Getting the most from staff surveys

Staff surveys can be invaluable in identifying employees’ top perks but employers must be prepared to act on the results, says Nick Golding

Case study: Mills & Reeve

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At some point in our lives, whether at Christmas or on a birthday, we have all unwrapped a present, feigned a smile and, in the back of our minds, hoped that the giver has kept the receipt.

Although it kind of spoils the surprise, it is always best to find out what people actually want, as opposed to taking a stab in the dark and getting it horribly wrong.

Similarly, employers have realised that when buying benefits for staff it is best to glean a bit of inside knowledge beforehand, such as which perks they are most likely to value. In order to extract this information from employees, a number of organisations have turned to staff surveys.

If using this method, it is vital to construct and distribute a survey in such a way that a high percentage of employees will actually respond. This is key because the quality of a survey’s results typically depend on the number of people that respond and the amount of care they have taken to answer the questions put to them honestly.

So before a questionnaire is even unleashed upon employees, an advertising campaign is necessary to let everyone know it is coming. Some organisations even allocate specific employees the task of motivating other staff and encouraging them to complete the survey.

Steve Young, deputy regional manager at research company ISR, explains: “[Employers] need to be communicating the survey to staff in all kinds of ways, and not just while it is being circulated.”

Creating a buzz before a benefits survey is distributed provides an opportunity for management to prove to staff that the comments they make will be taken on board. This can be done by parading benefits which have been introduced as a result of feedback from previous surveys before staff, for example, by bringing bikes in to the canteen to promote a bikes-for-work scheme or holding presentations on childcare vouchers.

“This is the historical factor. Employees need to see that actions have resulted from previous surveys, because if nothing came [about] from the last one, staff wll think that there is no point in filling [the next] one out,” Young says.

This has been tried and tested at accountancy firm KPMG, whose latest benefits survey received responses from 2,300 employees out of a possible 10,000. Cheryl Curtis, reward manager, explains: “We actually show employees that we are making changes on the back of their suggestions. We are not just looking as though we care [and] we are not just guessing which benefits they may like.”

It is also vital that employers catch their staff at the right time. There is little point sending out a survey and expecting people to respond the week before Christmas or in the second week of August when staff are more likely to be thinking about holidays.

If organisations plan the timing of their survey strategically, they can expect a much higher response rate, says Young. “Do not time it so that a survey goes out two days after another one. There is such a thing as survey fatigue, and employees sometimes need a chance to recover.”

KPMG surveys employees at the beginning of each year, immediately after its flexible benefits renewal period has expired. “Our renewals are in January so, as soon as staff have finished deciding which new benefits they are after, we hit them with the survey while benefits are still fresh in their minds,” explains Curtis.

Employers must also ensure that they make the survey as accessible as possible, although larger organisations which have a more diverse workforce or employees that are based at different locations, may find this more difficult.

Glyn Luckett, business development manager at Mavern Research, explains: “Employers need to ensure that they use all the tools available [to them] to communicate, so use the intranet, paper-based letters or specialised computer groups.

“There may also be a percentage of employees who do not understand English as well as others, and you have to ensure you reach everyone, so it may be necessary to use multi-language questionnaires.”

Special attention should also be paid to the design of the survey itself, and the type of questions asked, because this could make or break an employee’s decision as to whether to respond. A large questionnaire with long questions requiring detailed answers, for example, can be intimidating for someone who only wants to spend a short amount of time answering questions.

George Howells, head of operations at P&MM, says: “No-one wants to fill the thing out for two hours so we advise our clients to keep the questions relatively short.”

Some organisations even inform employees at the top of the survey that it will only take a very short time to fill out to prevent them from tossing it to one side when it arrives. “We have a clock on the side of the survey with five minutes [pictured] on it so employees know exactly how much of their time they are going to give up,” explains KPMG’s Curtis.

This is not the only way that employers can encourage staff to pick up a survey and offer some honest opinions. They can also give it some weight by asking a member of the board to endorse the project, explains Young. “Senior level support is very important because if an employee can see that a member of the board has endorsed the survey, employees are much more likely to take notice.”

Branding is also a key way for organisations to encourage their staff to participate in benefit surveys. By naming a survey or using a logo that is commonly associated with the existing benefits scheme, staff will be less likely to file the survey in the bin. “Make sure the survey is branded with some sort of name, such as Your Choice or Your Voice. This will allow staff to identify it right away, and better [your] chances of feedback,” says Luckett

Case study: Mills & Reeve

Law firm Mills & Reeve’s 2006 survey received an 82% response rate from its 600 employees. Sandy Boyle, HR director, explains: “We do quite a lot of warming up for our staff before it goes live and, during the time it is actually running, we use poster campaigns and the intranet to let people know it’s going on and why we are conducting it.”

Because all employees have easy access to the internet, Mills & Reeve set up an external website for staff so that they could access the survey either at work or at home.

“We did the whole thing online because this way we could communicate to the vast majority of our staff, and if [they] were too busy at work they could spend some time completing the survey at home,” explains Boyle.

The law firm is also a firm believer in presenting what has been achieved in previous years to staff when they have taken the time to respond to the survey. “We implemented a flexible benefits package following the benefits survey in 2004, and we remind staff of this each year,” says Boyle.

Survey checklist

A successful benefits survey needs to be:

Well timed -†There is no point sending out a survey at the busiest time of the year or while employees are being surveyed by another department.

Concise -†Keep the survey succinct because employees are much less likely to pick up a heavily-worded document which requires lengthy answers than they are a short questionnaire with tick boxes.

Endorsed -†To give the survey some weighting and to convince staff of its importance, it is recommended that employers seek endorsement from a member of the senior management team.

Backed up with evidence that views are listened to. Show employees that, by answering the survey, changes will be made by providing evidence of previously-introduced benefits launched off the back of a staff survey.