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How to deploy an employee engagement survey

Employee engagement has long been recognized as an important contributing factor to business success. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has reported that executives around the globe identify “enhancing employee engagement” as one of their top five global business strategies. Having weathered a year or more of remote operations, many companies are now shifting to hybrid models that combine on-site and remote workers and schedules. In this environment, successful employee engagement strategies are more important, and in some instances, more challenging than ever, leading more organizations to deploy employee engagement action plans.

What is employee engagement and why is it capturing so much attention and investment? Because high levels of engagement drive increased organizational performance and build stakeholder value in multiple ways.

In broad terms, employee engagement measures employees’ commitment and connection to the organization. It is closely related to, but distinct from, employee satisfaction. While there is typically some overlap when it comes to specific factors that drive satisfaction and engagement, the two metrics are distinct and are important in different ways.

Employee satisfaction measures individual employees’ happiness and contentment with their work, with no reference to their interest or involvement in organizational goals. While leadership and management teams like to think that happy employees are also productive and engaged and committed, the fact is they might not be. Certainly, unhappy employees are unlikely to be very productive or committed to the organization. At the same time, someone who is simply in it for the paycheck and has no intention of staying with the organization long-term may nevertheless be perfectly satisfied and even quite productive on a day-to-day basis. But that is not the engaged employee who will help drive the company’s competitive advantage and long-term success.

  • Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work. (Quantum Workplace)
  •  Engaged employees are those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. (Gallup)
  • Engagement is an employee’s willingness and ability to contribute to company success. (Willis Towers Watson)
  • Employee engagement is the level of an employee’s psychological investment in their organization. (Aon Hewitt)

The common thread running through these definitions is the employee perceiving their job as part of something larger and embracing the opportunity to contribute to the overall mission.

How can we discern employee engagement? What are the signs indicating employees are engaged (or not)? In general terms, an engaged employee knows the work they do is meaningful. They understand the organization’s overall goals and how their role contributes to its success. They feel supported by their supervisor, valued and respected, and know their ideas are heard. They trust the organization to act in their best interests. Disengaged employees do not feel any real connection to their jobs or the organization and tend to keep apart from peers and colleagues both on the job and outside the office.

In considering how to measure employee engagement, you might think of categories that describe levels of engagement. For example:

  • Gallup describes employees using three categories: actively engaged (loyal and productive), not engaged (average performers), and actively disengaged (ROAD warriors, Retired On Active Duty).
  • Sibson Consulting uses two intersecting dimensions to categorize engagement levels: how well the employee knows what they need to do, and how much they want to do it.

Regardless of the analytical framework used, the goal is to measure engagement throughout the organization and understand what is driving it. The heart of the action plan is the employee engagement survey, which is not technically complicated but should be comprehensive and can therefore be quite lengthy.

Before discussing how to measure employee engagement, let’s examine why an organization should invest significant time and resources in this internal metric.

The most obvious way high employee engagement pays off is by supporting employee retention. The true value of retention—and conversely, the cost of employee turnover—can be difficult to gauge but organizations of all sizes should presume it is substantial. Some studies have indicated the cost of replacing an employee can range from 16% to 20% of the person’s annual salary depending on their position and role. And the cost of replacing a top executive can exceed 200% of their annual salary.

If those estimates sound high, think about what goes into replacing an employee who resigns: advertising the vacancy; screening and interviewing candidates; selecting, hiring and onboarding the replacement; training and managing them as they reach cruising speed.

Regardless of how carefully selected and well qualified they are, new hires typically need time to reach optimal productivity. Some estimate it can take a new employee up to two years to reach the productivity level of the person they replaced. During that “ramp up” period errors may occur, and customer service may fall short. At the very least, someone new to the organization will not yet have the deep knowledge necessary for adept problem-solving on the fly.

The resignation of a valued employee can create ripple effects that reach beyond their team or department. Employees who see others leave may start to wonder why, and whether they should consider making their own move. Questions and doubts can be contagious, undermining morale and affecting productivity, which in turn puts additional demands on managers and the leadership team. Depending on the business, customer and/or vendor relationships can be negatively affected.

