Employee Engagement: Getting HR a Seat at the Table
W/ Sam Baber, CEO of TXP Agency
Recently, we turned the tables and had Workify friend, Sam Baber, interview our CEO, Stephen Huerta on a topic that’s the focus of many conversations that he’s having with his clients:
Empoyee Engagement Measurement & Getting HR a Seat at the Table.
As the CEO of TXP Agency, a boutique leadership and development consulting firm, Sam gets a lot of questions from his clients on how they can build more credibility around their engagement initiatives – so he decided to sit down with Stephen to get his thoughts.
Living in a Feedback Driven Culture
Why is employee engagement in general so important? It’s not just a survey, right?
Yeah, that’s an important distinction to make. I’ve been asked similar questions from executives that really want to dumb this down to being a single survey. But before we can look forward, we’re going to need to look back. The workforce today has drastically changed.
This probably would have been a real millennial-focused conversation even five years ago. But times have changed and some of the changes in technology adoption that were originally millennial things, have now cascaded to everyone. It’s just how we live our lives.
If we go to a restaurant or movie tonight, we can leave feedback. And if we have a bad experience, we know that someone will be listening to our feedback. It’s interesting to me that from a consumer perspective, this is a priority for many organizations. But yet, those same organizations question the need for employee feedback.
Employees now have the same expectations in their work life that they have in the rest of their lives. And some of the things that are really causing these shifts to exacerbate the issues start with what’s expected at work. Increasingly, we’re seeing that employees want to be remote, they are also distributed, and there is an expectation that they can submit feedback quickly and easily.
Just like the parallel you drew with customer experience, whether it’s social media management or Yelp, the responsiveness is so important. Companies will look at their incoming feedback and choose to either react or not react.
Much like consumers hold companies accountable for the feedback that they give, employees want to hold their employers accountable. When organizations send out a signal, whether it’s through engagement surveys or something else, employees expect to see that change is being made as a direct result of their feedback.
And many times execs will wonder later on, why is attrition up, and all you have to say is look at the data from your last survey.
That’s what makes it hard for companies. HR is up against elevated expectations. There is a general lack of feeling that companies are going to do anything with employee feedback. Especially when organizations take months to take action, or worse, never take any action at all.
But the first thing you need to do is look at what you’re currently doing and understand how you can be more strategic.
Moving Away from the Annual Survey
I’m curious what is it beyond a survey. Why do surveys fail? What is it about surveys in general that you have seen not work?
The number one thing, and it still boggles my mind, is that companies are still operating on an annual cadence with their employee engagement surveys.
The long story short is that employees are frustrated that they’re only being asked for feedback once a year. HR is frustrated because it’s very hard to do something meaningful with data that’s captured once a year.
The process is clunky and cumbersome, which means that getting any kind of insight or driving meaningful change is difficult. Often times, you’re looking at data from three months ago which leads to stale insights and extremely frustrated executives. It’s a broken process.
On the topic of executive buy-in, the thing I always try to think about is that you can have all of the data in the world, but unless people actually begin to believe in one another and are actually empowered to make the change, it’s really difficult.
Having executive buy-in is really important. HR teams at times can feel disenchanted. For decades, we’ve been talking about HR having a seat at the table and being part of the strategic conversations. Unfortunately, for many organizations, that’s not happening. We’ve made a lot of progress but not fast enough.
Employee engagement is something that needs to be repositioned in a more strategic way so that executives can really understand it. Having the ability to make data-backed decisions is imperative. You shouldn’t be throwing spaghetti at the wall and guessing at what needs to be done in order to improve engagement at your company. You should have the data that supports the investments and changes that you’re making as an organization.
You bet. If you’re going to retain employees in today’s market, you better raise your antenna and pay attention.
So if I wanted to be a part of this brave new world, what does that look like?
This new way of approaching employee engagement, or annual surveys, is a term that has been coined by some of the emerging thought leaders in the space as “engagement measurement”.
Engagement measurement is a methodology. It’s a process for gathering feedback over time vs a single survey at a single point in time. The other difference between engagement measurement and an annual survey is the focus on having a research-based approach.
Focusing on a clear set of measurements that are statistically valid will ensure that your results are reliable when assessing whether or not your employees are engaged or disengaged. The intended outcome of rolling out an engagement measurement program is to instill a higher level of confidence in the actions that your organization is taking.
This is happening in other aspects of business. This is a movement to drive a data-driven approach to human resources. By doing this, the end goal is to speed up the time from survey insights to action.
Leveraging a culture model and employee engagement indicators
If we’re moving beyond the annual survey or performance review, what does that look like? How does that unfurl itself in terms of all of the different things that executives should be paying more attention to vs. sticking a finger up in the wind and making a best guess?
The starting point is identifying an approach or a model that is rooted in the IO Psychology world. There are several culture models out there. At Workify, we’ve developed our own model, but if go back to the OG culture and engagement godfathers, there’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
That’s a very simple way of understanding the very basic factors that will drive an employee and their levels of satisfaction. There are other models out there and other solutions and providers that can help you look at very specific indicators that will help you measure the level of engagement with your employees.
At this stage in the design of your program, what we encourage is deciding on the measure or as like to call them “indicators” that are going to provide data that means something to your business. Look at these measures as a way of connecting data to your business so that when you eventually report results up to your exec team it’s going to actually mean something to them.
How do you go about designing these? In terms of what makes a great design, what are the factors that get measured?
There are two ways of approaching it. Some businesses already have a clear set of pillars they want to measure while others don’t.
