With increasing news of layoffs, unprecedented inflation, and the looming threat of a recession, there’s no denying that we’re living in a time of uncertainty. And all this uncertainty in the world at large is bound to affect your employees and their experience at work.
“Things are continuing to change so rapidly: in the world, in most organizations, and for each of us as [individuals],” said Kelly Harris Perin, founder of Little Bites Coaching, an organizational consultancy focused on transitions, productivity, and feedback. “In this constant churn of change, leaders need to truly listen to their employees — and then listen again, and again, and again.”
One of the best ways for you to listen to your workers and support them through this challenging, uncertain time, is by using employee engagement surveys. Engagement surveys can provide invaluable insights into how the current economic climate and domestic and global challenges are impacting your employees’ experience at work, and, more importantly, what you can do to help them.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at why engagement surveys are so important right now, how they can help you understand what your workforce needs to successfully navigate the current uncertainty, and how to make the most out of your engagement surveys and leverage them to deliver on your employees’ needs.
Why Engagement Surveys Are So Important — Particularly During Times of Uncertainty
Engagement surveys are always helpful tools for better understanding your employees, including where they’re engaged, where they’re struggling, and what you can do to support them. But they’re especially important now, when “we are living in a VUCA world,” said Belinda Hoole, a corporate culture strategist and cofounder of culture consultancy SonderWorx.
VUCA is an acronym based on the leadership theories of American academics and leadership experts Warren Bennis and Burton Nanus: It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
“A VUCA environment is characterized by constant change,” explained Hoole. “To our reptilian brain, change equals uncertainty, and uncertainty equals danger.”
This means that when your employees experience any or all of the elements of “VUCA,” like they are in today’s environment, it can not only make them feel uncertain, but can actually make them feel threatened — which isn’t conducive to being engaged and productive at work.
“[In this state], it's difficult to reason, think abstractly, and solve problems,” Hoole noted. “So it's difficult for employees to do what they need to do to be successful.”
Engagement surveys are especially helpful during uncertain times like now because they can help your company identify what in the work environment your employees are experiencing as threats; this will then enable your organization to make the changes necessary to alleviate those threats and get your staff members reengaged with their work.
“Employee engagement surveys help leaders get a better understanding of the areas where the organization feels volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous to employees,” said Hoole. “Armed with this knowledge, leaders can [create]…[stability] for employees. This reduces the perceived threat in the environment, allowing our reptilian brain to settle down.
Engagement surveys are particularly useful during times of uncertainty because they allow organizations to identify how that uncertainty is negatively impacting its employees — information that can be used to help employees better handle the tumult.
But how can you use engagement surveys to help your employees navigate this period of uncertainty and emerge better, more productive, and more engaged on the other side? Here’s what this looks like in practice.
4 Steps for Using Engagement Surveys to Help Your Workforce Navigate Uncertainty
1. Use engagement surveys to identify perceived threats.
Your employees may be experiencing uncertainty — both within your organization and in the world at large — as threats to their safety, security, stability, or well-being. To leverage engagement surveys to help your workforce better navigate that uncertainty, you need to first identify what they’re perceiving as threats.
This doesn’t mean you should ask employees directly on engagement surveys if they feel threatened; your employees wouldn’t necessarily describe their disengagement in that way. Instead, you’ll want to dig deeper into their survey responses to identify what engagement issues could be perceived as a threat. Hoole said this could be things like poor leadership, broken systems, communication breakdowns, lack of processes, and not having the right tools to do the job.
For example, say you send out an engagement survey and get feedback that a recent leadership change has caused engagement and morale to dip. In this situation, the perceived threat might be that the change in leadership is causing employees to worry about the stability of the company and, importantly, the safety of their jobs. To remedy this, you’d want to devise a strategy to address those concerns and reassure your employees that their jobs are safe.
Or perhaps your engagement survey results revealed that employees feel unsure about the future of the company. In this instance, creating more transparency around the company’s direction and strategy could help alleviate the perceived threat, and make your workers feel more certain and reassured about the company’s future — and their place in it.
