Over a decade ago, I wrote an article for HR Magazine. It argued that employee surveys weren’t particularly good at giving employees a say or bringing about action. I was somewhat disillusioned with employee surveys at the time. Over the last decade, I’ve talked with hundreds of companies about their employee surveys. I’ve read the various ‘The Employee Survey is Dead/The End of the Employee Survey’ type articles doing the rounds. I’ve even written a few myself.
Here’s my thoughts on employee surveys in 2022: The reality is that the employee survey hasn’t died at all. It doesn’t look in the slightest that employee surveys will die anytime soon. I was totally wrong, perhaps even naive, to have predicted their demise. It’s difficult to get an accurate sense of whether the prevalence of employee surveys has increased or decreased over time. There’s evidence which points to both, depending on how you define ‘employee survey’.
My own experience is that I’ve not heard of many organisations that have stopped doing employee surveys. Although I’m sure there are many that have done their first one, or introduced more frequent pulse surveys. For sure, employee surveys are evolving to become more sophisticated, more integrated, more action-focused and, we hope, more engaging for participants. Companies are almost certainly doing more insight/listening activity beyond the survey. But this supplementary work has not really replaced the main employee survey any way.
The other thing that doesn’t add up to me about the ‘death of surveys’ narrative is that, over the same period, there has been a corresponding explosion in survey and insight platforms. And if you don’t believe me, have a look at Mike Stevens’ excellent list of insight platforms. I just had a look and there’s 1,249 platforms to choose from. Good luck sifting through that lot.
So here, in no particular order, are ten current trends in employee surveys:
4. Employee Experience
5. Text Analysis
As you will see, there’s a lot happening in this space. Indeed, you may well be an HR/Comms/Analytics practitioner trying to get your head around the employee survey market. It’s tough, without actually investing a lot of time and effort in getting demos and trying things out for yourself, it’s really hard to get to grips with all the available tools and services. This makes it difficult to work out what’s really required to make changes happen in your company.
As you read through the trends below, you might reflect on the employee survey practices that you are involved with. Maybe there’s some that you’re not currently exploring, or might adapt in some way. I’m open to the possibility that I may have missed something or lumped things together (please let me know). I haven’t mentioned anything about the metaverse because, frankly, it’s just too early. However, as teams migrate to the metaverse, the need to obtain employee insights inside virtual worlds will become more important.
Trend 1: In-house
There is some brilliant work being done out there by various employee survey providers and consultancies. But let’s face it, there’s a big variation in the quality of the work that gets delivered. Self-service survey technology is nothing new, and over time, companies have become increasingly adept at running their own surveys. Plus, the survey technology available these days also makes this much more feasible. It’s not just the main employee research team who are conducting surveys these days either. The proliferation of self-service survey software has given all sorts of people in organisations the capability to conduct surveys for themselves: HR, Comms, Operational/Functional Leaders.
If you’re paying through the nose to outsource your employee survey, and you’re just going through the motions every year, why don’t you just buy yourself a survey licence and run your survey internally? The chances are you’re doing this to some extent anyway. If you’re just repeating the same survey year after year, you might as well do this. Even if you’ve got loads of money to splash, the other reason companies are bringing things in-house is that it gives them complete control of all the data. This makes it much easier and quicker to integrate it with other systems and workflows without having to fanny around with another entity to complicate things.
For some companies, the sticking point in bringing things inhouse is the independence/anonymity assurances that come with using an external provider. It’s down to the culture of the company of course – doing employee surveys in-house isn’t going to be suitable everywhere. However, I’ve noticed more and more that many employees do not actually seem that bothered about the company running the survey internally. After all, the in-house research team can still provide assurances about confidentiality. If an employee has any suspicion whatsoever about anonymity, in my experience, they won’t fill in a the survey anyway. Even if it is being conducted externally.
Lastly, if you’re hooked on external benchmarks and scared of losing them, you actually might be better off without that extra column of meaningless comparative data to procrastinate over.