Prior to working with us, one of the companies we work with had already identified three competencies that were the most important factors driving engagement at their organization. So for that business it was very easy for them to look at their three pillars and align it with the indicators they wanted to measure. But not all companies can have that sort of alignment so easily.
Another thing you can do is look at the questions that you want to ask. You can aggregate the questions that you want to ask and see what themes come out of those questions. Those themes will then makeup the indicators that you want to measure.
This is important. Once you’ve identified the indicators that you want to measure, the next step is to start designing your engagement baseline survey.
Getting a baseline of engagement at your company
What’s a baseline survey?
That’s a good question. The baseline survey is the primary tool that you’re going to use to take a full diagnostic of the health of engagement at your company.
The objective of the baseline is to measure the drivers of engagement at your company, your engagement indicators. Your questions should tie directly to your indicators. We suggest 5-6 questions per indicator to ensure statistical validity.
Once you’ve identified the questions that you want to ask, you want to use those same set of questions survey over survey. This will allow you to trend your data over time. If you’re changing the questions survey to survey, it’s hard to say with confidence to leaders that the implemented changes have definitively made an impact on engagement.
It also causes employees to have whiplash. If no action or the wrong actions are taken, then months later they receive a survey with a slew of different questions, it can make them question whether their employer has actually been paying attention to their feedback.
Exactly…and we have some other things that we can cover later in terms of pitfalls. But while we’re on the topic of picking the right questions, there’s been a lot of debate within the employee engagement community around survey length.
On one end of the spectrum, there are the pulse survey vendors that send out a survey a week. On the other side, you have the incumbents that believe in the annual survey of 50, 60, 70 questions.
What we’ve found is, the sweet spot is right around 25-35 questions, which is actually more questions than we used to recommend. HR needs to have confidence in the course of action they are recommending to their team, and we’ve found that the 25-35 question range allows for a robust, statistically valid dataset while not overwhelming employees.
You mentioned confidence. Do you mean confidence from the employers perspective in the data?
Yeah, and in addition, we know that HR execs have struggled to engage the executive leadership teams in this conversation. I frequently join these sessions and one of the things that we’ve noticed is that if you cannot with conviction stand in front of your executive team and explain why these results are accurate then you fold.
We see it happen all the time. It undermines all of the work that you’ve done and you risk losing the one or two sponsors that you do have in the ELT.
Drilling down on engagement issues to take swift action
When HR becomes overwhelmed by the data or has analysis paralysis, what are some techniques that you recommend for getting past surface-level insights?
Earlier, we talked about the difference between engagement measurement and the traditional annual approach, and one of the things that I mentioned was the notion that engagement measurement is a methodology.
It’s not a single survey. What we find is the best approach, is not stopping with your baseline survey. To your point, a lot of times, HR gets bogged down by the data. Executives want everything to be fixed. And the HR organization is overwhelmed because they’re trying to fix everything, so they end up fixing nothing.
So what we see as an emerging best practice, is the notion of a drill-down survey. The drill-down survey is a follow-up pulse survey. This is an 8-12 question survey that’s going to get to the underlying root issue.
Let’s say that you find that leadership is your lowest scoring engagement indicator at your company, we would recommend that you conduct a leadership-focused drill-down survey.
If you structure the leadership drill down appropriately, you will be able to assess the indicator among other influencers of engagement. For example, it may uncover that you have accountability issues within your leadership team. You will have a laser focus on understanding exactly what the issue with leadership is.
Asking 7-8 quantitative questions in combination with 1-2 qualitative questions will give you enough data to put together 2-3 action areas that you can plan around with your team.
The drill-down really is the missing link in the process.
This is an approach that gives you an x-ray and allows you to be a tuning fork within your organization.
Personally, I know how companies benefit, but I want you to tell the people who are listening, how they can benefit from adopting a more strategic survey methodology.
There are many benefits of leveraging a more modern approach.
You will build credibility with your executives by having: a researched backed approach, data to back every investment being made, and you will be able to trace the change your company is investing in back to specific data points that you’ve collected as a part of your engagement measurement process.
In addition, you’re going to see speed. We frequently hear from companies that it takes 3-6 months to get data back from either their internal HR or third party vendors. It astounds me that it still takes that long for some organizations to receive their data. It just doesn’t work for a modern business.
Stop winging it
Before we wrap up, what are some important takeaways you want to leave them with?
My first point would be to stop winging it. It’s amazing how many companies are still throwing a survey together and sending it out through a free tool or internal tool built in house. They’re compromising anonymity and losing credibility. And as I always say, it’s never been easier to create a bad survey.
Anyone can go out and google employee survey questions. You’re going to find some legitimate sources in addition to some very poor sources. If you don’t wrap your survey around a thoughtful and deliberate approach, then your results are going to be poor.
It’s all for nothing. If you don’t know how to analyze data because you have a free tool that doesn’t do that for you.
My second point would be to focus on getting a toolset that will make your job easier. Often times, we see HR teams that try and do everything themselves.
The reality is that they may be able to do it, but there are now several solutions out there that have taken this science so far forward. To try and do this on your own, would actually take away time from helping the business and being a strategic HR professional.
The last thing is, once you have a structured approach and a toolset that is going to enable you to get through the engagement measurement process in a way that will build credibility with your executives, you really need to avoid analysis paralysis.
This isn’t really an HR centric issue as much as it’s a general issue that organizations face. You may want to cut your data in a million different ways to figure out why your scoring low in a certain area, but the scores are the scores. Rather than falling into that trap of analyzing and further analyzing, focus on driving a conversation that’s centered around the insights that your data has generated. It should be an action-focused conversation and not digging into the data deeper conversation.
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