The outbreak of Covid-19 has dealt a blow to the global economy, forcing companies to cut costs and lay off people. From the ones still in employment, many experience guilt for surviving the lay-offs, are forced to rethink the way they work and feel stressed, anxious, and helpless.
This situation puts HR in a difficult spot: Companies rely on HR to support employees and, at the same time, expect it to cut costs. Indeed, a Willis Towers Watson virtual focus group with 75 U.S. companies participating revealed that sustaining employee well-being is high on the priority list, but that the current economic climate requires HR interventions to be as cost-efficient as possible.
Why to keep a frequent pulse
Employee surveying can help guide HR through this impasse. Not all employees need HR interventions and the ones who do, probably need different kinds of interventions. Keeping track of employees’ well-being and work experience and tuning in on their challenges and preferences can help HR pinpoint specific improvement areas, tailor interventions to the needs of specific employee groups, and refine interventions on the fly. We advocate for short and frequent employee pulse surveys, rather than annual employee surveys that are currently popular among companies. Here are two reasons why.
- Well-being fluctuates. Our moods at work can differ from day to day. On a single day, a myriad of emotions can come and go. Perhaps now more than ever. As an illustration, our analysis of about 4,000 observations from 82 truck drivers revealed that on-the-job happiness varies as a function of job activities and work stressors. Other research shows that job satisfaction and engagement fluctuate within the same employee from one day to another, in response to situational and personal circumstances. An annual survey will only be marginally sensitive to temporal changes in employee well-being and is, therefore, unlikely to help you uncover problematic dips in well-being in time or even at all. With pulse surveys, you will be able to identify such dips in an early stage and take preventive measures.
- The demand for HR interventions can change over time. Like well-being, the demand for an HR intervention can be subject to change, especially in times of uncertainty. It, therefore, makes sense to monitor employees’ demand for HR interventions and, when demand is lower than expected, adjust the interventions, or abandon them altogether. To illustrate, imagine a situation where an employee survey in the early days of the pandemic suggests that employees ask for an interactive webinar on the use of virtual communication tools. In the time that HR prepares the training materials and plans the webinars, a fair share of employees may have already familiarized themselves with these tools, e.g., through trial-and-error and seeking support. If HR only had annual survey data at their disposal, they would have been unaware of the lower demand until teams started bringing up their concerns during the webinars. With access to employee pulse survey data, HR would have been able to pick up the shift in demand and to alter its course of action (e.g., organizing a company-wide webinar for all employees who need it).
How to keep a frequent pulse: 5 recommendations
Like with any survey, getting started with employee pulse surveys is easy. Survey software often suggests questions and answering categories and offers user-friendly interfaces for employees. Survey distribution is as easy as sending an email and survey data is conveniently summarized in dashboards. Leveraging employee pulse survey data to design and implement cost-efficient interventions, that’s another story entirely.
Here are five recommendations to consider when keeping a pulse on employee well-being, based on research and our own experience.
1. Obtain buy-in from line managers and the C-suite
Before drafting any questions and thinking about survey logistics, you need to take time to obtain buy-in from the middle management and the C-suite. If these stakeholders do not support (or understand) your research purposes, they will never convincingly explain the motives for doing research to employees and stimulate them to fill out your pulse surveys on a regular basis. Apart from boosting response rates, support of these groups is necessary to implement successful HR interventions in a later stage.
A fruitful and perhaps counterintuitive strategy of getting buy-in for your pulse surveys is by not speaking too much about ‘employee well-being’. Middle managers and the C-suite alike need to get used to the concept of employee well-being as a strategic theme within their company and need time to solidify the concept within their organization, especially in times of Covid-19. For many, the theme of employee well-being will be (too) fuzzy, because it isn’t a topic that is easily incorporated into their daily practices. Hence, in your communication with stakeholders, make sure that you speak about more tangible topics, such as absenteeism, turnover, productivity, job content, work-life balance, and social relations.
2. Only ask the questions that matter
All measurement starts with a careful consideration of what to measure.
- Tailor your survey. Every company is different and is going through this period of uncertainty in its own way. On top of that, all employees are unique and experience their jobs differently. Deploying a completely off-the-shelve survey solution is therefore not a good idea. Instead, start off with a set of questions that are probably relevant for all employees (e.g., supervisory support, work pressure, job satisfaction) and, in a small pilot, ask employees for input on what specific questions they would find fitting in a time like this.
- Combine recurrent questions with time-relevant questions. One of the primary advantages of pulse surveys over annual surveys is their ability to reveal changes in employees and groups of employees overtime. To make comparisons possible, you need to repeat questions every time you administer a pulse survey. It will, however, be useful to include a couple of time-relevant (and potentially one-time) questions in each pulse survey, because it shows employees that you try to make the pulse surveys as relevant as possible. For example, in a time like this, it would be helpful to ask employees that are forced to work remotely about the degree to which their new work situation has affected their productivity, concentration, and well-being.
- Measure well-being holistically. Employee well-being constitutes more than just job satisfaction or engagement. Employees are human beings, beings with lives outside the work context. Acknowledge that status and consider well-being questions that ask people about their lives in general, e.g., overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days? As work and private lives are getting increasingly intertwined in these times, holistic measurement seems more important than ever.