Trend 2: Action
A lack of action in response to employee surveys, and a corresponding lack of faith in the survey among participants, is one of the biggest problems in this area. Here’s a typical scenario: An organisation conducts the same 50-item employee survey on participants every year for the last 15 years. Data is analysed, indices are calculated, benchmarks are compared, demographics are grouped, key drivers are identified, expensive presentations are given to senior leaders, action plans are drawn up – and then… nothing really happens. Then the whole ridiculous charade begins again.
However, a lack of action in response to surveys has not gone unnoticed. For some years now, actioning employee surveys has been enhanced by the development of managerial tools that help to connect feedback to action. It’s possible to link employee surveys with case management tools or managerial dashboards which provide suggested actions plans in real-time. Giving managers something concrete to actually do, and alerts when problems are uncovered, can be transformative. It turns employee surveys into more sophisticated systems, that collect the data, analyse it and then synthesise suggested actions and nudges to change the behaviour of individuals or teams.
There is increasing realisation that in order to support this, organisations also need to make some internal operational changes – and this takes time and money. There needs to be a set-up that’s designed for taking action, not just consuming data and nodding heads. It’s imperative that leaders decide in advance who is going to deal with what issues and then create response teams across the company. Issues can then be directed to the relevant response teams in HR, Finance, IT, Facilities, Legal etc. Some information will need to go directly to line managers, and some to senior leadership. These are the people who will ultimately decide how best to act on the information provided to them and be held accountable for actually doing something.
Trend 3. Continuous
Working in an organisation involves such a range of experiences – there’s literally thousands of things that someone could provide feedback about. As a consequence, employee surveys can benefit from being combined with data from as many signals as possible. At work, there are hundreds of touchpoints everyday where it is possible to gather some sort of data or feedback. Whatever software a company is running, the potential to get insights is huge. This has led to the development of listening strategies that include the collection of feedback in-real time, in different ways, across the entire employee experience. This is known as Continuous Listening/Continuous Response.
The aim is to identify problems and solutions early and action them accordingly – before they become big issues. In this way, the organisation is continually responding as well as listening. Employee surveys are, of course, an important part of a continuous listening strategy. In many cases they are the central part of that strategy. There are some issues that are only going to be surfaced using an employee survey. But surveying alone is unlikely to invoke the kind of action that organisations want to see.
Continuous listening strategies involve both direct and indirect signals. Direct signals come from sources where feedback is solicited, such as: employee surveys, pulses, always-on surveys, online discussions, interviews, chatbots, townhall meetings or team feedback sessions. Indirect signals can be pretty broad, for example, data from – Operational/HR records, performance management, recognition, HR/IT case management, email, calendar, social network, messaging/chat. This data is so helpful because it can be translated into metrics to be used alongside the direct data. For example, how much would you like to have the following automated data columns in your employee survey dataset? Number of one-to-one meetings with line manager per month, hours per week in online meetings, extent of collaboration within/across business units, days per month working remotely etc.
Having multiple sources is great, but continuous listening is about more than just having loads of data flying about. One of the advantages of this approach is that the outputs of continuous listening efforts are typically more actionable because they are so much more specific. The rationale is that the right insights are delivered to the right people at the right time. Get this right and you have the capability to react to employee signals in real-time through targeted interventions. It’s a simple idea, but very hard to execute. It’s a struggle to work out what you’ve got, what’s useful and how to connect it all together in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, at the moment, there isn’t one tool that will do all this for you.
Trend 4: Employee Experience
From about the year 2000 to the mid 2010s, employee surveys were all about Employee Engagement. But in recent years, I sense that the whole area of Employee Engagement is starting to wane. Maybe it’s because after 20 years or so, there is still no agreement about what Employee Engagement actually is, how to measure it, or how it’s any different to traditional measures like job satisfaction or commitment. Maybe it’s because there is no good quality evidence from longitudinal studies to show that increases in employee engagement lead to increases in performance, or that interventions designed to increase engagement actually do so (and whether that, in turn, leads to subsequent increases in performance). Maybe it’s just because after countless years of employee surveys, many CEOs are starting to question why their bloody employee engagement scores haven’t gone up.
Nowadays, of course, all the talk is about Employee Experience – which is basically all events or occurrences at work that leave an impression. It’s pretty broad. Some organisations are starting to focus less on engagement and more on metrics that monitor and understand different employee experiences from when people join to when they leave. The rationale behind this is that combining datasets from different systems and time periods can provide insights that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Combined with increasingly powerful analytics (predictive modelling, social network analysis, segmentation and machine learning) it is possible to analyse current and historical data to make predictions about future outcomes.
