Death of Annual Engagement Surveys prematurely announced!

Lucy Adams, ex HRD of the BBC, has recently posted a blog about the death of the annual employee survey. Whilst ENGAGE agrees with some of the points made, there are also a number of statements which would make the hackles rise of a number of HRDs around the world.


First of all, let’s be positive. A couple of points we agree with:


Most certainly the way people engage and interact with each other in general has changed radically over the past decade. The growth of social and mobile has born us a generation who run their lives outside of work almost entirely in a social/mobile manner. This is however by no means limited to millennials; a recent ENGAGE communications audit for a global telecoms player showed that even their over 50s employees spend a significant proportion of their free time interacting in a mobile and social manner. (over half use social sites and of these over half spend more than an hour a day using them) Has their work environment technology kept up with their outside-work technology? Absolutely not, and employee surveys are by no means the only manifestation of this.


The desire for continuous dialogue is here to stay. Every single technological advancement in communications (think post to telephone to email to text to instant messaging) has led to an increase in the volume of person to person communication; whether it has led to an increase in quality or effectiveness is entirely another matter. Any organisation which relies solely on an annual survey to provide their “voice of the employee” is clearly not meeting the needs of their employees and is failing to properly monitor that critical employee sentiment.


Are all annual surveys bad surveys?


Absolutely not. There are undoubtedly some terrible annual surveys out there; poorly designed, poorly executed and poorly implemented. There are however many, many examples of extremely focused, cost effective surveys which provide sophisticated business driven intelligence to the executive team and simple, meaningful feedback to front-line managers. The HRD of a large financial services organisation recently stated that he believes that executive reporting from their 6 monthly survey has been the single most powerful factor in engaging their executive team through significant organisational change. It has also provided managers with a reliable, objective measurement and prioritisation of the most effective things they can personally do to support this change.


Some surveys are clearly a burden on stretched HR resources; they are cumbersome, complex and time consuming.  A well designed survey programme is completely different  and can be extremely efficient to administer. As an example, an ENGAGE retail client with 1000+ employees has recently embarked upon the second wave of their annual survey fieldwork, from a totally standing start after the Christmas break. Their (one) internal resource has spent approximately 6 person-days in total including all communications on survey related activities; hardly burdensome. Their 2016 survey had highlighted a number of previously unknown issues that the organisation needed to address; some of these required immediate action and the intelligence was invaluable in helping this organisation continue its upward trajectory, bucking the high street trend. The stores with higher engagement have enjoyed significantly higher sales growth and overall the business is now a long way from the bankruptcy it previously faced. Has the survey “fixed this business” on its own? Of course not, but it is certainly one of the data points that has helped guide its re-birth.


The level of analysis, science and importantly business focus lying behind many employee surveys is way too low. Here we are referring to things such as the use of generic engagement models unrelated to the business’s priorities (one size most certainly does not fit all), a lack of prioritisation in the suggested actions, lengthy and poorly designed questionnaires and a general lack of cultural fit. ENGAGE recently re-designed a long-standing survey programme for a global telecoms company. The programme had completely run out of steam for many of the reasons described above, but has now been positioned as a much more agile, business focused tool. The Executive Team now see the survey programme as providing them with critical information to help them guide the business on its change journey and the managers now feel that the report they receive is simple to understand with clear local focus.


Almost all of ENGAGE’s current clients are to some extent reviewing or actively working towards a migration from old, analogue, discrete employee voice measurement towards new technologies and a more digital, continuous employee voice. Apps and panels are high on the agenda and once a critical mass of early adopters have helped iron out the inevitable wrinkles and given confidence to the less bold, these will become much more mainstream. In many cases, this may well not be a like-for-like replacement but more a balance of continuous light touch and less frequent but deeper analyses.


In conclusion, we agree that the future of employee engagement is certainly in more continuous two-way dialogue supported by a variety of new technologies. We should not however condemn all current annual surveys; whilst a minority exist to “check the box” and are inefficient and ineffective, there are many that provide real value for leaders and managers alike. We should also be aware that for many there are significant barriers to a more continuous, mobile and social survey dialogue, including data security access and ineffective HRIS systems. As ever, an objective evaluation of any new initiative reveals both pluses and minuses.

By Nick Thompson
Practice Head: ENGAGE