When you’re going through challenging and uncertain times, anything that has the potential to impact a person’s safety, stability, and security can feel like a threat. In order to help your employees better handle uncertainty, use your engagement surveys to identify what those threats might be — and then take steps to alleviate them.
2. Make engagement surveys anonymous…
In order for engagement surveys to be successful, whether in helping your workforce navigate uncertainty or anything else, you need to be able to trust the results. But it can be “intimidating for…employees to feel comfortable giving honest, candid feedback,” Hoole pointed out.
To ensure that you get authentic, honest feedback from your employees that you can use to identify areas for improvement and support your staff members so they can thrive in the workplace, consider making your engagement surveys anonymous.
When engagement surveys aren’t anonymous, employees may worry about who will be reading their responses and how those responses will be received, which can make people hesitant to share how they really feel. For example, if an employee is frustrated that their boss doesn’t respect their boundaries around time off work, but knows that their direct supervisor and leadership will read their results, they may not feel comfortable sharing that feedback.
However, if the survey is anonymous, employees don’t have to worry about who is reading their responses. As a result, they may feel more comfortable sharing their frustrations candidly, and their honesty will increase the quality of the survey’s results.
If you do decide to make your engagement surveys anonymous, be sure to explain to employees how you plan to keep their information and identities safe. “It’s important to be very clear regarding who will see the data, and the measures you’ll take to protect anonymity,” advised Perin. “When employees have [these] details, they’ll trust the process.”
3. …or create a culture where employees feel safe delivering honest feedback.
Anonymity can be a great way to get more honest, and therefore more helpful, feedback from your engagement surveys. But anonymity might not be the right fit for every company, team, or survey. For instance, if your culture is one that’s centered around transparency, deploying anonymous surveys might not feel in alignment with that. Or, if your organization is very small, anonymity might not be a realistic possibility.
However, if you decide to opt out of anonymity, you can still ensure that you get the kind of honest survey responses you need to drive engagement and help your employees deal with uncertainty — by creating a feedback culture that shows your workers their honest feedback is welcome.
Demonstrate to your employees that you welcome their honest feedback, said Hoole. Having your leaders model openness to feedback and debate and be skilled at making employees feel seen and heard when they challenge the status quo in your organization are some ways to do this, she continued.
The more you show your employees that honest feedback — even when it’s hard to hear — isn’t just tolerated, but celebrated, the more likely they’ll be to deliver that feedback on your engagement surveys. And the more productive those surveys will be as a result.
4. Take action on employee feedback — and communicate the steps you’re taking to your employees.
Obtaining feedback from your employees through engagement surveys is the first step. But in order to use engagement surveys to support your workforce in navigating uncertainty, you need to take their feedback and use it to make meaningful changes at your organization. And, crucially, you need to communicate your actions to your employees.
“The work you choose to do to improve employee engagement is relevant and helpful,” Hoole said. “But if no one knows you are doing it, employees might perceive a lack of interest or commitment on your part — which will negatively impact future employee engagement.”
Perin echoed this sentiment. “So often, employees don’t hear a peep after they provide thoughtful feedback,” she said. “First, tell [them] you’re listening and care about [their] feedback. Then, follow up — multiple times, in multiple ways — to show them what actions you’re taking to address [that feedback].”
For example, if your engagement survey reveals that employees are worrying about stagnating wages, call an all-hands meeting to let them know you’ve heard their concerns, and walk them through any plans you have to increase compensation in the future. Or maybe you receive feedback that employees feel overworked and stressed. In that situation, you might address the issue by showing your team you support their mental health through giving them extra PTO days to take when they need it.
Engagement surveys can help navigate uncertainty, but only if you take the feedback you get from those surveys and not only put it into action, but clearly communicate to your employees how you’re doing that.
There’s no denying that we’re living through tumultuous times. But with the right strategy, you can use engagement surveys to better understand your employees, identify how uncertainty might be causing disengagement, and support your people in navigating this uncertainty — and emerging stronger on the other side.