Most businesses will tell you that they want to achieve better employee engagement, because they know that increased engagement tends to mean increased revenue, productivity, and employee satisfaction. Lack of engagement and low morale can affect an organisation’s output quality, its efficiency and financial performance. It’s often a downward spiral of causation, with lack of engagement leading to poorer work, negative press and even lower morale.
But businesses tend to think about are the consequences of engagement (or lack of it), rather than its definition. Few businesses can define what they mean by engagement – and our response when clients tell us that their objective is an engaged workforce, is typically to challenge them. We work with the research buyer to arrive at a true understanding of ‘what engagement means’ at their organisation, and help them to see it as a set of behaviours and meanings, rather than something cut and dried.
From our own experience of conducting staff engagement studies, we also know that staff want to understand how any changes benefit them. Engagement strategies are often perceived to be beneficial for senior management and in some cases to just create more work for the staff on the ground. If the organisation takes a more bottom-up approach, the staff know that any changes that come about are bring created by and for them.
This is a particularly relevant approach in large organisations, where change is typically harder to effect – the NHS being a good example of this. But we’ve found that staff relish the opportunity to contribute towards changes, rather than have change thrust upon them. If offered the chance to shape the organisation’s strategy and direction, they feel more connected it organisation and less likely to want to leave.
We have similar conversations about measuring employee engagement: again, few organisation are able to be able to explain why they want to do this. And while many large organisations want research that generates a single, ‘magic’ number they can use as a measurement of employee engagement, we often ask how useful that number really is.
Firstly, even experts in the topic struggle to agree what drives engagement. Most academics seem to agree that trust is important but, beyond that, which factors are most important is up for debate. If we can’t agree on what underpins it, then how can we measure it?
Secondly, there’s no decisive evidence that increasing engagement actually improves employee performance. This calls into question the reason for wanting to measure engagement at all.
And thirdly, an engagement score assumes that an employee is either engaged or disengaged, and that their status is always constant. But most people’s engagement levels go up and down: assigning them a ‘classification’ at a fixed point in time is somewhat misleading.
All this said, a well-designed survey provides some highly useful information. Surveys can help to identify highly dissatisfied clusters within a business, areas where the opposite is happening and where best practice principles can be learned and replicated, and identify overall challenges that the organisation faces.
A key challenge in carrying out employee surveys is ensuring that employees from right across the organisation take part. To achieve a good response rate – and consequently robust insights that represent the whole employee base – we might use different survey methods for different employee types.
The diversity of environments in which employees work can also be problematic. We often find ourselves reminding clients that not everyone is desk-based! Not only does a range of working environments make actual participation more challenging, but it also affects how easy it is to communicate the benefits of giving feedback, and how the results will be used.
In fact, the response rate (the proportion of employees who choose to take part in a piece of employee research) is often a good early indicator of that workforce’s general level of engagement with their work. It can even give you an idea of what the survey data will go on to tell you. In organisations where employees are eager to feed back their experiences and feelings, job satisfaction, trust in the employer and overall engagement will tend to be a lot higher, than at organisations where participation is much lower and requires more persuasion and reminders.
A successful research programme will ensure that timings maximise the opportunity for participation. This means considering workflow and deciding when might be the best time to launch. Most surveys take place in the spring (March/ April) or autumn (September/ October) in order to avoid holiday periods, but other factors such as financial year start and end, as well as particularly busy phases in the business calendar, need to be considered. Added to this, it’s also important that timing plans allow any feedback tool to be live for several weeks: again, to maximise the opportunity to participate.
Then there’s frequency of gathering feedback to think about. Increasingly organisations are moving away from annual or biennial surveys, in favour of pulse surveys. There are pros and cons to both approaches.
An annual survey tends to be longer, and to gather insight that’s more detailed – but this this can make it slower to process the results and disseminate recommendations.
In contrast, a pulse survey is shorter and allows an organisation to be more responsive as business needs evolve during the year. However, regular requests to complete a survey can make employees feel overburdened (and lose engagement), and the frequency can set expectations for leaders to take action faster than is practical in the real world.
Finally, the quality of communication with employees will also influence participation. Pre-survey communication needs to be honest, clear and relevant and it’s important to use a range of channels to convey messages about why employees should take part, including email, team briefings, company intranet, newsletters and posters. The invitation to participate is vital to success: we pride ourselves on helping clients to improve their invitations and, subsequently, their response rates, by using behavioural science principles. We even hosted a webinar about it recently, where we introduced a number of frameworks and talked about applying them to boost the effectiveness of the web survey invitation. We also took real-life examples and suggested ways to improve them.
It’s usual that everyone at client organisations wants to know about employee research findings – but a challenge our clients often face is convincing senior colleagues to take action based on the insight. Findings need to be handled sensitively and can often trigger difficult conversations. In this scenario, they often ask us to convene workshops or training sessions for the wider stakeholder audience, exploring hesitation to move things forward at the organisation, and identifying ways to change that.
During these workshops we bring in principles from a range of disciplines, including behavioural economics. This kind of thinking helps us to explain why colleagues might be risk-averse and reluctant to make changes. We then use behavioural frameworks to build messaging strategies that will resonate.
Clients who choose to work with us have already decided to ‘be brave’ – and they know we’ll challenge them when it comes to taking action from the insights. We’re not the sort of agency who is happy just to tell an organisation whether employee satisfaction has gone up or down. It’s core to Breaking Blue’s beliefs as a business that employee engagement insights are to be used to create change and move organisations forward.
