Corporate surveys: a chance to make a workplace better, or simply to berate your boss?


By Peter Holland and Tse Leng Tham


December 17, 2018 05:00:10

One of the main themes of work in advanced market economies is the increasing focus on non-manual work — the office job, for example.

People in non-manual jobs typically do not produce physical things (ie engage in productivity that can be measured). Nor do the majority join a union, which can act as their voice in times of uncertainty or when they feel poorly treated.

Thus, measurement of work and workplace issues — or the general office climate, or culture — has become increasingly more complex.

But organisations still need to be able to identify how engaged and committed their workforce is, and the general climate — or atmosphere, or culture — in which they work, oh and also what about management really gets their goat.

Enter the corporate survey.

Written well and administered with timeliness, these surveys can provide a useful set of data with insight around workplace issues, employee engagement and climate of the workplace.

Alternatively, they can irritate and staff, especially when they’re under the pump, and worse render them even more doubtful about management’s care factor.

How to find the goldilocks effect

So, what do we in the field of human resources mean by timely and well written?

In terms of being timely, it is the goldilocks effect. For management, too many surveys and you end up with form fatigue and silence rather than voice; too few and the data is of little use, as the immediacy and representativeness of the information is diminished.

For the employee, too many surveys can be frustrating, as it can indicate a culture of managers being seen to engage with the workforce rather than actually doing so.

A well-timed survey should build on the detailed findings and actions of the previous survey in an appropriate timeframe.

That survey didn’t work. Try this

What we mean by well written is that the survey exacts quality data from (busy) staff.

We can offer two examples to illustrate this.

One organisation called us in to help develop a survey, and we found the questions to be self-serving to management, uncritical and not at all useful in identifying key issues.

Not only was a lot of time and money wasted, but imagine how frustrating it must be for employees who have taken time and effort to respond to the survey, only to see that their input is not accurately captured or responded to?

Try telling the workforce that the survey was junked because it was not very well structured — but here is a new one to try! The damage is done.

Is it a survey or a PR stunt?

A second organisation undertook a detailed and quality-based “climate” survey, only to find that the results were so poor and damning of the culture and the management that they actually chose to ignore the results.

This was admitted by management when challenged on what they had done to address the issues, just as the next survey emerged.

It was quickly seen by the workforce as a PR stunt and following surveys had such a poor response rates (silence) that they were abandoned. Of course with no changes in how the workplace operated were made.

In other words, the climate survey actually made the climate worse!

The wisdom of crowds

An emerging change we are seeing in internal climate studies in the 21st century is what we understand by the notion of timeliness and response.

As noted, in an increasingly dynamic work environment. If the time between surveys is too long, the climate or issues may have changed.

Here, the solution may be internal social media which can provide immediate responses to questions asked. This provides the workforce with a sense of genuine interaction with management (and the organisation), and is used by IBM, HP and Deloitte.

The logic is based around the concept of the wisdom of crowds, where algorithms can aggregate individual communications in a workplace to allow management to respond in real time to the main issues emerging.

Also, individual judgements are averaged, resulting in the common opinion typically being more accurate than most individual estimates. A bit like estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar — the average of all estimates is often very close to the actual answer.

This type of platform has the potential to foster engagement in authentic dialogue between management and the workforce, in real time.

These expressions of voice can provide key insights for organisations that take a genuine learning approach to employee surveys and engagement.

Done properly (and with the appropriate resources), this approach conveys to employees management’s perceived willingness to engage openly, in real time, and deal with issues important to them.

Furthermore, this allows for critical discussion of issues with employees.

Are surveys worth it?

In this new era of electronic platforms the rules need to be set. It not a case of jumping on the social media to make a point or venting your spleen about an issues at work.

To be effective employees need to understand how to use it effectively, and management needs to resource it to respond within the appropriate timeframe.

So when assessing whether surveys are worth the (electronic) paper they are written on? Well, the answer depends on how well they are developed, for what purpose and how it’s being resourced.

To this end, the answer is both Yes and No.

Peter Holland is a professor at Swinburne Business School; Dr Tse Leng Tham works out of Monash University’s Department of Management.






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