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The top five don’ts of designing effective employee engagement programs

Kelly Handley

Kelly Handley

Kelly is Head of Client Services at Evolve. Kelly loves innovation and finding creative solutions to communications challenges.

I worked in large organisations for more than 20 years and I think it’s fair to say I’ve experienced my fair share of employee engagement surveys and programs!

It’s included everything from completing my first paper-based employee satisfaction survey when I was starting out as a Marketing Assistant, to managing my team’s participation in programs developed by some of the ‘big names’ in employee experience. 

So, when a friend asked me for some advice recently, I was happy to give my two cents. She’s a GM in a small but growing business and has been tasked with launching a program for their rapidly growing team. Keen to avoid common pitfalls, my friend asked me for the top things not to do as she considers the best way to set up her program.

Luckily, she was happy for me to turn my suggestions into a blog too, so here are my thoughts on the don’ts – and what this means you should do.

  1. Don’t ask too many questions
    Hands up if you haven’t been subjected to a 100-question, hour-long, three coffees required employee survey at some point in your career?!

    The early days of employee surveys were a case of quantity over quality, with a battery of questions asked about every aspect of the workplace experience, as organisations tried to cover any and every possible driver of satisfaction.

    Luckily, many – but not all – programs have moved on, with technology such as conversational AI being used increasingly in the survey process to capture more data with fewer questions.

    Critically, applications like EVE (our Evolved Voice Engine) are now collecting better quality text data via two-way, iterative and open-ended conversations, which is then analysed using advanced text analytics to provide a more effective understanding of the key drivers of things like employee satisfaction.

  2. Don’t follow the traditional rules when selecting the questions you do run

    One of the reasons many organisations go with the ‘big name’ EX programs is they provide the opportunity to benchmark. However, to achieve this benchmarking, you need to use the same, longstanding question sets and exact question wording, meaning important organisational – and team nuances – are missed.

    I remember completing an employee survey that asked me to select the three things that attracted me to the company I was working for initially and the three things keeping me there. The response options presented for the keeping me there question were not at all relevant to me or my role, nor was I given an option to select an N/A or Other. Chatting to my colleagues confirmed they felt the same way. It was then no surprise when our team results confirmed the reason we were being retained was our organisation had a ‘great safety and OH&S culture’ – the only option me and my marketing team colleagues felt was vaguely relevant to our situation!

    While benchmarking is important, and it can be great to say your organisation is the top percentile for engagement in the world, this means nothing if it’s been formulated using measures that are out of step with your core business and don’t take into account what’s important to your people.

    You need to let your employees express what is important to them. The best programs capture ratings for core measures, supported by flexible questions capturing open-ended feedback that can be unpicked using advanced text analytics tools to understand what is really driving results.

  3. Don’t make your survey a once or twice a year event
    Employee surveys were traditionally an annual event, and while many EX programs have introduced a bi-annual ‘pulse’ check in to complement the once a year read, this is still out of step with how employee engagement works. Experiences and engagement at work change from day to day. There are seasonal ups and downs, not to mention reactions to major changes that happen in every business throughout the year.

    Surveying on just two days annually means organisations are missing the ups, downs and the in-between of the employee experience on those 363 other days of the year.

    The best programs have tools to support continuously collecting people’s feedback on how they are feeling at work every day – letting people say what they want, in their words, at times that matter – not just when you ask.

  4. Don’t take too long to act
    We all exist in agile operating environments these days – with rapid turnaround cycles underpinning every aspect of what we do.

    In the EX context, many programs are struggling to keep pace, particularly when it comes to reporting.

    At the extreme, I remember getting the results for an employee survey four months after my relatively small team had completed it. By that time, we had a new manager, one team member had moved to another area, and another had left the organisation making the results redundant.

    The best programs present ongoing results in real-time, and in a way that is easy to digest, understand and act on.

  5. Don’t turn bad results into a worse experience for employees

    We’ve all heard of – and possibly experienced – the witch hunts that can follow poor employee survey results, with managers huddled in a meeting room trying to work out who said what instead of focusing on why these things were being said and what was needed to resolve.

    Every organisation will experience peaks and troughs in engagement scores. Your leadership team’s behaviour post-survey – how you react to the results and act – will serve to improve engagement if it’s done well or create distrust if you manage it poorly. Today’s leading programs provide tools and support to connect teams, focus them on understanding and driving action from feedback, along with tracking and communicating progress on the action taken.

When we developed PeopleListening, we had the opportunity to create an engagement program that reflected not just academic rigour but real-world smarts from our experience as employees, managers and HR professionals. Our goal has been to avoid these pitfalls and create a solution that is effective, pragmatic, immediate and useful.

We’re seeing significant improvements in the volume and quality of feedback collected by our clients using PeopleListening. The feedback we’re collecting from respondents about their PeopleListening survey experience also confirms it’s delivering a more positive experience.

We’re now talking to my friend about deploying PeopleListening for her organisation, and I hope to follow up with a blog following their successful implementation in the coming months!

Do you have anything to add to the don’ts and do’s? I’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment below.

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