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Improve participation in online employee surveys

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication, PR measurement

Traditionally, communication to promote participation in online employee surveys, and in reporting results and follow-up actions by management, has been a weak area of public relations practice. For various reasons, PR people haven’t often enough been included in the planning and management of such surveys. Yet your survey communication can increase participation rates, build employee trust, encourage more open and honest feedback, and lead to positive organizational change. In this article, you can read how good communication will  improve participation in online employee surveys.

On the other hand, ineffective communication is a major barrier to good survey preparation, management, measurement and follow up. Poor communication can create to lasting, and damaging, consequences. These can include:

  • Low participation rates
  • Dishonest and insincere responses
  • Greater employee distrust
  • Confusion about the survey and its results
  • Lower employee engagement
  • Unnecessary costs and time
  • Minimal positive organizational change.

Employee surveys are an area in which you could play a more active role. The HR department normally manages employee surveys, but the surveys are also important from a communication point of view. Workplace communication can always be improved, so the employee survey should reveal the extent to which employees want better communication from their managers and supervisors. The results provide a great opportunity for you to show that the organization needs you.

Whether you are on staff or you are a consultant, you can insist on being involved in the planning and execution of employee surveys. This is because there are important communication elements needed for good survey results and you can review the quality of the communication questions in the survey to give you more usable figures. From doing this, you will improve the participation in online employee surveys while also increasing your value to HR and to senior management.

Conducting effective employee surveys

Most employee surveys of a reasonable length delivered at work should generate a 30-40% response rate. This could rise as high as 60-80% if selected people (usually a supervisor or manager) in each department or location are asked to encourage participation. The response rate will drop if employees are expected to complete a work survey at home (apart from WFH surveys!). Response rates are higher if the survey is delivered electronically – as long as the questions are not perceived to be sensitive – because recipients in the typical workplace feel too easily identifiable in a paper survey.

At times employers ask themselves why the response rate to employee surveys has been lower than expected. Employees generally give three broad reasons for being reluctant to participate:

  • “It seems pointless because management does nothing with the results.”
  • “I’m not going to give my real opinions because I want to keep my job.”
  • “I’m too busy.”

The most immediate communication task is to convince employees that the survey responses will be used by management to make improvements. Convincing employees will improve participation in online employee surveys. But before this happens, managers need to ask themselves several questions:

  • “Why are we conducting an employee survey?” The survey should be conducted for ‘need-to-know’ reasons rather than ‘nice-to-know’ reasons.
  • “How do we intend to use the results?”
  • “What is our track record in acting on the results of previous surveys and in communicating the subsequent changes?” (What benefits will employees get by participating?)
  • “Have the results of previous employee surveys been used to make managers more accountable?”
  • “What guaranteed commitments can management make to follow up the results?” For example, conducting follow-up focus groups, communication briefings, providing summaries to participants.

How to improve participation in online employee surveys

Good communication will make the difference

Senior managers need to communicate good reasons for conducting the survey and the specific actions that will emanate from the results. This lets employees know their views are valuable and that their managers will be accountable for acting on the results. If managers try to hide unfavorable results, the news will inevitably leak out on the organizational grapevine, which will undermine the survey completely.

Concerns about confidentiality can be addressed by telling employees that confidentiality is paramount and that a third party [if possible] is being used to conduct the survey, with all results being aggregated so that no individuals can be identified. The measures to ensure confidentiality should be repeated often enough to ensure the message is absorbed.

Conducting the survey is best allocated to a third-party contractor. This will ensure the survey is conducted at arms’ length, and confidentially, and that findings are reported fairly. The contractor can email all employees to confirm this and to underline the confidentiality of respondents, the fact the survey will be comparatively quick to complete, the survey link can’t be shared, and the deadline for the questionnaires to be completed.

Where there is a low number of employees in a particular department or work team, the results from a similar group will need to be combined to preserve confidentiality of individuals.

The “I’m too busy” response tends to be encountered most where employees believe management won’t take the results seriously. They may have good grounds for thinking this because management hasn’t acted on the results of previous surveys. In these cases the onus is on management to communicate credibly about acting on the results.

Incentives may help to increase participation in surveys, but recipients may think you can identify their response if you can identify them for incentives. Also, new incentives would need to be offered for future surveys or the response rate will drop. A way around these problems is to offer a reward to the department or location with the highest overall response rates.

