The annual employee engagement survey is making a comeback. After falling out of favour for a few years, more and more companies are coming round to the idea that a large annual survey is the best way to understand their workforce. Why is this? After all, in recent years we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of regular pulse surveys as well an increasing interest in the use of social media to monitor the happiness of employees. If you’re looking to genuinely engage with your workforce is an annual survey really better than the many other options out there now? And what does the return of these surveys tell us about the future of employee engagement?

The environment companies are operating in is changing

Perhaps the biggest driver behind the renewed interest in census-style surveys is the environment companies are operating in now and there are a number of factors at play here:

  • Since 2018 the UK Corporate Governance Code has required the boards of all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange to engage with their workforce, directing them, in particular, to focus on the substance of the engagement and not just the process.
  • The Health and Safety Executive now classifies stress as a workplace risk and recommends that employers assess how much of an issue it is in their company.
  • Across the pond, major companies are having trouble with workforce relations. Employees at Starbucks, Google and Apple are unionising, unhappy with the way conflicts between employees and the leadership are resolved.  
  • Staff shortages have become a problem in many sectors; there simply aren’t enough of the right people to do the jobs required. Keeping hold of employees has therefore become a priority.

Given all of that, you can see why employee engagement is rising up the corporate agenda; get it wrong and it can become a real threat to your business. A greater understanding in society at large of mental health issues and the importance of well-being is also changing what companies are looking to achieve from their surveys. Having data that tells you what an awesome place (or not) your company is to work is no longer enough. People are more comfortable with understanding where their employees are at and so those in charge are looking for meaningful results which they can then use to bring about improvements. And this brings us to the second important factor behind the resurgence in census surveys:   

The technology behind modern employee engagement surveys has transformed their usefulness

The best surveys on the market now are a world away from the slow, error prone surveys you might remember from the late nineties or early 2000s. These old-school surveys (sadly still in use today) would generally have consisted of a survey of 150 off-the-shelf questions, with the data collated manually using technology often unchanged since the 1970s. The results, when they finally came through, would tell you little more than that ‘your workforce was 80% happy’ six months ago when the survey was done. It’s no wonder, therefore, that they got a bad rep for a while, when people realised their expensive survey was destined to be put in a drawer and forgotten. The new census surveys, however, look and feel very different:  

  • Data collection is now automated so results are delivered in real time.  
  • Questions are tailored to be specific to your organisation or the issues you want to address.
  • Open text answers can be analysed at scale and then summarised as objective statements, giving you an accurate view of what staff are thinking and what their major topics of concern are.
  • The results are incredibly granular. Instead of having to make do with a company-wide set of statistics, now if mid-level managers want to know the view in their own department, they can. Anonymised data can also be mined from different divisions or sets of employees, with the system able to identify if what’s found is a meaningful difference or an anomaly.  This could mean, for example, being able to see what it is that keeps long-term staff in the company or whether there is a group of employees who are having a different experience to the majority and if there is an identifiable reason for that. 

With more companies finding they’re getting relevant data from these surveys we’re also seeing an uptake in the number who use that data to change the culture in their organisation for the better.  The system used is known as closed-loop feedback and it looks like this: 

  1. Survey in order to understand your workforce.
  2. Review your results.
  3. Decide what you’re going to do about what you’ve learned.
  4. Implement your action plan.
  1. Survey again in order to understand if what you’ve done has worked.

It needs the technology behind it to work, but when it does the change can be transformative. Why? Well, it’s worth remembering that every survey is an opportunity to communicate with staff. You can either waste that by showing you’re not really listening because you don’t do anything with what your employees tell you or you can do the opposite and make your workplace somewhere people want to stay because they know their concerns will be heard and acted upon. 

So is this new style of census survey the future of employee engagement?

Possibly, in fact, quite probably, as done well it can drive positive change. There is, however, an alternative, an evolution of the census survey, which gets rid of its last remaining downside, that it will always be a snapshot in time. This evolution is a more continuous cycle of surveying, nothing like those generic surveys which ask things like ‘how supportive was your line manager this week?’ on repeat, but tailored surveys undertaken at key points in the employee lifecycle. An individual is surveyed when they come on board, at the end of their probation period, as they’re developing their career, when they’re promoted and when they leave. The benefit of this – asking a core set of questions about culture as well as a few specific questions about what’s happening to them at that moment in time – is that it gives you a whole new set of things you can action. It allows you, for example, to always be aware of how your onboarding experience is being perceived, while for the individual responding it feels manageable and because it’s at intervals that make sense, they’re much more likely to respond.

Whichever form of measurement you ultimately choose, the prevailing winds mean these new breeds of surveys are going to become more commonplace. And for forward-thinking companies, already aware of the boost to productivity, innovation and customer satisfaction that an engaged workforce brings, they really are the future.