Special Report: Motivation – Staff satisfaction surveys

Intimidating your workforce can often be a by-product of staff satisfaction surveys, so focus your goals and always tread carefully, says Alison Coleman

Case Study: Snowdrop Systems

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Organisations go to great lengths to motivate their staff, but firms that fail to invest the same amount of time and money in measuring the results could be storing up trouble. Employee dissatisfaction can inflict a huge amount of damage on an organisation, not just in terms of low morale affecting productivity, but also in terms of high levels of staff turnover and increased sickness absence levels.

Carrying out regular and detailed staff surveys is one way that management can monitor levels of employee satisfaction and, more importantly, address any issues that might be affecting the organisation in a negative way. Neil Barber, director of research at performance management company Maritz, says: "These surveys should be carried out regularly, with available budget and the level of interest from the company dictating whether this is done monthly, quarterly, annually or bi-annually. "However, there is little point in a company running them frequently if it doesn’t have the time, money and desire to look carefully at the results and implement any necessary changes."

Surveys can be conducted at a number of levels, including a general poll, relating to the business as a whole, or a narrower one, aimed at just one department. At another level, employee engagement can be measured against the financial and sales performance of the organisation. However, employers are sometimes wary of initiating such research because of what they perceive as the cost or complexity of the task, and the fear that it may make staff feel as though they are being spied upon.

But in fact many employees feel more valued if they are asked their opinion, as long as those thoughts are listened to, and where appropriate, acted on. But how do companies decide which questions to ask their staff? Cary Cooper, an organisational psychologist at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), says: "Employers need to identify the components of job satisfaction. Is it pay and benefits, effective leadership, or a good team-working environment? Once they’ve identified those, they need to go micro on them, get right down to the detail of understanding how staff feel about them."

Qualitative questions on a satisfaction survey can be as important as quantitative ones. Gareth English, a senior consultant at business psychologists OPP, says: "Open questions can be quite revealing and highly informative." He adds that employers may have assumed that their workforce is dissatisfied with rates of pay or a heavy workload, but, in fact, a majority of staff may in unprompted fashion cite a lack of company support. The issue of confidentiality will also affect the accuracy of the responses. If staff perceive that the information given is not treated confidentially they are less likely to be honest about aspects of the organisation or their line manager that they are dissatisfied with. For that reason, surveys carried out departmentally need to be handled with greater care. "A department with only four or five people may feel more nervous about giving unpopular responses as they may feel more easily identifiable," English adds. Companies also need to benchmark their survey findings. "Once you have your responses, you need to identify where you differ in your sector, and most crucially, develop a plan of action to address these areas," says LUMS’ Cooper.

That means bringing together representatives from the various departments and sections involved in the survey to come up with solutions as a group. "The worst thing a company can do is carry out a satisfaction survey and then ignore the findings. You will simply build up false expectations which will lead to poor levels of satisfaction in the future," adds Cooper. As well as providing a regular health check on employee satisfaction, surveys can also be used to monitor any differences in those levels once a company has gone through a massive reorganisation or period of change. When mobile phone network 3 underwent the transition from being a technology pioneer to a mass consumer brand, the firm’s HR team was keen to find out how well employees were adapting to the changes and carried out a detailed satisfaction survey.

The response rate was high, with 80% of its 2,000 employees replying to the questionnaire, which was designed to deliver complex regression analysis in order to identify those topics with the greatest bearing on how 3’s employees felt about the company. John Vickerman, 3’s director of people and property, says: "This revealed our staff genuinely care about and are personally affected by how the business is performing and the direction it is going in. They are next most influenced by how co-operative their colleagues are, how challenging their work is – where challenge was a good thing – the quality of the environment they are in, work-life balance and pay. "Essentially, knowing more about where the business is heading mattered more than pay when it came to making [employees] feel connected with the company and happy in their roles."

Other methods of gauging levels of staff satisfaction include the organisation of focus groups and workshops, where employees have the opportunity to provide feedback directly to management. However, these don’t work for every company. Claire Wilson, a consultant with recruitment consultancy Bernard Hodes, says: "Managers are often nervous about what they might be asked and are unsure of exactly what they can and can’t say.

However these exercises do create a culture of openness, and of being listened to by the decision-makers. In that respect, these sessions can serve as a means of improving satisfaction rather than measuring it."

Employee engagement – the new staff satisfaction?

Employers may need to rethink their view on staff satisfaction, and focus instead on a new measurable component – employee engagement. Dilys Robinson, a principal research fellow from the Institute of Employment Studies, says: "Fifteen years ago, it was enough to simply ask staff if they were happy in their job. A decade ago, the emphasis shifted away from satisfaction towards commitment and the measuring of positive attitudes towards the organisation. The focus is changing again, this time towards levels of employee engagement and measurement of that."

She adds that engagement really indicates how closely workers align themselves to an organisation and its culture and objectives. "If they are positive about the organisation and want to make it a better place, then fundamentally that suggests they are satisfied. But for engagement measurements to be reliable, the challenge is to ensure that staff have a clear understanding of their company’s culture, and business strategy in the first place."

Case Study: Snowdrop Systems

For HR software provider Snowdrop Systems, entering the Sunday Times Best Company to Work For Awards added an extra dimension to the process of measuring staff satisfaction and also saved it money.

Jenny Campbell, marketing manager at Snowdrop Systems, says: "We had done employee satisfaction surveys in previous years using third-party providers, but they took time and were quite expensive."

The awards involved a similar process of getting staff to complete questionnaires that covered a range of workplace issues and topics. "The entry fee was just £250 and not only did we glean a lot of valuable information about staff satisfaction, we were able to compare ourselves against other organisations. And because the details were published online, staff had access to the feedback and the comparisons as well."

Overall, the company was ranked 68th in the Best SME to Work For category. High levels of staff satisfaction were recorded for leadership and team-working.