We use a number of techniques to maximise actionability, which we continue to refine and develop. These include using qualitative techniques, the use of continuous measures using digital channels, and drawing on principles from behavioural economics to drive action and overcome risk avoidance, to name but a few.
For one of our clients, a health regulator, surveying and understanding employee opinion and engagement are vital to achieving its ambition of becoming a high-performing organisation. The client team came to us when they wanted to review and refresh an existing survey, and ultimately to find more appropriate ways to harvest employee opinion and feedback for organisational use. They chose to work with us because of the innovative approach we demonstrated to delivering staff research, and the way in which we challenged their thinking.
We refined the overall approach, survey content and research processes, ensuring complete alignment to the client’s organisational values, priorities and strategic direction. For consistency and comparison, the main research was delivered via an online survey, but we used innovative questioning techniques to measure engagement and drive follow-up activity.
Next, we convened a programme of staff workshops, in which we discuss the key themes in the insight, and to engage staff with a programme of initiatives that addressed areas for improvement
The outcome was a programme of research that staff were more engaged with than ever before, due to the range of accessible deliverables and a more user-friendly and relevant survey.
“I’ve just completed the staff survey and for me it was more interesting in its presentation style than previous staff surveys. We need to encourage as many colleagues as possible to complete this survey, to ensure we gain a good overall understanding of how our workforce feels. Spread the word!”
“I completed it in under 10 minutes. It’s a great way to give your views, and it’s anonymous”
Our support with action planning has also allowed the client to achieve far greater ownership of initiatives, right across a large organisation.
‘Stakeholder’ in a research context can refer to a huge range of individuals and organisations including employees. But typically we’re aiming to achieve the same thing with any stakeholder: to engage them in the issues we’re researching, and to engage them in the research.
Stakeholder engagement is often about stakeholder communication, and learning the best way to achieve it effectively. In particular, organisations we work with spend a lot of time working out the best channels to use and how frequently to stay in touch. And it’s not just that stakeholders differ in their preferences for communication: clients have different motivations for involving them in research too. Sometimes the objective is to achieve buy-in from a key opinion leader whose backing will be vital to actioning the insight. Sometimes it’s simply that the client has an obligation to seek the views of a specific person or group.
Working with stakeholders may well mean that we’re working with people who work for the client organisation, but are outside the immediate project team. In these situations, our job includes helping the client to reach out and involve them in the research, to maximise its impact.
This is especially true in employee research, and in cases where the employer’s rolling out a change programme. A staff survey might tell us that employees don’t think the leadership at their organisation is doing a good job, for instance – but to create change and improve that leadership, the research client must have the leadership team’s buy-in. And where the leadership team isn’t research-literate, there’s an extra step: the research client needs to explain and educate, to get that understanding and belief. Without the stakeholders on board, the action won’t happen.
We often turn to behavioural science frameworks here, too. A blood cancer charity approached us several years ago, and asked us to help inform their marketing to the Afro-Caribbean community. With a pronounced shortage of donors among this group and a real need to increase donation rates, the team needed to understand barriers to donation, and to make sure that insight led to action and impact.
Through a programme of workshops with a range of potential donors from the UK Afro-Caribbean community, we unpicked understanding of the donation process, and explored in depth concerns about donating.
Once we had completed our detailed analysis of the different barriers and the issues they were rooted in, we worked with the client’s marketing team. Drawing on the expertise of our own Behavioural Science team, we worked alongside stakeholders to co-create marketing messages and materials (built around the MINDSPACE framework), designed to counteract the specific barriers to donation that the research had uncovered. We then delivered training to the stakeholder team, to educate them on using behavioural science techniques to drive action.
There’s been a successful and significant increase in donors from the Afro-Caribbean community. Several years later, the client team continues to rely on the insights and tools we delivered.
As we’ve said, a ‘stakeholder’ can be anything from a client’s customer, to someone investing in their business, to a senior politician. Know who you’re trying to reach, and think about each group individually. It’s likely that you’ll need to talk to different audiences in different tones of voice, through different channels, and at different stages of the research or points in time.
Hard to reach often refers to vulnerable audiences, but in this case it’s about ease of access. Certain stakeholder audiences are especially difficult to access, because everyone else is trying to reach them as well! The classic example is an MP. There will generally be many people, approaching from many directions, who want that person to move their agenda forward. What’s important here is knowing how to gain access.
It’s crucial to respect how time-pressured this kind of audiences is. As well as taking care not to ask for ‘too much’ time, we ask quickly, using a channel that it’s easy for them to respond through. From the very start, we also think about what we say in the ‘ask’. Time and time again, we find ourselves using the EAST behavioural science principles of survey engagement, to ensure we make research invitations easy, attractive, sociable and timely.
It can be tempting to congratulate ourselves for remembering that stakeholders aren’t a single, homogenous audience. But we also need to remember that even senior business decision-makers are human beings, who make irrational, unpredictable decisions, and respond emotionally all the time. So, don’t discount consumer techniques in engaging and surveying stakeholders! We still visualise web surveys with business audiences, and use gamification techniques to maximise engagement, enjoyment and data quality.
Working with a specialist research agency is the best way to maximise value, and to embed research learnings with insights in mind. It’s a powerful approach to professional development and stakeholder engagement, often creating next-level outcomes for the organisation.
It’s also a dialogue: the research team can learn from your team, and seeing how our insight makes a difference helps us to design and deliver even better insight in the future.
Clients conducting employee research often face challenges that an independent voice like ours is especially effective in addressing. Our outside perspective and impartiality are real benefits: where it’s useful and appropriate we can back up what were previously ‘hunches’ with evidence – or challenge those hunches with evidence and insight.