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  • Writer's pictureGraham Atkinson

The Employee Engagement Survey: Making it Make a Difference

Motivated woman on pier at sunset

Views around the ‘big annual employee engagement survey’ have shifted.

The world is moving faster and the labour market is volatile. It’s arguably more important than ever that leaders are in touch with how staff in their organisations are feeling.

Can leaders genuinely afford to wait 12-months before getting a health-check on employee engagement levels?


No, absolutely not. 

There has been an increase, in lots of organisations, in the use of more agile methods of capturing and responding to staff feedback – pulse surveys, exit interviews, focus groups etc.

Surveys are still a really useful tool to understand your employee experience; but they are not the only tool and it’s important they are used as part of a blended approach to gathering feedback. The depth and detail of feedback from an engagement survey can be invaluable in building really effective insight into the employee experience.


But once you’ve collected your data and survey results, how do you extract that value and ensure that your employee engagement survey really makes a difference and drives change?


Find (and Tell) the Story


Firstly, it’s really important to find the story within your data. Brene Brown says that “stories are data with a soul”. It’s usually the job of HR or the leadership team to give the survey data its soul.


Often, a helpful starting point is to look at your lowest scores (without fixating on them). This may help you to quickly spot the areas with biggest opportunity for improvement.

You should also be looking at what has changed since you last did the survey. If there are significant drops or improvements, do you know why this is? There may be a clear reason, or you may need to scratch under the surface to understand why.


Then, the richest insight often comes from exploring specific groupings of staff. For example, do managers have different perceptions to non-managers? Are there certain departments that have higher or lower scores than the average? Do staff from underrepresented or marginalised groups have different experiences?


These are all really important opportunities to spot and articulate a clear narrative to go alongside your raw results data.


Employee Experience or Employee Engagement


It’s very easy, once you’ve established the story, to focus on ‘how can we improve employee engagement?’  Employee engagement is typically shorthand for:


  • Are people are proud to work in your organisation?

  • Are they willing to put in extra effort?

  • Would they recommend it as a place to work.


These are great indicators but they are also deeply intrinsic and outside of the employer’s direct control.


When starting to think about turning your feedback into action, you’re likely to be better served by focusing on the employee experience. How can you ensure people know what good looks like? How can you give people a sense of purpose in their work? What do you do to recognise staff and treat people as individuals?


Focusing your energy and interventions on the employee experience, if you get it right, will likely make a difference around whether staff feel (and are) engaged.


Identify Connections


Absolute scores, on their own, can be a good starting point. However, they can also be slightly misleading. Pay and reward, for example, is often one of the lowest areas of scoring in employee engagement surveys – especially in the Voluntary Sector.


If you looked at pay and reward scores in isolation, your conclusion may be “we need to pay people more”. Sometimes that may be the case. But also, in my experience, reward is often an area that is very closely connected to other elements of employee experience.

If someone gives a negative response around a question on “I feel I am rewarded fairly”, that could also link, for example, to their perceptions around workload, progression and learning and development.


Try to spot connections and correlations between scores and be willing to interrogate and challenge your own assumptions.


Communicate and Encourage Shared Ownership


Everyone has a responsibility for contributing to an inclusive, high-performing and enjoyable work environment. If staff have taken the time to share feedback through a survey, it’s important to empower them to be able to contribute to the solutions.


It’s very easy sometimes to see employee engagement surveys as a tool just for HR or for senior leaders. But it shouldn’t be.


Clearly, different people will have different roles, responsibilities and levels of power to be able to implement actions. And, yes, it’s crucial that leaders role-model the right behaviours and set the tone. But often there are improvements and changes to which a range of colleagues can contribute.


Clarify what you expect from leaders and HR, but also where there are changes or actions to be led by line managers and staff.


Don’t be afraid to be loud about your results. Celebrate and shine a spotlight on good practice. Be authentic and humble about gaps and weaknesses. Be clear about what you are going to (and not going to) change and make sure you have a rhythm for communicating progress and taking people on a journey.


Action Plan


Employee engagement surveys can sometimes generate a long list of ideas for change and improvement. This is great but we also have limited capacity and resource. It’s therefore important to identify the things that will have the biggest impact and properly analyse how easy or difficult they will be to action.

Hopefully, your engagement survey will help you to identify some quick and easy wins – the things that are easy to change and will have a big impact. These are your low hanging fruit and are like gold dust. Action them quickly.


At Atkinson HR, we recently worked on a project with a client which included elements of staff engagement and interaction. Through our conversations, we identified that a source of frustration for colleagues was… the date of payroll.

It was the ‘third Thursday of every month’ which caused challenges for staff in planning their bills and direct debits. Once they realised the impact, the organisation changed this immediately – a quick win with big impact.


There may also be some easy actions that have low impact. Keep these in your back pocket and use them at the right time to maintain momentum. They may not set the world alight, but they will help you ensure progress whilst you’re working on the harder stuff.


Some ideas and actions will be low impact and hard to deliver. Deprioritise these and revisit them if, and only if, you have capacity.


The last category is your ideas and actions that will clearly have an impact but are complex, difficult and challenging to implement. These might involve cultural change, management development, structural change etc. These things will need to be planned and resourced carefully. You should plan for them and assign responsibility and timelines – but avoid rushing in.


There are some additional practical tips on action planning in this guide from Asana.


Don’t Duplicate; Build Accountability


Finally, it’s really important to take an intentional and focused approach to change, underpinned by accountability.


If your organisation already has a people strategy or plan, don’t rip it up or ride roughshod over it by creating a host of other action plans. The first question should be: does our existing strategy already address the opportunities and gaps we’ve identified? If it does, then great. Stay focused and let people know.


In most cases, the existing strategy or plan might address some of the issues, but may need refining and reprioritising to ensure it is aligned to the feedback from staff. Like any good planning process, you should always be willing to adjust your plans when you have new information and insight.


If you don’t already have a ‘people plan’, then an employee engagement survey will give you a great foundation. But… remember it’s one of a number of data points and tools that can inform that plan.


In Summary


Employee engagement surveys can be (and are) a fantastic tool, but the art is not just in collecting the data – it’s in really understanding how to use the data and turn feedback into action.


If you’re interested in introducing an employee engagement survey into your organisation, you should speak to our friends at Agenda Consulting.


If you already have an engagement survey and would like help in making sure it makes a difference, feel free to get in touch with us at Atkinson HR – book a call now.


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