HR Insights
Deep Dive
January 15, 2023

Employee engagement surveys: Essential questions to ask and how to drive results

Employee engagement surveys are critical for measuring employee satisfaction and gaining the insights necessary to keep your workforce satisfied, committed to your organization, and ready to drive results. Here’s what you need to know to create a survey that gets results.

Table of Contents

Employers know that keeping employees engaged is critical to the success of any business. But your efforts are also likely constrained by budget realities. Many leaders are empathetic to the individual circumstances their people face, but the nature of running a business means you’re often caught in a balancing act.

But these aren’t actually competing priorities at all. Employee disengagement affects productivity, which in turn puts further strain on budgets. Some studies suggest absenteeism among disengaged workers is 37% higher than the rest of the workforce. Meanwhile, disengaged employees are involved in 49% more accidents and make 60% more mistakes than their engaged counterparts. Plus, nearly three quarters (73%) of disengaged employees report that they are looking for new roles, meaning that they’re a constant source of turnover.

Collectively, issues like these cost businesses hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue every year. Practically speaking, that means that employee engagement isn’t just a nice to have, but rather a critical success factor for every business. It’s also one of the keys to enhancing company culture, reducing employee churn, and improving performance. Although there are many paths to fostering a highly engaged and effective workforce, they all start in the same place: understanding what is helping your employees perform and which obstacles are getting in their way.

Below, we take a closer look at employee engagement surveys, which are one of the best tools to hear from your greater workforce. The organizations that win will focus their engagement efforts to simultaneously build trust, inspire loyalty, and drive high performance. What will your survey insights give you? The ability to break old workplace paradigms to establish a new employee social contract.

Chapter 1: The essentials of a solid employee engagement survey

Employee engagement surveys (or employee feedback surveys as they are sometimes known) should be a part of every organization’s DNA. They are an essential tool for gathering input about employee sentiment, which helps you make strategic decisions designed to keep workers committed to your organization. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and why they’re important.

What are employee engagement surveys?

Employee engagement surveys are a way of taking the temperature of your employee population to better understand how engaged they are. By asking a series of targeted questions, you can gain important insights into how motivated your employees are as well as how they feel about the work they’re doing, their team, the culture you’ve created, and the organization overall.

When done well and on a regular basis, this employee satisfaction survey can be a rich source of quantitative and qualitative data that reveals a lot about overall employee sentiment. It’s also a great way to surface any concerns that your employees may have and otherwise don’t feel comfortable sharing. All of this is essential for understanding your employees’ perspective, finding the right balance of putting employee wellbeing into action, and helping your people feel more committed to their work and to the organization’s success overall.

Commonly, employee feedback surveys are sent out once a year to every single employee in the organization. These days, however, that cadence may not be sufficient with rapid change happening in organizations. In fact, many companies are instead adopting an always-on approach where they seek out employee feedback much more regularly. That often includes using targeted employee pulse surveys aimed at particular teams or departments or in response to a particular situation, issue, or need.

Why are surveys an effective tool?

Engagement surveys are effective because they give employees a way to voice their opinions and share their perspectives and concerns. Since they’re meant to be anonymous, employees are much more likely to share their honest impressions than if they were to talk with their manager or HR business partner directly.

An enterprise-wide view into employee satisfaction on an array of topics allows HR teams to benchmark a variety of engagement metrics over time and measure how well different strategies designed to boost engagement are working.

Perhaps most important of all, engagement surveys are a way to help build trust with employees. Using them demonstrates a desire to better understand the employee perspective. To cement that trust and build good will, companies have to be transparent about what their engagement surveys reveal and take meaningful steps to incorporate the findings into their policies, strategies, and overall approach.

Why measure employee engagement?

Organizations are stuck managing ever-higher expectations from their people while also managing their budgets. It can be difficult to strike the right balance of figuring out what your people want and what running your business requires. And this isn’t a new problem. Many HR leaders have spent years offering different incentives to improve the overall employee experience with lackluster results. 

You need a new strategy to not only improve retention, but also boost your workforce productivity and satisfaction. This starts with breaking old workplace paradigms to establish a new employee social contract. How can you do this? The employers that win will focus their efforts on key activities to build trust with their people, inspire loyalty to stay longer, and drive performance, no matter their role. 

