Designing an effective employee survey

Companies with high levels of employee engagement are 21% more profitable but unfortunately those are in the minority. Over 80% of employees report feeling disengaged from their work which dramatically reduces productivity and revenue.

Giving a voice to your team through employee surveys helps to foster engagement through psychological safety, trust, respect and fulfillment. Employees are afforded the opportunity to air issues, ideas or concerns they have been holding on to whilst improving engagement in the process.

Employee surveys have played a rarely acknowledged role in improving operational efficiency, identifying problem areas and improving working conditions for teams all over the world. For example, Verizon Communications ran an employee survey which improved their billing accuracy by 46% over 2 years. Stories like this are widespread and a simple reminder of the possibilities.

Employee morale, innovation, failure avoidance and threat mitigation are only a number of potential improvements resulting from a carefully crafted survey.

How do you create an effective employee survey?

Designing an effective survey is more than just listing questions you want answers to. It requires the surveyor to look inward and to what your company needs to change.

Actionable solutions are not a one size fits all. Your company’s pursuit may pertain to employee retention, motivation, engagement, process improvement and company culture. Furthermore, a survey should be used as one step among others in making real change. Real leadership takes a proactive, preventative stance on solving areas of friction or improvement.

Decide Your Objectives

Surveys are the same as any other project you undertake. They must be led by overarching goals and it starts with you. 

Assess your business in its current state and investigate where improvements could be made. You may not grasp the exact problem but your assessment can confirm where employee input is needed.

By deciding to conduct a survey early, you have a better chance of capturing innovative ideas and solutions before your market or, perhaps more importantly, they manifest into a problem.

Leaders, who regularly request opinions of the team, do so with the intent of finding out:

–          What is the employee experience like?

–          What areas of interpersonal friction they might be tolerating?

–          What concerns do employees currently harbour?

–          What processes demand the most resources?

–          What changes they have noticed from clients or the market?

–          What ideas may improve your company operations?

Get the Input of Your Team

In 1997, UPS conducted an employee survey which presented a high morale score from those who were asked. However, just 10 months later, a 15 day strike occurred. The issue? They didn’t survey the right people.

Part-time employees who wanted full time, pensionable status were unheard causing a 7 million delayed deliveries and $780 million in costs. Hearing from the right people is integral in an effective survey.

There was a very clear disconnect between the architects of the survey and the responders. Strangely, this was easily avoidable by enlisting the input of multiple stakeholders. Ask your leadership figures, team leads, employees and various parties for input throughout the process for two reasons. 1) You will produce a survey connected and in-tune with team needs and, 2) Your team will feel represented and heard.

The biggest impact on team morale comes from feeling valued and heard. Being left out of the loop or receiving a tone deaf survey creates the conditions for disillusionment and disengagement. Careful consideration is required for participants as your survey inevitably impacts company culture.

Building an Effective Employee Survey – Asking the Right Questions

By looking at your current business with honesty, you lay a strong foundation for areas you need to explore but try not to over reach. HR managers or CEOs who are new to surveying the team have a habit of asking too many unrelated questions. This only serves to dilute and reduce responses. Every question should be purposeful and necessary.

Strike a Balance between Your Aims and Employee Needs

If possible, adopt a KISS strategy – Keep It Simple Stupid. Keep your language clear and obvious.

Questions should exist in the centre piece of a Venn diagram with “Your aims” on the left and “Questions that resonate with your team” on the right.

Any team wants to feel like you identify with what they are feeling and that needs to come across through the questioning without putting words in their mouths.

Depth vs Analytics

Similar to the balance between hearing employees and achieving aims, you also need to create a survey with depth but that can be analyzed. Many champion the Likert scale which provides stationary responses to statements such as “strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree”. This is ideal for capturing black and white opinions but doesn’t leave much room for the grey.

Open ended questions ought to feature to personalize the opinions of the respondents. Every question doesn’t need to be open ended but you will often find more gold nuggets in these responses.

A healthy mixture of both is most advisable. You want relevant input in a way that you can analyse and study. Without the analysis, you can suffer with overwhelm and lose faith in the system.

Inspire Honesty

The bi-directional nature of an employer conducted survey should not be lost. As soon as a question is in front of your team, instinctive reactions may play a part.

“My manager asked X, so they must think Y”. Inspiring honesty gives the best results and building it into your survey is crucial. There are options for helping employees to feel psychologically safe when offering their responses:

●        Anonymous surveys

●        Transparency with your aims

●        Outsourcing your surveyor

●        Digitally store responses together rather than individually

●        Removing senior management from the analysis process until a final report is presented

Gaining Traction

Any study is improved by increasing the relevant sample size and employee surveys are no different. For smaller teams it can be easy to ensure high response rates but for larger corporations, it is a little more challenging.

From an ongoing standpoint, it certainly helps to conduct studies with expected regularity. Once or twice a year is ideal depending on the types of feedback you are hoping to elicit. If employees are frequently experiencing problems and friction, regular pulse checks might be more beneficial. When the team expects to fill out questionnaires regularly, it also creates a habit of participation.

Similarly, well-constructed surveys make sure that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time to fill it out. If it takes longer than 20 minutes and the team is quite busy, participation will be low. Counteract this with an incentive. Perhaps respondents are drawn at random for a prize?

The biggest inspiration to filling out an employee survey is the action you take afterwards.

Enacting Change

Nothing turns the team off like filling out a survey only to never see any outcomes. It is disheartening and shows indifference to their opinions.

Analyse your results efficiently before taking them back to the team. Depending on the size of your company, offer a collective review to show you have listened. For larger companies, it may come in the way of a summary report to show the findings and areas of requested improvement. For smaller teams, it might be an open meeting discussion.

Once you have shared the results, action is a necessity. If a long list of suggested actions was generated, consider a quick poll to decide which to follow. For the team, the vehicle of change is often less important than the optics of committing to the change.


In truth, surveys give you windows into the mindset of your team on particular matters and if done effectively can bring your team together.

As team engagement has recently been a bigger pain point for employers causing a reduction in productivity by up to 20%, savvy leaders are in need of tools to make improvements. By counteracting engagement deficits morale, sales, staff retention and more have been noted to improve over time.

To build your survey, start by placing thoughtful aims and employee voices as your pillars. Construct your questions around these points making it easy to understand and analyse. Above all, remember that from the employee perspective, the best survey is the one that gets responses, and can fuel action and inspires results.

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