7 reasons why engagement surveys are broken, and what to do instead

In days gone by, companies that were seen to "truly care" for their employees might ask them once a year to provide feedback in the form of an annual employee engagement survey, with questions posed to determine if the employees were happy and also to identify opportunities for improvement, typically within a small scope of available changes. There were also some companies that didn't even do that (and still don't now) though many companies realized that they could get more employee engagement and, therefore better results, by checking in once in a while.

In 2014, Deloitte research found that 78% of business leaders rate retention and engagement urgent or important. What is your company doing about that?

A further survey by the Great Place to Work Institute (Burchell/Robin) found that the “100 best places to work” outperformed the S&P 500 by over four-fold from 1990–2009. So, when people in your business start to ask about the value of improving engagement, it should be clear that the business case is fully stacked up to support investing in this space. Indeed, for those who do not want to improve employee engagement, the real question should be "why do you want your business to fail?". This might sound over the top, but it should be clear that engaged, passionate employees are more likely to meet (or exceed) customer expectations, creating happy, returning customers for the future. And that's got to be good, right?

Over time, the nature of business has changed and so, too, has the workforce. Employee expectations have shifted in a number of ways. In this thought piece, I'm going to provide a summary of some of the key changes before talking about the implications for you as a team member, manager or leader of an organization.

Firstly, employees are more likely to have a portfolio career whereby they spend 2-3 years in a company before moving on to another organization. This contrasts heavily with the former expectation (of both employers and employees) that team members would be employed for their entire life in one company.

Secondly, employees expect more from an employer than 'just' a pay check. A recent survey by Ernst & Young covering 10,000 workers in eight countries found that the millennial population would rather take a pay cut, forgo a promotion or be willing to move to manage work-life demands better and this expectation isn't just sitting with the millennials; it's actually spreading out to other generations of employees who have seen the new generation make the shift and the benefits that come from this way of thinking, behaving and working.

Thirdly, the type of work people do is becoming more important. Individuals that truly own their careers (and this should be everyone) seek specific experiences that will support their planned/desired growth over time and businesses can use this to their advantage - or not use this to their disadvantage - as well as working with team members to help give them what they are truly looking for.

Furthermore, there is an increasing expectation in employees that workplace structures will be more flexible, open and fun. Start-up companies have created an expectation that all workplaces can be where you go to work with friends, rather than where you go because you have to work. And bigger companies, like Google, are replicating these environments so they can be destinations of choice for new hires and experienced professionals alike.

Another key change sits in the benefits domain. Team members who have been in their positions for years have seen their overall benefits packages be eroded relative to those of newer joiners. With a new visibility about the value of pension schemes, the increasing costs of healthcare and the challenges of paying for new hire/specific expertise in a tumultuous market environment, many people feel their benefits are being eroded, which does nothing for people's self-esteem, the practicalities of daily life and engagement levels.

In addition to the points above, there is also the reality of the shifting nature of workplaces themselves. Obvious challenges include increasing workloads, unclear (or unfair) performance management processes, a lack of support for those who are not performing at level and a lack of appropriate and tailored support for those who are able to demonstrate promotion readiness, so there's a lot going on within organizations that could damage the desire of individuals to engage with their employers.

Finally, in the changing landscape, a key new feature of organizations has become the concept of continuous change and transition, whether customer facing or internal, such that employees are managing change as well as delivering in their busy day jobs. This level of complexity challenges engagement even with the most loyal team members, and is further amplified where there is high customer contact such as in consulting or other professional services environments.

There are many other changes at play here and I'd be happy to discuss those with you on a one to one basis. But for now, let's look at the implications of these key shifts for employers and employees. The implications for these changes are wide ranging and it should be clear now that an annual engagement survey or even quarterly performance review conversations that seek to identify sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are too few and far between, neither being timely nor integrated into day to day work. Imagine, for a moment, if your friends or family only checked in with you once a year to see if you were happy or if they could do anything for you; wouldn't that be weird?!

So, what does this mean for employees? Well, as a team member, you're looking for a great place to work for a period of time likely to be 2-5 years. You're looking for a supportive environment where you can work with amazing people who become friends as much as colleagues, where experiences are key and you can leave at the end of each day, week and month knowing you have learnt new skills and taken home more than a pay check. You also know that you're willing to give more when the purpose for the work is clear and you'll happily commit to it if you believe in it.

And what does this mean for employers, managers and leaders? Well, you've got to do a lot more to attract the right people than just by creating a role description that sounds interesting. You need to provide a workplace that doesn't just attract people, but it sells itself in terms of the experiences they'll have, the quality of time they'll spend there and you'll want to keep them in position with a carrot rather than a stick. In addition, they'll be looking for ways in which to grow beyond the original role with extra curricular activities and you'll get benefits from this if you support them as they broaden their scope of work, their internal networks and their external stakeholder set. You'll also have team members and their managers being friends outside of work, which can create an interesting dynamic if the culture is not supportive of that.

What's the better way to encourage engagement and align business objectives with people's preferences, desires and expectations?

Let's accept, for now, that you can't re-start your business by re-designing all aspects of your organization around your employees, in which case, the ultimate challenge for employers is to understand how they can determine the level of engagement of their employees and then make changes that do not disrupt their core business activities, all while improving that engagement level. This will maximize their business results within the current organizational paradigm and this shift should not be underestimated as it can pay dividends in the future. Your people will be happier, the results better and, ultimately, your customers will keep coming back.

If you're in a smaller, perhaps growing, company, setting it up for success now will save you money, time, agony and employee turnover later on, so it's important for you to get the engagement processes and culture in place right now.