Actively communicate

Communicate benefits to employees. A well-run survey should result in employees understanding more about the overall position of the organization and its role in the operating environment as well as the mission and goals of the organization, especially in view of uncertainties raised by the COVID pandemic. They should be informed they are likely to gain a more positive employee experience from the follow-up actions of the leadership group. Their responses could also help to influence the future direction of the organization. This type of information will improve participation in online employee surveys.

  • Act to have your organization’s leadership team mention and promote the survey in all their various meetings. Then team leaders should mention in team meetings.
  • Draft an invitation email and a reminder email from the CEO to invite all employees to participate.
  • Provide follow-up draft emails for team leaders to inform their direct reports about the details of the survey process, the confidential nature of participation and management assurances of action to respond.
  • Draft a thank-you email to all employees from the CEO to inform that the survey has now closed, and the contractor is compiling the results. Ideally the CEO should promise that he or she will send a short email in the next week summarizing the most positive 3 and most negative 3 responses from the survey, as well as the overall number of participants. Then detailed results will be shared via email and team meetings. that team leaders will email their staff to share results and the start of future actions over the next few months. Advisable for management to meet to discuss findings and plan follow-up actions. Stay solution-oriented. Team leaders to then conduct focus groups to address specific challenges and opportunities with their group, and to develop action plans based on team input.
  • Communicate in several formats such posters, newsletters, intranet and internal social media.

Tips for communicating to employees about the survey

Tone and voice drastically impact the effectiveness of your communication pieces. Who are you talking to, and how do you address them? Is your piece easy to read with a clear call to action? Before you decide what you’re going to say, consider how you’re going say it. These tips from Quantum Workplace are very helpful with communication suggestions:

1. Talk about them
As the saying goes, put yourself in their shoes. Talk from the perspective of your readers, rather than at them. Use “you” at every opportunity, and stick in “we” and “us” as secondary pronouns. People like to read about themselves. Make your employees the subject of your communication to spark interest and gain buy-in.
Say this: Take your survey to share your honest opinions.
Not this: Take the survey to submit feedback.
2. Make it personal
Your survey communication should connect with employees on a personal level. Relate to them, talk about specifics, and relay your personal voice.
Say this: Your feedback is extremely important to this organization’s future and greatly impacts our direction. Thank you for your participation and support.
Not this: We appreciate your participation and support of this important initiative.
3. Relay the benefits
If your employees aren’t gaining from the survey process, why should they put in the time and effort? Show them how they will benefit from participating. Make benefits of the workplace and entire organization secondary.
Say this: This survey gives you an opportunity to improve your work experience while helping shape the future of [name of organization].
Not this: This survey will give leadership the opportunity to make [name of organization] a better place to work.
4. Choose communication methods that your employees prefer
Choose communication modes that will reach your employees in the most effective way. For example, if your employees have access to computers, email communication might make the most sense. On the other hand, if a majority of your employees aren’t online, email communication might not be your best option.
5. Make words easy to read
Your employees are busy. Make your survey communication short, to the point, and easy to read. For scan-ability, use headlines and subheads, bulleted or numbered lists, adequate spacing, and bolding of important points. Avoid bogging your communication pieces down with text-heavy, paragraph formatting.
6. Segment your audience
Target specific employee groups in order to connect with them on a personal level. For example, in your formal announcement, recite location or departmental initiatives that are currently in place as a result of past surveys to motivate different employee groups to participate again.
7. Create a call to action
Creating a call to action is one of the most important aspects of your initial survey communication. If you don’t tell your employees what to do, how will they know? Place your call-to-action buttons or links in multiple places, including the beginning of your communication pieces. That way, employees can choose to act immediately or continue reading for more details.
8. Brand your survey
Brand your annual employee survey to help your employees connect with the process and gain enthusiasm. Refer to your survey as its branded identity rather than “The Employee Engagement Survey” to make the entire process more meaningful, personalized, and fun for your employees. Choose a brand that makes sense for your employees, the organization, and your culture.
Examples: “Your Say at [Name of organization]”, “[Name of organization] Voices”, “Engage at [Name of organization]”.

Make the surveys user-friendly

The survey should be easy to complete. It should have a targeted maximum duration of, say around 15-20 minutes per participant, and should be easy to access online. The expected time commitment should be communicated to employees beforehand. The response will drop with long questionnaires and too many demographic questions. Responses will improve if the CEO tells managers and supervisors that the survey is important and that staff should be given time to fill in the questionnaire. Electronic surveys (web, email or telephone) draw faster responses, but where sensitive questions are asked, for instance about employees’ intention to stay with the organization, the response rates will be lower because employees think they could possibly be identified.

