We are surrounded by research. In fact, some organisations conduct more surveys than they can reasonably absorb. This may be good news for research companies, but less constructive for the organisations concerned.
There are many good reasons to commission employee research – many organisations, for example, run studies in line with Investors in People and ISO 9000 management standards.
Or they can prove useful simply to find out employee views on business restructuring, office moves, new market projects or to identify best practice.
However, organisations don’t always communicate the results of research appropriately, and it often fails to lead to specific actions. In addition, many companies run several research projects at a time, and it’s not unknown for individual project groups to be unaware of other research work going on in different parts of the company.
Before starting an employee research project, it is important to be very clear why the research is needed and what the company hopes to gain from it. A reality check is always useful – can the company cope with this type of project given its current commitments? Will it have the resources available to act upon the results? Does senior management support the project?
An employee satisfaction survey can be much more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise, and requires only a little additional effort to turn a routine check into a significant source of information for an organisation.
It can be tempting to focus on the negative – what is going wrong and how do we fix it? However, employee research should also be used to identify areas of good practice and to motivate staff.
By learning about its employees’ perceptions of their working environment, an organisation can take action to increase workers’ sense of involvement with the company and its objectives, improve recruitment and retention rates, and enhance understanding of development needs.
Properly constructed and managed, an employee satisfaction survey can provide clear insight into areas of underperformance or of excellence within an organisation and identify priorities for action, leading to increased loyalty, improved effectiveness and enhanced profitability.
In six words, a survey should be clear, constructive, accessible, efficient, comparable and long-term.
The questionnaire should be clear and concise, containing relevant questions using vocabulary appropriate to the organisation and its employees.
Give respondents the opportunity to express their opinion in free text as well as quantitative, ‘marks out of 10’ questions. Constructive feedback is invaluable in helping to understand why specific groups of employees feel and react in a particular way.
It is also essential to segment employees appropriately to get effective analysis of their feedback. If you consider how best to structure the analysis carefully before beginning the research, you will be rewarded with useful insights into how employee experience and perceptions vary according to role, skill level, location, seniority, and gender.
Make the questionnaire available to employees in the formats they understand and find easy to manage. This can range from an online questionnaire for IT-literate employees to postal surveys or classroom sessions, where less confident workers are given time to complete a paper questionnaire during their working day.
Whatever the chosen format, the more efficiently you manage the completion of questionnaires, the lesser the impact on the day-to-day work of the organisation.
Present the results in an unambiguous, accessible format, so that staff can identify and understand key action points without wading through mounds of data or text.
It is one thing to know what your employees think, but it’s much more powerful when you also understand how their opinions about the company and their job compare to those of people in similar organisations.
Consider benchmarking your survey with another employer in your sector to add another dimension.
Perhaps most important of all is the company’s long-term attitude and commitment to the research process. A one-off survey may provide some useful information, but it can never be more than a snapshot of a particular moment, perhaps to be explained away by specific circumstances.
Follow-up surveys give companies the opportunity to assess how well their strategies are working, to justify investments, fine-tune policies and identify new trends and issues for future attention.
Employees can be very suspicious of company research. Some organisations suffer from a ‘them and us’ atmosphere, but even employees with a positive attitude may question management’s motives in asking their opinion, and many will fear reprisals if they provide negative feedback.
Veterans of previous research carried out by the organisation may question whether the survey will result in any positive actions, while the more cynical (or experienced) may dispute the relevance of the questions to working life as they know it.
The key to achieving honest input is to guarantee the anonymity of respondents. In this case, you may consider outsourcing employee research to a third party.
It might also be worth considering seeking staff input when creating the questionnaire. This helps to ensure that the questions are relevant to the workforce, and employees will discuss the project with their peers, resulting in a sense of greater ownership of the final questionnaire.
Use staff meetings, notice boards, newsletters and the company intranet to raise awareness of the project. The more the survey is spoken about and the more employees feel included in its development, the more valuable their feedback is likely to be.
Once the survey is complete, share the results intelligently with the employees. There are few more effective ways of alienating staff than to ask for their opinion and then fail to follow up or to give any feedback on the results of the survey.
Obviously, not all findings can be shared with all employees, but giving feedback immediately after the survey, and subsequently as actions resulting from the survey are implemented, can generate tremendous amounts of goodwill and commitment as people recognise that they have been listened to, and their views taken seriously.
People express themselves in many different ways, particularly if they are from different countries or cultures. Make sure you pay careful attention to the structure and translation of the questionnaire to ensure that cultural differences of expression do not interfere with understanding regional differences in experience.
When conducting international employee research, it is also vital that the local management support the project, and do not feel that it is being imposed by head office.
Appoint a project champion in each participating country to co-ordinate local input to the core questionnaire, determine additional questions specific to their particular environment, approve any translations, implement an appropriate communication plan and the like.
They can also provide input regarding the segmentation and levels of analysis appropriate to their organisation, and assist in managing both the local fieldwork and local feedback once the survey is complete.
Understanding the factors that contribute towards employee satisfaction can lead to loyalty, which in turn delivers better productivity, higher staff retention and, ultimately, improved profitability.
Take the time to build the right survey, and you will have a far clearer picture of what makes your workforce tick.
The survey process – key elements
This should comprise initial discussions with management to determine the scope of the project. Supplement this with ideas generation sessions with staff representatives to ensure the survey is relevant to the organisation and its employees.
Make sure staff know what is going on and feel involved.
Take employee and management input to create the questionnaire. Test the draft questionnaire on a sample group to identify any flaws before using on all staff.
Agree how the data should be analysed: by role, seniority, gender, location, etc.
A mix of tools may be appropriate, depending on staff capability. Written, online, classroom sessions or focus groups may all be suitable.
Monitor response and encourage more people to participateas required.
Data processing, analysis and interpretation.
Reporting and action planning
Taking the clear, accessible feedback from the research to identify priorities for action and implement improvement plans.
Achieving a successful survey
- Senior management must be committed to the survey.
- Involve employee representatives atall stages.
- Tell staff about it. Publicise the survey through all available media (posters, website, newsletters, team talks etc).
- Keep it real. Address issues of importance to staff.
- Give staff prompt and relevant feedback on the results.
- Act on the results.
Joanne Lawrence is a director of ICMA International, which specialises in business-to-business customer and employee opinion surveys. ICMA has sister companies in Belgium, The Netherlands and the US, working with a range of local and multinational clients. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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