, the regular ones mostly have other goals connected with employee satisfaction and employee engagement.
Surveying a team with regard to how happy its members are (i.e., employee satisfaction) and how emotionally committed they are to the organization and its goals (i.e., employee engagement) is a huge task, but an essential one. The results show the company’s strengths and weaknesses in these two areas. This enables the organization to improve the latter. Potential issues might even be spotted before someone raises them directly. Last but not least, it makes the employees feel heard.
As simple as the last point may sound, it could be the most important of all. Employee satisfaction and engagement surveys can help reduce staff turnover and increase productivity. How so?
Of course, people sometimes slack off at work or quit for personal reasons beyond their employer’s control. Sometimes, their reasons boil down to them feeling underpaid and looking for better financial incentives. But very often, it’s the non-monetary aspects that matter.
NBC News, for example, reported on the number one reason why employees leave: 79% quit due to a lack of appreciation. Feeling underappreciated is extremely bad for employee engagement.
HR software company WeSpire’s State of Employee Engagement Report 2021 also highlights the impact of company alignment with the team’s personal values on employee retention. Only 12% of employees with a sense of purpose — i.e., those who believe that their work has some positive impact on the world — are actively looking for another job, The average across the entire workforce is up to a whopping 57%.
However, to get meaningful results and to change the working atmosphere for the better, companies need to get their surveys right. If they make some common mistakes, employee surveys are indeed nothing more than a waste of time and money. Do it properly — or do toss it out!
Annual Employee Surveys vs. Dynamic Feedback
First of all, no organization should be a “fair-weather friend”. When the company is doing poorly or when morale is low, it is tempting to skip the survey and avoid some awkward discussions about the inevitably bad results. But this would defeat the purpose of introducing the survey in the first place. Employee satisfaction and engagement need to be measured regularly — e.g., once a year — or not at all.
According to the Gartner survey cited above, about one in six companies have moved away from the yearly survey format, though. They are still very interested in gauging the mood of their employees, but they use other feedback mechanisms, such as short “pulse surveys” conducted with much higher frequency. In-depth research with employee focus groups is also an option.
These alternatives can be especially interesting for large corporations. Hundreds or thousands of employees might fill in their lengthy annual questionnaire, which merely results in information overload for management.
Since InterNations is still an SME (small or medium enterprise), with around 110 employees, our Feel Good Manager Denise believes that the traditional format works just fine for us. “I think that the frequency — once a year — is all right. We do have other opportunities to check up on our team members during the year,” she says. Denise is referring to other touchpoints along the employee journey, such as onboarding meetings, feedback talks, leadership conferences, and exit interviews.
Moreover, SMEs are normally small enough for someone to notice if the mood drastically changes in between two surveys. “The InterNations Barometer is just a way of visualizing the atmosphere at work. Since I work closely with the team, across all departments, I sometimes have a good idea of what the answers are going to be like. People also bring up issues with me. I might hear about the same topic from different directions,” Denise explains. “But in an ideal world with unlimited time and resources, I would perhaps conduct the Barometer twice a year. After all, a lot can happen in twelve months.”
How Not to Conduct an Employee Survey
Apart from happening on a regular basis, employee satisfaction and engagement surveys should feature questions tailored to the company. Using standardized questionnaires might seem like a quick and easy solution, but the results will be less specific. Actually, it’s a bit shocking to read in the Wirtschaftspsychologie aktuell paper that nearly one in ten of Germany’s largest employers rely on standardized tools.
“When starting the InterNations Barometer, I obviously did some research on employee surveys in general,” Denise remembers. “However, I soon found that it pays off more to look inside your own company and talk to relevant team members to get the perfect fit for your needs.”
The InterNations Barometer consists of several parts. All of them deal with different aspects of working at InterNations, from personal identification (i.e., employee engagement) to development opportunities and training, from corporate culture (incl. the topic of appreciation) to communication and collaboration. Yearly focus topics may feature as well, depending on the current situation. The 2020 InterNations Barometer, for instance, focused on the recent introduction of remote work.
A mix of rating questions and optional text fields ensures that respondents can add relevant aspects that they don’t think are covered by the questions or that they would like to elaborate on. Open questions avoid the methodological weakness of collecting only quantitative data (i.e., what employees think), but no qualitative data to explain why they think so.
Another common mistake to avoid is having no way of filtering the responses. If the analysts can’t distinguish between data from different teams and/or locations, between regular employees and people managers, etc., they won’t be able to zoom in on potential problem areas. “If lots of people from the same team, for example, gave negative ratings in the InterNations Barometer, we would definitely look into it and find out what is going on there,” Denise says.
That an employee survey should always include some options for filtering the results doesn’t mean that it isn’t anonymous. On the contrary: Data protection is paramount! No results should be traced back to specific employees, and confidentiality should be a given. The point of an employee satisfaction and engagement survey is to make sure that team members feel heard. This also means freely voicing their honest opinion.
“We’re usually very friendly with each other and have a good working relationship with our supervisors. But it might still feel awkward to share critical feedback — especially if you share it with someone who rates your performance or writes your paycheck,” Denise comments. “That’s why it’s good to provide an anonymous outlet. If you are interested in what your employees really think, you should have such a survey.”
While individual responses should be treated with complete confidentiality, the overall results require as much transparency as possible. The goal of such a survey is to create trust. Treating the outcome like it’s top secret won’t help to achieve this. At InterNations, our two founders and co-CEOs personally present the survey results during an all-hands team meeting.
Discussing the results is also a great opportunity to highlight what is going well for our team. It’s good to celebrate what we can be rightly proud of. But the negative aspects are never glossed over. Communicating what the team members really think requires openness and honesty. If criticism gets ignored or dismissed, the team will lose faith.
The Biggest No-Go Ever
There is only one mistake that would be even worse than ignoring the critical voices from an employee survey. And that’s not following up on the feedback.
This quote from a Forbes article puts it very succinctly: “Most companies have the mistaken belief that the purpose of an employee engagement survey is to measure employee engagement. It’s not; the purpose of conducting a survey is to actually improve employee engagement.”
So, if an urgent need for change emerges in some areas, it’s absolutely vital to take action. Or it should at least be explained why these issues cannot be tackled right now. Our founders and co-CEOs do not only talk about the results. During the same meeting, they also announce which measures they will take as a result of the InterNations Barometer.
“The only downside I see from a management perspective is if you’re not actually willing or able to change anything based on the survey. Then, it will backfire because it feels fake if you don’t do anything about the requests for improvement. This will just create a lot of disappointment and resentment among the team. But fortunately, that’s not the case at InterNations,” Denise says.
“Sometimes, a few team members do wonder what the point of our survey is,” she adds. “‘Nothing ever changes,’ they say. But I don’t think everyone has the same awareness of how much has actually changed over the years. Every year, we have had results that we put into practice later. For example, more vacation days and our Sustainability Initiative, new IT equipment and our very first remote work policy. To me, the survey shows that InterNations really cares. It’s a great opportunity to help us shape our work environment!”
Image credits: InterNations / iStockphoto / Unsplash