No Image Available

Hugh Tonks



Read more about Hugh Tonks

Four ways your employee survey is holding back internal communications


The degree of success enjoyed by your organisation’s internal communications can depend on many factors – yet ultimately all decisions you make on these matters rely on good quality information. And where does much of that information come from? The employee survey, naturally, by now a traditional (but not necessarily venerable) annual event for many companies. It’s “received wisdom” that this is how things should be, but if we are to spend significant time and money on running a survey, and then more time and money on internal communications arising from the results, shouldn’t we be sure that it’s delivering the sort of information we need?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the “success factors” for survey-based communications, examining what we currently get from the traditional survey, and determining the gap between this and a more ideal situation in which there are fewer restrictions and obstacles.

Timing: Surveys generally happen once a year. Increasingly, with the help of technology, the results are available very quickly. Even so, the results can only be considered accurate for a few months at most, and are likely to be affected to some extent by the time of year at which the survey is conducted. So to make best use of annual results, any messaging would have to be bunched in the months following the survey. More frequent surveys could help, but beware of Survey Fatigue amongst staff (and increased organisational and administrative pain).

Engagement specialist Noel Privett, sometime Director of Internal Communications at HSBC and Legal & General, concurs:  “The usual staff survey is about as much use as that annual Christmas card you get from a distant relative, because you haven’t a clue how things are the rest of the year. Effective employee engagement is needs constant dialogue, which should enable continuous improvement. If you wait a year to find out how employees feel, it’s just too late to do anything meaningful with the results. You need to be able to see changes in mood, no matter how small, positive or negative, as they happen, otherwise you waste money and jeopardise engagement.” 

Ideally, then, we would like to be able to gauge the mood of the organisation at any time, so that communications can take into account recent changes of opinion amongst staff and remain topical. The traditional survey’s score here: a charitable 3/10. Having said this, social media tools are increasingly popular and can definitely help the organisation keep up with what’s being said, as an adjunct to the survey (but probably not as a replacement).

Audience and Style: Most surveys allow demographic categories to be applied, so you do at least get to know the aggregate opinions of smaller groups, not just the whole workforce. You can pick out groups which have especially bad scores on a given topic and communicate with them, because you know who is in which demographic group. However, any demographic group is still likely to contain a spread of opinion, which means crafting one-size-fits-all messaging, which isn’t helpful. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to craft and send a message to a group all of whom have similar opinions? So here’s the problem: ideally, we could select our audience based on how they feel, not merely based on a pre-defined demographic. It’s hard to see how to do this with a traditional survey, because it’s anonymous, so you don’t know who to send the message to. Score: 2/10.

Information Quality: Most surveys let staff enter free-form comments, and many insights can be gained from what they have to say. But when you get a comment such as “I was very unhappy with the management of project X”, what can you do with it? Because of survey anonymity, there’s no way you can go back to the author and find out in more detail what they meant – you’re stuck with the information you’re given. Ideally, this wouldn’t be the case: you’d want to be able to have a conversation with the author – the more you know about how people are feeling, the more authenticity you can speak with, and the more effectively you can address any issues or perceptions. Because the traditional survey doesn’t provide any means to enhance the quality of its information, it scores a measly 1/10 in this respect.

Benchmarking and Success Tracking: How do you know if your communications have been effective? Well, you could wait until the results of next year’s survey are available, and then compare the scores for the various demographic groups … or you could simply not bother, because (a) you’re not dealing with the same sets of people year on year, and (b) too much can happen in a year for you to be able to reliably show any connection between communication and subsequent change; effectively, it’s a waste of time. So what about this for an idea: select a bunch of people who are unhappy; carry out an engagement intervention of some sort; see if you’ve made any difference. This means being able to track, in real time, the views of a carefully selected group of people, all of whom were subject to the same targeted messaging campaign. How much support for this does the traditional survey provide? None whatsoever – so a tragic but not unreasonable score of 0/10.

With a grand total of 6/40 points, the traditional annual questionnaire is not measuring up very well. We should remember that it’s almost antique thinking; what we’ve done is take a paper multiple-choice form (invented during World War I), computerise it, make it complex with statistics, and then make it pretty with computer graphics. The underlying model hasn’t changed in a century, and when we compare it with our ideal survey, analysis suggests that it’s doing Internal Communications departments everywhere a disservice.

What can we do about this? As the song says, there are three steps to heaven. As a major user of survey results, Internal Comms should be in the loop when it comes to the collection of requirements for selection of a survey, so making your needs known (probably to HR) would be a good first step – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  The second step (and the main challenge) would be to get HR to understand that their survey format needs a severe update, but as experts in persuasion, should this not be within the capability of any good IC department? The third step, then, is to find an employee engagement survey with one or more of the following characteristics:

  • it’s always on, running in real time
  • it provides anonymous communications
  • it lets you baseline and track groups of employees based on their views

Ten minutes with Google should tell you whether they exist yet. If not, why not have a word with your IT department and build your own? OK, now we’re in the realms of fantasy, if for no other reason than that this would compromise the anonymity of the survey – but, seriously, better technology – cloud, web services, mobile apps – is capable of providing these facilities and is probably what will come to the rescue and deliver the benefits in the end. 


Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.