New directions in employee engagement research

During the first few months of 2013 we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of organizations wanting to change the way that they’ve traditionally measured employee engagement. The standardized, once-a-year survey is being challenged like never before. 

Part of this seems to match a marked shift in the types of individuals responsible for employee engagement within firms. We see time and time again as the perceived importance of engagement increases within organizations the managers responsible for it become more senior. With this change typically comes a greater willingness to challenge the ways things have been done.

Second there has been a noticeable increase in interest from customer-facing teams and those parts of the business responsible for customer service. We first discussed this during an interview last year with Rob Ballantine, a customer experience specialist at Infosys. As these functions become more involved then we see a greater desire to bring customer-type measurement methods to understand employee engagement.

Where is engagement measurement going?

Measurement trends

The reliance of the annual, company-wide survey as the only method of measuring engagement is certainly being questioned. We’re not part of the camp who believe that it should be abandoned but do think it shouldn’t be the only solution.

Engagement as part of a more comprehensive firm-wide employee research

The biggest change that we see is how firms are looking at other areas of research apart from the engagement survey and how they’re trying to bring it into an overall measurement / analytics framework. Two key other activities that are being used are questionnaires to measure experience at important stages of the employee lifecycle and employee voice / continual improvement measurement.

Customized engagement surveys linked to real business challenges

The most powerful surveys are those that are linked explicitly to business challenges. This is no surprise; if the best analytical approaches are those that are driven by the need to address the key business challenges then the data that is needed will have been identified by its ability to provide answers to these questions. Only by explicitly linking engagement activities to the objectives of the business will the survey be truly embedded into the business review processes.

Regular ‘pulse’ surveys to samples of the population

Firms are increasingly looking to create engagement barometers; using regular surveys to create a rolling-view on where engagement is heading within firms. We think that in many instances this can make sense. The key challenge that it raises is how to identify the samples to ensure reasonable consistency. Fortunately the ability to create and manage panels within good market research technology reduces this problem note: you’re not likely to get this in a free- or low-end survey tool

Increasing integration of non-traditional survey methods

It’s rare that a customer survey these days would include only Likert-type questions and we’re starting to see some of this thinking moving into employee research. An area that we feel has significant promise is the use of discrete choice-based studies (eg Conjoint analysis) to understand why employees make the choices that they do.

Localised / personal engagement

There seems a realisation that too often engagement, and the measurement of engagement, has been too academic and by trying to generalise on key global issues businesses have failed to understand the inherently local, more personal reasons that drives employees perceptions and engagement. We think that is changing and we’re starting to see more bottom-up as well as top-down approaches

Social organization monitoring

Many firms are showing interest in monitoring the flows of communication within their networks and for using social-type listening to understand what employees are thinking. The are firms doing interesting work in this area, often being driven from outside the HR function. 

Increasing appetite to use open text

It’s probably fair to say that many researchers knew that text comments were often where the real insight came – the difficulty was always dealing with thousands of text snippets.

Modern text-analysis is dramatically reducing the barriers to analysing this content and in doing so increasing our willingness to capture free-text comments. Typical activities include classification and sentiment analysis. Multiple languages pose some additional issues but good semantic technology can classify across languages.

Reporting trends

As well as the changes brought by text analytics we’re seeing several other trends:

Engagement data as just-another source of employee data

Historically engagement survey data has been used on its own, acting as an island within the sea of employee data. Increasingly we’re seeing it being analysed blended together with other employee level data. Often it’s being used to understand perceptions of individuals behaving or performing in certain ways. There is no reason it shouldn’t be used in the majority of HR dashboards.

Reporting availability

Several times over the last few months we’ve heard from clients of having to wait 4–6 weeks for survey reports to be delivered. Few can understand this delay and neither can we.

Modern technology enables presentations to be automatically created and distributed, each reader seeing their own personal cut of the data. If you’re not seeing reports, with every agreed cut of the data, very soon after the survey closes you need to be asking your provider why not.

Continually updated views

As data changes on a more regular basis there is a demand for more interactive, data exploration tools which always incorporate the latest data and provide access to historical trends. This is most often needed for the core team within HR. These tools are often provided on mobile technology so users have access and availability when the data is needed.