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Is Your Employee Engagement Survey Still Serving You?

February 05, 2024   ·  

According to Gallup, employee engagement is sitting at 23% globally. If that statistic is accurate – and there’s little reason to believe it’s not – then disengagement presents an enormous challenge for organisations.  

For decades, the primary tool for understanding and attempting to improve employee engagement has been the annual engagement survey.  

But is it still the best tool in our arsenal?  

After all, the modern workplace is unrecognisable from what it was 20 or 30 years ago.  

When the engagement survey was first introduced in the early 20th century, and for a long time afterwards, management saw organisations as linear, machine-like entities. 

The survey served that assumption well.  

You would ask a set of questions, get a set of results from your people, act on those results, and then expect a set of appropriate outcomes.   

But in recent years, we’ve come to recognise organisations as something altogether different; complex and diverse social systems, made up of individual perspectives and experiences.   

This enlightened understanding of organisations as dynamic and evolving calls into question whether the engagement survey remains effective.  

In this article, we’ll explore what organisations are trying to achieve with engagement surveys and how effective they are in helping them to meet those goals.  


The engagement survey through history 

For decades, engagement survey providers have sought to better connect leadership with their employees.  

The first ‘employee-attitude’ surveys of the 1920s were considered revolutionary at the time, but they were largely focused on measuring compliance and satisfaction.  

As relations between employees and their employers evolved, our focus turned to engagement and its impact on retention and business performance.  

In more recent years, employee engagement is no longer seen as HR’s responsibility, but that of the business as a whole and the CEO at the head of it.  

New concepts have gathered prominence alongside societal shifts, like the importance of employee voice and workplace wellbeing.  

So, things have changed. This generation expect different things from their employers than their parents did.  

And yet, the primary tool for measuring engagement remains the same as it was in the 1920s.  


Why do we use surveys? 

Before we delve deeper into this topic, it’s important to note that surveys are a sensible part of any employee listening strategy.  

Our own clients use the pulse survey feature in Harkn and other survey tools to supplement our live listening channels.  

But they should not be the sum of your employee listening strategy.  

When we explore some of the key objectives behind using surveys, the shortfalls of this approach become apparent.  


Using surveys to... 


Build engagement 

Countless studies point to the connection between employee engagement and organisational performance.  

After all, if your employees are willing and motivated to work towards business goals, then they are more likely to deliver them.  

But how well do surveys measure engagement?  

It’s worth noting that there’s no ruling definition of engagement. If we combine the many, many results presented by Google, you might be left with something like ‘how connected employees feel to their work and organisation.’  

This subjectiveness is reflected in surveys themselves. Different survey providers interpret engagement differently, and thus score it differently.  

For example, someone raising concerns about their working environment might be seen as disengaged, when in fact their very participation in the survey points to a certain level of engagement.  

There’s a tendency to conflate negative feedback with disengagement when it often shows a willingness to be involved in the future direction of your organisation.   

Gallup’s 10th employee engagement meta-analysis, carried out in 2020, asked participants 12 questions. These ranged from whether the participant felt their opinions counted at work, to whether they have a best friend at work.  

How much can the answers to these questions tell you about the reality of engagement in your organisation?  

I might have a best friend at work, but we might spend most of our time talking about how disengaged we feel at work.  

If the survey was effective in measuring and improving engagement, would we be celebrating 23% of engaged employees as a record high?  


Understand culture 

Surveys are commonly used with the goal of better understanding workplace culture and informing culture change. Again, we’ve got a definition problem here.  

Many definitions describe workplace culture as a ‘shared set of values, beliefs, and behaviours…’  

This implies something static. Something that leadership decide on and roll out to their workforce.  

The reality is quite different.  

We find ‘how we do things around here’ to be a more accurate definition of culture.  Essential to that definition – when applied to the workplace setting especially – is understanding that the ‘we’ and the ‘around here’ are always changing. 

Culture is not static, nor black-and-white – no matter how clear your company mission statement is.  

Culture isn’t decided at the beginning of a calendar or financial year, nor with the implementation of a new leadership team. It’s decided by day-to-day experiences inside your organisation.  

Relying on surveys to understand and influence organisational culture underestimates the complexity and nuances of those lived experiences.  


Improve wellbeing 

Organisations are increasingly aware of the psychosocial risks posed by the modern workplace and the moral and business imperative to better support employee wellbeing.  

Leadership looks to surveys to support their efforts in this area by including questions in their engagement survey around morale and wellbeing, or running a separate survey focused on wellness. 

Several issues arise with this approach.   

Surveys reflect trends and patterns across your workforce. These can inform your wellbeing strategy, but they can’t enable targeted wellbeing support.  

No matter how regularly you run surveys, they don’t offer the speed of insight needed for early intervention in wellbeing issues.  

By the time results are collected and analysed, it may be too late to prevent consequences like burnout, stress leave, or presenteeism.   

Where an individual’s survey response does cause concern, what channels do you have to reach out to that person without exposing their identity? You will likely have to compromise psychological safety for the sake of intervention.  

Finally, when it comes to looking after your people, giving them the opportunity to speak openly about their struggles is essential. If what they need to say is not the answer to one of the questions you have asked, how else will you hear about it?  


"You cannot maintain a positive employee experience without listening to your people on a continuous basis. Organisations will begin to move away from annual surveys and instead collect feedback from employees more frequently to better understand the trends, issues, and variables impacting employee engagement in real-time." 