Who knows what the future holds for the topics of Employee Engagement and Employee Experience, or the extent to which they will co-exist. Despite all its dubious credentials, the concept of Employee Engagement has infiltrated employee survey questionnaires on a grand scale. Even if the concept of Employee Engagement falls from favour, I’m not sure many companies would be willing to dispense with their employee engagement index scores any time soon.
Trend 5: Text Analysis
Text analysis or Natural Language Processing (NLP) is all about efficiently extracting meaning from large amounts of written data. This can include topics and themes, sentiment or emotion. Using text analysis software is helpful as it can analyse the text alongside other numerical/demographic data.
In addition to helping with the task of analysing open comments within a survey, NLP is increasingly being used to capture more real-time, organic feedback. People at work produce vast amounts of text data every day. Information contained within emails, internal social networks and messaging apps can bubble up insights on emerging topics and attitudes (although in practice this can be very difficult because there is often a lot of noise in that text data). And it’s not just written data, voice or video recordings of research interviews can also be analysed to identify emotions from both vocal tone and breathing data.
NLP is also being increasingly being used to digitise various employee services because AI can listen and respond to people. Such Natural Language Generation technology is also being applied to the employee survey space – see Trend 6: Conversational.
Trend 6: Conversational
Through the development of smartphones and messaging apps, people have become used to conversational interfaces. This, combined with and Natural Language Processing and Generation, has started to have a major impact on the way surveys are being conducted. Yes, a lot of chatbots you might come across today are fucking dreadful and deliver an appalling experience – but – the algorithms will become more sophisticated, the training data will become more robust, and over time they will naturally improve.
Chatbots are actually quite good for gathering survey feedback in a conversational interface. For a start, they can capture both qualitative and quantitative data, and do so in a way that provides participants with a more natural flow of questions and answers. What’s also helpful is that they are a bit more like a human researcher. AI is able to reply and explore answers in a deeper way which can uncover more considered and insightful responses. In addition, it’s possible to automate workflows to respond when an issue is identified. It’s this integration with other applications/workflows that can make the conversational feedback process so much more connected to the individual.
Trend 7: Hybrid
An additional consequence of the advances in NLP and conversational interfaces has been the development of techniques to manage online discussions with large groups of people. These can be incorporated with traditional survey elements – giving rise to a more hybrid type of research that combines quantitative and qualitative questions with participant interaction. Using various crowdsourcing techniques or voting mechanisms allows the most important themes and solutions to bubble to the surface. Orchestrating the research process like this means that everything is generally much quicker compared to typical qualitative approaches (eg focus groups or interviews).
There are a number of reasons that employee surveys have started to incorporate these interactive elements. It allows companies to crowdsource answers to important questions in real-time, enhances the participants’ experience and increases perceptions of ‘having a say.’ Openly involving people in more transparent hybrid methods provides more focused interactions. This often leads to more considered responses. In terms of action following the survey, these approaches also offer greater transparency to help make leaders more accountable for actually doing something.
Hybrid approaches have emerged alongside the development of insight communities – these are a group of employees who have agreed in advance to participate in various research activities. Insight communities offer speed and agility in obtaining rich insights.
Trend 8: Video
Why bother to get survey respondents to write a comment to an open-ended question when you could just ask them to submit their response as a video recording? Afterall, how much of a considered or nuanced response are people really giving when they have to type everything out? One thing I’ve learned over the years is that experiences and issues at work are often very complex, with many interacting elements. Yet most of the written responses to open-ended questions in a survey are barely one or two sentences long. Surely allowing people to actually talk through their feedback in some detail would elicit more insightful data?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, collecting data using video in employee surveys has been very slow to take off. The confidentiality/anonymity issues it raises and how comfortable participants are with this have been major sticking points. However, there are some signs of movement in this area. This main thing to be aware of is that automated video analysis has been surging in other areas of opinion/market research over the past decade. Video analysis is not only able to analyse what someone is talking about (using speech recognition and NLP), it can also capture sentiment and emotion through analysing facial expressions, vocal tone and breathing patterns. Facial expression data (eg through a webcam) can also be captured alongside other data collection methods, (eg as the participant is conversing with a chatbot).
