Megan Dwyer
Is it time to reposition the employee engagement survey?

Much has been written about the bottom line impact of employee engagement. It is now well accepted that having highly engaged employees leads to better financial performance and, conversely, disengaged employees result in declining financial performance.


It is the responsibility of the head of HR to ensure that senior leaders understand what engagement means, what it looks and sounds like, and how it can be developed.


I have worked with executives who value the insights gained through the engagement survey, and who actively look for these insights to help craft the organisation’s strategy. However, I have also worked with those that think that engagement is simply the act of surveying employees every one or two years. They think it is a ‘nice to have’, not a ‘need to have’ exercise.


As most HR professionals know, engagement is about emotional commitment where employees care about the organisation enough to want it to succeed, and to want to lift their own productivity in order to achieve better outcomes.


Millions of dollars and valuable employee time is spent every year conducting surveys, with employees being told their feedback is important and valued. Often reports are produced and the organisation and managers are benchmarked against internal and external norms, and often these benchmark results are used to assess manager performance. All of that activity is useful, but does it justify the cost and time investment of the survey?


In my experience, few organisations maximise the investment by delving deeply into the huge amount of collected data to identify the key strategic issues. Instead many organisations focus on lifting engagement via action plans that only deal with micro change. Helpful to have, but these plans aren’t going to, in and of themselves, lift engagement.


Then, a year or two later, the organisation focuses on the survey again and employees are once more told their feedback is critical, valued and will lead to change – yet things generally stay the same.


Not surprisingly, in these organisations, the survey results often show declining levels of engagement which can result in a decision to abandon the survey. An opportunity has been missed to use the data to make a difference to the employees’ work experience and to demonstrate that their feedback has led to change.


Rather than just working on team action plans, the HR team should analyse the data for patterns, to see what has changed from year to year, which groups are trending up or down, and in what areas.


A more effective use of the survey is to use the insights to build understanding of the strategic levers the leaders can pull.


In my experience the two main factors contributing to employee engagement are the senior leaders’ ability to articulate and communicate why employees should engage with, or ‘buy into’ the strategic direction, and line manager effectiveness in managing people. The engagement survey provides rich data that, if analysed well, can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of both these factors.


If changes are then made to improve the employee experience, employees will be motivated to go above and beyond what is expected, productivity will lift, and correspondingly the business’ commercial performance will improve. This will result in happy shareholders, customers, employees and Board.


If you can continually demonstrate how the changes to increase employee engagement have led to improved business performance, then your executive team will be actively seeking your insights on the next survey.