Josh Bersin, Author & Analyst 


Shortfalls of a survey-based approach 

Allow me a quick analogy often used by our Head of Engagement, Wendy Firlotte.  

Imagine someone you have a close personal relationship with – your partner, perhaps, or your best friend.  

Now imagine telling them that, from now on, you’re only going to communicate with them through a series of broadcast-style memos.  

Everything from this Saturday’s dinner plans to major life updates will now be explained via email.  

Your partner or best friend can’t respond to the emails until an allotted time when you invite their feedback.  

Even then, they can only answer the questions you choose to ask.   

Your partner or best friend wouldn’t be best pleased. In fact, they probably wouldn’t stick around for long.  

And yet, this is exactly what happens when organisations rely on surveys to hear from their employees.   


Lack of agency 

To state the obvious, employees can only answer the questions you have chosen to ask them.  

This doesn’t leave room for expressing concerns on topics outside of those you perceive as the biggest issues affecting your workplace.  

Organisations are made up of unique individuals with unique experiences. Asking the same set of questions to your whole workforce will never give you a clear picture of reality inside your organisation.  



In the early days of Harkn, we started working with an organisation who relied on an annual engagement survey. It took them three months to organise, a few more months to conduct, and another few months to analyse it and implement an action plan.  

By the time the actions were rolled out, it was time for another survey.  

Employees couldn’t remember what they’d said before, the business was operating in a new context, and their lived experiences had moved on.  

Many organisations are seeking to tighten this cycle by introducing pulse-style surveys. The frequency of pulse surveys improves reliability of insight, but you are still confined to the same process and lack the opportunity to understand day-to-day employee experience.  



One of the most asked questions about surveys is, “are they really anonymous?”  

In the case of external survey providers, they often are. Surveys conducted internally are usually confidential, rather than anonymous – those analysing the results know who you are, but they have assured you your answers will be kept private.  

But the real problem here lies in perception. Back in 2017, Gallup found that 45% of employees taking part in engagement surveys believed their responses could be traced back to them.  

The very fact that people are so concerned about the anonymity of surveys speaks volumes about trust levels in organisations.  

Surveys are issued to build trust, but they are stifled by a systemic lack of it.  



Organisations invest immense resources in surveys because they want to improve things for their employees.  

But a recent Gallup poll found that 92% of people think no action will come from their responses. That’s a staggering majority.  

Leaders take action and expect positive outcomes, but employees still don’t feel listened to. 


When analysing large swathes of data, leadership choose a set of problems to work on and changes are implemented in a top-down, one-size-fits-all manner.  

The result is that – even when there is action from surveys – people don’t recognise it as addressing their problem or need. As a result, they don’t feel heard or valued by their organisation.  

Today’s employees expect to have more say in shaping the future of their organisation than a set of broad changes that only cater to the loudest voices.  

Ironically, employees who don’t feel listened to will start to disengage – the very problem the survey sets out to tackle. 


Live employee voice: a different perspective 

Surveys are so heavily relied upon in organisations because of the perception that they are the only way to hear from employees at scale. 

This is not true. Not only is there another way, there’s also a better way.  

To really unlock the diverse range of voices in your organisation, you need to close the feedback loop.  

Speed of insight is essential for staying ahead of the curve, while anonymity and transparency are essential for equal voice.  

There’s so much we could talk about here, but for now we’ll break it down into four essential building blocks for a robust, agile listening strategy:  


1. Guarantee psychological safety 

Psychological safety is the first essential for employee voice. 

Decades of research into why people are reluctant to speak up at work has produced consistent results; silence in hierarchies is instinctive and safe.  

Use tools that ensure end-to-end anonymity to start hearing more of what matters from your people.  

2. Build relationships 

There are no shortcuts to improving employee engagement. As our story illustrated, we wouldn’t expect our loved ones to elicit feedback from us through a series of broadcast-style memos.  

When they need something from us, we do it willingly because a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect already exists.  

Organisations need to focus on building relationships at scale in the workforce to stop engagement initiatives from feeling transactional. 

3. Enable live communication 

Close the feedback loop by giving your people access to always on, always live communication channels.  

Whether it’s identifying someone who is beginning to burn out, or a crucial project that’s starting to derail, this speed of insight is key in today’s fast-paced workplace.  

4. Encourage collective sensemaking

Surveys give individuals an opportunity to express their opinions, but they don’t offer insight into the perspectives and experiences of their peers.  

The recent scandal at The Post Office demonstrates why shared awareness and collective sensemaking are crucial in navigating complex circumstances.  

A flatter feedback model that combines transparency with anonymity fosters shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing your workplace. 


"The future belongs to those who learn, listen, and adapt. The listening organisation doesn't only adapt to change; it anticipates it by paying close attention to the subtle, often unspoken signals from within and around it." 

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft 


The age of listening 

For organisations to thrive in today's competitive world, they need an agile, resilient, and change-ready workforce. 

We're doing everything faster. Implementing new technologies, responding to shifting markets, and evolving our organisational structures. 

Your people are the engine of that change, and yet organisations are still only hearing from them periodically.  

The modern workplace is fast-paced and dynamic, and your approach to employee listening should be the same.  

You can find a side-by-side comparison of employee listening solutions here

Book a virtual coffee with us to talk about how we might be able to help your organisation.  

Lydia Blundell
Lydia Blundell

Brand & Content Manager , Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn

Employee engagementEmployee voicePsychological safetyConnection

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