Staff surveys

How do you know what employees are thinking if you don’t ask for feedback? Jenny Keefe looks at issues to consider when formulating staff surveys.

Case Study – National Express Group

Article in full

Potential recruits surfing a UK airline union website might think twice about applying upon reading staff comments such as "the company has reached a new low in employee relations". While venting your spleen online is catching on, most employers would rather hear it firsthand from the horse’s mouth – and workforce surveys can ensure that employers are not the last to know.

Asking ‘how was it for you?’ is common sense: after all, why fork out millions on a final salary pension scheme when employees are secretly hankering after cheap CDs? Professor Merlin Stone of the Bristol Business School confirms: "Staff surveys – I mean good quality ones that really probe how staff feel and why they feel it, not crap customer satisfaction type stuff – are extraordinarily powerful. You do all your motivational work and you assume that it has worked.

But if you don’t survey staff, then you don’t really know why they are productive." The Trades Union Congress’ (TUC) What workers want report in 2001 showed that eight-out-of-ten employees want at least a little influence on perks and bonuses, but only a third believe that they have any. Indeed, asking staff for their views will rise further up the agenda after the European Information and Consultation Directive kicks in this month.

Don Porter, managing director of market research firm MSB, says: "If you look at the trend and where the European and international markets are going, there is a very strong trend towards the consultation of employees and where there are trades unions they are very supportive of this approach when it’s done properly." Surveys are a key element of this dialogue between employer and employee. Hannah Reed, senior employment rights officer at the TUC, adds: "A lot of research which has been carried out shows that employers who sit down and talk and inform staff are more likely to have productive and effective workforces.

When staff are in the know, they are more likely to have a sense of buy-in to the organisation and are much more likely to feel loyal." But before rushing in with clipboards blazing, it’s time to draw up a game plan. Jane Sullivan, surveys and diagnostics researcher for the Work Foundation, explains: "The organisation needs to think quite clearly about why they are going down the survey route, because unless you have clarity in the beginning about why you are doing the questionnaire, when you get the results you are left floundering. "Most organisations will have a reason like ‘we think the culture’s not that great here and we want to know why’, or ‘we think everything’s hunky-dory’."

While some employers carry out polls in-house, others prefer to recruit an external survey firm. But, Sullivan warns that DIY data collection has its pitfalls. "I think most organisations that do it themselves; unless they’ve got someone in-house who is a specialist, usually stuff it up, big time. The biggest problem you can deal with when you do it yourself is confidentiality, because people will never believe that it’s anonymous if the company themselves is doing it." Objectivity can also be an issue. "I know people that have done it internally and have come under pressure to project a positive picture; there can be a conflict of interest. If you bring in a consultant then they are bound by a code of ethics to maintain confidentiality and anonymity, and to present the results as they are, rather than fudging them," she says.

Many HR teams are now roping in the marketing department when polling about perks. Peter Gouge, a committee member specialising in employee research for the Market Research Society, says: "So far as benefits are concerned, then employees are the customers. It is just the same argument for doing research among customers because if you don’t engage the audience that you are trying to satisfy, you will never know that you are pressing the right buttons. "Traditionally, the two things have been done quite independently and, typically, the HR function would do the employee research and the marketing function would do the customer research. But the alignment of those two groups of people is becoming increasingly important." Despite the current trend for treating your people the same as your punters, certain research techniques of the old school hold true. Gouge stresses the importance of gaining qualitative data before handing out quantitive questionnaires. "Focus groups or less structured interviews are very good for developing ideas.

If somebody really has a clean sheet of paper then it’s worth doing some qualitative research to work out the boundaries and see what the possibilities are. Then you want to quantify it and get a harder measure of how many people would actually be interested in this or that." As with any research, keeping the response rate high is a priority. So how do you encourage staff to take part? "There has got to be a motivation for them to do it. The worst thing that can happen is to conduct a survey and then not do anything with the results. It’s not a matter of healing one’s conscience by saying we spoke to everyone and then completely ignore what their views were. "Therefore, part of that is having the involvement of people right at the top of the organisation.

