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.
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.