The continuing challenges in retaining employees and recruiting new workers have companies throwing their playbooks open as they search for solutions to these pressing challenges because doing more of the same has been proven not to work.

One solution that’s seeing renewed interest is the concept of performing an annual employee engagement survey and then taking action to address the issues the survey raised.

This appears to be a growing trend, as I’ve seen several tender documents referencing annual employee surveys, and searches about employee engagement here in the UK have increased 43% year over year (and 48% worldwide,) according to Google Trends.

The instinct to reach out to employees is a good one. However, the idea of using an annual survey to do so is not, and here’s why.

Annual employee surveys are big projects. Big projects are more likely to fail.

A study by the Standish Group found that big projects succeed less than 15% of the time. Put another way that means more than 85% of big projects fail.

An annual employee survey is the very definition of a “big project.” It’s an enormous undertaking for most companies, especially if they’re not in the practice of surveying their employees.

Everything is difficult, from updating everyone’s email addresses and organising groups, to the seismic task of analysing the data an annual employee survey generates. It’s not uncommon for the effort to quickly outstrip the perceived benefit, and when that happens, it’s a recipe for…nothing. The survey report will be stored neatly and for the most part, remain unread.

This is why a common objection we hear is “We tried surveying our employees once. Nothing happened.”

The company will have wasted its time and resources on an exercise that ultimately diminishes employees’ trust and confidence in their leaders.

Annual surveys happen once a year, but employee expectations evolve continuously.

Organisations are always changing, which is why it’s not uncommon for those who survey their employees quarterly (or even more frequently) to see engagement scores fluctuate and new topics appear in the feedback.

As the kids say, “life comes at you fast” and an annual employee survey simply doesn’t deliver the data an executive team needs to be truly agile. It simply creates a snapshot in time.

Almost universally, employees’ expectations of their employers have evolved – we’ve been writing about how quickly employee expectations are changing for more than a year – and a single annual survey will slow the organisation’s clock speed. By the time the company gets around to responding to some of the feedback, months – if not quarters – will have passed. In today’s world, against today’s employee expectations, and in an environment in which employees are more mobile than ever, this is simply too slow.

Recency bias will skew employee survey results.

Annual employee surveys don’t work for the same reasons that annual reviews don’t: recency bias. Recency bias is the human tendency to give more weight to events that happened recently and assign less importance to those that occurred in the more distant past. Put more simply, the more time that passes, the less well we humans can recall events and associated details.

The problem with annual surveys is that due to recency bias, they wind up being a snapshot of current events, diluting the import and impact of something that happened months ago and providing a low-fidelity view of events to management.

However, the expectation that is set (and quite probably communicated by the leadership team) is that the survey will be comprehensive in nature, essentially setting leadership up for failure.

Three tips for performing effective employee surveys

As I noted earlier, executives are right to invite employee feedback. It’s the swiftest and surest way to understand where your people stand, and to identify any brewing issues.

We’ve codified this advice using the mnemonic “Speed, Simplicity & Sincerity” to create a simple framework for prioritising the feedback your survey generates, creating your action plan, and communicating the relevant details to your workforce.

In line with that construct, here are three tips that will help you get the survey right, and turn the feedback received into action that builds employee trust, improves culture and morale, and stems employee turnover.

Use short, intentionally-designed employee surveys more often

It may sound counterintuitive, but rather than the grand gesture and correspondingly huge effort of an annual survey, try doing less.

The optimal approach to surveying employees we’ve found blends surveying employees more frequently, with short and intentionally-designed surveys that are easy for employees to complete, and provide output that is easy for leadership to respond to.

The Engagement Multiplier framework recommends fielding comprehensive employee surveys every 90 days until the organisation consistently scores in the Engaged quadrant. Once that is achieved, you can consider using short, topical surveys to assess other aspects of the company. Either way, this approach helps makes employee feedback more manageable.

“We all get a ton of feedback. But if it’s 800 pages, nobody’s going to read it,” said John Morris, chief operating officer for Waste Management, the leading environmental services provider in the US and Canada, in a story for the Wall Street Journal. “So how do you give these frontline leaders tidbits, nuggets, actionable things that they can do?”

The survey output must enable leaders to respond quickly – while the survey is fresh in everyone’s mind, and that window of opportunity is open. Our recommended response timeframe: two weeks.

Follow up on employee survey results within two weeks – faithfully

Great outcomes start with a prompt response once your engagement survey closes, which is also when your survey data will be available.

Why is timing so crucial? Responding while the survey is fresh in everyone’s mind signals that leadership is listening and creates an environment of trust and transparency. In our experience with thousands of engagement surveys, the best results occur when communication takes place within two weeks of the survey close.

Please note – I am not suggesting that you need to have the plan of action worked out within two weeks, though more power to you and your leadership team if you can pull that off. What is important is that within short order, you acknowledge the survey’s close, thank everyone for their input, and share some high-level results, such as the Engagement Score, participation rate, and possibly key feedback themes.

From there, I recommend you follow our DARE Approach™ to responding to feedback, selecting no more than three items for your team to concentrate on over the next 90 days.

Make employee feedback part of your business operating system

The 90-day survey cadence is important because if you can consistently survey your employees and act incrementally upon their feedback every quarter, you will effectively build employee feedback into your company’s operating system.

You’ll find that you’ll be able to keep your finger on the pulse of the organisation, and will have an incredibly clear view into where your employees stand, what is concerning them, and where leadership’s attention is warranted.

Measuring employee engagement quarterly will also help you keep tabs on team and manager performance, creating an incredibly effective framework for managers that rewards them for doing the right things.

The act of conducting an employee engagement survey alone is not going to create employee engagement. Employee engagement comes from not just asking but also listening, communicating, and above all, acting upon the input your people provide.

The process to improve employee engagement can be very simple:

  1. Tell the team why you’re surveying them, and how their feedback will be received.
  2. Field the survey.
  3. Thank them for their input and acknowledge that you have listened by sharing high-level survey details, including scores and the key themes that emerged from the feedback.
  4. Tell them what you’re going to do.
  5. Do it.
  6. Communicate that you’ve done it.
  7. Re-survey the team and repeat steps 1-7.

When our clients use this approach, we consistently see several outcomes across our entire customer base, irrespective of industry or geography.

First, we see engagement scores rise consistently quarter over quarter, and within 90 – 180 days, we also observe consistent increases in employee participation rates. Within one year, most of our clients have attained fully Engaged status. It is at this point the magic starts to happen. Teams begin firing on all cylinders, the company culture becomes more defined and stronger, turnover slows, and performance climbs.

Whether your organisation is already Engaged or whether you’re just starting the journey, I invite you to dig a little deeper into your organsiation’s metrics with this guide for measuring the ROI of employee engagement.

After all, that which can be measured can be improved, and when you make measurable improvements to workforce morale and performance, the outcomes are profoundly beneficial.