Because they are invested in the company’s success as well as their own, engaged employees tend to be highly focused on their work and proactive in finding ways to do it as effectively as possible. They go the extra mile. High levels of employee engagement often correlate with strong growth and innovation across the organization. Engaged employees feel valued, respected, and heard. They take pride in their work and in the company.

These team members also lead the charge in maintaining and transmitting the company’s culture. They may participate in formal training or mentorship programs, or simply be generous with their time and expertise, modeling engagement for others.

The dynamics of employee engagement, while often complex, can be measured and monitored which means engagement can be managed strategically like other key metrics using an action plan.

The success or failure of any organizational strategy is ultimately determined by the effective use of an action plan. Essentially, an action plan provides a framework for articulating specific goals, identifying the sequence of tasks required to achieve the goals, measuring progress, and making changes to drive improvement.

An employee engagement action plan tailored to your organization will enable the leadership team to:

  • Establish strategic goals pertaining to employee engagement
  • Measure employee engagement and understand the factors driving it
  • Make meaningful changes to improve engagement and monitor progress against goals

Your approach to creating and implementing this action plan—how you structure the teams or committees that design and drive it—will depend on how your organization handles strategic planning. In any case, the two most visible components are communication and employee feedback.

Launch the strategic initiative by communicating clearly and thoroughly what the objectives are, the rationale for selecting them, and the leadership team’s commitment to following through on actions guided by employee feedback. Provide periodic updates about progress, celebrating successes and sharing lessons learned.

The first employee engagement survey will establish baseline measurements and inform the first round of actions. It is typically repeated on an annual basis and often augmented by pulse polls and briefer surveys that drill down into specific issues.

While many (perhaps most) of employee engagement drivers are the same across most organizations, each company’s culture is unique. Identifying and discussing the key drivers in your organization is a valuable exercise in and of itself as team members examine the organization’s culture through the lens of engagement, which may have received less attention than employee satisfaction or various external metrics.

Employee engagement surveys typically generate large quantities of data. It is not feasible or advisable to try acting on every insight, but it can be daunting to determine where to begin. As a strategic management tool, the action plan imposes structure and discipline which are valuable in sorting and prioritizing improvement goals.

Finally, enshrining the company’s commitment to employee engagement in an action plan creates accountability on everyone’s part—employees, managers, and leadership.

Results of the employee engagement survey will determine actions taken toward specific improvements. Before designing the survey or even announcing the initiative, however, everyone needs to be on the same page about some key considerations.

  • What areas have been identified where improvement will drive gains in employee engagement?
  • How well do those areas align with current strategic initiatives?
  • How much is the organization prepared to invest in employment engagement, both initially and going forward?
  • Are the leadership and management teams on board and on the same page when it comes to delivering on promises?
  • Are the following either in place or in the planning stages?
    • Communication plan to keep everyone in the organization up to date about the initiative as it proceeds
    • Internal research and analytics tools for measuring and monitoring progress against goals
  • Does the plan recognize and distinguish between long-term goals and those that can be achieved more rapidly?

It is also worthwhile to give some thought early in the process to who will be best equipped to own specific actions that come out of the survey results.

The heart of the action plan is the employee engagement survey which captures the data that will guide actions and strategic adjustments. As outlined above, discussion of strategic direction and tactical issues should set the stage for the survey process. And, it is crucial to go into the survey process with an open mind, allowing for employees’ responses to surprise you.

You may find the terms employee engagement and employee satisfaction used interchangeably and this can be especially confusing in the context of survey design. While there is some overlap in the factors that drive engagement and satisfaction, the two are distinct from each other.

A satisfaction survey will measure how employees feel about their jobs and the work they do. A survey to measure employee engagement will capture employees’ perceptions of the organization and its overall mission, how they feel being part of it, and their investment in broader and longer-term success beyond their day-to-day routines.

Surveys that measure employee engagement need to be comprehensive and are often quite lengthy. That said, tailor your survey to your organization’s structure and culture. There is no prescribed length that is optimal for every company.

