How People Analytics Reinvented Employee Engagement Surveys At Google

Ever since the term employee engagement first became widely used in the 1990s it has been hailed as the key to high productivity, high retention, profit increase and better customer satisfaction.

Seeking to turn this abstract concept into a trackable metric, companies began to administer annual employee satisfaction surveys. They’ve been used widely to help companies check in and measure how happy their employees are in the workplace. Though this practice is now widespread, some HR thought leaders have begun questioning the accuracy and usefulness of this popular HR tool.

How do you know the answers you’re getting are valid and useful for what you’re trying to achieve? Some argue that employees are more apt to answer positively creating a situation in which at the surface everything seems fine. A survey by Impact Achievement Group and HRmarketer found that 48% of all respondents did not feel employee surveys provide an honest and accurate assessment, compared to only 31% who did.This could be from fear of retaliation, general disinterest in taking time out of a busy day or feeling that their answers won’t make a difference. This sense of apathy is evident in the fact that many companies have trouble achieving high participation rates.

Probably the most revealing result they found was that 58% of respondents agreed that the results did not, or only slightly, helped managers gain a better understanding of what behaviors or practices they could change to improve. If the surveys we’re conducting don’t yield any actionable information will the results make any difference in the way the workplace is run? In turn, if employees don’t see an actual change in the work environment why should they take time out of their work to fill out an employee satisfaction survey?

Forbes writer, Liz Ryan, had some pretty harsh words to say about employee satisfaction surveys in a recent Linkedin post:

Employee Engagement Surveys are the business equivalent of giving the prisoners in a penitentiary a survey to complete once a year and slide through the bars of their cells. The survey process cements an unequal power relationship.

L Iz Ryan Forbes profile

Liz Ryan
Former Forbes 500 HR SVP, Forbes Writer

Is she right? Are ‘engagement surveys’ simply meant at the very least as an HR tick box and at the most a tool for damage control? Does it simply give employees the pretense of a voice within a company? Maybe it’s time to rethink the purpose of employee satisfaction surveys.

Surveys should not just be about checking the pulse of your workplace, they should be about constantly trying to improve it. Many companies are now using employee surveys to generate their own People Analytics, allowing them to gain deeper insights into their company’s culture and better inform how they design their employee experience.

Case study: How Google uses People Analytics

One company that has been utilizing surveys in this way is Google. The company’s People Operations team has been using People Analytics to tailor different aspects of its people processes to fit their unique work culture.

Representative of its majority engineer workforce, almost every decision the company takes is data driven. Its HR processes are no exception. However, the very nature of the HR field, based on the relationships between people in the workplace, makes it hard to assess based on pure input/output metrics alone. Productivity metrics are extremely important to gauge effectiveness, but at the same time they don’t paint a complete picture.

For this reason, Google has integrated the human side of HR into its People Analytics using employee surveys. By mixing quantitative and qualitative data they are able to really dig down deep into the company’s inner culture dynamics. As a result, the company averages 90% participation rates in its surveys.

Google has used People Analytics to improve the workplace in a number of studies. For example:

Leadership: Project Oxygen

The company found that most Googlers were averse to hierarchy. Many even questioned the need for a management level, including founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. With the original idea in mind that they would flatten the company and abolish management, the company’s people analytics team sought to determine whether having managers really makes a difference. By analyzing managers’ performance ratings and upward feedback they received in their employee surveys and comparing them with productivity metrics, they found that great managers really do lead to more engaged and productive teams.

Their next step was to then delve in deeper and identify what characteristics exactly made a great manager. The team again analyzed comments provided by employees in surveys, performance evaluations and great manager nominations. They then combined this with double blind interviews they conducted with the best and lowest rated managers.

Rather than getting rid of the management level, they found that managers were truly essential for creating the conditions in which their reports could thrive. However, this also meant that they had to get rid of the qualities that ran counter to what Googlers need in a manager, including the practice of micromanaging. This information was therefore turned into Google’s top 8 management behaviors which are now used to train and identify the most effective leaders in the company. The fact that the information was data based made it easier to get managers to accept and work towards meeting these expectations.

The Project Oxygen Eight Behaviours for Great Managers, source Forbes.

Teamwork: Project Aristotle

In another study, Google sought to find the perfect formula for creating effective teams. To do this they looked at the performance metrics of each team but they also sought to look on a deeper level. Team effectiveness is an abstract term and everyone will see effectiveness differently. In fact, they found that to executives, effectiveness meant productivity. To employees, team culture was the most important measure of effectiveness. Meanwhile, team leads saw ownership, vision and goals as the most important influences.

