Skip to main content
Article | EX Insights

Why an effective listening strategy starts with the annual employee survey

Talent
N/A

November 2015

The concept of an “employee listening strategy” has recently gained momentum in HR circles.

The concept of an “employee listening strategy” has recently gained momentum in HR circles. The idea is to move away from the traditional sole reliance on a large, comprehensive (typically annual) employee opinion survey and toward the use of a range of more focused solutions that allow a company to gather input from employees on a more ongoing and targeted basis. Typical solutions falling under this description include pulse surveys, social media scans, “always on” surveys, and online “chats” and “jams.”

At Willis Towers Watson, we are delighted to help lead this important evolution in how employee opinion can be used to make better business decisions, improve employee engagement and ultimately enhance organizational performance. (For some of our newest solutions in this area, please visit Employee Surveys.) At the same time, we think it is vitally important that, amid these exciting changes, one does not lose sight of the value of the large-scale, comprehensive employee opinion survey. Indeed, it is our view that this vehicle must serve as the very foundation of a broader listening strategy, and in so doing will greatly enhance the value of all other tools. The distinctive, enduring value of the annual survey can be attributed to the following:

  • Inclusiveness. The annual (or biennial) large-scale survey, unique in its inclusion of all employees across an entire company, ensures that all employees feel involved in the organizational improvement process. This is a critical prerequisite for any successful change initiatives likely to result from the survey. Collecting data from all (or nearly all) employees also means results can be reported to almost all leaders and managers (assuming returns above a minimum threshold). This enables the most widespread organizational improvement possible and according to the unique needs of each group based on its particular results. Finally, having more extensive data means that advanced predictive modeling is possible. Such modeling, which draws on big data, is used to demonstrate and quantify the impact of employee opinion on business outcomes, and therefore provides tremendous insight and compelling motivation for organizational improvement and change. 
  • Breadth. Annual surveys typically include a longer list of questions (covering a broader range of issues most typically 50 to 60 for a Willis Towers Watson survey). Clearly one could not practically deploy a survey of this length on a monthly or quarterly basis, but it’s ideal for annual or biennial use when attempting to fully understand organizational culture and sustainable engagement. Why? A larger question set widens the range of understanding and therefore decreases the possibility that key insights will be missed. It is similar to recruiting employees from several sources versus only one or two. You are essentially increasing your odds that you’ll find a diamond in the rough. Further, not only can you identify a topic of concern among employees, e.g., leadership, but you can also gain further insight into the details of the issue. For example, are leaders failing to provide a compelling vision? Do they lack concern for employees? Are they perceived as dishonest or unethical, or operationally incompetent? All of these questions can be answered in a typical full-scale survey, as opposed to revealing merely that leadership is an issue, which is what one might learn from a 10-question pulse survey. Having these insights and details up front helps organizations take action more quickly. 

    A related benefit of a broader question set is the ability to conduct valid key driver analyses, which identify the strongest statistical predictors of employee engagement at a company. This analysis is an extremely valuable tool for prioritizing issues and actions. Without it, there is no way to determine if the leadership issue mentioned above, for example, has any impact whatsoever on employee engagement, or its relative impact versus other opportunities such as career development. Such prioritization is critical given most companies’ limited time and resources. 
  • Momentum. The third and perhaps most important value of an annual survey is its far stronger ability to drive organizational improvement. A larger-scale census survey generates tremendous organizational momentum for change, fueled largely by the expectations of employees. While these expectations need to be managed so as not to become unrealistic, they are a tremendously positive motivator of change. In contrast, when surveying only 10% of the population with only 15 questions via a pulse survey, for example, employee expectations for action, or even for hearing about the results, are much diminished. While leaders may embrace this approach over the short term because it relieves them of the hard work of dealing with the results of longer surveys, in the long run, it cheats the company out of improvement gains. Further, it makes it increasingly less likely employees will continue to participate in surveys when asked, no matter how short they may be.

Advances in technology have made a broad range of solutions for gathering employee input cheaper, faster and easier than ever. These tools, such as targeted pulse surveys, social media scans, always-on surveys, and online chats and jams, can be deployed in combination and on an ongoing basis to form a highly valuable employee listening strategy. At the center of this strategy is the comprehensive, large-scale annual (or biennial) survey serving as the foundation for a thorough and valid understanding of organizational culture and employee engagement, and their links to business performance.

Contact Us
Related content tags, list of links Article EX Insights Talent