26 October 2021

How to transform your employee surveys into a valuable tool

Rob Robson of The People Experience Hub shares three levels to structuring your employee surveys to get useful feedback


Rob Robson

Rob Robson


Employee engagement Leadership and management Performance


Rob Robson of The People Experience Hub shares three levels to structuring your employee surveys to get useful feedback

People often want to know what questions should be asked in employee surveys but I have a confession: I don’t believe that there’s a definitive list of ‘top’ questions you need to ask. While some survey providers market themselves on that basis, we at The People Experience Hub believe that this method encourages organisations to take a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to engagement.

Our view is that creating an effective employee survey means making choices, prioritising what you want to ask and making sure these questions are relevant to the unique context of your organisation, with its own (desired) culture, vision, mission, and demands.

Your survey should be as efficient as possible

No-one will thank you for a 120-question survey, no matter the science behind it and, in most organisations, you’ll have lost your audience. In our experience, you only have 40 or so questions to try to get a reasonably comprehensive view of your organisation, so it’s important to be efficient in your choice of questions.

This is a little different to the world of psychometrics where, although efficiency is an important factor, validity and reliability are paramount. I would argue that in employee surveys, when you are generally trying cover more ground, it’s the other way around.

A guiding framework will help you design your survey

We might not have a list of ‘must ask’ or ‘best’ questions to put onto your survey, but I can share a framework that can help you structure your survey and make it relevant, as well as a few key tips to help you write high-quality questions.

Let’s look at our three-level People Experience framework and how we use it to design and analyse employee surveys for our clients.

Level 1: the Perceived Environment

The first level of the framework is the Perceived Environment. This includes the more tangible aspects of the organisation, its practices (such as communication, management and leadership, and people practices), processes (and systems), places of work and potentially less tangible elements such as perceived culture.

Much of what fits here is what Edgar Schein would describe as “artefacts” of culture. We can see, hear or feel them and we can expect people to describe them with a certain degree of consistency. For example, if processes are slow and inefficient, generally that’s something that people would agree on.

Questions about the Perceived Environment would tend to focus on an external object – a line manager, processes, the company – and the participant’s assessment of it, for example:

  • My line manager challenges me to perform at my best
  • Our processes and systems make it easy to get things done
  • Changes to ways of working are clearly communicated
  • As a company, we take safety seriously

Questions about the perceived environment will tell you in more direct terms ‘how things are’ in the company. That’s great if you’re wondering where you could improve, but it won’t particularly help you understand impact or prioritise initiatives.

That’s where separating questions into different levels can help.

Level 2: the Felt Experience

The next level is where the environment meets employees’ own beliefs, values, and motivation – resulting in a more subjective and personal ‘Felt Experience’.

For example: we might both agree that processes are slow and inefficient, but while that might be deeply frustrating to you, I might not mind because I care more about reliability.

The elements of the Felt Experience

After reviewing research and theory, we have proposed six key components of an ‘engaging’ experience. These are:

  • Purpose – I have a sense of purpose or find meaning in my work
  • Enjoyment – I enjoy and take energy from my work
  • Belonging – I feel like I belong here, while being myself
  • Autonomy – I have freedom to act and can influence my work
  • Connection – I enjoy positive relationships with others
  • Growth – I’m able to use and extend the range of my skills and knowledge

For us, this represents the core of the employee experience, because if you understand how people feel in this way, you might now need to measure anything else.

How so? First, if you know that you score poorly on belonging, you can examine all of your management practices, processes and places through that lens to identify opportunities to improve.

Second, each of these elements has different implications for organisational performance. Staying on the same theme, we know that a sense of belonging helps people work together effectively and reduces ‘friction’ in the system (eg resistance to change).

It won’t be a surprise, therefore, to hear that we normally aim to include these elements in our survey, with the number of questions being determined by the client’s overall focus and priorities.

Level 3: Observable Outcomes

The final level is perhaps the most important to consider, which is your people-related outcomes. Related to your business and people strategies, these represent why you even want to run an employee survey.

So, what might be included in outcomes? ‘Observable’ means we include things that people might describe but we can’t actually see, such as motivations or intentions, and not only actual behaviour.

Behavioural and emotional engagement fit here; in other words, the effort and commitment of your people to the organisation.

But it’s important to think beyond engagement, and the score in particular. Sure, one reason for running a survey might be because your board sees employee engagement as a people measure to report on and improve but that’s not, in itself, doing anything to add value to your business.

So what does? Performance? Yes – and you might measure a proxy for performance in your survey, for example that people believe they are able to perform at their best every day. Moreover, you might have the people analytics capability to combine survey data with real performance data.

What about wellbeing or, on the flip side, burnout? If you’re in a competitive labour market (who isn’t right now), intention to stay or willingness to recommend you might be important measures. For many organisations, readiness to embrace change could be a desirable outcome.

Enabling insight and action

Using a framework such as our three-level people experience framework is not only helpful to drive your survey design, but it can also improve your analysis.

The three levels represent the process of employee engagement. The perceived environment reflects those things that you can manipulate or change, to improve the people experience, and that experience will influence motivation, behaviour or wellbeing.

By separating them out, we can use more sophisticated methods of analysis to understand the driving factor, and ultimately to comprehend what’s going to have more impact, or the most value, for your business.

Some tips for writing questions

Here are my top three tips for writing good survey questions.

1: Make sure your language is clear and relevant

It is easy for ambiguous language to creep into surveys. A common example of this is around ‘leadership’ or ‘management’. What do these words mean to your people, from ‘the shop floor to the top floor’? Everyone needs to be able to complete the survey.

Be specific and use language that most of your target participants would use. For example, do people talk about their ‘supervisor’, or would ‘immediate line manager’ make more sense? Would everyone have the same person in mind when you talk about senior managers or ‘the leadership’? Probably not.

2: Make sure every question addresses a single subject

When you’re trying to keep the number of questions down, it can be tempting to ask multiple questions with each item. For example:

I find my work meaningful and enjoyable.

To agree, does a person have to find their work meaningful, enjoyable, or both? And what would you actually do with a poor score?

This needs to be two statements, such as “I find my work meaningful” and “I find my work enjoyable”, or you need to make a choice.

3: Write the question or statement with the response in mind

In employee surveys, questions tend to be written for an agreement scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) as a statement. They don’t have to be, however.

You can, of course ask direct yes or no questions (be careful, unless there is genuinely no middle ground), multiple choice questions, and open text questions. There are also many options for scales, such as frequency, satisfaction or awareness.

Just be clear about the ‘quality’ that you’re measuring and make sure that your response method matches.

Read more on designing survey questions here.

Rob Robson is director of people science for The People Experience Hub, which helps organisations transform the experience of their people through their flexible employee feedback platform and expert support.