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Complete Guide to Running Employee Surveys: Part 1 - Design

In this first part of our guide to running employee surveys we look at survey design, from choosing what to measure to writing great questions.

Employee surveys are an important source of data that can guide your people strategies and help improve the employee experience, that are valued by employees when you get them right. But they can also be intimidating for HR teams, seem like a lot of hard work and, if not done well, can be cause cynicism and disengagement.

But do not fear – We are here to guide you through the employee survey process and help you get great results, which means igniting employee engagement, boosting wellbeing and driving organisational performance!

What’s in our guide to running employee surveys?

What follows is a comprehensive guide to running employee surveys for people that are relatively new to them, or just want to brush up on the basics. We can’t cover absolutely everything but do hope that we’ll answer some of the questions that you might have, help you avoid some of the pitfalls, and help you to feel more confidence about embarking on your survey journey.

The guide will be in four main parts: Part 1: Designing your Employee Survey Part 2: Launching your Employee Survey Part 3: Getting insights from your Employee Survey Data Part 4: {Taking action on your Employee Survey Results}(

(*Still to come - check back for updates)

Of course, it won’t be ‘complete’ but our goal is to make it pretty comprehensive. We''ve also added links to some more detailed posts which we’ll try to keep adding to.

You may also be interested in our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Employee Surveys, which means that if they’re on your mind you are not alone!

Part 1: Survey Design

Survey design is critical to the quality of your results, the level of insight that you can draw from them and, consequently the impact that resulting actions or initiatives will have on the employee experience and engagement.

Start your survey design with the big picture in mind

As you contemplate running your employee survey you might be tempted to skip design and just take an ‘off the shelf’ survey. In fact, some survey providers will be very insistent that you should use their model, that it’s the ‘best’ and so on.

There’s no ‘gold standard’ model for employee engagement, which is what many pre-written employee surveys aim to measure*, and the research into what drives engagement provides inconsistent results. You must, therefore, use judgement to decide what to measure. Relevance is critical, and that means you have to judge potential measures against your People Strategy, values and / or desired culture.

(*We do have a ‘standard’ question set that you can use but it’s only really there to avoid starting with a blank page. We advise and support our clients to tailor it to their own needs.)

Once you know what you want to measure in your employee survey, the next step is making sure that you have good quality questions.

What makes a great employee survey question?

As we’ve mentioned, to be ‘great’ your employee survey questions must be relevant in your own organisational context. This means that you should measure what is important to your business, aligns with your business or people strategy, and is therefore likely to impact performance in a meaningul way.

Then, they should be accurate and well-written.

Validity and employee survey questions

What we mean by ‘accurate’ is that they can be shown, statistically, to measure what they intend to. In the academic world, this quality would be described as ‘validity’. The bottom line is that employee surveys are usually not aiming for the same standards of validity as academic research for a number of reasons - but not least because in an employee survey you tend to cover a wide range of topics with a very limited number of questions.

Choosing the right number of employee survey questions

There’s no hard and fast rule about the number of questions you can ask in an employee survey, but we’d recommend around 40-50 in most cases. As usual, however, ‘it depends’. If you can demonstrate that employee feedback is valued and leads to change, your people might be more willing to spend more time on your employee survey than if you have a poor track record.

The breadth of topics in your survey and the limited number of questions you can reasonably ask show why it’s really important to take care over your questions, and to spend time making sure that people will interpret the questions as you want them to.

Writing ''good quality'' employee survey questions

There’s much more that could be said about writing the actual survey questions, but our three starting tips are:

  • The majority should be ‘closed’ statements that people can easily agree or disagree with, judge the frequency of, and so on.
  • Avoid asking more than one question at a time, for example, “Or leaders communicate clearly and inspire me to do my best work”. It can be really tempting to do this when you are trying to keep your question count down.
  • Be clear and concise, using only enough words to get the question across, with language that all of your employees can reasonably understand and avoiding jargon.

Consider visual survey design

Survey design on an iphone showing employee survey questions

Finally, it’s important that you present the survey in a way that doesn’t confuse people or cause cognitive fatigue, so that their responses actually reflect their opinions. People might abandon a poorly presented survey or, perhaps worse, they might lose interest and just click through it as quickly as possible. This is all the more likely if your survey design doesn’t take neurodiversity or other potential barriers (such as language) into account.

Read about Designing for surveys dyslexia

It can be very tempting to use gimmicky tools in your surveys, like images that change as users change the score, but we advise against this.

Read about Good practice vs theatre in employee survey design

Gathering qualitative data from Employee Surveys

It’s important to remember that surveys are, by definition, better suited to capturing quantitative data than qualitative. If you ask open text questions you can expect a lot of unstructured data in return, which you’ll have to make sense of.

However, we would suggest that you first limit the number of qualitative questions you ask. If you need qualitative insights, use qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups.

Then, be specific. If you ask “Is there anything that you would like to add?”, you’ll get all sorts of responses which may be very difficult to analyse, even with appropriate tools. If you ask “what’s the best thing about working here” or “what one thing could we do to improve the culture?” you will get responses to those questions and even though you might still ask a catch-all question at the end it won’t be used as much and give you such a headache during analysis.

Read Part 2: Launching your Employee Survey

**Do you have any questions about survey design? **Why not tweet them to us @ThePXHub or contact us?

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