Why social media cannot replace the annual employee survey

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Hugh Tonks, CEO of Thymometrics Limited, looks at why employee opinion surveys still matter in the age of social media.

A report released in March 2013, Social media and employee voice: the current landscape, summarises the characteristics of social media as it applies to the workplace. Created by Silverman Research for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), it suggests that social media is a valuable tool for increasing the richness and authenticity of the “employee voice”, by giving employees more opportunity to air their opinions and to do so in real time.

Furthermore, it states that communication via social media is “multi-directional” - that is, a conversation involving multiple people, which can help to capture the “wisdom of crowds” through discussion and the rating of ideas. This is all good stuff, and for balance the report also notes that there may be some barriers to using social media within businesses, such as a lack of trust between employer and employees (in both directions).

It’s a largely well-written report and worth reading, but if you don’t have the time there is a summary on XpertHR Employment Intelligence blog. However, the inclusion of a section within the report titled “the problem with employee surveys” is, to my mind, somewhat disingenuous. It gives the impression that social media could – and perhaps should – be seen as a solution to these problems. But is it?


Three issues


The report suggests that employee surveys suffer from three main problems:



  • they are boring;
  • multiple-choice data capture mechanisms and metrics predominate in surveys; and 
  • surveys often lack real-time data capture and analysis.

And it is right: traditional surveys do have these issues, and social media seems not to - but that is surely not the point. The fact that social media doesn’t suffer from these problems does not mean that it can replace something that does.

It is clear that the usual annual employee survey is suboptimal and needs the equivalent of a large hob-nailed boot applying to its rear end with considerable force. If you don’t believe me, go and ask your employees, but don’t wait until next year’s survey to ask them. There are so many things wrong with the traditional survey that it is indeed worth considering replacing it with something else.


Replacing the employee survey


Any potential replacement should be free from as many of the traditional survey’s problems as possible.

And ideally, it should:



  • not be boring;
  • not be overly concerned with metrics;
  • avoid multiple-choice questions;
  • capture data in real time; and
  • provide real-time analyses.

The final two qualities drive a stake through the heart of the traditional survey, so the new survey should not happen just once a year. In fact, regardless of how often it takes place, it will not be in real time. The only alternative is to make the survey available all the time, a quality it would share with social media. Of course, this instantly rules out the vast majority of current offerings from survey providers, but that is the price of progress.

The new survey could certainly also record comments, which are metric-free, and it would be impossible to build up a picture of employee sentiment without them. But comments must be anonymous, and unless you plan to allow employees to operate under pseudonyms this is an area where social media just does not measure up. True social interaction is not anonymous.

As for multiple-choice questions, I’ve always found them infuriating, and I daresay I also speak for a significant proportion of employees. Such questions never offer enough choice to express fine shades of opinion, and those that are designed without a sit-on-the-fence option are especially irritating to those who, on certain matters, feel we are genuinely fence-sitters.

A plausible solution for the new form of survey is to replace the few discrete choices with a mechanism that allows a much larger range of answers, a simple matter with the technology available to us today. Do not forget that the multiple-choice question was originally a paper-based mechanism that has been computerised, complete with all its faults.


Addressing boredom 


We cannot, of course, guarantee that employees won’t find a new type of survey as boring as the original, but there is much we can do to ameliorate the problem and improve their engagement with it.

First, we could reduce the time it takes to complete. Twenty to 30 minutes is far, far too long, particularly if you want employees to use it regularly. Ideally, it should be possible to complete the survey in no more than a minute or two. This means junking most of the questions and cutting it back to its bare essentials.

Second, we could increase the appeal. Any questions asked need to be directly relevant to employees, so they feel the survey is about them and is not simply an irrelevant data-gathering exercise. This should also help to increase the authenticity of responses.

Third, employees could be reminded – at appraisals, in regular management communications, at the end of projects or following corporate announcements - that the survey is always there for them to use, until its use becomes part of the company culture.

Having made these changes to the traditional offering, the new survey now successfully addresses the problems noted by the Silverman report, and yet bears little resemblance to what we think of as social media. This is not to say that social media lacks valid and useful applications within organisations. But a replacement for the annual employee survey surely isn’t one of them.

Hugh Tonks is CEO of Thymometrics Limited, whose product, the Employee Thymo, uses always-on cloud-based technology to measure and analyse employee opinion in real time, and to assess and facilitate employee engagement. For more information, call +44 (0) 1223 750251 or email the company.

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