Staff surveys to boost engagement

Workforce surveys won’t improve engagement, it’s what you do next that counts. Daniel Scott has some top tips for getting the most out of surveys to help you build real staff and volunteer engagement.

Doing an annual staff survey alone won’t improve employee engagement. In fact, if you’re not managing and responding to the results appropriately, you could even be making things worse!

I’ve too often worked in or with organisations which repeat the staff survey year on year, because it’s the expected thing to do. But few organisations have the will or capability to meaningfully learn from the data, make changes happen in the right places, and then experience positive engagement outcomes. Despite our best intentions, bigger priorities will emerge, we may over-commit on our staff survey ‘action plan’, or we might just drown in the data.

To overcome these and other challenges around staff surveys, here are 10 tips based on my experience of managing them and supporting charity clients to build employee engagement.

Select the right provider
There are many providers of staff surveys these days and the difference between them is not always clear, so make sure you look for the right things. Consider:

  • Are they robust researchers? Can they advise on what makes a good (or poor) staff survey question, and why? Do they know which questions (and which wording) most effectively differentiate staff opinions?
  • Is the software user-friendly for respondents? Can your staff complete it quickly and on a range of devices?
  • Is it easy to analyse and visualise the results? Can you run your own reports for different staff groups, all year round?
  • What kind of (and how much) support is included before, during and after the survey?
  • How well do they understand the third sector?

While the price must also feel right, remember that cost doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality. There are free or very affordable options that offer great value, and very expensive options that don’t.

Put effort into getting a high response rate
For the results to be credible, with both staff and your senior management, you need a high response rate. 70% and above is certainly workable (and this is a tough goal for some) but a result of 85% plus will help your recommendations and actions to feel valid and be accepted. Thorough, creative and well-timed internal communications, keeping the survey short (maximum 60 questions) and face to face requests for participation from the CEO and line managers can all help boost your response rate.

Analyse changes over time, and focus on benchmarks
Once you’ve received your results, take time to carefully understand what the data is telling you. Raw data in itself doesn’t tell you much, unless you’re able to compare the scores to previous survey results and note how they’ve changed over time. Staying with one provider for multiple years and keeping most of the questions standard can help to build a stronger longitudinal picture of engagement.

A score of 90% for teamwork doesn’t always mean it’s a genuine strength, and a score of 55% for leadership isn’t necessarily a crisis. What really matters is the benchmark, and how your scores compare to similar organisations on similar questions. Drivers of engagement in the charity/third sector are different. Aim to compare your results with sector specific benchmarks, and ideally subgroups of organisations who do similar
work and are of a similar size.

Show that you’ve listened, with a good dose of humility
When you share the results, employees need you to acknowledge what’s not working, and for the results to reflect their reality. Cherry-picking some positive statistics and underplaying the negatives won’t land well.

Share the results in full, warts and all
Leaders can be tempted to withhold some of the results, in the fear that they may be ‘misinterpreted’ by employees. As adults, your employees will draw their own conclusions. Trying to control who sees what data will suggest that you have something to hide. And when staff are denied information, they will fill in the blanks themselves.

Talk to employees to dig a little deeper
The survey will tell you the what, but it may not tell you the why. Talking to staff openly in small groups can help to identify the real issues and the best ideas to start addressing them. Allow some moaning – humans need to do this sometimes. But facilitated well, you’ll get the useful insights and examples you need, as well as some great ideas for action.

Prioritise a small number of important issues
Most people are reasonable and accept that leaders are not superhuman. They don’t expect you to fix every issue uncovered by the survey in the next quarter or even the next year.

A good staff survey will not only tell you how positively or negatively your people feel about certain areas of work life, but it will also tell you how important those areas are to them. Use this data to carefully choose the three to five most important issues to tackle that will have the greatest impact on overall engagement. Responding to one important issue thoroughly is much better than diluting your efforts over several less
important ones.

Make ownership for engagement as local as possible
Decrease the focus on an organisational action plan. We know that the bulk of employee engagement is influenced by the line manager – so actions need to be locally owned and actioned. Some organisations build this responsibility into the annual objectives of managers and leaders. Organisational action plans can create a lot of work in the wrong places and are often de-prioritised or slip between the cracks as the year goes on.

Invite employees to take action
Engagement is a reciprocal process and the results are down to everyone, not just management – and certainly not just the people/HR or internal communications teams. Invite employees to help identify the main issues, propose solutions, and lead or support their implementation.

Limit the budget and avoid creating more work
Building engagement shouldn’t be extra work for leaders and managers – it is their work. The best staff survey actions involve changing (or stopping) ways of working to boost people’s sense of autonomy, inclusion, purpose and growth. Introducing additional practices is often unpopular and unsustainable, and signing up to costly ‘nice-to-have’ perks often diverts attention from the real issues. Resources to follow up on a staff survey should go toward facilitating insights and conversations that lead to culture change. Shiny free stuff can’t buy real engagement.

What tips do you have for maximising staff survey outcomes? Get in touch and let me know!

About Daniel Scott 

Daniel Scott is the Director of Open Bracket Consulting, a learning and organisational development consultancy working with charities. For nearly 20 years Dan has worked within the third sector, for organisations including Save the Children, Amnesty International, Macmillan Cancer Support and Diabetes UK.  

Dan challenges the traditional beliefs and patterns at work that hinder instead of help people to be happy, healthy and high performing. He partners with clients to build tools, systems and cultures that support people to learn more, perform better, and truly be themselves at work. He is qualified in Occupational Psychology, a graduate of the NTL Institute’s OD Practitioner programme, and a keen facilitator and advocate of action learning.


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