The best way to run successful employee focus groups

Employee focus groups can be a really useful way to either shape the design of your survey or to dig deeper into your employee survey results. In this post, we provide tips for running successful focus group sessions.

What is an employee focus group?

the best way to run successful employee focus groups

A focus group is a moderated discussion among several individuals to gather specific feedback on how they feel about an issue. Focus groups are a widely used technique in market research, advertising, and politics to gain awareness of consumers’ attitudes, but focus groups can also be used to understand how to improve engagement in your organisation.

During the focus group session, a facilitator asks participants open-ended questions to generate discussion on key topics. The skill of the facilitator is to promote discussion and then summarise the views of the group.

What are the benefits of employee focus groups?

The major benefit of focus groups is that they provide an opportunity to dig into issues a little deeper. Facilitators can use questions to expand on issues and really test understanding of how people feel.

Hearing people speak provides a greater understanding of the depth of feeling about different issues. Employees may not always feel able to express themselves fully when responding to free text questions in a survey, but they will be able to do so verbally.

In a group discussion, people will bounce off each other to develop and refine their points. This can help form unrelated issues into key themes.

Focus groups signal that the organisation is literally engaging with people. Making the time to bring people together and allowing the space for them to provide feedback is an extremely powerful way to help people feel that they have really had their say without any restrictions.

Focus groups can be shaped to explore specific issues. For example, if your employee survey suggests that reward and recognition is an area that employees feel dissatisfied about you can structure part of the focus group to discuss this particular topic.

Related to this, focus group discussions can help confirm the depth of feeling about different issues. We often find that even though survey results may appear to be negative, discussions from focus groups reveals that the issues are not actually as important as they appear to be. Where several issues are being discussed, employees will often define a natural priority to how important it is to take action on the various issues.

Focus groups can be used to generate solutions. Of course one of the downsides of focus groups is they can degenerate into a bit of a whinging session. A skilled facilitator will be able to challenge the group to propose ideas and solutions that will help the organisation prioritise how to take action.

How can employee focus groups be used in practice?

Focus groups will allow you to form a more comprehensive picture of how your people feel about your organisation through qualitative insights. They also provide the opportunity to show that you value employee feedback and are dedicated to improving the workplace.

Whilst focus groups can be really valuable way to gather feedback on how people feel they can be time consuming to run and it can be tricky to make sense of the feedback you get if they are unstructured.

We recommend using employee focus groups to complement your employee experience surveys. They can do this in two ways.

Focus groups can inform the design of your employee surveys

Sometimes, surveys can be quite long, simply because you’re not sure what to measure. Focus groups can be a really useful way to identify the common themes that your people care about. In other words, what they value about working for you and what they find frustrating.

Focus groups can be made up of any cross section of the business. You can either group similar functions or levels together or run cross-functional groups. By spending time with representative groups we will quickly identify the key things that seem to matter. 

We use focus groups to help you make decisions on what to include in your employee experience surveys. 

Focus groups will allow you to dig deeper into your employee survey results

When used after an employee survey has been completed, focus groups can be a useful way to share the results with people.

In addition, they can promote further discussion and understanding about the issues raised. Survey questions can sometimes be restrictive so discussion in a safe environment is a way of expanding on the issues. A focus group can help add colour and point the way towards key actions that will make the most difference. 

How to run successful employee focus groups

Define the purpose and goals of your employee focus groups

Before conducting an employee focus group, it’s important to define the purpose and goals of the session. Are you looking to identify themes to include in an employee survey? Are you looking to explore issues highlighted from an employee survey? What specific issues or topics do you want to address? Do you want to gather ideas for improving engagement?

Having a clearly defined purpose and goals will ensure the session stays on track and that you gather the information you need to make meaningful changes.

Choose your participants carefully

Selecting appropriate participants will have a big impact on the success of the focus group.

We do not suggest that choosing participants should contrived. In other words you should not choose people just because they will give you the ‘right ‘answers.

You should choose employees who are representative of the larger workforce. Consider things such as job type, department, length of service, and diversity. We would advise inviting people from a broad and representative cross-section of the workforce.

One question we often get asked is whether to bring people together from the same part of the business or from the same ‘level’. We recommend ensuring the group contains a mix of people, but we also recommend having separate sessions for managers versus non-managers. Non-managers often have different views to managers and they can feel inhibited if managers are present.

