Most companies that conduct an employee survey seem to prefer it to happen as an annual event. It’s not hard to see why; any less often makes it look like it’s not that important, and any more often would be a royal pain to organise, not to mention something of a drain on employee goodwill. We should not underestimate, though, the effort that has to be put in: the design of the questionnaire, the rollout, the chivvying of employees, the analysis of their responses, the formulation of action plans and their subsequent implementation all take time and energy, and have to be fitted around holidays, product launches and other corporate events. The complete cycle can take months, by which time the workforce are rightly wondering if anything is going to happen as a result of their input. We might well ask whether there is a better way.
So here’s an analogy that might help. When hospitals want to be sure that a patient’s vital signs stay within acceptable limits, they don’t measure them once a year. Instead, they hook them up to a “machine that goes ping”, so an alarm sounds if there’s anything to worry about. Why can’t we apply the same principles to the employee survey? Well, we can … and there are some significant benefits that can be realised by doing so.
Imagine, then, that you could run your survey continuously throughout the year. Because employees could use it whenever and as often as they wanted, the survey data would be continually updated, and you’d be able to get fresh analyses at any time (and warnings if things started to deteriorate). No more stale data; trends and seasonal patterns would be much easier to spot and manage, and the data would reflect employees joining and leaving. No more lengthy survey cycles either – as with steering a boat, frequent small interventions are much more effective at maintaining the desired course than occasional large corrections, and so the ability of the company to respond to changing employee sentiment would be greatly enhanced. From an employee point of view, the ability to interact with the survey at any time (rather than, say, just during the first half of November) means they would be more likely to use it when they have something to say, resulting in more authentic input. What’s not to like?
Of course, all these goodies don’t come without changing a few things; the old omelette/egg adage was never more relevant. So what has to change? Basically, the survey format. It’s hard enough to get employees to answer eighty multiple choice questions once a year; they are not going to want to do it more often. There are a number of options here, but essentially they all revolve around the same principle: make it quicker and easier than hitherto. The simplest way of doing this is not to require the questions to be answered in their entirety, but instead to retain the answers from the last time and allow changes; however, that’s still a lot of reading to be done. Reducing the number of questions is a good idea too, perhaps looking for questions that are similar and combining them, and possibly junking questions like “to what extent does the company fulfil its customer service promise?” – something which few employees are likely to care about. Or maybe we could get even more innovative (after all, now would be the time to do it) and just get rid of the questions, and the multiple choice format (which is almost universally loathed for its lack of flexibility), and replace them with a different mechanism for gathering the data. All this sounds like a lot of work, but it needn’t be that traumatic, and it is all entirely feasible with today’s technology.
It is worth noting, in passing, that with the new ability to view analyses that show trends over time, the notion of summarising survey results as some sort of “annual number” begins to look quaint and decidedly out-dated. Even if you did want to retain a figure like this (for old times’ sake, or for any other reason), you’d have to pick a date for your year end, and that action in itself is going to look either arbitrary or contrived; no one date can be reasonably said to be better than any other date. And, given that summarising survey results by reducing them to a single number inevitably hides a significant amount of information about the complexity of the situation, the richer data offered by trend-over-time graphs has much more value; we are no longer comparing information from year-to-year, but week-to-week or even day-to-day, so intra-year changes are laid bare for any necessary action to be taken sooner rather than later.
To sum up, the traditional survey format has barely changed in fifty years (apart from its computerisation), and it’s hard to see how incremental change can improve it; only a radical restructuring can offer the new benefits discussed above. Note that this doesn’t involve any radical changes to your organisation, only the adoption of a change in survey communication style from “company request, employee response” to one of employee self-service – and the attendant benefits follow automatically. Unless the staff survey is going to stagnate for ever, this is a change that is more or less inevitable in due course. The choice is between eating an omelette and maintaining an unbroken egg collection – and eventually, we’ve all got to eat.