RIP Annual Engagement Surveys

By Lucy Adams on Feb 8, 2017 4:18:54 PM
Lucy Adams

Is there anyone out there who still thinks the annual engagement survey is a good use of time and money? Is there anyone left who still believes that the annual engagement survey improves engagement? If I ran a company that made money from selling annual surveys, I’d be contemplating “Blockbuster” or “Filofax” or one of those other products that just disappeared because the world had moved on.They surely can’t keep getting us to part with large chunks of our scarce HR budget with their promises of “validated models” and “upper quartile benchmarking”?!

Like so many of us, I used to believe in the survey as a panacea for engagement. The consultants I bought from used to make such a compelling case. Get all your staff to complete 25 or so questions once a year (or every 18 months if you’re a bit strapped for cash), discover this amazing data about your people and change how they feel, making everyone happier and more productive. Of course, the reality was always a little different. Even if you ignore the absurdity of checking in only once a year, the effort of getting the engagement survey done was painful in the extreme. Recognise this next scenario?

First you have to get the questions agreed. But Department X has just moved offices and so wants to add a load of questions in about that, whilst Department Y felt there were too many questions last year and Department Z couldn’t care less and won’t give you any feedback at all. Then the timing is never quite right – what with the re-structure that’s coming up in the sales team or the end of year pressures in finance. You finally agree the questions and the launch date and then your poor team has got 3 weeks to beat your employees into submission and fill the thing out. One of my teams even wore t-shirts one year with “Please fill out your survey” written on them. We still only got to 60% completion. After what feels like (and actually is) an age, the results come back. And what do they tell you? They tell you what they tell pretty much every other company – “we’d like better communications, better training and better career development”. The Exec team get their results presentation and “commit” to the dreaded cascade and action planning but don’t want the results to get to the press. Managers are confused by the data or it’s at such an aggregated level that it’s meaningless for them. Internal comms and HR remind employees of all the great things we did for them with barely hidden resentment that the scores have barely shifted. Eventually, the cascades are done and the action plans are safely hidden in a draw and … it’s time to start planning next year’s.

And we wonder why engagement levels have remained static for 15+ years.

Thankfully, the days of this particular HR dinosaur are numbered. We’re realising that insights about how our employees feel about things is not an annual event. We’re learning from our consumer insight peers that this is something you obsess over relentlessly. As one of our clients told me recently – “we speak to 1500+ customers every day, but only once every 12 months to our people, and we realised that couldn’t be right”. Smiley face touch-pads, regular pulse surveys on smartphones, text messages to a sample of people every week asking “How’s work for you at the moment?”, the companies I meet are trying new ways of ramping up their contact in the least annoying ways possible.

They’re blending quantitative and qualitative research and doing in-depth analysis on the key moments in their employees’ working days. They’re giving line managers the tools to do things for themselves using fab and cheap apps – like CultureAmp, TINYpulse or Glint. Or they are simply cutting out surveys altogether and encouraging their people to use Glassdoor and then reviewing what the comments are saying.

If you are at the foot of your own annual engagement survey mountain and are steeling yourself for the next few months, then maybe it’s time to question the value you have derived over the last few years? Apart from the Board feeling better because they’ve ticked the box called staff engagement, what has really changed? If you’re serious about knowing what your people think and how they are feeling, isn’t there a better way?

If we adopt a consumer mind-set towards our people then this prompts us to take employee insight seriously. We’ll want quick, real-time feedback that drives meaningful interventions by line managers. We’ll want to get their views on a range of topics that they can genuinely affect and shape. We’ll want in-depth analysis on who they are and what drives and motivates them to help us design and segment our HR offerings so that are relevant and meaningful and are delivered in ways that reflects the way they work. We’ll want to offer line managers a range of techniques and tools that they can use, in ways that suit them, to get to know their people better. All of these tools are already available and I’m really excited about the new generation of employee insight tools such as the ones offered by London based Laws of Attraction. They have moved beyond the simple questionnaire and have developed techniques that assess subconscious and emotional responses, enabling you to have a real time dashboard of the levels of trust, passion, empowerment and stress in your organisation.

Exciting times for HR professionals who want more than a once a year, dubious “engagement score” – worrying times for annual engagement survey sales reps.

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