Originally published in IPA on July 8, 2013
In this article, Hugh Tonks of Thymometrics argues that far from disappearing, new technology will lead to a rebirth of the engagement survey as a year-round, real-time and ‘always on’ tool that will give employees more scope to engage and express their views.
The rise of Self-Service HR applications is well documented, and is generally seen as highly desirable, but why stop at implementing basic self-service for administering personal details? The same idea, in combination with today’s technology, is capable of delivering remarkable new benefits additional to those already enjoyed by organisations which already run a traditional annual questionnaire – but a subtle shift in viewpoint is required first.
Suppose HR sent a form out every year asking for everybody’s current address, status and bank details. There are several reasons why this is sub-optimal – it’s work for HR (wasted when details haven’t changed), it would quickly get out of date if HR didn’t allow intra-year changes, and it’s a pain for employees. Small wonder, then, that administration of personal details is something that was jumped on as a prime self-service candidate. Now, most people update their own details whenever these change, without the need for an intermediary.
But the nature of the annual employee survey also has precisely these properties: it’s annual, nobody can change their views mid-year, and it’s a lot of work. We might reasonably conclude that the survey also has the same issues: hassle, staleness, and irritation of the workforce. So let’s start to apply the self-service idea to the survey, and see what happens. The first, and perhaps most obvious, thing to note is that employees must be able to use the survey whenever they need to, and in this respect, it’s little different from self-service admin – they’d do it because their views had changed, or (in the case of surveys which record comments) they had something to say, some information to communicate. And in addition, each time employees uses the survey, they will just be changing aspects of their previous viewpoints rather than having to record them all again, making it quick and easy. The consequence of this is that your survey must be available at all times, to accommodate self-service usage.
Having an always-on survey now raises some interesting possibilities. Your data is now continually changing, with every update, and so the tracking of opinion is now something you can do minute by minute (if you really want to) rather than merely year to year – in other words, your survey is now operating in real time. You can look at how opinion has changed between given dates – for example, in the two weeks following a restructuring announcement. And, if you have the usual sliced and diced macedoine of data, you can see whereabouts in the organisation opinion is most quickly taking a dive. The addition of a time base to your data has instantly added a new dimension to it (quite literally), and the kind of analyses that can be pulled are much richer as a result, letting you see things from an entirely new angle. Furthermore, the annual nightmare of organising the survey has just gone away, to be replaced by occasional updates factored into the processes for joiners and leavers.
There are benefits for the employee too, chiefly in removal of frustration. The “use anytime” nature of the survey now means the motivation to use it has to come from the employee; when they do use it, it’s because they are, in some way, motivated to do so. Some motivations will of course being external (e.g. the boss asked you to), but many will be internal and all the more authentic for being so. The ability to leave comments can act as a lightning conductor for those with a point to make or those who just want to let off steam, and because self-service also allows for multiple use throughout the year, they won’t feel they are using up some sort of quota for complaints. Of course not everybody would use their unlimited commenting ability to kvetch – there will be many positive comments too, and ideas for solutions to real problems. So a self-service comment facility also provides you with a de facto Suggestions Box.
Some aspects of the traditional survey must remain, though, particularly the anonymity of responses. Many employees are going to be unhappy if their opinions are being stored on the corporate network, and also about the possibility of their names being associated with their views and comments. Trust being what it is, this strongly suggests that these surveys should be carried out by third party organisations – but this is a lesson already either known or learned by many organisations.
All this follows from one simple change, the change in technique of information acquisition from “pull” to “push”: this is, in information management terms, the essence of self-service. In practical terms, in the end it all boils down to what best supports your employee engagement activities. Few would disagree that employee engagement is a year-round activity. Why, then, would you want to do the employee survey only once a year? And it’s the idea of self-service, as applied to surveys, that can neatly solve this problem.