- Keep it short. Refrain from including all relevant questions in your survey. Lengthy surveys cause people to ignore your survey invitation and provide low-quality data. We refrain from proposing a maximum number of questions, as items vary in their completion time and certain concepts need to be measured with multiple items (e.g., a multi-facetted construct, such as work engagement). As a rule of thumb, we recommend you to keep the number of items in the range of 10 to 15, aim for a response time of maximally 7 minutes, and ask predominantly multiple-choice questions. Compared to answers on open-ended questions, answers to multiple-choice questions take less time to give for employees and require less effort for analysts to analyze and benchmark. It is still worthwhile to include one or two open-ended questions because they allow employees to echo concerns that are not covered by multiple-choice questions and to provide suggestions for relevant HR interventions.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Writing survey questions is a science. Luckily, there are plenty of resources that can help you avoid the most common mistakes (e.g., double-barreled, ambiguous, and leading questions). For many interesting topics, there are even readily deployable scales available. Occupational psychologists, for example, have developed valid scales of job satisfaction and engagement that comprise of only three or four items. There are even valid single-item measures available that tap into concepts relevant in today’s pandemic (e.g., work-life balance, family role conflict, and supervisor support).
3. Measure frequently, but don’t overdo it
As mentioned earlier, well-being, preferences, and opinions will change over time and therefore require frequent measurement. However, do not invite employees for surveys too frequently. Weekly surveys, for instance, can quickly lead to survey fatigue and non-response. We recommend starting off with a monthly or quarterly survey and optimize the frequency as you go. Keep in mind: the more frequent you conduct a survey, the shorter your questionnaire should be.
4. Keep your employees in the loop
Pulse surveys are there to help employees. Make sure that you keep them informed at all times.
- Foster trust. While your pulse surveys are likely set up with the best intentions, some employees may feel uncomfortable sharing their well-being, preferences, and opinions, especially if they aren’t feeling well or have complaints. This issue seems especially salient in the current times. As employers are forced into lay-offs, employees may get the impression that their survey data could be used as a cause of termination. So, keep survey participation voluntary, ensure the anonymity of your employees’ data and be open on how data is stored, shared, and analyzed. Working with a third party can help you do this.
- Remove practical obstacles. In most cases, there is no explicit time slot scheduled for employees to fill out surveys. Instead, employees are expected to find a spot in their agenda to complete them. To make the survey experience as convenient as possible, it’s important to clarify what you expect from employees and candidly communicate pulse frequency and expected survey duration. In addition, make sure that your survey platform is user-friendly, and employees have someone to reach out to if technical issues arise.
- Provide feedback. Employees invest time and effort in filling out the survey and deserve to get informed about the results of the survey. In addition, if results are not communicated, it’s very likely that employees will become demotivated to participate in future pulse surveys. Use infographics to translate abstract summary statistics to understandable insights. Organize feedback sessions to facilitate the exchange of feedback. These sessions can also help you to contextualize survey results and to brainstorm about suitable intervention.
5. Do something with the results
Making decisions based on the survey responses should be the primary reason for setting up a survey in the first place. Not acting on feedback of employees will reduce employee well-being and willingness to participate in the intervention.
- Ask for help if necessary. Studies teach us that HR often struggles to move from processing dashboards to deducting tangible insights for decision making. If HR in your company lacks the required statistical literacy, we advise you to reach out to more data-minded professionals, such as marketers and data analysts, HR consultants, or academic researchers.
- Combine different sources of evidence. While a comparison of group averages and analyzing trends will probably help you reveal certain dips in well-being and give you an idea on their causes, we recommend against making decisions on statistics only. A couple of pulse surveys are unlikely to uncover the full story and to give you all the tools for adequate HR intervention. A combination of various data collection methods will. So, set up a virtual focus group, schedule a couple of one-on-one phone calls, or, if your workplace allows it, have a face-to-face discussion at a safe distance. Try to get the story behind the data. Only with detailed information on the problem’s root cause, you can ensure that your HR intervention is maximally relevant and thus will pay off.
- Adjust course if needed. When you have decided to offer a specific group of employees a specific intervention, make sure that you evaluate the results in the next pulse surveys. Mind, however, that the effects of your intervention may not be immediately apparent in your data and may wear off in time. If your data suggests that your intervention lacks effectiveness and demand has shifted, it is important to act. Evidence-based decision making takes courage. So, have the guts to tailor the intervention to the feedback of employees or abandon it altogether, if your initial plan didn’t work.
On a final note
In the end, employees represent the greatest costs and greatest assets in most companies. In the economically uncertain times that lie ahead, it is tempting to treat employees as the former instead of the latter. Indeed, in the 2008 recession, HR spending on training and benefits declined for three years in a row. If history is any indication of future events, we can expect this to happen again. Continuous and close listening to the voices of employees and designing relevant interventions based on this will help HR to ensure that budget cuts are done in a smart way. As mentioned by Van Rooy and colleagues in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, “measuring workforce attitudes is a business imperative – including during an economic downturn or crisis”.