How to Get the Most Out of Engagement Surveys

Like many companies, Nasdaq had been conducting annual surveys among all its workers to gauge employee satisfaction: Were they happy with how they were being compensated? Were they getting the training they needed and the recognition they desired? Did they see themselves remaining at Nasdaq?

The results rendered a good picture of how well the company was engaging its workforce. But there was a big shortcoming with this method, according to Rich Taylor, vice president of employee experience at the company. “The data we got from the surveys weren’t actionable,” he says. Because the survey didn’t pinpoint specific problem areas–teams, managers or departments, for instance–there was no way to help underperformers improve.

Nasdaq solved that problem using Culture Amp, a real-time survey product it launched at the start of this year that, Taylor says, makes it easy to conduct surveys and interpret results. Without much effort, the company was able to increase the number of surveys to four a year. Equally important, the data are more granular–indicating results to line managers. “Now, we can gauge employee engagement down to teams with as few as four people,” Taylor says. He adds that he can actually get even more specific than four people, but that would threaten anonymity, which is essential to getting honest responses, according to all experts interviewed for this article.

Culture Amp is one of a number of real-time survey tools, which include Glint, UltiPro Perception, TinyPULSE and Deloitte EngagePath. These products facilitate the creation of survey questions; provide for survey cross-platform distribution; and, most importantly, create real-time graphical representation of the data using dashboards, heat maps, alerts, graphs and more.

The creation of the survey questions, facilitated by support from the vendor, Taylor says, adds an important dimension to the process. He can select questions from those provided by the software, which allows him to benchmark the company relative to other Culture Amp customers, and he can also get help in phrasing his own questions. For example, he discovered through this process that a question he intended to include could provide more meaningful results if asked as two separate questions.

Armen Berjikly, senior director of growth strategy for Ultimate Software, which makes UltiPro Perception, agrees that the wording of survey questions can be key to getting accurate results.

“People speak of things in different ways,” he says. “Sometimes, that’s a function of their position in the company, sometimes their experience.” An entire survey, Berjikly says, can fail to provide accurate results because of a few misplaced words or sentences.

Distribution of the surveys is virtually automatic, and employees can access them on any device. Taylor says he keeps surveys short enough so that participants can complete them in less than three minutes. “If the surveys are too long, employees get tired and don’t consider the responses carefully,” he says.

Josh Bersin, global industry analyst, agrees that the standard annual surveys take too long to administer and for results to be compiled–and they rarely provide the information a company needs to solve its problems with employee engagement. Accordingly, many companies turned to outside consultants to administer the surveys and analyze the results.

“It could take months before companies got meaningful, usable data, if they got them at all,” Bersin says. The new breed of products that provide both surveys and graphical interpretations are less expensive than hiring consultants, easier to use and provide immediate, actionable data. “Companies that need to gauge employee engagement should at least familiarize themselves with the capability of these tools,” Bersin says.

Getting Managers on Board

For the implementation of a new survey solution to be successful, managers have to support it. Taylor acknowledges that, at first, some were worried that the tool might show faults with their management process. Once the rollout began, however, their worry turned to curiosity; they wanted to know how well they were doing. “Before, managers had no way of really knowing what was in the minds of employees they worked with,” he says.

In general, managers were pleasantly surprised at how engaged their teams were. Still, most managers found areas to work on. So, Taylor and other members of his department asked them to develop action plans to shore up areas of concern. “We asked them to prioritize one or two things that they would work on and hopefully improve before the next quarterly survey,” Taylor says.

For example, if managers receive low scores from their teams on a question like, “I see good career opportunities at Nasdaq,” they may hold regular one-on-one meetings with employees to discuss career paths at the company. Managers who are at a loss to determine how to fix a problem can also turn to the tool, which provides some suggestions. More importantly, managers can seek help from the company’s employee experience department, whose members have expertise in solving employee-engagement challenges.

At Nasdaq, the primary purpose of the surveys is to help managers, not as a tool for evaluating managers’ performance. However, Taylor says, he would be hesitant to recommend someone for promotion who consistently gets poor grades from those he or she supervises. He’s also had to have a few difficult talks with managers whose teams struggled with engagement, asking if they think they are in the right position. “I suspect, as we move on and have more surveys under our belt, we will be having more of those types of conversations,” he says.

