22 May 2019

Our survey said…

A scientific approach to writing surveys with our resident behavioural science expert Chloe Foy.

Surveying employees can be a brilliant way of gaining useful insight. It provides an opportunity for feedback and gives people a chance to highlight positives and voice any concerns they might have. If you want to truly engage your employees and communicate with them effectively, you need to find out what they need, what they do and how they are. However, too often, people fall into a trap of making them hard to access, too lengthy and most crucially, poorly written. On a weekly basis I encounter badly constructed surveys and think, ‘what’s the point?’

If you send surveys – great, not everyone does! But as we all know, getting employees’ time and attention is precious, so here are some suggestions for getting the content of surveys right and, as a result, improving engagement with them. 

We like to think we have all the rational answers as to why, how and when we do what we do, but in reality we are poor judges of our behaviour. Research shows that while we may have good intentions, they only actually count towards a quarter of our behaviour. 

When it comes to filling out surveys, we’re not always great at answering honestly when we know we are being watched. In a workplace survey, if you thought that your boss had a good idea of who was answering the questions, would you answer them honestly? Maybe not. This is known as the Hawthorne effect. So if you’re going to do a survey, keep things anonymous to garner genuine results.  


It’s all in the wording 

I recently saw this question:

‘How much time do you spend looking out for comms?’

This one is tricky, because we can find it hard to quantify how long we spend doing activities (known as ‘duration neglect’) and so find it difficult to answer survey questions well if they aren’t specific. People may also have different ideas of what ‘comms’ means, so an alternative question could be better:

‘In an ideal world, what rate of receiving business news emails would be your optimum?’

This shifts the length of time to volume and makes it more specific, which could result in far more accurate answers. 

Up to four times a year, the Office for National Statistics surveys 200,000 people in the UK about their wellbeing, using a 0-10 scale. Questions include: 

‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?’

‘Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do are worthwhile?’

In 2010 they asked Professor Paul Dolan, an ex-colleague of mine from the London School of Economics, to assess the questions and, following his guidance, a further two were added:

‘How happy were you yesterday?’

‘How anxious were you yesterday?’

The new questions ask about ‘yesterday’ which makes them time-bound and more specific by asking about peoples’ happiness and day-to-day experiences of life.

We can apply this to the workplace when we hear questions similar to:

‘Overall, how much of a priority is diversity and inclusion to your company?’

The answer is most likely that in theory, it’s very important, but in reality not a priority at all. Our perceptions and beliefs can widely differ from what is really going on and how people are working day-to-day. Instead, a better question might be:

‘When was the last time your company discussed diversity and inclusion as a part of the business strategy?’

Asking ‘last time’ makes it time-bound, so more specific. Using general terms such as ‘overall’ can produce a really varied sample of evaluative answers which can be difficult to draw conclusions from. Asking broader questions can be useful for a qualitative responses (for example in 1-2-1 interviews) but in surveys, data should be clearly defined and measurable. That way, it’ll be easier and faster to analyse and will give the insight required to accurately make the right decisions for the business.


Survey fatigue?

It’s unsurprising that pulse surveys have boomed as an alternative to achingly long annual surveys. Our attention spans have decreased in recent years and we are now much better at consuming bitesize content. There are lots of different and creative ways you can get feedback but ensuring you don’t ask the same people too often is key to gathering meaningful results. 

Companies such as DHL, eBay, Microsoft and Nike have started using real-time surveys for their employees, which can be a great way of collecting data quickly without people having to do very much at all. Removing barriers to entry in this way makes it more likely that people will engage. Here’s an idea: you’ve seen them in airports, why not in work? Introduce a kiosk survey in your office and see responses increase! 

Getting results

And finally, once you have the results, it’s time to work out what they actually mean.

Marks and Spencer has been asking employees how they feel since 2000 and take measurement seriously. They build accountability with managers by meeting after each survey to discuss the results. Managers have access to real-time results which allows them to review and respond to them quickly. They found a strong correlation between engagement and employee absence; as engagement improves, absence declines.

Every 3 to 6 months could be a good frequency to survey employees, but I love what insurer LV are doing; not only do they measure every quarter, but they also ask new starters how they feel in the first 30-60 days. They then use the data to inform their induction processes and, even more crucially, the work they do on their employer brand.


To recap, here’s our top 5 tips for good survey writing:

  1. Look back, not ahead – our intentions do not count as an accurate measure
  2. Be specific – the less open the question, the more accurate the answer the question will be
  3. Make it time-bound – we tend to generalise or misremember, so be specific with the time you’re asking about
  4. Keep it brief – no one likes a long survey so keep it brief and make it easy to access
  5. Act on feedback – you’ve collected the data but how will you act on it? Involve managers and attribute it to business performance

If we are to make real changes in how engaged our employees are, we need to get to the heart of how they are really feeling by focusing on the day-to-day experiences of working life rather than the assumptions or evaluations they give us.

Surveys can be powerful when they’re well written. Write good questions and the data that comes out will be genuine feedback that can be worked with.

What you put in is what you get out and we can help you to craft the right, psychology-based questions to get the accurate answers you need to affect real change.

We’re working with clients on measurement and have a measurement framework to help people make the most of their data. For more details get in touch and I’ll be happy to help.

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