According to research from Dale Carnegie, organizations with engaged employees outperform those with disengaged employees by 202%. Not only that, but when organizations have highly engaged employees, they’re 21% more profitable than those that don’t.

Simply put, employee engagement is critical to the overall success of any business. By actively measuring it with regular surveys, HR teams can identify any issues that might be lowering their overall satisfaction as well as new initiatives that could be implemented to turn things around. Engagement surveys can also be used to measure how engagement levels change over time in response to specific programs or actions.

Ultimately, the first step to increasing employee engagement is to measure it. Then, let those insights inform decision-making and provide a baseline from which to evaluate your progress.

How long should employee engagement surveys be?

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to the length of an effective engagement survey. You have to ask enough questions to be able to cover the breadth and depth of issues that could be on employees’ minds. At the same time, you don’t want to ask so many questions that completing your employee satisfaction survey becomes too time-consuming or onerous of a task.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends keeping engagement surveys short and simple. That means they should contain no more than 75 questions and take no more than 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Of course, if you’re surveying employees on a frequent and ongoing basis, you may want to consider a shorter length to help avoid survey fatigue – an employee pulse survey is great for this.

Chapter 2: How to create an employee engagement survey

It’s important to take care when crafting your employee engagement survey so that it’s as targeted and relevant to your employee population as possible. You’ll also want to ensure sure that your questions are clear and touch on the right points to yield the insights you’re looking for. To do that, you need to leverage what you know about your employee population, organize your survey logically, and get feedback before deploying it.

Start with your audience

You probably already know a fair bit about your employees that might help shape the survey you create. Aggregated demographic information, such as how old your workforce is or if it’s predominantly made up of either gender, could be important. So could more granular details such as the different worker types, how long they have been with the company, how much they earn, what level of education they’ve achieved, and how their compensation has changed during their tenure.

While no single survey will feel like it’s directly targeting each individual employee, looking at whatever data you have can help inform what questions to ask and how to ask them.

If your employee population is predominantly made up of Gen Z engineers with post-secondary degrees, for example, you’ll likely want to adopt a different tone than if you’re targeting a group of Baby Boomers who work on the factory floor. Similarly, if most of your employees are in finance or customer success roles, you might have substantively different questions to ask than if they were largely in sales or IT. Use whatever you know about your employees to help craft an engagement survey that’s relevant to them.

Build sections by topic

The best way to organize your engagement survey is thematically. Identify the main topics you want the survey to cover and group the relevant questions for each of those topics together. The idea is to ensure that the survey flows logically and that employees are able to provide thoughtful responses about one topic before moving on to the next.

Some of the topics your employee engagement survey might contain include employees’ thoughts on their role and overall job satisfaction as well as their views on their manager and the organization’s leadership more broadly. Other topics to consider including are company culture, work-life balance, work environment, career development opportunities, overall commitment to the organization, and diversity and inclusion.

Gather ideas from managers and employees

Don’t assume that just because you’re in HR you know what’s on employees’ minds when it comes to asking the right questions about their experience at work. Developing an engagement survey should be a collaborative process that reflects input from different stakeholders across the business, including managers and employees.

By talking to a group of people who will eventually take the survey, you will increase your chances of hitting on the right topics and adopting the appropriate tone. Plus, when creating the survey is a group effort, it helps further reinforce trust by increasing transparency and ensuring that more people have a vested interest in the process.

Form a diverse working group to review and adjust your employee engagement survey questions so you can ensure you’re not only covering all of your bases but being open and transparent.

Chapter 3: Questions you should ask on an employee engagement survey

While the nature of questions you ask in your employee satisfaction survey is important, so too is the types of questions will lead to the variety of people data you receive. Asking a combination of scaled, multiple-choice, and open-ended employee engagement survey questions will ensure that you end up with a rich yet manageable pool of data to work with. This way, you can slice and dice the findings to draw meaningful, statistical insights while also being able to get deeper commentary on areas where you’re looking for qualitative feedback.

