Last week, I launched a survey to better understand what challenges leaders are anticipating during the next year related to employee engagement.

Some themes are emerging in the data. There’s concern about employee burnout. There’s a focus on how to keep remote and hybrid workers engaged. There’s also some worry about the impact of return to office plans.

All of these are valid concerns to have on the radar as we head towards what will assuredly be another year defined by uncertainty and change.

But I want to offer a word of caution, as you consider what you think will be your biggest employee engagement challenges in 2022, ask yourself this:

What evidence do I have that this is a real issue? 

Back in my days as an HR exec, there was nothing more frustrating than sitting in an executive meeting listening to a leader speculate about what employees wanted or how they were feeling with no real evidence to back it up beyond perhaps a single conversation they had with an employee or an article they read.

So many decisions that get made in organizations on behalf of employees are based on assumptions about what employees want or need. That often leads to actions taken and investments made with good intentions that end up having no effect or worse.

For example, it might be easy to assume that employees who work remotely are less engaged or more difficult to engage than those who work in the office. But, there’s a mounting body of research that suggests that may be the opposite. Our traditional physical workplaces might actually be a cause of disengagement for employees.

To make matters even more complicated, the degree to which working remotely engages or disengages an employee is going to vary from person to person. Their personality, personal living situation, past experiences, skills, and a host of other factors all play a role.

Here’s the harsh reality check. If you assume your employees as a whole are either more (or less) engaged by working remotely, either way, you are probably wrong. Or at least you are partially wrong and that can have real consequences on the decisions you make and programs you roll out.

Assumptions lead to frustration

So, do you have any evidence to support your specific concerns or conclusions about what you need to do to engage employees in 2022? If so, kudos. You are on the right path.

If not, I’ll echo what I said in an executive meeting once upon a time as the leaders around the table were speculating about what our employees needed from us.

“Why are we making assumptions about what they want? They are right out there. Let’s go ask them.”

As work is transforming in front of our eyes and shifting beneath our feet, it is affecting everyone differently. Some people are struggling while others are thriving.

We can’t make assumptions about what people need and how the experience is impacting them. It’s imperative to get real feedback on an ongoing basis if you hope to retain people through all of this change.

This is why NOW is the ideal time to be using employee engagement surveys to gather insights and evidence to inform your decisions and actions heading into next year.

A well-designed survey process will help you identify:

  • Who’s thriving and who’s struggling
  • Where you have systemic issues that might be driving turnover and performance issues
  • Where you have strengths and resources to leverage
  • Where you have significant risks and need to dig in further
  • What issues you can address immediately

This is only a partial list of why well-designed surveys are powerful. As a manager, survey results from your team are one of the best tools you can have to facilitate a meaningful conversation about each person’s experience and how to make it better (more on that later).

5 Keys to a Well-Designed Employee Engagement Survey Process

Notice that I didn’t just say “survey.” It needs to be well-designed and it needs to be part of a process that ensures that actions are taken based on what is learned. Below are key things you need to do to get it right.

1. A commitment and process for meaningful follow-up action.

The most important part of any survey is what happens with the results. Do they lead to change and impact that the employees can see or feel? It is vital that you have a documented process in place for how action will be taken on survey results BEFORE you even consider launching a survey.

Without follow-up actions from the survey results being visible to all employees, a survey will often do more to undermine trust and engagement than if you did no survey at all.

2. Use a survey with a validated measure of employee engagement.

Most, if not all, of the engagement survey products out there, will have a validated set of survey items they use to measure employee engagement. The company should be able to share with you (or you should be able to find it on their website) some documentation about how they measure engagement and the process they used to make sure it’s valid.

This is important because you need confidence in that measurement of engagement because you’ll want to use it as a filter and means of comparison to evaluate what groups are more engaged than others and what factors are either driving or diminishing engagement.

3. Be thoughtful about what questions you ask.

It is always tempting to use the off-the-shelf set of questions from any survey tool, but I’d caution against that, particularly now. Before even looking at the survey questions, you should go through a process to determine and document what questions you really want to answer through the survey.

For example, you might write down questions like:

  • Do people feel like we care about them? How do they know?
  • How/when/where do people prefer to work?
  • What are the biggest challenges people are facing right now in getting work done?
  • Where do we have the most risk or evidence of employee burnout?
  • How are people feeling about our return to office plans?

These aren’t meant as recommendations, just an example of what might end up on your list. With this documented, you can now start the process of designing your survey. As you evaluate the questions you ask, you can keep coming back to this list to ensure you are at least attempting to answer the most important questions.

4. Import as many demographics into your survey platform as you can.

Let me say this first, never do anonymous surveys. Ever. If your culture is so toxic that you can’t fathom a survey that’s not totally anonymous, you’ve got bigger problems than a survey can solve.

A confidential survey (which means that you assure the employees that their individual responses are treated as confidential) is just as effective in eliciting responses as an anonymous survey, but you end up with much better data.

With that said, when you set up your survey, import as many meaningful demographic characteristics as you can export from your HRIS system. Why? Because the more you set up, the more ways you’ll be able to sort and review your data.

Everything that describes an employee’s role should be included, such as department, location, job level, comp level, tenure, performance evaluation data, manager, etc.

If you are worried about the engagement of remote, hybrid, and onsite employees, this also needs to be included. If you don’t have that data in a field in your HRIS system, then add a question to your survey to get it from the employee.

You should also include all the personal demographics you can: gender, age, race, marital status, parental status, etc. Particularly now and given what’s happened in the world over the past 18 months, our unique work experiences may be more influenced by these factors than anything else. And that’s a story that is profoundly important for you to understand and address in the near term.

5. Get the results to the individual managers as quickly as possible (with some instructions and training on what to do with them).

I alluded to this earlier, but the place where the biggest immediate impact can happen as a result of any engagement survey is at the individual manager level. This is a lesson I learned firsthand as a manager nearly 20 years ago when my organization rolled out the Gallup Q12 process.

At the time, I didn’t even have a team big enough to warrant getting our own results, but I had been taught how to use the results at the HR team level to facilitate a conversation with my people about their engagement and experience. It was a game-changer for my team and me.

The survey results are a catalyst for management transformation. When a manager uses those results to sit down with their team and ask them to share their experiences and thoughts about how the team is doing well and could get better, things change.

It’s not enough to just give managers the results. Don’t make that mistake. They need guidance in making sense of the results, sharing the results with their team, facilitating a discussion with the team about the results, and leading some collaborative action planning with their team. Results plus support and training equals transformation.

Now is a perfect time for a survey

The best time for a survey is when you are most uncertain about what employees need or how they are doing. An engagement survey isn’t about optimizing an arbitrary number. It’s about gathering data to inform better decisions that impact employees so you can retain them and help them perform at their best.

Whether you have a team of 5 people or an organization of 25,000 that you support, a good survey done the right way is one of the most effective and efficient ways to improve performance and drive retention.

If you have specific questions about surveys and how to best use them, drop those in the comments and I’ll be happy to address those for you.

Jason Lauritsen