As employers realize that they have “engagement issues,” many are trying to quickly assess the state of their workforce. Many will buy a “ready to go” survey that includes an engagement index. This is fine, but there are lots of options. I will write about a few.
What sort of engagement is important for your organization?
There are many types of engagement. Consider, does your organization need better engagement with safety, with customers or with the mission of the organization? I have an engineer friend who tells me he always is engaged. He loves his profession designing manufacturing controllers, but he has very stormy relationships with employers. As a result, this skilled and valuable engineer is constantly changing jobs. If this personable guy had closer relationships with his boss and co-workers he might stick around. A focus on retention is missing in his employers. Be clear on what is strategically important to your organization.
Your organization may be more interested in engaging certain types of employees—high potentials, hard-to-staff skill groups, or generational groups (e.g., Boomers, Millennials). Knowing what is strategically important to your organization is critical to measuring engagement.
Most organizations will choose a survey to understand workforce engagement. At first blush, this is an easy choice. Surveys results are easy to stratify by demographic category (such as age, education-level, or department). These stratifications allow fine grained review and comparison of different groups. This helps to target intervention and to provide useful feedback to managers.
Surveys, however, do require expertise to write, implement and interpret. The difficulty in developing surveys goes beyond the technical aspects of writing and implementing surveys. Surveys are difficult to write because they require the developer to understand the dimensions of workforce sentiment that are important to employees and the strategy well enough to ask intelligent questions.
“Census” surveys, which invite the entire population of employees to take part, are most common. In addition to the time it takes to have all employees take part in the survey, asking about engagement can raise employee expectations that “something is wrong,” or “something is going to change” around here. It is critical to act upon survey results; raised expectations can actually reduce engagement!
Standardized surveys, such as Gallup’s Q12, the Great Places To Work Institute’s Survey and Sage Assessment’s REALI-Index are easy solutions in that they are research based and have evolved through use in multiple organizations. They often include norms that allow you to compare your organization to others. Ultimately, comparisons within your company are more useful, but people are often curious about “how do we compare?”
Successful organizations have a unique strategy, which suggests a need to develop your own survey. Yet, this is time consuming and requires experience and skill in developing surveys. Perhaps the best balancing act is to use a standard survey and add a handful of custom questions to ensure that your specific culture and strategy are included in the survey.
Compared to surveys, focus groups are blunt instruments. But, not all projects call for razor sharp precision—sometimes a more general tool is needed. Stratification and contrasts are not really possible with focus groups, rather you learn about general sentiments. While surveys do extremely well at slicing data, focus groups allow a nuanced understanding of the issues that matter to employees. Focus groups can be easy to conduct-- and can give you a quick directional sense of engagement.
Surveys are primarily static questions to which employees respond. Focus groups are more generative— groups of employees can frame the issues that matter to them.
Years ago I ran focus groups at a large organization with very high engagement. Most employees in this pharmaceutical company truly believed they were working in alignment with the words of one of the founders: “… medicine is for the patient. It is not for the profits...” While consulting, I was genuinely impressed by the engagement in the organization. It was a joy to be in this organization—employees were excited about their work and excited about their organization.
In the midst of the scheduled focus groups, however, a key product was pulled from the market. The media suggested the organization knowingly endangered patient safety by recklessly selling the product despite knowledge of deadly side-effects. The impact was immediately obvious in the focus groups. Focus groups were markedly different before and after the recall. Individuals whose self concept was built on working for an ethical company were wracked with doubt. Suddenly, employees in focus groups started doubting the company, distrusting management and disengaging. Concerns about management were voiced. The abrupt changes provided insights into how to proceed with a culture change initiative. I learned that informal focus groups tell you lots about engagement and they provide you with insights that you would never learn from a survey.
You can run a focus group of the key talent group to understand the engagement of small fractions of employees. This will provide you with insights into specific strata without a survey.
Remember Engagement, Not Measurement, Matters
Regardless of how you do it, I encourage you to understand engagement in your organization. I’m a measurement guy but I have to say the goal is not measurement. The goal is to understand and improve engagement. It is a mistake to focus too much on measurement perfection—what matters is engagement.
I’d like to hear about how you are measuring engagement. Please comment!