So, if it has the visible support of the managing director then that’s going to help with the response. You can also set aside company time for people to do it. One should certainly get a better response rate than one would do in ordinary customer research because it’s more directly relevant to them." Technology has expanded greatly over the last five years and the workforce can now be quizzed by CD-Rom, email, internet or intranet. Nevertheless, online survey systems are certainly not for everyone. Di Addison, a consultant at incentive company Maritz, says: "If you have an organisation where everyone sits at desks with PCs then it’s more cost effective and quicker for them to survey through a web-enabled platform."

However, she adds that retail staff might not be able to access a computer, in which case a phone or paper survey would be better. Another trend is to question workers in bite-size chunks on a daily basis. Bristol Business School’s Stone says: "Most call centre systems now have questionnaires built into them so customers can talk about how the call was handled, but firms are also using these systems to allow staff to give questionnaire feedback to their managers. So the real-time feedback from staff has been increased by [organisations] dramatically." The real work, however, begins after staff have rated their benefits and a dense pile of statistics is dumped on your desk. The Work Foundation’s Sullivan explains: "You use all different types of statistical analysis to work out what the key points that need attention are.

You can use benchmarking so you can compare results against industry averages. We would say draw up an action plan and pick the top three things that you want to deal with." Finally, because there’s nothing worse than talking to a brick wall, explain to staff which perks can and can’t change and why. "The minute you start to survey people, you raise an expectation that something’s going to happen. If you do a survey and nothing happens as a result then you are kind of asking for trouble," says Sullivan.

10 Top Tips

1 Remember that a question implies a promise of action. So don’t ask unless you expect to act.

2 Make sure that every question passes the ‘Use It’ test. Don’t ask for information that you couldn’t use even if employees answered unfavourably.

3 Get a reasonable sample of employees. Somewhere between 25% and 35% is the right group size.

4 Test the survey on a few guinea pigs first. This will check that language is easy to understand and isn’t full of management jargon.

5 Tell staff what’s it in for them. They will want to know what they will gain from giving up their time.

6 Address the question of confidentiality. Offer a promise that confidentiality will not be breached and explain the safeguards that you have put in place.

7 Avoid peak times. Response rates are lower at busy times of year so don’t send out surveys at Christmas or when people have a big project.

8 Explain the initiative behind the survey. Calling it a study about improving benefits will get more responses than just calling it a study.

9 Brace yourself for bad news. Plan how you will deal with and deliver uncomfortable findings.

10 Accentuate the positive. When delivering feedback to the board, sandwich bad news inside more favourable results so that you leave on a positive note.

Case Study: National Express group

When National Express Group carried out its first workforce survey in 2003, it shared all the results with staff, warts and all. And with 59% of employees disagreeing with the statement, ‘I experience benefits being part of the group’, the results made uneasy reading. Nicola Marsden, director of communications at the public transport firm, headed up the survey.

"While we’ve done some things, there are others that we are still trying to get to grips with. If we can’t do it we have to get back to our staff and say why," she says. As a result of the poll, the company brought in a new incentive scheme to reward employees considered a cut above the rest. "Once a year, the group will give an excellence award. The prize is £3,000 for an individual and £5,000 for a team, so they are quite chunky prizes." Another new addition is a booklet of voluntary benefits deals, where staff can pick up discounts on optical care, bikes and healthcare.

But National Express still had to turn down some requests. "Something we are still trying to address is that our staff would like to be able to travel on our services for free and that’s something that came out of the survey quite strongly. "It’s just not as simple as people might think because of the tax implications, so it’s not something we’ve cracked quite yet." The firm sent a four page questionnaire out to the home addresses of all of UK employees (80% of workers are drivers, with no PC access), and got a 36% response rate.

"In the lead up to that, we did about 20 focus groups up and down the country, across the operations, covering the most senior managers down to the most front facing staff. The sessions very much informed the questions which we put into the questionnaire."