It’s about what you ask your employees, not how often you ask it

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - January 12, 2018

There has been a lot written lately about how frequently organizations should ask employees for their input.   A recent article in Harvard Business Review speaks to companies that “need daily or weekly data on employee motivation to identify and fix motivational issues at the individual, team, and unit level.”    An article in The Economic Times states “The objective behind this shift is to capture real-time employee engagement experience and make improvements. On any given day, an employee may be happy about his or her salary, but may not be as content with the work environment. The engagement level may be high with respect to camaraderie, but the food in the cafeteria may not be up to the mark.”

Organizations today have the ability to collect and analyze vast amounts of data, enabling the evaluation of customer satisfaction, buying patterns, inventory, sales, and many more metrics on a daily and even hourly basis.  The argument is often made that companies collect data from customers continuously, so it makes sense that data from employees should be collected continuously.  That argument makes sense on a surface level, but it falls apart a bit when we look deeper.

Customers are asked to provide insights after they have had a defined interaction with a company.  It might be a sale, it might be a service call, or it might be any other experience with the organization.  The surveys used to collect data from customers tend to be somewhat detailed; the intent is to learn about specific elements of the interaction to understand both overall satisfaction and the elements of the interaction. 

Companies don’t survey the same customers every day. They don’t focus on just high-level metrics.  They collect data that allows for problem solving, and they do it after a specific interaction between the company and the customer and with an understanding of the elements of that specific interaction.

So if the model of collecting continuous customer data is a valuable reference point, could we do the same for employees?  Could we ask an extended set of questions in a way that isn’t burdensome to employees?  Could we capture their insights after a specific event or interaction with their employer (and coming to work every day doesn’t count)? Could we make the results available to all employees to increase transparency? Absolutely.  Technology allows for all of that, and Perceptyx has been creating many innovative solutions such as these for our clients.

Access to these data can help organizations understand their business at an extreme level of granularity.  All of this can be highly valuable and insightful, assuming the right data are collected.  It seems to me that it all comes down to that:  The Right Data.  An hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or annual feed of data is useless if it isn’t The Right Data.  The Right Data are illuminating, insightful, actionable, and valuable.  The wrong data are misleading, irrelevant, confusing, and not actionable.  It doesn’t matter how fresh the data are, or how frequently updates are provided.  If it isn’t The Right Data, it is completely pointless.

So when we talk about the need for continuous employee insight, what is The Right Data?  Some say it’s employee engagement, the idea being that engagement levels change frequently, even daily.  Let’s unpack that thought.  

Engagement is generally thought to encompass elements such as pride, discretionary effort, intention to stay, and willingness to recommend the organization as a place to work (I recognize there are many variations on engagement, but let’s use this for argument’s sake.)  The idea that engagement shifts daily would mean that I am proud of the company on Monday, but not so much on Tuesday.  I love my job on Friday but I want to quit on Wednesday.  That kind of quick movement seems unlikely to me, and while some writers contend that there are such dramatic shifts I haven’t seen any research or data to support it.

But let’s assume that engagement does shift on a daily basis.  Once presented with this finding, what happens next?  Research tells us that engagement is an outcome, a product of other workplace elements.  Given that, what workplace elements require action?  In the absence of other insights from employees, follow-up actions will be determined based on instinct, conjecture, opinions, and gut feelings, but not on data.  

While engagement is essential to successful organizations and it needs to be measured, maybe engagement isn’t The Right Data to collect on a frequent basis.  So if not engagement, what should we measure?  It depends (wait…you read this far to find out there is no clear cut answer?)  It depends on the organization’s strategy.  It depends on what is most important to the growth of the organization.  It depends on the culture.  There is no definitive answer on what The Right Data are.

Don’t be distracted by frequency.  It isn’t about how often employees are surveyed.  It’s about The Right Data.

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