Inclusivity is Key

Other companies use survey tools to help managers help themselves.

“We don’t even see the results from individual managers,” says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign, which has implemented survey product Glint. “Executives only see the roll-up results from all managers.”

DocuSign gave all managers the ability to see their teams’ survey responses, a practice Burke believes is essential to taking full advantage of survey results. When her previous company implemented Glint, she was a bit nervous about potential problems with the company-wide rollout of a brand-new product, so, at that company, she provided survey results only to people at the executive level. They reported the results were much easier to analyze than traditional row-and-column survey data, but they didn’t always know how they could actually use the data to effect change.

Burke’s experience with Glint at her former employer showed her that “The survey data were very interesting at a corporate level–and there are things you can do at that level–but they’re limited,” she says. Only when the company began including employees at the line-management level did it begin to see significant improvement in engagement, as measured by Glint.

So when she implemented Glint at DocuSign, she says, “I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.” The company rolled out access to the software to all managers. She says the intuitiveness of the tool virtually eliminated the need for training, other than a brief introductory video. “Generally, I just tell people, ‘Experiment with the dashboard. You can’t break it.’ ”

Glint provides alarms to indicate areas that need work, but the specific actions managers take are up to them. For example, Burke found she was weak in the area of employee recognition, so she convened focus groups to hear specifically what workers felt was missing.

The tool itself can provide some suggestions, as can HR. At DocuSign, because of company expansion, a large number of people were moved into management, creating a population of managers with less than two years of experience. Accordingly, the company recently initiated a six-month manager-training program, which, Burke says, can include a focus on areas indicated as weak by the Glint tool.

ROI Implications

As with most technology rollouts, executive support is essential to success–which often hinges on demonstrable ROI.

Burke says the tool, in a sense, is self-justifying. “The traditional answer when HR is asked to justify the cost of a product is to say that, without the program, we would be in worse shape. But with the tool, we can actually measure the benefit of it by comparing rolled-up data quarter to quarter,” she says.

These tools can also be applied when seeking to measure effectiveness and improve specific corporate programs. For example, Andrew Bohacek, talent success manager at Duluth Trading Co., says his company uses UltiPro Perception to, among other things, fine-tune its 45-day onboarding process.

“Previously, we used products like SurveyMonkey, and that gave us a general idea of whether we were doing a good job of onboarding,” he says. “But it didn’t give us the granularity we needed to improve the onboarding program.”

For example, if a training program was rated poorly, was it the medium in which it was presented? Was it the length? Was it too boring or too wordy? Was it sufficient? Was it too time-consuming? Says Bohacek, “It’s great to hear that employees found HR was helpful–but what specifically did the employee like or dislike, and why? [These] were questions generalized surveys didn’t always answer.”

Now using real-time data from UltiPro Perception, “We were able to completely revamp the onboarding program,” he says. And while the company had been considering changes to the program even before getting the new tool, the surveys provided a roadmap. “We were no longer just trying things to see if they worked, with no data to actually determine scientifically if they were.”

Duluth uses Perception to understand how employees are engaged after they complete the onboarding process as well. This is especially important since many of its workers do not sit in traditional offices, where there is regular interaction among managers and those who work for them. “Many of our employees work in a distribution center where they’re pulling product and shipping, not having one-on-one talks with their supervisors,” Bohacek says. In addition, many people in the customer-support area work from home.

In order to survey workers, Duluth passes around an iPad and also has kiosks around the distribution centers. The survey takes only a few minutes to complete. The fact that the workers don’t identify themselves on the mobile devices–and, in fact, are not even using their own devices–gives them the reassurance many need that their responses are private. Once the survey is completed, heat maps show managers areas that the company needs to pay more attention to, such as compensation, recognition or training. Or if problems show up in specific departments, there might be a need for leadership training of supervisors.

The ability for HR to gauge employee engagement continually, rather than once a year, is key in today’s market, says JD Peterson, Culture Amp’s chief growth officer.

“In today’s fast-moving business environment, there is a lot of change,” he says, noting mergers and acquisitions, expansions, contractions, promotions, new hires and exits all may affect employee engagement. “We need to be able to measure that effect continually, not just once a year.”


Larry Stevens
Larry Stevens is a freelance writer based in Monson, Mass., who covers trends and developments in human resources and technology. He can be reached at