October 16, 2019

So you’re about to give an engagement survey.

Employee engagement. If you were to ask most People leaders, they’d tell you they spend much of their time thinking about it. Some might even say that engaging employees is the ultimate objective of their work. But if you then asked them all to define the term, you wouldn’t hear the same answer twice.

Despite this, engagement surveys remain popular, even as automated data-driven solutions encroach on their territory. The fact is, they can be useful. Like so many other long-standing practices in the HR space (diversity training, for one), they’re valuable only when used strategically.

What we talk about when we talk about employee engagement

The first thing any People team about to give an engagement survey—whether for the first time or the thirtieth—needs to ask itself is: What am I trying to measure?

Hint: if your answer is “I want to measure employee engagement,” you haven’t thought enough about the question.

There are plenty of right answers. Maybe you want to measure your employees’ likelihood to stay at your company. You might be interested in tracking trends in productivity. Or, you could care most about what motivates your people to do their best work. No matter which you choose, it should be more actionable than only “engagement.”

This isn’t to say that the only purpose of an engagement survey is to measure something. Surveys can also demonstrate a commitment to giving employees a voice, or even “plant seeds” for positive behaviors by merely asking about them. That said, you should still plan to get real insights out of your survey.

Know what (not) to expect.

You’ll never get 100% completion on a survey to more than a handful of people. (Email us if you’ve proven this wrong; we’d love to break the story of how you did it.)

You’ll also rarely see massive, visible changes in the metrics. Even as your team introduces new policies and processes to improve life at work for your employees, any changes in your survey results will be slow—and next to impossible to be attributed to a specific cause.

Ask the right questions.

There’s more to say about research psychology and statistical best practices than can (or should) be said in a blog post. Getting everything “just right” can be overwhelming even for the most well-equipped company. Here are a few rules to live by:

Questions should matter. It sounds like a given, but we’ve all taken surveys with far too many questions, most of which won’t serve a purpose. It tests your patience, and your employees are no different.

Don’t be afraid to be straightforward. Want to know how long your people plan on staying? Ask them how long they foresee themselves sticking around. Want to find out if there’s alignment on your company’s mission? Ask employees what they think the mission is, in their own words. Want to know what they would change about the company culture if they could? Ask them that exact question.

Know what themes connect to business results. There’s some variation from company to company, but it’s nearly universal that employees need psychological safety, a sense of purpose, and strong interpersonal relationships. Ask about these.

Follow up.

So you’re about to give an engagement survey. Then what? Do something with your results: have open and honest conversations about your company’s “weak spots,” identify resources to fill the gaps, and continue to seek feedback year-round.

We leave you with this: What are you doing every day to make life at work the best it can be for all of your people?

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