How to Turn an Employee Survey Into a Conversation

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May 1, 2018

Let’s face it — people don’t like filling out surveys. At least, I never have. And if I’m being honest, clicking through 50 similarly formatted questions tends to be pretty boring. Sometimes I even rush to the last question just to get it over with.

On the flipside, I work in the people department so I know how much we rely on employee responses to understand things like engagement and company culture perspectives. With this knowledge, I realized companies could collect a lot more responses with better insights if the surveys they issued were presented differently. So I started researching ways to make surveys work better.

The advice that changed my approach

The best advice came when someone suggested not to think of surveys as surveys, but as conversations instead. Ask yourself: What’s the difference between a 10 minute conversation with your colleague and a 10 minute survey issued from an employer? Well, the first feels short, and the second feels long.

The challenge became finding ways to make a survey feel more like a conversation. Here are the solutions I’ve discovered:

1. Curiosity

When putting together a survey, consider changing the conversation flow depending on a person’s response. This pulls the respondent into the conversation and motivates them to engage.

These days, modern survey platforms allow you to follow up on negative responses with questions like, “Can you please explain the main issue a bit more?” Or on the contrary, a positive response can be followed up with, “Do you mind sharing what exactly makes you feel this way, so we can try to replicate it?” These types of questions show your interest in what employees actually have to say.

If an answer requires further exploration, always have a follow-up question ready to go. This makes the respondent feel like you’re not in search of a particular answer, but instead, that every response matters.

2. Pace

Making people answer question after question on a 5-point scale is not how normal conversations flow. Conversations have pauses, changes in the pace of our sentences, and sometimes the need for further explanation. So how can surveys mimic this?

I noticed a major increase in engagement when the pace of surveys was broken up. For example, people pay more attention when you add in an image to further explain a question. Even serious conversations can be lightened up with a GIF.  Depending on the survey, videos can also help to elaborate on a question or concept.

3. Bravery

Just like in real life, a conversation goes nowhere if you avoid talking about difficult topics.

Challenging questions shouldn’t be avoided. In fact, try making them a talking point in your survey. For example, when the water cooler gossip turns into doubting that leadership made the right decision by opening a new office, choose to address the topic in your survey rather than letting it remain office chatter.

If you don’t have at least one question in your survey that is “hard,” you should rethink your questions. People will respect your leadership or HR team more if they are willing to open up to talk about any topic — the good, the bad and the ugly.

And while asking difficult questions requires a culture of trust, it also helps to instill this culture.

4. Transparency

Daily conversations bring topics out into the open — which is liberating. Survey feedback often disappears into a black HR hole — which is frustrating.

Try to be as transparent as possible with results. For quick sentiment pulse surveys, try to show respondents the results immediately as they’re collected. For longer engagement surveys, consider presenting the results in-person to respondents with a plan of action. Something I’ve implemented with longer form surveys is sharing in-depth reports with all departments shortly after the survey is closed.

By openly discussing some of your future intentions based on the feedback, people will be more motivated to engage with the conversations you want to have. By taking the proper steps when creating and issuing surveys your employees will thank you with better responses.

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