In creating questions, think about the various drivers that may be operating. For instance, Quantum Workplace (which may be familiar to you for its “Best Places to Work” programs) has identified six organizational drivers with substantial impact:

  • Leaders committed to making it a great place to work
  • Trust in leaders to set the right course
  • Belief the organization will be successful in the future
  • Understanding how one’s own role fits into future plans
  • Leaders who value people as the company’s most important resource
  • Organizational investment in making employees more successful

Management drivers pertain to employees’ relationships and experiences with supervisors and managers. Gallup has identified 12 core elements that link strongly to key business outcomes, relating to four dimensions:

  • What the employee gets, e.g., clear expectations, needed resources
  • What the employee gives, e.g., their individual contributions
  • Whether the individual fits in the organization, e.g., based on the company mission and co-workers
  • Whether the employee has opportunities to grow, e.g., gets feedback about their work and opportunities to learn

Other drivers that have been correlated with engagement include:

  • Good partnerships with supervisors
  • Access to equipment necessary to do a good job
  • Authority necessary to do a good job
  • Freedom to make work decisions

These are not exhaustive lists but rather, examples of how you may approach creating your own survey. Regardless of which questions you use and which drivers you measure, one element should figure in every employee engagement survey: open-ended questions. Sometimes called open-text questions, these invite survey respondents to tell you in their own words what is going on and what they think about it. Open-text questions can be cumbersome to analyze but used judiciously, they are invaluable because they can help illuminate the “why’s” behind the numbers.

A well-crafted employee engagement survey generates a lot of data, and it can be easy to get “lost in the weeds” during analysis. Refer to the initial strategic framework to stay oriented. Even if the survey findings point in unexpected directions, it is important to interpret and report them with reference to your starting point.

Look for patterns in the data. Compare sub-groups that might be relevant, e.g., employees from different functional areas or teams, or grouped by hire date. Do not go blindly fishing for random correlations but instead, think about variables that could be relevant to some aspect of engagement and test those hypotheses against the data.

Identify areas of strength—where and what is working—and areas of weakness—what is not working and in which part(s) of the organization.

The survey results should provide a complete picture of the employee engagement landscape at your company. There may be areas that remain in shadow, where you could use more detail, and that is fine. You can always conduct follow-up research using quantitative or qualitative methods to understand a specific issue better. And this is the time to begin a punch list of questions for next year’s engagement survey.

If your engagement survey is like every other one throughout history, it will reveal more potential actions than you can possibly take at one time. Even given unlimited time and financial resources, it works better to focus on a few issues to start with. Everyone in the organization knows the plan and shares expectations about what comes next.

Prioritizing can be tricky and again, this is where it pays off to define strategic goals at the beginning. Depending on what the data say, you may decide to veer from your original priorities but doing so in an intentional and transparent way, driven by data, ultimately keeps the employee engagement strategy on track to success.

Look for themes. Think about which specific improvements could have the greatest impact. Also, think about which ones could have the most immediate impact. There is a lot to be said for quick wins and you may want to select a combination of fast and big impacts for next steps.

Once you have chosen which area(s) to address, you are ready to envision solutions. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, it may not be feasible or even make sense to gather everyone in a room for a brainstorming session. There are ways to include everyone in the process, however, and it is advisable to do so both to secure widespread buy-in and avoid overlooking a bright idea.

In crafting the plans for action, think about what the identified problem represents. How do we struggle in this area? Why do we struggle with this? What would it look like if we eliminated this struggle?

Rolling out the action plan offers an enormous opportunity to leverage transparency and clarity, for the sake of the plan as well as general organizational health.

The plan should explicitly reflect the company’s commitment to implementing the actions and achieving meaningful changes that are driven by employees’ input. It also must:

  • Specify the actions to which you are committing
  • Identify who will own each
  • Include timelines and due dates
  • Indicate how success will be measured
  • Establish a timeline for progress reports

The goal is for everyone in the organization to understand the agenda and the rationale supporting it and know what to expect and when.

Once your data-driven action plan is launched, use data to chart your progress and guide mid-course corrections as needed. Deploy pulse polls and quick interim surveys as well as tapping into routine metrics that may be relevant.

Finally, be sure to follow up with everyone by sharing progress reports. Clarity and transparency will support your strategic process and reinforce engagement in general.

Optimizing employee engagement throughout your organization has never been more important. Using an action plan built around employee engagement research, you can measure and manage this critical metric and drive increased value to the bottom line.

SurveyMonkey Enterprise is part of Momentive. Learn more about our Employee Engagement and Retention Solution here.


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