As this approach becomes more ubiquitous in other areas of research, and acceptance of giving feedback by video grows, perhaps video might become a more common response option in employee surveys.
Trend 9: Visualisation
The sort of data that is captured in employee surveys, and the way it’s analysed, lends itself very well to data visualisation. Yet, in the past this fact was often overlooked and not always particularly well exploited. It was all bar charts and tables. Employee survey datasets are usually very structured – they have lots of data that can be compared (eg internal, external and historical benchmarks), there are likely to be relationships between variables and there will probably be text and sentiment data to incorporate too.
There are different types of visualisation that can be used for the different elements described above. Getting the right visualisation is important because a well thought out visual representation data can significantly increase the impact of the results. It’s a device used to focus the attention of leaders and help them engage with the findings. Especially where survey data is being presented alongside lots of data from multiple sources. Interactive or animated data visualisations are also becoming more popular as a means of presenting ideas.
Effective data visualisation allows complex data to be shown in such a way which makes it more easily digestible. However it’s not only about helping to interpret data sets, visualisation is also a useful technique for researchers to identify patterns or outliers in the data. Moreover, data visualisation is not just being used in analysis/reporting, it’s also being used during data collection – some hybrid tools use interactive data visualisations as a participant interface. In this way, survey respondents can more easily navigate a conversation, gain an understanding of diverse perspectives, as well as interact with other participants.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that just visualising the data on its own is not enough. The related notion of ‘storytelling’ with data has also become more widespread. The rationale being that when we hear stories, we’re more likely to be emotionally engaged and process the information more deeply. Giving context to the data, and creating a narrative, helps leaders to find meaning in the numbers and makes the results more memorable. And let’s face it, most senior leaders today have probably looked at a lot of employee survey results.
Trend 10: Simplicity
While technological advancements ‘under the bonnet’ are becoming more complex, there has been a slow but noticeable trend towards making methods and practice simpler. This is true for all parties involved with the survey – participants, people managing the survey/reporting and the people digesting the results. Employee surveys have generally become shorter in length and have, unfortunately, converged on just one single type of question/response scale: the Strongly Agree – Strongly Disagree 5-point Likert Scale.
It’s increasingly easy now to design and administer an employee survey. There are literally thousands of template/benchmarked questionnaires of various sorts that can be used. This can be supplemented by automated reporting/dashboards to provide the various charts, tables and visualisations. One obvious trend over the past 15 years has been the increasing use of simple pulse surveys. The danger here, of course, if that simplicity in the questionnaire translates into increasing complexity given the greater volume and frequency of data being produced.
Despite the occasional disparaging remarks I make about employee surveys, there are many ways in which they remain helpful. They give increased prominence to HR and Comms Leaders in the boardroom, they focus senior leaders on important issues and they form the backbone of most listening strategies. If they’re done well, with a focus on action, they can sometimes make a difference. However, the recent emergence of employee experience management and continuous listening suggest employee surveys on their own are unlikely to achieve the kind of action that organisations want to see – and this is the cost of inaction in this area. Looking for more signals and giving people the opportunity to have their say in a more transparent way is likely to improve people’s experience of work.
It’s clear that employee surveys, and how they are being used, is changing. The way that work gets done these days, and the technology available, provides so many opportunities to find out how people are feeling, their issues and their good ideas. This last point is particularly salient, as many employee surveys are naturally skewed towards looking for problems. As a consequence, organisations do not always spend much time looking for opportunities. Attending to gripes, complaints, and low scores ignores half of the potential insights out there. What about ideas and suggestions for better ways of working, policies and procedures, products and services or structures?
If all this has left you scratching your head, a good place to start is to assess what you already have in place by conducting an employee listening audit. This is an independent review of your current employee listening practices and systems, combined with in-depth stakeholder interviews. By going through this discovery phase, you can better assess your requirements, challenges and opportunities through the development of an improvement roadmap. This will guide your organisation in implementing a cohesive employee listening and response strategy. Please arrange a time to speak with us to find out more.