Workplace surveys are meaningless -- even demoralizing -- unless companies act on the results
One of fastest ways to destroy workplace morale is to ask employees their opinions about it, then ignore their answers. Far too many companies make this error when they conduct employee engagement surveys. When employees are asked for their opinions about their workplace, they can reasonably expect to receive a response from management on the results.
If they wait in vain for that response, they can just as reasonably assume their feelings, opinions, and solutions have been dismissed. But that's not always the case. Sometimes management simply doesn't know what to do with the survey results.
A well-crafted survey can help increase engagement, but only if it's part of a comprehensive approach to managing engagement. Once survey results are available, their release should be closely followed by two things: inclusive impact planning and effective changes.
Measuring -- and boosting -- employee engagement
Gallup has been researching employee engagement for more than 30 years. One result of that research is a 12-item survey -- the Q12 -- that measures engagement and links to important business outcomes, including retention, productivity, profitability, customer engagement, and safety. (See "Feedback for Real" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
But measuring engagement levels is not enough to boost engagement on its own; it's simply the first step in the process. Three elements are key to increasing employee engagement in workgroups, regardless of company size or industry: measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning -- then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.
Gallup has conducted extensive research on the benefits of impact planning as part of the employee engagement process. Not surprisingly, when managers and workgroups discuss workplace issues openly, then act on those discussions, overall employee engagement -- and the business benefits associated with it -- increase. Acting on results means that managers work with their workgroup to explore what the workgroup members are thinking about each item in the survey -- and what ideas they may have to improve the workplace. When managers do nothing or roll out an impact plan without getting input from their employees, engagement and related business metrics plummet.
Through our research, Gallup has discovered that the following six steps are crucial to making impact planning an effective part of an employee engagement improvement process:
- Introduce the impact planning session and state its purpose. This will help employees understand what engagement is, why the survey was conducted and what it measures, what the survey items mean to them and to their workgroup, and why impact planning is a vital step in improving employee engagement.
- Distribute and explain the survey results.
- Discuss what those results mean for the workgroup, item by item.
- Select two or three key items to work on over the next 12 months.
- Brainstorm follow-up actions and complete a plan for improvement.
- Follow up regularly on the plan, and on how people are feeling about the team's progress toward meeting its goals.
A recent study conducted in Australasian organizations identified workgroups in which insufficient impact planning was conducted following a Q12 survey. Several common problems emerged, including:
- The workgroup was too small to receive a report of its survey results.
- Split shifts made impact planning meetings impractical.
- Workgroup employees were separated geographically.
- Managers were uncomfortable facilitating the impact planning discussion.
Overcoming these challenges might seem overwhelming to managers or employees in workgroups like these. However, there are simple, proven methods for dealing with them.
Sometimes, workgroups are too small to receive a report of their survey results; this is done to protect the confidentiality of survey respondents. Nevertheless, these workgroups shouldn't miss out on impact planning just because they didn't receive survey results.
A strategy that works in this instance is for the manager to use the results of the larger reporting group to which the workgroup belongs. The manager can start the impact planning process by asking team members if their workgroup would have similar results for each item and where the differences lie. Then the team can discuss what needs to be done before they could give the item the highest rating. The manager notes which two or three items the workgroup cares the most about improving, then works with the group to set goals for improvement. Because all team members have been given an opportunity to provide solutions, everyone -- not just the manager -- now has ownership for improving engagement on the team.
Split shifts are common in many businesses, and in those instances, the group rarely comes together as a team. That doesn't make impact planning impossible; managers just need to be inventive to make it happen.
The easiest solution comes when teams on various shifts want to tackle the same two or three survey items. Managers can make things easier by creating a common space that enables both groups to have a conversation. Depending on the environment, this could be an Intranet site, an e-mail thread, or even a poster or bulletin board. One example of a poster that has worked effectively is a fishbone diagram. This diagram is essentially a "spine" and some "ribs." For example, if the spine is employee engagement, each rib on the fish represents one of the survey items. Workgroup members write down suggestions for follow-up actions on sticky notes, and then apply them to the corresponding ribs. (See graphic "Using a Fishbone Diagram.")
The ribs that collect the most number of sticky notes are the ones the team should focus on for its impact planning. If every rib has the same number of sticky notes, the manager could ask employees to vote for the two items that are most important to them. Managers can then help each shift develop their impact plans.
Sometimes, each shift will have distinct issues. When this happens, the best approach is for the manager to treat the shifts as two separate workgroups and prepare impact plans accordingly.
Geographically diverse workgroups
In some businesses, workgroups can be spread across a country, a continent, or around the world. Such workgroups often meet once a year at best, and a meeting with an overpacked agenda is not the best place to do impact planning.
A recent meta-analysis of virtual teams indicated that to work well, a team needs to meet face-to-face to kick off the impact planning process. (See "Further Reading" at the end of this article.) Because the issues the team needs to discuss and the plans it needs to make get to the heart of their engagement at work, they need to be together at the beginning. After that, it's possible to use technology to track progress or follow up with each person to determine next-stage priorities and develop individual plans.
If teams operate in different time zones, managers may want to take the split-shift approach to creating common space online and encouraging team members to make ongoing contributions.
Lack of facilitation skills
Some managers are not highly skilled in leading feedback sessions or feel uncomfortable speaking in front of a group. In this case, the manager may want to appoint a workgroup member more talented in facilitating to take over this part of the process. The manager can also choose to rotate the facilitator role among group members, which may give employees a greater sense of ownership.
When managers choose to delegate the facilitation role, they should still take an active part in the planning process. Regardless of who takes on the facilitator role, the manager and team remain responsible for creating the impact plan -- and for achieving results.
Many workgroups face one or more problems that makes impact planning challenging. The benefits of following through, however, far outweigh the burdens. And it's important to remember that not only can impact planning lead to direct, measurable, and profitable business results, it can also be a lot of fun. When managers truly enjoy working with their employees to improve the working environment, impact planning and implementation can be very enjoyable -- and can yield great business results -- even under difficult circumstances.
Hertel, G., Geister, S. and Konradt, U. (2005). Managing virtual teams: A review of current empirical research. Human Resource Management Review, 15, 69-95.