One of our advisors, Rod Bulmer, wrote an excellent blog recently, making a compelling argument for kicking the traditional annual employee survey into the long grass. I don’t disagree. In this world of increasing digital immediacy it’s anachronistic and lacks both efficiency and efficacy. But what to do instead?
This tees up nicely a story that I have been itching to tell since I heard it over the summer because it perfectly illustrates what engagement is – and isn’t. So let me go back to late 2016, when my colleague John got into conversation with a COO of an organisation with a large distributed workforce, so very much the Engage sweet-spot. The COO was relatively new in post but had already seen and heard enough to ‘do a Rod’ and bring the curtain down on the annual survey.
It took too long, consumed too much resource, and had ever lower completion rates; worst of all, the improvement plans that eventually emerged were never adequately highlighted or reported on and soon just withered away on the vine of business as usual. There was also a strong suspicion that the resultant ‘whatever I say it’s not making any difference’ attitude was filling the more recent survey answers with just serial moaning, those with valuable, thoughtful contributions choosing not to bother.
The COO started to talk to us because he wanted to shift from ‘one time to all the time’; in other words, adopt a continuous listening approach. And he was very clear in what he needed to support that:
- Polling – Asking people for views before the event. This company had had a burst of enthusiasm for focus groups a few years back and they had apparently worked well, but they just struggled to keep up the momentum. In our COO’s eyes, polling would be the digital replacement.
- Pulse surveys – Asking people for views after the event. The speed/frequency and targeting/tailoring of the pulse approach would be a quantum shift in measuring sentiment and gaining feedback
- Mood sampling – Asking people how they are feeling. Our COO had seen it introduced in his last company and he was that classic cynic turned convert. He believed that it was one of the simplest measures to track, and brilliant for picking up on blips. He wanted it to be the first thing he saw when he logged on in the morning
- Suggestions – Getting people involved in change and improvement. The company had an existing suggestions scheme but it was dying a death, either because line managers and site managers weren’t soliciting contributions or were stifling them or probably a combination of both. Suggestions needed to flow dynamically through the organisation and that wasn’t happening.
When he’d finished setting out what he needed we basically asked ‘So is that what you’re looking for from us?’ To which he replied, and I paraphrase slightly ‘Don’t be stupid, all that stuff does is just help us ask better questions. What we need are better answers.”
The drive for better answers
What he then set out was his strategy for getting those ‘better answers’, and by that I mean indications that things were improving: our COO wanted to be getting a sense of greater satisfaction, more positive sentiment, more contributions from the floor, efficiency gains, service enhancements, lower levels of absence, increasing socialisation of awards and achievements, (and an interesting specific target of accident reduction), any evidence really of a workforce and a workplace that was cohesive, joined-up and heading in the right direction with a good collective spirit.
Or put another way, evidence of more engagement – but not simply viewed through the narrow lens of employee engagement but embracing organisational engagement too, that sense of corporate ‘connectedness’. Once again he had a very clear take on how to drive this forward :
- Building ‘connectedness’, transparency and social capital through a communications programme that catered for the one-to-many, one-to-one and many-to-many, blending news, push notifications and social networks
- Providing occupational support, ensuring people regardless of location could get hold of what they needed to do their job quickly, easily and safely
- Embracing self-service platforms wherever possible, improving the employee experience and boosting operational efficiency
- Allowing everyone equal access to the basic rewards programme they had in place but overlaying that with more democratic and public peer recognition schemes
‘And that’s why I’m talking to you’ was how he concluded that particular conversation and as sales openings go that was on the cavernous side – we concluded a deal a few weeks later. But when I was hearing this story for the first time and we got to this bit, it was like the penny dropping. Engagement wasn’t just the obligatory survey, or asking for comments and ideas, or how people were feeling. It was actually everything that could impact, influence and improve employees’ experience within the workplace, and anything that could bring a physically dispersed organisation closer together in spirit, culture, action and goal focus. And it’s continuous listening that ensures you get on your game – and stay on it. The challenge, of course, is how you orchestrate things so that everyone is in tune.
Our own platform, Engage, mirrored the COO’s requirement because that’s what we’ve been focusing on relentlessly: how do we make the orchestrating bit as easy, effective and cost-efficient as possible? For us, it comes down to zeroing in on the five pillars of engagement – communications, accessibility, enablement, recognition and feedback loops. That was a match with the COO’s thinking, and we’re both of the view that this is what you build your future around. Neither he nor us are shedding any tears over the annual survey. May it rest in pieces.