Scaled questions

Scaled questions are a type of close-ended question that, as the name implies, allow employees to respond by selecting a rating from a set scale. If you were to ask employees about their work-life balance, for example, they could respond with a numeric rating (where a low number means they feel they have poor work-life balance and a high number means they feel they have very good work-life balance). Alternatively, you could use text-based descriptors (very poor, poor, average, good, very good, etc.) for them to choose from to describe their work-life balance.

The advantage of scaled questions is that they allow people to provide more nuanced responses than you would otherwise get with binary yes/no or true/false questions. As such, they enable more precise insights into how employees actually feel. They’re also easy to answer quickly, making survey completion a faster, more streamlined process, and they lend themselves to statistical analysis.

Multiple-choice questions

Multiple-choice questions are another form of close-ended question that give survey takers the opportunity to select from two or more pre-populated responses to a question. Like scaled questions, they’re a popular choice for employee engagement surveys because they can be answered and analyzed quickly and easily. The main difference is that the answers for any given question can all be completely unique rather than part of a scale. Having multiple-choice survey questions for employees can also make the survey-taking experience simpler and faster.

To give survey takers greater flexibility, consider including a free-form response option, where employees can type in their own answer if they don’t feel any of the pre-populated answers are quite right. It’s a good way to build flexibility into your survey and ensure that employee responses aren’t limited to a certain set of answers.

Open-ended questions

Unlike close-ended ones, open-ended employee engagement survey questions allow people to write their own response to a question. You may choose to cap responses at a certain character count or give employees the option to provide as long of a response as they wish. Either way, open-ended questions are great for deriving deeper insights into how employees really feel because they allow them to share what’s on their mind in their own words. For that reason, they can be a treasure trove of useful information.

Examples of open-ended questions you might want to ask:

  • What would make you feel more connected to your coworkers and managers?
  • What changes do we need to make regarding our company values and objectives?
  • How can we help you achieve a better work-life balance?

The disadvantage of open-ended questions is that they take longer to respond to, which can be a deterrent to disengaged employees or employees pressed for time. They also take time to read and analyze, and don’t lend themselves to statistical analysis in the same way that scaled and multiple-choice questions do. As such, they should be used selectively in employee engagement surveys to gain insights on issues of particular interest.

Chapter 4: What to consider when writing an employee engagement survey

Beyond just the format of the questions themselves, you also have to think about an array of other factors when crafting an effective employee engagement survey. You want to ensure that it’s not only well-written, but that it positions you to take action and drive meaningful results for the business. Among the factors you will want to consider include:

The role of diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is becoming an increasingly important topic for organizations. When developing your employee engagement survey, make sure to cover DEI topics and to collect the necessary demographic information (such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, etc.) to help bring context and perspective to your survey results.

You’ll also want to ensure that your survey is inclusive and free from bias. To do so, make sure that your questions are neutrally worded, that your answers aren’t leading, and that you’re not ordering your questions in such a way as to inadvertently shape people’s responses. Also, pay attention to who is and isn’t responding to your survey. People who frequently respond to your engagement surveys may have very different opinions from those who don’t, which can skew results.

Address confidentiality and anonymity concerns

For people to share their true feelings in an engagement survey, they need to know that they can do so without fear of repercussion. For that reason, it’s essential to make it clear to everyone that your engagement surveys are anonymous and that all information gathered will be kept confidential. Some of the best practices you can employ to help earn their trust include:

  • Incorporating confidentiality language in all of your communications
  • Reminding employees not to include any self-identifying information in their open-ended responses
  • Not reporting on any findings based on potentially identifying demographic information such as age, geographic location, or department (unless enough employees have responded to ensure that such reporting wouldn’t compromise their anonymity)
  • Encouraging employees to contact you or your survey provider if they have questions or concerns

While some employees may always be skeptical, following these best practices will go a long way toward addressing their concerns, so they can feel comfortable providing honest answers.

Think about long-term data-gathering

Though engagement survey questions for employees provide a platform for people to feel heard, these surveys are also tools for meaningful data-gathering.

While any single engagement survey can only offer you a snapshot of employee sentiment at that particular moment, as you conduct more surveys over time, you can identify patterns and trends in response to different intiatives you've run. For that reason, you need to be strategic with your questioning.

Although there will always be new topics to explore and new questions that you’ll want to add to your survey, you’ll also want to be sure to always include the same core set of questions in every survey so that you can measure changes over time. Those questions should be close-ended and focused on measuring the core aspects of employee engagement that matter most to your organization, such as overall employee satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

By having a combination of standard and non-standard questions, you can adapt surveys as needed to respond to your organization’s needs while still being able to track your progress against long-term goals.

Plan how you’ll use the results

The act of surveying your employees is only part of the process of managing employee engagement. You also need to consider how you will use the results to inform strategic decisions, such as what programs and policies you want to introduce, refine, or remove from your organization. Here, it’s important to not only communicate the findings of the survey to your employees, but also to present an action plan for how you’ll make changes accordingly. From there, it’s important to provide periodic updates on your progress, letting employees know when changes have been made or milestones have been reached.

While most organizations won’t have the ability to implement every bit of feedback they get from their engagement surveys, be prepared to focus on whatever issues employees say matter most. You might also want to identify potential quick wins — anything you can do immediately or with very little effort to demonstrate your commitment and start building some momentum. Winning organizations will work to inspire employee trust and loyalty by demonstrating how they’re putting employee well-being into action. This includes building fair schedules, minimizing burnout, and offering meaningful types of flexibility.

Chapter 5: Launching your employee engagement survey into the future

Employee engagement is a marathon, not a sprint. As such, it’s important to adopt the mindset that employee engagement surveys need to be part of your organization’s overall DNA rather than just a tool that’s used on an ad hoc basis. To ensure your long-term success, keep the following points in mind:

Share results with employees

By far, one of the most important things you can do to ensure the long-term success of your engagement surveys is sharing the results with employees. Here, transparency is critical. That means not just sharing the results that cast the organization in a favorable light, but also the ones that reflect opportunities for improvement. Be as forthcoming as possible about what the survey results show, then outline any next steps the organization will be taking based on the feedback that’s been gathered.

While top-level survey results need to be communicated organization-wide, it’s also important for managers to communicate findings that are specific to their team. Once again, transparency is crucial, as is talking through how any feedback might be incorporated into how the team is run.

Find new ways to use the data

A good employee engagement survey will be a rich source of data. And while a lot of that data can be used to understand where your employees are at, it’s also going to be incredibly helpful for informing what types of programs you can introduce to further boost engagement. That might include developing formal mentoring and career development opportunities or implementing a recognition program.

Depending on what data you collect, you might also be able to use it for other purposes, such as to support your applications for external award programs (e.g., your local “best places to work” award). It might also be a way to identify highly engaged workers whom you could potentially tap on to help in other areas of the business, such as recruiting.

Send follow-up review surveys

Not long after sending out your engagement survey, you may want to consider sending out a follow-up survey to get some feedback on the experience. For example, you might ask employees about any gaps they felt were in the survey, such as a lack of opportunities to provide constructive feedback. Another question to ask is whether any aspect of the survey was problematic. Did it take too long to complete? Were any of the questions unclear? Was it user-friendly for employees with accessibility needs?

Capturing this kind of information can be extremely helpful for refining future surveys and making them more effective.

Explore ways to increase participation

If participation rates in your employee engagement survey are low, there are things you can do to change that.

One option is to incentivize employees to participate by offering the chance to win a prize, like a gift card or an extra vacation day.

Another way to increase participation is by making the survey as easy to complete as possible. Make sure people can complete it from their phone, for example, so they can work on it anywhere and at any time that’s convenient. You’ll also want to ensure that the questions are easy to understand, and that it’s available in all of your employees’ native languages.

You can also include a status bar so that employees can see how much of the survey they have completed and how much more they still have to go. Allowing employees to stop, save their work, and come back to the survey allows them to complete the survey when they can rather than having to carve out the time to do it all in one go. Regular reminders to start and/or finish the survey are also essential for keeping the survey top of mind until it’s completed.

In conclusion

Employee engagement surveys are an important tool for HR teams looking to strike the right balance between employees’ needs and those of the business. By showing your commitment to understanding how employees feel about their experience at work, you can establish a new employee social contract and discover the key activities that will make an impact. When companies can gain important insights into what they can do to boost engagement it can lead to happier, more productive employees, lower turnover, and increased revenue.

This post was originally published on January 15, 2023 and was updated on June 11, 2024 for recency and to include new perspectives on the topic.

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