Culling data from employee engagement surveys can drive strategic business decisions.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Employee engagement is a key competitive differentiator in today’s business climate. According to DecisionWise’s 2018 State of Employee Engagement Report, engagement is a top priority for 51 percent of executive teams, and 56 percent of organizations have a formal program in place to measure and enhance it. For most, this program consists of employee feedback systems (60 percent), company events (52 percent), recognition programs (45 percent), and more.
But while these initiatives are quite popular, employee engagement programs continue to see mixed results. In fact, DecisionWise reports that only 33 percent of companies say their programs are successful or very successful. Despite numerous innovations in engagement tracking technologies and digital tools, HR professionals are still struggling to answer a key question: How can engagement be leveraged to improve workforce and business outcomes?
One problem holding companies back is the ineffective collection and use of engagement data. Companies that fail to take a holistic approach to employee engagement and analyze its relationship with other key business indicators and priorities miss out on a huge opportunity to drive strategy.
“By examining data and the drivers of employee engagement like recognition and communication, companies gain valuable, actionable insight,” says Theresa C. Harkins, vice president of client success and engagement solutions at Inspirus, a Sodexo Group company. “They can conduct process improvement, determine ROR and ROI, and drive results. Equally important, examining the data can enable organizations to assess needs and analyze any possible gaps or help needed to better empower everyone to actively use employee engagement tools.”
In addition, properly leveraging engagement data can prevent attrition by giving organizations the insight to immediately address employee concerns, helping them feel heard and developing interventions to reduce turnover. “The biggest takeaway that our team of experts has witnessed when it comes to employee engagement data is that it’s the little things that matter. It’s the small, day-to-day frustrations or anxieties that turn into disengaged employees that are on the verge of leaving. But with real-time data, employers can address issues head on before they become a larger issue,” says Vanessa Brangwyn, chief customer officer at Achievers.
Jennifer Streitwieser, Korn Ferry’s client partner and head of U.S. engagement and culture, says that the feedback from employee engagement surveys can drive positive change. For example, one organization that works with Korn Ferry encourages its leaders and managers to set goals for culture initiatives based on engagement survey results. Another has leveraged the data to identify the development needs of its first-line supervisors and build the business case for investment in this group.
But to find the patterns and links between engagement and productivity, well-being, management, and all the other factors that drive business success, organizations need to ensure that they are gathering the right information.
Finding the Right Metrics
Employee experience is multi-faceted and complex—and companies that want an accurate view of their employees’ engagement levels need to consider a range of variables. “There is an important caveat to measuring engagement: no single measure or set of measures can accurately portray engagement without taking a holistic approach to understanding the quality of the entire employee experience,” says Harkins.
To ensure a successful outcome, companies should seek employee feedback about:
- quality of connections with coworkers;
- feeling valued and appreciated;
- opportunities for personal and professional development;
- meaningful work that aligns with core personal values; and
- communication with managers, leaders, and executives.
CultureIQ’s Managing Director of Client Strategy Denise Fairhurst recommends that organizations evaluate both work engagement and organizational commitment when gathering this input. That way, HR professionals can better understand employees’ levels of focus, dedication, and enthusiasm as well as their overall attachment to the organization. “These components have the strongest impact on employee performance, retention, and organizational performance,” she explains.
Organizations can then formally define the extent to which these issues are impacting broader engagement attitudes.
Once engagement data is collected, it needs to be analyzed in order to identify trends and connect them with broader business initiatives. For best results, HR professionals can consider the following best practices:
1. Seek trends. “When you are getting feedback on a weekly basis, it is important to not overreact to one-time comments,” says Andrew Pryor, senior vice president of HR at business software company ECi Software Solutions.
“Instead, we look for trends. We learned a long time ago that a dot is a dot, two dots is a line, and three dots is a trend.” Analyzing these trends allows organizations to identify employee and manager behaviors that need to be repeated, reinforced, or eliminated entirely.
2. Correlate engagement outcomes with business goals. The results can then be anchored to strategic business goals and their associated key performance indicators (KPIs). “Make sure that your engagement program is part of your overall business and talent strategic planning process,” says Streitwieser. “Understanding your organization’s KPIs will help you know what to measure both in terms of the questions you ask on the survey and the demographic data you collect.”
ECi Software Solutions takes this approach. “We find there are several key performance metrics that we can measure that are direct indicators on how our employee engagement efforts are doing—all of which are tied to our corporate goals,” says Pryor. The company gathers data about:
- customer experience per product line;
- employee innovation through measurement of “Value Creation” activities;
- financial performance;
- sales targets; and
- feedback from the “Great Place to Work Survey.”
3. Engage leadership. Another valuable way to obtain insight from the data is to compare the range in engagement between teams and evaluate differences in the practices of managers who have high and low engagement levels, recommends Kathie Sorensen, principal partner of The Coffman Organization. This comparative data combined with direct employee feedback can reveal how to support struggling managers with comprehensive, actionable techniques. “Engage with the managers and their teams to learn what both builds and detracts from productive energy. Encourage managers and teams to make decisions close to the action in the best interest of the organization, its clients, and associates,” she explains.
Key stakeholders across the enterprise can then be encouraged to act on these results. In fact, according to Fairhurst of CultureIQ, the most successful companies foster conversations between HR leaders, senior leadership, and management, and establish engagement as a priority at all levels. “While the data and insights are important, much more so are the conversations and change spawned by sharing them,” she says. “Once the data becomes part of the day-to-day running of the business, survey follow-up no longer becomes a separate activity for which HR is responsible. It can become a useful business tool.”
For example, ECi Software Solutions utilizes its survey data to identify managers who need to become more engaged and motivate them to do better. To keep leaders accountable for engagement results, Pryor recommends that companies:
- tie engagement data to leaders’ KPIs;
- hold leadership accountable for their engagement scores; and
- share engagement trends with leaders through quarterly reports.
4. Intervene at the team level. “The single best driver for improvement is the partnership of manager and team in discussing what they can do to improve their energy, performance, and satisfaction,” Sorensen explains. “Analysis is important, but as cultures vary most at the micro-culture level, the real, practical impact can be realized in each workgroup and team.”
By focusing interventions at the team level, organizations can create a road map of key challenges across the enterprise that can be specifically targeted in measurement and intervention efforts. “Managers can drill down and look at trending data and benchmark data with their teams to see patterns,” says Achievers’ Brangwyn. “This can help identify people who are at risk of leaving their jobs or hitting a slump in productivity, for example.”
Team-specific issues in recruitment, on-boarding, training, mobility, diversity, communications, payroll and benefits, leadership, and change management can then be addressed quickly and efficiently.
By taking heed of employee engagement data, HR can lead the way in fostering a productive workforce. Designing attractive workplace policies; measuring employee and manager attitudes; adapting to this feedback in ways that drive business strategy in the right direction; and maintaining a culture that makes this all possible have become fundamental responsibilities of the HR function.