In this technology-driven world, many companies start their engagement transformation by getting apps and using websites to drive employee engagement. I think it's ironic that we try to improve engagement with our team members solely by turning to technology, which is one of the ways in which we are creating barriers to engagement (e.g. look at what email does for team communication on a day to day basis). If you're asking people to explain what's great about their work conditions on a ten point scale with space for a few words to justify it, you're missing out on a huge amount of information and you're turning people off along the way. To get people to engage, you need to provide a forum in which they can (and will) engage and a human approach is the best route to that.

And even in our language, regardless of how we try to engage people, we have to be careful because just as we can lead a horse to water, we can't make it drink and the very nature of the process of engaging employees is one that we can attempt to do, but cannot force on people; individuals choose to engage with us and our organizations as a result of the effort we put in, but they can equally choose not to engage at all if they decide they do not want to.

When it comes to who your team members would like to open up to - given that a human approach is likely to yield better information and results than a mechanical one - a confidential point of contact that understands the workplace environment can be very beneficial. And there's the rub; you need an approach with someone who gets the environment but who isn't part of the environment so if you are the manager of a team, you're probably not the person to undertake the discussion, even if you have a great relationship (or are friends) with your team members. And don't take it personally, it's not about you - it's about them and how much they might want to open up and risk sharing information with someone who they might deem as part of the system they are looking to discuss, change or challenge. All of that said, a peer manager or senior executive also wouldn't be the right person to get involved for the same reason; they too are part of the system. It's for this reason that you need to go external and get the independent view of a trusted coach partner who can work with your employees to get the right information to support them and present it in such as way as to keep confidences while focusing in on getting results that can be measured on the bottom line, as well as in employee engagement.

One of the key determinants of success for engaging employees is whether the organization imposes a standard approach or whether it truly tailors the approach to the needs of their specific employees. Just as clothes with the label "one size fits all" never fit everyone, the same is true of approaches to engaging employees. Ultimately, engagement preferences are at the individual level and so a blanket approach is unlikely to meet all needs, but there are ways to increase the likelihood of engagement with an approach that isn't tailored to every single individual, which for most companies would be cost prohibitive. By the same token, although it is useful in part to discuss preferences of specific generations of people (e.g. millennials), we cannot expect a whole group of people to have the same needs, preferences or expectations, regardless of their age or perceived membership to a specific generational group. 

The timing is key too; as this feature has highlighted, annual engagement checkpoints are not the right timescale for a meaningful set of data. I'd suggest your team needs weekly or monthly checkpoints in the process that will build trust, confidence and a corresponding value of information over time. To expect people to open up on day one is preposterous and akin to expecting a newborn child to walk, talk and catch a frisbee. The engagement process takes time and part of the value of the process is in the journey, as well as the destination. Each step yields information that can help the organization make changes to suit employees, often at little or no cost to the business itself. The time of day and day of week also make a difference. If you're a morning person and need to focus early on in the day to meet specific deadlines and create outcomes, then having a coaching conversation during the middle of that time is unlikely to be productive (in fact, it's likely to be disruptive). So, your approach needs to be flexible to create the right environment for your people to be ready to discuss what's important to them, when it's the right time for them.

In the US, we have seen the average spend per person on learning increase to $1208 per year, with 69% of that being spend on instructor led courses (per Association of Talent Development). Training courses can be effective if they are designed and delivered in the right way (that's a different topic, for another time) though I believe that if a small amount of that expenditure was re-directed to a more personalized, tailored experience, not only would capabilities increase, but engagement would also be heightened and there would be more visibility as to how to grow and develop individuals without needing to invest in costly, and potentially less useful, off the job training courses.

If we are to take employee engagement seriously, which, based on all of the data we should, then the only way to check on engagement is through an integrated and real-time approach that will identify how we can help individuals and teams using a confidential third party service to overcome some of the challenges that have been highlighted here. Further, we must do so in a way that will encourage open dialogue, enhance the alignment between individual preferences and work place opportunities and provide open, confidential channels that will offer people the opportunity to say what they really mean knowing that their voices will be heard, along with their constructive feedback for changes. This type of approach will yield positive outcomes for the individuals, the teams and the organization. Why can’t employers and employees work together to create environments that benefit each other to such an extent that people believe they are not even at work? It should be obvious now that if it isn't real time, with a people-based approach, it won't get to the root of individual needs and it won't deliver the improvement in employee commitment and engagement you are looking for. And remember, it's the commitment that makes your people engage and makes your business successful.

I know you won't be surprised to learn that I run such a service for organizations, one that understands business realities yet respects people as individuals. Not only does it provide significant benefits around engagement far in excess of those that can be derived from the ubiquitous annual engagement survey, but it also provides your people with an "always on" confidential sounding board to open up and let their voices be heard in a constructive way. Whether you have a small startup business or you work in a large corporation, I can tailor an approach that will work for you with a business case that will stack up financially. Find more about it here and also learn about the "value of coaching" guarantee that will give you a no-risk trial.

There are many ways for you to help your team members become engaged, and therefore, effective. Indeed, I am so confident that you can improve your business results by helping you engage with your teams more effectively that I will discuss it with you at no cost to you. So, aside from improving engagement and levels of trust in your workplace, what do you have to lose? Get in touch today here to schedule your free discussion.

As well as being an experienced management consultant and energetic public speaker, Rob Whitfield is a certified Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a certified Master Coach and a certified Master Practitioner of Hypnotherapy and Time Line Therapy. No Bull. Start your transformation journey here, sign up here to get your own copy of the FREE periodic One Brit, No Bull newsletter delivered or visit the One Brit, No Bull Blog here.