Employee Engagement

How to Get Employees to Actually Respond to Engagement Surveys

September 19, 2023
November 7, 2023
Emma Stenhouse
Lattice Team

One of the biggest barriers to employee listening is a workforce that’s too disengaged to even speak up in the first place. While HR professionals might send out multiple reminders and pleas for participation, sometimes the responses are too minimal to turn into action, or so negative that HR feels defeated. 

But there is a better way. Getting strategic about engagement surveys can not only drive up response rates but also elicits the kind of high-quality employee feedback that can be used to drive positive change. 

Why Is Engagement So Important? 

Without engaged employees, everything else falls apart. That might sound a little dramatic — but it’s true. A 2020 meta-analysis conducted by Gallup found that employee engagement is linked to several key business performance outcomes:

  • Profitability
  • Productivity
  • Employee wellbeing 
  • Customer loyalty and engagement 
  • Employee turnover
  • Safety incidents 
  • Absenteeism
  • Organizational citizenship and participation 
  • Quality (such as product defects)
  • Inventory shrinkage (from theft, damage, or admin errors)

Results like these make promoting engagement a priority for many companies. But there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider that only 34% of employees in the US say they’re actively engaged. 

While engagement can potentially be impacted by external factors (global pandemics and economic uncertainty, for example), the effects aren’t as extreme as you might expect. If employee engagement levels are low, it’s usually better to look inward and consider how HR and leadership can boost engagement and the employee experience from within. And the best way to achieve that is with a well-thought-out engagement survey that encourages a good response rate. 

5 Ways to Make Engagement More Engaging

Ah, the subtle art of getting employees to give a… you know what. Relying on tried-and-tested survey questions and proven templates is essential to build a high-quality survey — but that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with initiatives to increase employee buy-in and transform disappointingly low response rates into something altogether more impressive. Here are some pointers to get you started. 

Watch your language. 

The first step to survey success is ensuring the questions are worded the right way. Use unambiguous and neutral language, and ask about things you can actually improve. If you’re not sure where to start, Lattice employee engagement surveys include a range of suggested questions we’ve developed using psychological and management research. 

Keep it short and snappy.

When it comes to survey length, short and punchy pulse surveys are best to boost completion rates. If it’s too long, you run the risk of respondents getting bored and switching off completely. Teresa Monday, director of compensation & senior HR manager of Flex HR, recommends starting a survey with lighter questions, perhaps with multiple-choice answers. “Then have a few pointed questions where it’s open-ended for the employee to engage in their own answers,” she said.  

For deeper, less frequent surveys, the ideal survey length is around five minutes. “Attention span for surveys is low — and surveys are meant to keep the one taking the survey engaged,” added Monday. 

Make it fun. 

Now it’s time for your human resources team to get creative. Innovative ways of delivering surveys and encouraging responses can increase employee survey participation and foster the true kind of engagement that helps build a great company culture. 

Take Semrush, for example. The team used to send out engagement surveys annually but made the decision to pause surveys for a while as it expanded internationally, and employees were busy with the relocation process. When surveys were relaunched, Anastasia Eliseenko, head of the culture and communications department, decided a more inventive approach was needed. And it involved memes. 

“We owe the idea to a genius colleague who thought, ‘Hey, let's jazz up the reminders!’”said Eliseenko. “That sparked the idea of tossing in a hilarious picture. One thing led to another, and we were hosting a Battle of the Memes before we knew it. We received a flood of entries — 41 memes, including video memes! It was a storm of creativity, and everyone was on board — some were making memes while others were casting their votes. It turned out to be one of the blockbuster activities of this year.”

a set of three memes poking fun at employee engagement surveys
The winning meme submissions for Semrush's engagement survey competition.

Eliseenko added that the Slack thread associated with the survey was abuzz, and private messages were flooding in: “People were head over heels for the idea and wanted more of this flavor. What made it even more remarkable was that it brought everyone together, no matter where they were. The fun thing about humor? It speaks every language and knows no borders. Plus, two of our three meme kings and queens were remote employees!

