How to design an effective employee survey

Whether you are designing a new employee survey or just want to improve your existing one this is our essential advice on how to design an effective employee survey. After all your employee experience surveys are part of the employee experience so they need to be carefully designed.

Build the business case for your employee survey

Your survey needs to add value to the business so unless you define a clear business case you might not even get to the point of designing your survey.

Finding out how people are feeling in the business can often feel like a no brainer to HR professionals. However, the business might not always see it as a high priority.

In this case it can be useful to explore the people issues that are costing the business money.

Having a clear business case for your employee survey is also an important first step when it comes to measuring the impact of your engagement survey initiatives.

For example, many businesses are facing a real retention crisis at the moment where finding out how to retain talent is a real business imperative. An exit survey will help identify what the business can do to reduce the costs associated with employee turnover.

Related to this, many businesses are also losing people within the first few months so understanding how to improve the onboarding experience of new starters will help you identify how to retain new starters more effectively.

Be clear on the purpose of your employee survey

Once your business case is clear you need to think about the purpose of your employee survey. What are the goals and objectives you want to achieve?

Employee surveys tend to have one of are four main objectives – Research, Confirm, Explore and Evaluate.

If you have never run an employee survey before you might want to run a survey to do a bit of Research to find out where the main issues are in your organisation.

Where you have run a survey before you may want to use your employee survey to Confirm the findings by repeating the previous employee survey.

Alternatively you might want to use your employee survey to Explore specific issues that have been uncovered in previous surveys in more detail.

Over time your employee surveys will provide evidence of where you need to make changes in your organisation. As you start to implement change you can use your employee surveys to Evaluate the impact of those changes.

How to design an effective employee survey

Where you already have other types of employee experience surveys in place you will need to consider how your new survey will complement your other surveys.

Having too many employee surveys running can create ‘survey fatigue’, where employees get fed up with constantly having to take part in surveys so they slowly stop taking part.

In some organisations this problem is caused because there are several surveys in place that are owned by different stakeholders. We also find that surveys can also be deployed using different platforms in the same organisation.

Running too many surveys can also lead to inertia. It can take so long to understand what all the surveys are telling you that it becomes too difficult to define specific actions for change. For example, in the NHS it can take several months for Trusts to receive their survey results, digest the data and present it to senior management. Consequently, the outcome can often be ‘it’s nearly time to run the next survey so let’s wait for that before taking action’.

Each of your surveys should have a clear business case and clear goals. It is often better to stop running some surveys, or combine them into fewer surveys.

Define what themes your employee survey needs to measure

There is no single model of employee engagement so our view is that engagement needs to be viewed, and measured, differently depending on your organisation’s specific context, challenges and needs. This is why all of our employee surveys are tailored to the organisation – there is no one size fits all.

Having said that, our own research has identified several common factors influence engagement across all organisations. It is the degree to which they are having an influence that often varies.

How to design an effective employee survey

This is our core model of engagement.

In addition to the more theoretical approach to defining what your employee survey needs to measure you can use employee focus groups to inform the survey design.

Focus groups are a good way to sense check which issues employees feel most strongly about. They are also a good way to engage employees in the whole process of finding out how to improve overall levels of employee engagement.

What questions should you use in your employee survey?

How you ask a question has an impact on how you will then be able to interpret the data. For example, if you ask a ‘yes/no’ question such as “are you happy at work?” then you will get some very specific data.

This could be useful where you want to audit whether or not people are aware of a specific initiative (see objectives 4 and 5 above).

However, you won’t be able to identify any variation in the data – some people may be mostly happy, but feel that some things could be done differently.

In our employee surveys we recommend three types of questions that work best in practice.

Demographic questions

Demographic questions enable you to collecting information about things such as age, gender, job role, which part of the business people work in etc. Demographic questions are where people are asked to select one answer from a pre-defined list of answers. This can include yes/no questions.

Qualitative questions

Qualitative questions are open-ended questions where people are asked to provide their opinions in their own words. They are usually in the form of a free-text question and are useful for allowing people to provide feedback on anything they want.

Quantitative questions

Whereas qualitative questions are open-ended, quantitative questions are measurable so you can easily measure the strength of feeling employees have about an issue. There are different types of rating scale, but basically people are asked to rate how strongly they feel about something different aspects of their employee experience.

How many questions should our employee survey contain?

There is no definitive answer on this, but there are three things to bear in mind:

1. The first thing to consider is that the more questions you ask, the longer the survey will be and the less likely employees will be to complete it. As such, asking too many questions can impact the overall effectiveness of the survey.

2. The purpose of the survey will have an impact on the number of questions. If you are running a survey for the first time, you are likely to want it to measure more than if you are using the survey to measure the impact of specific actions that have been implemented.

3. The number of engagement ‘factors’ you want to measure will impact the number of questions. We typically aim for between 5 and 8 questions per engagement factor. So, if you have 10 engagement factors your employee survey will contain 50-80 quantitative questions, in addition to any drop-down demographic questions and qualitative free-text questions.

So, how do you design an effective employee survey?

Designing an effective employee survey takes lots of thought.

Surveys are a means to an end – if you can’t make sense of the data then the survey is useless.

Being clear on the purpose of your survey, the factors you want to measure and the questions you will use to measure those factors will ensure your survey adds value to your organisation.