The Trouble With Employee Surveys
Employers aren’t keeping workers happy.
2022 saw employees quit their jobs in record numbers, form unions and explore bare minimum Mondays. While some might dismiss terms like the great resignation, quiet quitting and bare minimum Mondays as catchy buzzwords, research by Gallup, the Pew Research Center, Society for Human Resources (SHRM), Mercer and others validate them (for the most part). The only exception by a reputable source we could find was a recent report by the Conference Board (based on 2022 data) which claims that employee satisfaction is at an all-time high. It’s worth noting that in this survey, the workers who recently changed jobs (and haven’t fully formed a relationship with their new employers) were the happiest.
Given all of this, you might ask if the millions of dollars spent on employee surveys and listening software, as well as crafting workplace experiences, are of value. The question is especially pertinent when you consider that according to Gallup, job satisfaction in the United States has declined since the start of the millennium. In the year 2000, 61% of U.S. workers were engaged in their work, meaning they were involved in, enthusiastic about and committed. In 2022, the last annual survey Gallup published, “Sixty percent of people reported being emotionally detached at work and 19% as being miserable. Only 33% reported feeling engaged — and that is even lower than in 2020.”
The Growing Voice of Employee Software Market
The global voice of employee (VoE) software market size was valued at $791.9 million in 2022 and is projected to grow from $911.0 million in 2023 to $2,753.0 million by 2030. It might be time for employers to pause and ask if they know the right questions to ask, if the technology they are paying for will be used by workers, if what they are paying for is guiding them to take the right actions and whether they are willing to act.
Though human resources technology expert Josh Bersin reminded us that, “Employee Experience is a very complex topic, covering issues like pay, work design, management culture, flexibility, team fit and opportunities to grow,” the actions that many of today’s workers are taking — quitting, tuning out or working as little as possible without being fired — scream pretty loudly, “Whatever employers are doing, it isn’t working.”
Will better listening software “fix” this? Bersin said no, “it informs managers and leaders what the issues are.” That said, he’s high on employee experience and listening technology and the potential that they bring to employers.
Do We Need Technology to Find Out How Workers Feel?
At present, many employee issues seem clear. “Workers are burning out,” said Jennifer Moss, author of “The Burnout Epidemic.” While she’s an advocate of using data gathering tools to make decisions, she suggested that some information could be better gathered by managers while wandering around. “Some of the best data-gathering comes from the MBWA style of leadership — management by wandering around.” In a Harvard Business Review article, Moss wrote about hospital CEOs walking the floor only to realize why people kept asking for a new printer. “They see that because the existing one is always breaking down and never serviced, it rarely has paper. So, when someone wants to print out something for a patient, they are forced to run down the hall and get somebody to help or to find a printer that works. It’s hard for leadership to then ignore needs after witnessing them first-hand.” She cited another case concerning coffee in a break room one day and none the next.
“Leaders could save themselves a huge amount of employee stress and subsequent burnout, if they were just better at asking people what they need,” she wrote. The jury is out on whether employee surveying software would discover these things or if workers would consider them important enough to push forward.
Consider other situations that currently stress workers such as the near 200,000 layoffs in the U.S. tech sector alone since the beginning of the year, many via email. Workers, such as those at Google and Salesforce, have been openly angry at their CEOs who weren’t transparent about layoffs, announced high earnings shortly thereafter, and didn’t appear open to hearing their concerns. Never mind Microsoft employees, and other workers, who are being told there will be no raises this year despite having to do the same — or more — work. How relevant will workers find questions like, “How often do you share work-related advice with your teammates?” or “Are your daily tasks closely related to your professional skills?” or “Are you often confused by the goals and objectives of a task/project?”given these circumstances?
Do we need technology interrupting employees’ work with questions like these when so many issues that concern employees are right in front of us?
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Employees Need to Be Heard. What's the Best Way to Do That?
Wharton professor Peter Cappelli isn’t a fan of employee surveys, which are one of the ways businesses capture VoE. “Workers don’t like the surveys and often won’t respond to them, and most companies don’t do anything with the results anyway,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The takeaway from our conversations with Cappelli is that he’s leery about applying technology to workplace problems unless there is reason to believe that it’s necessary and that when applied, it will cause change. And change according to Cappelli is hard, especially in corporations when so many disparate individuals and groups need to agree, cooperate and act to make a difference. Consider too that getting it right on the first try isn’t guaranteed. A proponent of leveraging information, Cappelli suggested that employers glean insights from readily available information, like from exit interviews, Slack and its competitors, and even Glassdoor.
While Cappelli argued that employee survey software isn’t new (but he did hold the door open for pulse surveys), Qualtrics chief workplace psychologist Dr. Benjamin Granger noted that it is "evolving quickly." He credited it to “better technology and the fact that organizations are investing heavily in this area.” That said, both he and Bersin pointed out that during the pandemic employees’ expectations of their employers and the role work plays in their lives has changed. “Perhaps more than ever, people want to work for companies with values that align with their own, that offer flexibility over where, when, and how they can work, and that provide a psychologically safe environment to be themselves and talk about things like mental health,” said Granger.
While few would disagree, the question is whether these are the biggest issues. Some workers currently feel financially challenged because the rising rate of inflation is outpacing wage growth, leaving some families vulnerable. In the United States, for example, the average pay raise is expected to be 3.4% in 2023, down from 3.9% in 2022 and 4.1% in 2021. What action would an employer take at this time of economic uncertainty if workers revealed they needed larger raises? Access to learning software is great, but not when you can’t afford a tutor for your child who is having trouble learning to read. Imagine agonizing over this, when you get a survey from a caring employer that asks you to rate:
- Do you feel like you have the opportunity to learn and grow in your current role?
- Yes, very much so
- Yes, somewhat
- No, not really
- No, not at all
Granger correctly noted that, “humans have a fundamental need to feel heard and understood,” and that employee listening surveys are a great vehicle for that. Yet the question is whether employee survey or listening technology is the right vehicle, what it should look like, and if actual changes will be made when an insight is learned. Add to that, another factor: will workers believe that survey answers are anonymous? (An article on the Society for Human Resources Management website suggests no.)
If employers can’t answer 'yes' to all of the above, they may be better off saving their money and time.
About the Author
Virginia Backaitis is seasoned journalist who has covered the workplace since 2008 and technology since 2002. She has written for publications such as The New York Post, Seeking Alpha, The Herald Sun, CMSWire, NewsBreak, RealClear Markets, RealClear Education, Digitizing Polaris, and Reworked among others. Connect with Virginia Backaitis: