Going Beyond the Employee Engagement Survey

Jan 18, 2023

By Juan Betancourt 

Every day, companies roll out employee engagement surveys and find themselves with some interesting insights. And every day, most of them don’t know how to use those insights to truly improve performance and the employee experience. Clearly, change is needed—and there’s not a moment to spare: a few years ago, employees started leaving their jobs in record numbers, and this trend shows no sign of abating. Any company that lacks a strategy for putting its employee engagement survey insights to work and a roadmap for operationalizing its culture is likely to keep losing employees.

The Problem with Employee Engagement Surveys

Originally a human resources concept, employee engagement has taken on broader context and value in the modern workplace. Today it serves as a measure of employees’ dedication and enthusiasm for their jobs, their managers, their coworkers, and the organization. HR departments often find it difficult to get employees to complete engagement surveys, however, and when workers do fill them out and HR discovers a morale problem, HR can find it just as difficult to persuade workers to speak up and explain why they’re unhappy. 

There’s good reason for this reticence. Employee engagement surveys and their administration tend to have flaws that either prevent leaders from truly understanding morale at their companies or prevent them from doing much to lift morale when it’s low. Many surveys ask for information about the respondent’s department, general title, compensation level, years with the company, and so on—all of which makes their anonymity unlikely. Because employees often suspect that managers will easily figure out which replies were from whom, concern about possible repercussions can diminish the respondents’ honesty. 

Surveys tend to be poor substitutes for daily face-to-face communication that builds strong relationships. Ideally, leaders should foster a climate of trust in which people feel comfortable and safe speaking up without having to hide behind anonymous surveys. If a survey reveals widespread discontent in a department or across the company, a leader’s ability to address employee concerns depends on how candid workers feel they can be with that leader. 

An employee engagement survey is a useful tool only when it yields the information the organization needs to implement post-survey culture change. There are far better options than infrequent, big surveys for fostering the culture of feedback and stronger employee engagement that can strengthen companies. 

Use Shorter, Ongoing Surveys 

Gathering information about employees’ feelings with frequent, brief assessments can help companies gain a more accurate picture of their engagement.  

  • Pulse surveys: Consisting of 10 to 15 questions on a specific topic, these quick surveys don’t take much of employees’ productivity time but provide a real-time reading of the mood throughout the organization. 
  • Career mobility and development surveys: Typically taking place in peer-to-peer channels and in subordinate-to-employee channels, these brief surveys not only help make the annual review process easier and more streamlined but also provide valuable information about employees’ career mobility plans. Today’s employees now expect to have mobility and flexibility to move into different roles and to shape their workdays, yet many employers fail to create personalized progression plans for them. 

Conduct One-on-One Employee Interviews

Employee engagement interviews can take the form of informal exchanges between managers or HR leaders and remote employees through phone calls or Zoom sessions. When conducted monthly or quarterly, they provide opportunities for employees to share their concerns, new ideas, and comments—and for leaders to demonstrate that they hear and see the employees. These face-to-face check-ins can also help leaders nip problems in the bud before they grow large enough for these conversations to become exit interviews.   

Encourage Virtual Breaks 

Employees naturally form relationships when chatting at the watercooler or taking brief walks together. In any office (but especially when remote and hybrid workplaces make those types of in-person interactions difficult), leaders can encourage employees to share virtual spaces together. For example, they can share a coffee break over Zoom, or use social media posts to take a stroll “together.” Smartphones make it possible for people to enjoy break time with coworkers under all sorts of circumstances. This time together can help build trust and stronger relationships, which in turn translate into better engagement.

Conduct Mood Checks 

Before the beginning of a meeting, ask everyone to indicate their mood on a 1-to-10 scale or by using a single word, emoji, gif, or meme. As low-key surveys without formalized feedback gathering, these mood checks can be a lot of fun and help build rapport. (They also help leaders see if they need to follow up with anyone after the meeting.) 

Mix Things Up with Games  

In addition to creating seamless work environments, today’s technologies can also facilitate employee participation in fun team-building activities and social events such as open mic sessions, scavenger hunts, interactive video games, and team trivia.  

Leverage Real-Time Communication and Collaboration Plugins 

One of the biggest sources of employee frustration and discontent is a lack of connection and ability to collaborate effectively with teammates. Adding a communication and collaboration plugin to a company’s already existing daily communication tools (e.g., Gmail, Outlook, Slack) gives leaders real-time access to information that can help them better understand employees’ learning styles, motivations, and values; the ability to create a more equitable and engaging experience for remote team members; and actionable emotional-intelligence data that helps team members work better with one another.  

The Next Step: Operationalizing Culture 

In addition to implementing these strategies, companies should consider how technology can help them leverage employee engagement survey insights. Knowing that team members are (or are not) content or engaged isn’t useful on its own. In order to improve organizational performance, a company must align its culture to business strategy. To accomplish that, they first need to understand why employees feel a certain way and identify ways to address those concerns. 

Engaged employees want to work in roles that match their values and build their skills. Unfortunately, many employees are not in roles that meet those criteria. Compounding that problem, employers frequently use a “warm body” approach to hiring that doesn’t take into consideration candidates’ personality traits, motivations, or skills. Consequently, employee frustration often comes through in employee engagement survey results.  

In the end, team members who are engaged and connected with their organization tend to feel that their positions and efforts in the company make a difference—a feeling that can inspire them to stay with the organization longer. Thoroughly assessing engagement, addressing highlighted problems, and ensuring that employees have roles that fit their interests and align with their goals can help companies enjoy more success in achieving their own long-term goals. 

Juan Betancourt is the chief executive officer of Humantelligence, whose solutions help organizations accurately measure and manage culture at every level of an organization. Recently named a 2022 Top 30 HR Tech Influencer by Recooty and a 2021 Top 100 HR Tech Influencer by HR Executive, Betancourt is an expert in managing and hiring for culture fit and in helping organizations leverage culture analytics to build agile, highly collaborative teams and increase performance. He can be reached at juan@humantelligence.com. 

Written by: 

Subscribe to HR Connection

HR Connection Subscribe