To capture these very different but important factors they measured effectiveness based on qualitative surveys from these 3 groups, plus sales performance against quarterly quota. By combining these metrics they were able to capture the human side and hard data to see which teams did the best, and more importantly why. Based on this data they came up with the following chart of essential factors that create a positive work environment.

Source, Re:Work.

Redesign your people processes using people data

Rather than simply providing HR with insights into engagement, the process itself should work to create a sense of trust and equality between employer and employee. Your employees should not just be working for the company, they should be able to have a say in how it’s run.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Laszlo Bock, former Head of People Operations, stated that there are four steps companies should take to move from intuition to people analytics based decisions:

  1. Ask yourself what your most pressing people issues are. Retention? Innovation? Efficiency? Or better yet, ask your people what those issues are.
  2. Survey your people about how they think they are doing on those most pressing issues, and what they would do to improve.
  3. Tell your people what you learned. If it’s about the company, they’ll have ideas to improve it. If it’s about themselves – like our gDNA work – they’ll be grateful.
  4. Run experiments based on what your people tell you. Take two groups with the same problem, and try to fix it for just one. Most companies roll out change after change, and never really know why something worked, or if it did at all. By comparing between the groups, you’ll be able to learn what works and what doesn’t.

For example, beginning a new policy with a survey gives employees ownership of the process and ensures you’ll get the information you need to make it successful. One area that this can be most effective is in reshaping your performance review process. More and more companies are now ditching the annual performance review in favor of more agile growth based processes. However, the mistake that many are making is forgetting to include the key stakeholder in the design process: employees.

Start by asking the right questions

Rather than simply asking “What do you think about the way we do performance reviews?” Ask questions with a specific goal in mind. To do this think about the most important components that make up the process for your company and make a list:

  • Employees should receive sufficient information about what their strengths are and areas for improvement.
  • Top performers should receive recognition for their contributions.
  • All employees, even top performers, should be encouraged to continue improving and receive support in creating development goals for the next quarter.
  • Those who are struggling should be provided with extra coaching by managers or peer mentors.
  • Most importantly, employees should also be given the opportunity to provide upward feedback to managers.

Include factors that can be verified

The perception and reality of workplace engagement can sometimes be very different. To ensure the validity of your survey results, research psychologist Palmer Morrel-Samuels suggests adding some elements which can be independently verified. When surveying a group of employees on their skill level, his team found that 76% believed their skills to be above average. As only 50% can be above average, the survey revealed a clear gap in actual and perceived skill level. When assessing managers’ ability to establish strong relationships, his team compared the responses they received with factors such as turnover rate to ensure validity.

Using the example of a survey about the performance review process, you may want to ask, “Do you feel the review process is easy and efficient?” However, the terms “easy” and “efficient” are subjective. You should also include data on how many hours and resources are spent on performance reviews each year. If your results indicated that most people believe your current process is difficult and inefficient and then you compare their answers with factors that can be validated: time and money spent, you’ll have objective reasons why and a starting point for how to fix it.

Ask the right questions

Now think about how these objectives can be broken down into solid questions including both qualitative questions and those that can be independently verified. For example:


  • How long does it take on average to complete the performance review process?
  • Do you have enough time and space to provide helpful feedback to each person you review?
  • Do the results provide you with enough information and insights to improve your performance?


  • Does your manager consistently schedule 1-on-1s with you after a review to discuss your results?
  • Are you able to easily translate the information you receive into goals?
  • Do you receive sufficient assistance and coaching to help you meet these goals?

Put your results into action

The most important rule of conducting an employee survey is to never ask a question about an aspect of the workplace that you don’t intend to change. For each question you ask you should already anticipate possible fixes. If your employees don’t feel they get enough follow-up, encourage your managers to implement weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1s with each team member and provide extra management training. If employees feel the results are not always accurate consider introducing 360-degree reviews to get a more diverse range of perspectives.

If you find many employees get demotivated by what tends to be a long and arduous process, consider adopting a tool that can simplify your review period and offer real-time feedback for more frequent opportunities for improvement. Purpose built platforms can often also help you quickly and easily introduce regular employee surveys. This can be useful to go deeper into certain questions or get a general idea of the feeling towards a new policy. The data collected during performance reviews, surveys or informal feedback interactions is instantly generated into aggregated data reports cutting down the time and resources needed.


The most important part of conducting a successful employee survey is the human side. Measuring engagement using performance data isn’t enough. The human side is essential to truly understand the underlying dynamics in the workplace. This is where employee surveys can help. However, keep in mind that people don’t want to spend time on a process that won’t show results. If you clearly explain the objective and make a commitment to introducing change, you’ll see higher participation rates and more insightful results. Start by asking what you want to improve in the workplace.

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