What are the new developments in measuring employee engagement?

Need to know:

  • Annual surveys are still most common, but agile, pulse-style research is increasingly popular for measuring engagement.
  • Technology, from online surveys through to chatbots, is revolutionising how employers track engagement, but should be used sparingly and with clear intentions.
  • Employers are increasingly moving towards seeing staff as consumers, which also means pulling in lessons from marketing and social media when measuring engagement.

According to the Benefits research published by Employee Benefits in May 2019, 80% of employers measure staff engagement, while among those that do not, 55% plan to begin doing so. This makes sense, considering that November 2019 research by Kincentric found that 79% of organisation believe positive employee experience correlates with improved business performance.

Just like any other business metric, it is in employers’ best interests to accurately measure engagement, track when it rises or drops, and take effective action.

Regular surveys

For 60% of employers, measuring engagement takes the form of in-depth, annual surveys, according to Employee Benefits’ research; however, pulse-style research is becoming more popular, being used by 31% of the 2019 respondents, compared to 18% the year before.

This reliance on long-form yearly surveys is a hangover, rather than a preference, according to Tim Christensen, chief technology officer at SocialChorus: “That choice was never made because it was effective, it was made because it was logistically too expensive to do it more frequently.”

Now, with technology allowing organisations to be in regular conversation with staff, it might seem obvious that employers should move towards more agile, frequent pulse surveys.

Simon Davies, product owner, Talksuite, at MHR International, says: “Sitting down and filling out a 14-page survey, [employees] might answer the first three or four accurately but by the 14th [they are] just ticking boxes. Having regular pulse feedback is a lot quicker. [Annual surveys are] like the census; the effort to collect all that data, and then analyse it, and by the time [that’s done], it’s probably out of date. How can that information form true business decisions unless it’s regular and it can provide historical data?”

However, while pulse surveys might be more constant, agile and adaptable, there are pitfalls to be considered. For example, agility should only be taken so far, as constantly changing the questions will leave an organisation with nothing to track trends against.

In addition, if employees are constantly being prompted for their thoughts, but do not see change being made over time, this itself can be disengaging, whereas an annual survey and follow-up can show a concerted, public effort to address employee needs.

Tried and tested

For many employers, annual surveys are well known and trusted, by both the business and staff. Organisations should not be quick to throw them away in favour of the next big thing.

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser for organisational behaviour at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “There is a growing trend around always-on surveys, [but] I don’t know why [employers] would want to collect data relating to motivation or engagement on a weekly basis, unless [they] had a very specific reason; for example, wanting to understand how [engagement levels] wax and wane through the course of a year or month.”

This comes down to understanding the employer’s intention behind gathering information, rather than doing so for the sake of it.

Other issues that come into play with pulse-style surveys relate to response rates and data quality.

“If [an employer has] an always-on survey and each week it’s only collecting a small percentage of responses, it’s not representative, so it doesn’t tell [it] anything reliable,” Gifford says. “[Employers would] be much better putting [their] efforts into getting a really good response rate once a year.”

It might well be that the addition of more regular, qualitative feedback sessions, supplementing a data-heavy annual survey, could help many employers marry the two sides of measuring engagement.

“What some organisations are doing is to spin exit interviews on their head,” Davies explains. “Ask the people who are staying, collect that information about what is keeping [them] here. If [they are] having a regular check-in, [they] can talk about lots of different things but have that regular feedback loop.”

Enabling technology

Whether keeping up with the tried and tested annual survey, or moving to a more agile approach, employers are reaping the benefits of advancements in technology.

“Everything [in external life] is available and quick, we expect that in our working lives these days,” says Davies. “Those lines are starting to merge. Bots can capture the data, [and] can also offload that to wider organisational data; retention, growth, how people are developing. That all goes into the big pot of ‘how happy are your employees?’”

In addition, the abundance of data sources available to organisations, both internally and externally, has the potential to make benchmarking easier, faster and more effective, says Christensen.

Nevertheless, there are stumbling points to be wary of, and technology is not an automatic answer, says Gifford: “[Employers] can have really funky technology that looks really impressive, but ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ is the basic principle. If [they] don’t ask good questions that are well constructed in the first place, then it’s not going to tell [them] something that’s going to be useful.”

“[Employers] need to use technology wisely, where it adds benefits,” adds Davies. “Overuse [can] over-complicate things; start with a business problem, don’t start with the technology.”

Actions over words

The age of social media has brought with it new methods of understanding engagement. For example, where employers are increasingly using corporate social channels, measuring clicks, likes and shares can help to gauge how invested and enthusiastic staff are.

This can also be seen as part of a wider move away from measuring what an employee says about engagement, and getting more to the core of the matter, says Christensen: “The problem we are seeing with surveys is that they’re very reactive, they’re trying to measure what people are saying, [not] what they’re doing.

“We would rather measure behaviour; what people are choosing to do. It’s not about engaging people, it’s about mobilising them, aligning them to the bigger picture. Those are the outcomes people are looking for when they measure engagement, they just haven’t had a way to measure that before.”

This might mean taking stock of whether staff are showing interest in the workings of the business, for example, or are willing to promote it externally.

Other lessons being taken from social media include sentiment analysis, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to log text, and track positive and negative indicators related to certain subjects over time. For an employer, subjects might be the organisation itself, the employee experience, or specific initiatives and benefits. The text might be discussions on internal social networking sites, or even sentences in response to specific questions asked in a pulse survey or by a chatbot.

“I think [text analysis] is always a useful thing to do,” says Gifford. “It’s less likely to be turned into [comparative] measurement, because it wouldn’t be the most robust way, but if [an employer is] counting the number of times a certain thing is talked about, or a certain feeling is expressed, that can give good insights into which things people feel most strongly about at any point in time.”

A marketing approach

Regular pulse surveys, sentiment analysis, and the use of technology to easily reach employees and track trends all form part of an ongoing trend towards seeing the employee as a consumer. This means, as with any ad campaign or marketing push, understanding the goal or intention in advance, and taking into consideration what a positive result looks like for a specific demographic.

Once this has been established, employers must consider which of the myriad methods, from the tried and tested annual survey to a highly agile always-on approach, fits best for their business, their staff, and their own definition of engagement.