Care should be taken to avoid surveying too often because this reduces the response rate. Ways to improve survey responses include coordinating all employee surveys through a central point to avoid overlapping, and introducing each survey with a summary of the main findings and changes made after the previous survey. When changes have been made in response to the previous survey, the employer should communicate this fact to employees so they know their responses are considered important. In fact, as changes are being introduced into the workplace as a result of employee surveys, this should be communicated as part of the implementation process.

Guidelines to improve participation in online employee surveys

  • Communicate diligently. Online surveys require more communication support than printed surveys because they are less visible. Printed surveys have a tangible presence that employees are less likely to forget. The communication plan should raise awareness of the survey, confirm management’s support for the process and reassure employees about confidentiality of responses.
  • Provide multiple access points where possible. Participation rates will increase if employees have several ways to access the survey. The most common method for conducting online surveys is to provide employees with a link from an email to access the survey website. Not everyone is comfortable doing this because some employees believe their identity can be tracked when they use their own computer to respond. Employers can counter this problem by setting up dedicated survey terminals in work areas and training rooms. One employer increased their participation rate by 13% doing this.
  • Provide passwords to participants. The survey software program should be able to issue passwords to enable employees to participate. The use of passwords reinforces the confidentiality of the process, it enables respondents to return later to finish an uncompleted survey, and it prevents managers from completing several questionnaires themselves to inflate the response rate and positive scores for their area. Unlikely as it might seem, this has happened!
  • Make it easy. The online process should be quick and easy to use. On-screen questionnaires that are slow to respond are frustrating to use, and when the word gets around, will put off other employees from participating.
  • Ensure IT flexibility. The selected survey software should be able to work on all the organization’s computer operating systems. This can be an issue in organizations spread over several locations and even multiple countries. A careful check is required in multi-national organizations to ensure the survey doesn’t need to be available in languages other than English at overseas locations.
  • Ask open-ended questions. A big problem with paper-based surveys is the cost of transcribing the responses to open-ended questions. This can cause employers to eliminate open-ended questions, which can limit the value of the survey. Electronic surveys process open-ended questions automatically, cutting the cost significantly. Employees tend to offer their feedback more willingly with electronic surveys because they feel more anonymous when keying in their comments rather using their handwriting, which may be identifiable.
  • Make the most of the email system. The survey software should be able to link to the employer’s email system to invite participation. Accordingly, it is vital to ensure the email addresses of all employees used for the survey are up-to-date. The survey administrators need to ensure former staff and old addresses have been deleted from the list, along with group email addresses.
  • Use real-time results to enhance the response rate and quality. The software should be able to provide continuous, real-time response rates and survey scores for the overall organization and specific sub-groups such as the sales department or staff in a particular city or country. The ability to check response rates in real time allows management to urge greater participation in areas where participation has been low. From a communication point of view, the response rate for all significant areas of the organization can be progressively checked, and managers can be updated on the response rate for their area in front of each other. This can stimulate managers to lift the response rates in their respective areas.

Use ratings by staff to improve the communication skills of bosses

Staff surveys that reveal views of their boss’s communication skills are valuable for the PR manager. Invariably middle managers’ communication skills are pretty terrible, as confirmed in the survey findings published in a Harvard Business Review article in 2015.

My article, “Use ratings by staff to improve bosses’ communication skills,” may be helpful in tackling this problem.

In addition, US internal communication expert, TJ Larkin, says in his book, Communicating Change, no managers believe they are poor communicators. However, direct reports seldom agree. You can put a tangible value to this by sending all direct reports a questionnaire asking a single, simple question: “Please circle one number that best describes the quality of communication with your manager.” The options range from 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent), with space for comments below. This questionnaire can be circulated by email or can be a paper questionnaire. Then you calculate the average scores for each employee group (no individual information to be disclosed when reporting on results).

Next, you compile a summary of the average scores from all groups, which may be teams, business units, departments – or even plants, if your company is big enough. Then the CEO holds a meeting of all the organization’s managers, and gives out the summary of the average score in each work unit to them all. Being compared against the results of other units is enough motivation for managers to “lift their game.” Finally, the big boss says he/she will repeat the employees’ evaluation process of their managers in 6 months time. The chief says he/she wants improvement. This approach is extremely powerful because managers are, by human nature, comparing each other’s results very competitively.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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