Keep the numbers manageable. If you have a lot of employees then you might be needing to run lots of focus groups! The temptation is to make the groups as large as possible to minimise the cost. However, we recommend keeping your focus groups to around 12 people to ensure everyone feels comfortable and has the opportunity to have their say.

Consider logistics

There are some logistical things you need to consider when organising your focus groups.

Consider where to hold them. You should aim for a location that is convenient for people to get to. The room should be large enough to accommodate everyone and to hold smaller breakout groups. You should have refreshments available, it should be accessible to those with additional needs and of course it should be comfortable. You will also need materials such as flipcharts and whiteboards etc.

You will need to communicate the logistics in advance so you will need to book rooms and then communicate timings, locations and the purpose and agenda for the meetings. We would advise running the focus group during normal working hours as this signals that the discussion is important enough to be consider part of normal work. It will also ensure everyone has the same opportunity to attend.

Nowadays, it is much more normal to carry out meetings remotely using Zoom or MS Teams. It would be entirely possible to facilitate a focus group remotely, but you will need to ensure that everyone has access to a computer and is comfortable using the platform.

You will need to prepare an agenda in advance. Whilst one of the benefits of focus groups is that they allow the discussion to evolve, it will help to have an outline structure so people can begin ‘tuning in’ to what they will be asked to do before they arrive. A typical focus group agenda will cover:

  • Welcome and introductions
  • Focus group purpose and objectives
  • Clarification around ground rules and confidentiality
  • Outline topics for discussion
  • Summary and next steps

Choose your facilitator(s) carefully for your employee focus groups

The focus group facilitator is perhaps the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of the sessions. Effective focus group facilitators posses the following skills:

  • they are good at quickly putting people at ease
  • they are welcoming, friendly, open and good at building rappport
  • they often possess humour as this allows them to connect with people
  • they are comfortable thinking on their feet as they often need to ‘go with the flow’
  • they are flexible and will guide the conversation rather than rigidly adhering to a preset format
  • they are good listeners
  • they are able to pose additional questions to probe points as they come up during the discussion
  • they are energetic, they encourage people to participate and keep the energy in the room high
  • they are organised, they know how to use the technology and materials and have a grasp of the agenda and any supporting materials
  • they are transparent and impartial, they do not impose their own views or opinions on the group or seek to manipulate the output in any way

How to define your focus group questions

Although focus groups are largely discussion based they should be structured around a core set of questions. However, the purpose is not to simply ask all the questions you would ask in an employee survey!

The key things to think about when defining your focus group questions are:

Limit the number of questions

You will be surprised how few questions you actually need to generate a lot of discussion. It is better to ask three or four open questions that generate lots of information than to close of discussion just because you need to ask another question.

Consider the types of questions you ask

You should avoid closed yes/no questions at all cost. As any interviewer knows, asking lots of closed questions can lead to a very short, and unsatisfying, ‘discussion’.

Rating scale questions can be useful where you need to take a quick poll of how people feel about very specific issues. For example, you could ask people to quickly rate how much they agree or disagree to some specific statements. This approach can actually create the opportunity to explore the reasons people rated each question the way they did.

The best focus group question to ask are open-ended questions as these will naturally generate discussion. This will help to generate more in-depth and meaningful responses from participants. For example:

  • How would you describe the company’s culture?
  • How would you suggest the company improves career progression for all employees?
  • If you could change one thing about how managers behave, what would that be?

Relate your questions to your employee survey

If you are using focus groups to inform the design of your survey you should structure the questions to allow you to identify the key themes that people feel strongly about. You can then build the discussion output into the design of your employee survey.

If you are using focus groups to explore the survey results then you should structure your questions to focus on the key issues that the survey highlighted.

Be consistent

Even though the discussion will be different in every focus group session, you should follow the same agenda and question format. This will provide everyone with the same opportunity and it will make analysing the output from all of the sessions much easier.

How to analyse the output from your employee focus groups

As focus groups are discussion based it is quite time consuming to accurately summarise the information you gather, but it is essential to ensure the focus groups add as much value as possible.

We tend to follow the following process:

  • identify the main themes from the discussions
  • identify relevant examples to reinforce the meaning behind the themes
  • identify any differences based on demographics
  • prioritise the themes based on strength of feeling
  • identify specific ideas or suggestions for action

In conclusion

Although they take up time, resource and effort to organise, employee focus groups can be a really useful way to either shape the design of your survey or to dig deeper into your employee survey results. If you take the time to consider the best way to design your focus groups you will be able to begin delivering higher levels of employee engagement in your organisation.