A fitting analogy for employee research

Measuring tapeWhen conversation turns to the attraction of London (as opposed to the grumbles) it’s often music, culture, and history that’s spoken about. For me it’s always been about smart, stylish, sartorial London. From the tailors of Savile Row to the artistry of Westwood and McQueen, British design is unmatched.

The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’ve come to realise that organisational researchers are not so different from our more fashion-conscious friends in W1. Indeed the term bespoke, which we use to describe research methods that aren’t off-the-shelf, originated in Savile Row. Like the craftsmanship that goes into designing a custom-made suit, the same principles apply when undertaking employee research. Indeed, while the skill sets are markedly different, there’s the same precise attention to detail and measurement.

Of course, one size does not fit all, so here are some tips for ensuring that the time and money you invest in employee research (or a tailor) is worth the cloth it’s printed on.


Work with a reputable tailor

Researchers are tailors with a different set of tools. We piece together data to form insights and recommendations much in the same way that a fine tailor uses your individual measurements to draft a pattern. Both use precision and exacting methods to produce results.

Choosing an inexperienced tailor who isn’t focused on your requirements can be a costly experience, often resulting in re-fittings and adjustments until you’re happy with the final garment. The same applies if your employee research hasn’t been designed based on experience and best practice – you may be paying more to get to actionable results.

With research partners, like tailors, their depth of knowledge needs to extend beyond what’s the latest trend or fad. Instead, knowledge of what’s worked in the past and what’s likely to present in the future should inform the design. That being said, an expert can’t be so tied to their vision that they don’t listen to your needs and incorporate your requests. Be sure that you can ask questions and provide feedback to maintain a comfortable working relationship.

All in all, be sure to ask around, look at work samples and ask for a list of clients. Satisfied customers are often the best referees.


The perfect fit

Off-the-rack and off-the-peg are terms commonly used across both sartorial and research circles. In both cases they’re hands down the cheapest option, but don’t always prove to be the best fit. Anything off-the-rack is designed to suit as many potential customers as possible and as a result are both generic and of a shorter lifespan.

When it comes to engagement research, the questions you’re asking employees need to fit. They need to be relevant and reflect your culture to ensure you’re measuring the behaviours that you want employees to engage in. Specifically, the questions that probe into engagement need to be those that will help you deliver on your organisation’s strategic objectives. For example, I’ve spoken with organisations across a range of sectors and asked them, how the same exact engagement questions can apply across supermarket employees working to deliver outstanding customer service and employees in the Cabinet Office co-ordinating the delivery of government objectives? Off-the-shelf definitions of engagement tend to focus purely on the employer-employee relationship with no mention of engagement with the customer or with delivery of performance or alignment with the company strategy.

Off-the-shelf reporting may also provide you with excess material where the key findings aren’t always clear. Tailored reports can condense what a manager needs to see down to only a handful of pages, make explicit what the key strategic priorities are and highlight the unique drivers for action. A rigid, cookie-cutter approach to reporting might fit in the shoulders, but you may end up tripping over its length.


Measure and re-measure

George Bernard Shaw said that, “The only man who behaved sensibly was my tailor; he took my measurement anew every time he saw me, while all the rest went on with their old measurements and expected them to fit me.” Ongoing employee research operates in the same fashion.

Measurements taken 12 months ago are unlikely to fit in the present day. Companies grow and shrink just like waistlines. This doesn’t mean we need to hop on the scales every day. Rather, employee engagement metrics and the tools used to collect them need to be kept up-to-date in order to be best utilised. The real learning from engagement surveys come once things start to change and the impact of action planning can be assessed. This is best captured through tracking and pulse surveys in addition to more annualised census surveys. Sewing together engagement data with hard employee metrics (e.g. labour turnover, absenteeism/sickness, performance ratings), customer/client metrics (e.g. customer spend, growth) and financial metrics (e.g. profitability, revenue) can result in an even greater level of insight.


So at the end of the day, it’s your call whether bespoke is fit for you. Be it a suit or employee research though, the value lies in where it will take you in the long run.


Shaun Rogers (@ShaunRRogers)

Associate Director, Engage

[email protected]