When is the Best Time to Survey Employees? Now!

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Sarah Johnson

Expert advice on when is the right time to survey employees.

As a consultant in the employee and organization survey space, I am asked a lot of questions.  How many surveys is too many?  How often should we survey? How many questions should we include in our survey?  The list goes on and on.  But the question that I have been asked a lot lately is “when is the best time to survey our employees?”

On its surface, the question could be referring to the time of year, e.g. is a summer survey administration problematic because of employee vacation time, or is November too late for a survey, as momentum could be lost to the holidays?

It could refer to organization events, like performance appraisal or salary increase season.  Would surveying right after salary increases are given be a good idea or a bad idea?

Sometimes the question has a different undercurrent to it, which I interpret to mean “when should we conduct our survey so we can get the most favorable responses possible?”  The companies that ask this question generally see the survey as a metric generator (presumably a positive metric generator) rather than as a tool to understand critical issues in the organization and put plans in place to make meaningful improvements.

So what’s my answer?  The best time to do an employee survey is when employees need leaders to listen and act. 

I’ll admit, that’s a pretty broad answer.  Let me explain.

Surveying Employees

Getting the Timing Right

Surveys are at their best when they provide meaningful feedback on employees’ challenges and concerns.  When they help pinpoint an issue for a critical group and provide ideas for improvements.  When they provide an early warning system that allows managers and leaders to address issues before they become real problems to the organization. In this context, the best time to do a survey is anytime there is a need to share perspectives and understand challenges.  That could be when something has rocked their world and they need to share their reactions and needs.

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When I have given this answer I often get reactions along the lines of “if we survey during a significant change the results won’t be typical of what things are normally like around here.”  To which I say, who cares?  It’s always important to listen, but it is critical to listen during times of upheaval and change because this is when employees face their greatest challenges and uncertainty.  If we don’t provide the chance to share these insights, we won’t be able to address their concerns.  We won’t be able to course-correct or provide more or different resources or communicate more effectively. We will have ignored our employees in a time of need, and we could very well lose their trust and confidence in us as leaders.

The COVID-19 Era

All of us are living in a difficult time. COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of our lives, from our ability to go out for dinner to how we perform our jobs.  Many retail organizations have temporarily closed stores, restaurants are serving take-out meals only, and businesses have pushed millions of workers out of their typical work environment and required that they work remotely. 

Many of us are trying to do our jobs while managing our children, as schools and universities have moved to online classes.  Some companies are hiring to meet unprecedented demand for their services, while others are contemplating layoffs.  Manufacturers of essential goods are working at full tilt, despite employees’ concerns that coming to work increases their risk of exposure to the virus. It is anyone’s guess which companies will weather this change, and how this experience will change the way we work and live going forward.

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It sounds to me like the perfect time to do an employee survey.

Face it.  There is no typical anymore, no more business as usual.  Organizations may never go back to the way things used to be.  Employees are grappling with enormous changes.  They are insecure about the future of their job and their company.  They are struggling to manage everything on their plates, both personally and professionally.  They want to understand how this will impact their ability to meet their objectives and serve their customers, both internal and external.  They may not have access to the tools and resources they need to get their jobs done.  How will we help them if we don’t ask them how they are managing?  And how will we lead our companies through this difficult time if we don’t demonstrate that we need to hear the unvarnished truth from them?

Surveying During Times of Crisis

So let’s survey our employees, but let’s make sure we ask questions that are relevant to their current challenges. 

  • Yes, we want to measure current levels of engagement, and we need to recognize and accept that these could be less favorable than scores from previous surveys.
  • We need to include a mix of questions that allow us to track important trends that are central to the employee experience. It will be very valuable to understand if the current environment has shifted their perceptions of leadership, the future of the company, and their potential to grow and develop in the company.
  • We should also include some new questions that get at the core of their current situation. Do they have the tools and resources needed to work remotely? Do they understand the company’s strategy and/or actions regarding the current business environment? Do they feel safer and more secure working at home than in their usual work environment?  Are they concerned about their jobs?
  • Explore the manager and team dynamic. This is the time when great managers can make all the difference.  How often are employees connecting with their manager? What do they need most from their manager to be successful during these extraordinary times? Are actions being taken to hold employees close virtually, or do they feel isolated and alone? What concessions do employees need us to make given their challenge to manage both their jobs and their children?

In Conclusion

I can assure you that it is not inevitable that survey scores will be less favorable during difficult times.  If your company has a track record of investing in employees, of listening to honest feedback with an open mind and acting on that feedback, you may very well see improvements in confidence in leadership and the future success of the organization. But honestly, that doesn’t matter.  We need the insights that will enable all of us to weather this storm.  The willingness to ask questions during turbulent times will send a strong, positive signal to employees.

Now is the best time to do a survey.

Sarah Johnson is the Vice President of Enterprise Surveys and Analytics at Perceptyx.  Her column is called People Analytics in the Real World.  Click here for more.

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