“Our meme contest was like finding the golden ticket — it became the way to remind everyone about the survey, all while keeping spirits high,” Eliseenko added. “It not only put a spring in everyone’s step but also bumped up our response rate by a whopping 12%! This not-so-conventional tactic was our way to capture attention and loosen up the engagement survey. You bet we’re keeping up this trick for more adventures in employee communication.”

Innovative ideas like this are a great way to improve response rates — but the key is finding a technique that speaks to your employee base. And the best way to achieve that is to ask.  

Ask the right questions.

"One of the easiest ways to increase the percentage of team members completing surveys is simply by asking employees on the frontlines actually doing the work day-to-day what you could do to improve survey response rates,” said Coby Skonord, CEO at Ideawake. “This sounds simple but can bring immense value and help you drive your desired action much more effectively versus a traditional ‘top-down’ approach,” he added.  

Asking questions about your survey format, communication methods, and length will help you diagnose why employees are holding back on responding. As a huge plus, these questions can also help build trust and shape company culture by showing employees that you not only listen to their ideas — but turn them into action. 

Offer an incentive. 

Offering a reward for completing a survey can skew your data, but some companies have made it work creatively by offering incentives that aren’t financial, or by connecting the survey to another competition.

Yuri Kruman, CEO of HR, Talent & Systems Consulting, said this option can work in some circumstances. “You can enter all participants into a draw for an experience prize, rather than a gift card,” he suggested. “This is something I’ve done personally that has really moved the needle to improve response rates in a low-trust environment up to 80% or more on the first try.”

Monday agreed that incentives can be effective: “I would think about giving employees an incentive to take the survey — maybe for hourly employees, give them an extra 30 minutes break for their lunch or leave early one day. We want their insights and it is important — let them feel that their feedback is important by rewarding them.”

At Semrush, winners of the meme contest run alongside the engagement survey were offered a prize. “Our meme winners were remote employees so we gifted them the choice of certificates for either the App Store or Google Store,” explained Eliseenko. 

Don’t forget: Offering a reward may skew your results and ultimately result in data that isn’t useful in the long run, so this should be an individual decision based on company dynamics. 

Should Engagement Surveys Be Anonymous?

In a word: Yes. For the majority of engagement surveys, anonymity is the way to go. Anonymous surveys offer employees the opportunity to truthfully share their opinions with greater transparency. It also reduces the chance of bias (unconscious or otherwise) impacting how their responses are viewed by management or HR. 

“There tends to be a higher turnout for taking the surveys and being honest with their employers,” said Monday, who uses anonymous surveys. “Some employees feel if they give constructive feedback [in a non-anonymized survey] that somehow that might be a damper on their employment.” 

Allowing employees the chance to share their truthful opinions privately helps boost the feelings of psychological safety that are essential for building a company culture where employees are safe and supported. 

Generally, the only time an engagement survey shouldn’t be anonymous is during onboarding and exit surveys

Turning Results into Action 

Creating an engaging survey, and sending out reminders for completion are two important pieces of the puzzle — but another critical piece is demonstrating to employees that you have every intention of acting on their feedback. Because when employees can see the visible changes to your organization as a result of their survey responses, they’ll be more likely to keep responding in the future. 

Bill Catlette, founder and managing partner at Contented Cow Partners noted that: “Anyone can administer a workforce survey — that's the easy part. The real work involves the subsequent feedback and action phases, where the results are shared extensively with the surveyed workgroups and action plans are developed and implemented.”

Survey analysis and follow up like this might sound like something that should be left to a data scientist — but the truth is it’s not complicated. For a range of strategies, from looking at cross-sections of specific departments and demographics to benchmarking your results and using visuals to spot trends, download our ebook, How to Turn Engagement Survey Results Into Action