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Employee Engagement

Why the Order of Survey Questions Matters

Employers have long used employee engagement surveys to take the temperature of the workforce. With the direct feedback these surveys provide, organizations can shore up engagement, replicate what’s working well, and build trust with employees.

Now, with so many organizations moving to permanent remote and hybrid work arrangements, the role of employee engagement questionnaires may be more important than ever. Informal discussions between managers and direct reports around the water cooler, another opportunity for these types of candid conversations, are harder to come by when everybody’s working at home.

And, as they leave their jobs at historic rates, workers have demonstrated they value work-life balance, flexibility, and the feeling that they’re making an impact on the job. To retain workers, companies must do all they can to tap into what employees need, want, and expect at work.

“We need to hear from the source — what’s going on, how are you feeling, [and] how can we improve?” said Charlotte Kackley, SHRM-SCP, Human Resources Director for Merchant Maverick, which provides financial services research for small businesses. “Otherwise, we’re just stuck making assumptions and we could be implementing changes that really don’t affect change in the areas that are needed.”

But to get actionable results from survey data, the design is critical — especially the order of the survey questions. “When we see the start of the survey is challenging or causes people to stop and spend a lot of time reflecting, we’ll see that the responses become less meaningful,” noted Jessica Lambrecht, founder and CEO of HR strategy and organizational culture consulting firm The Rise Journey.

Here’s why survey design is so critical — and how to build a survey that will uncover the best insights for your team. 

Order Matters

Workers are bombarded with so many responsibilities, and an employee engagement survey is just one more task competing for their attention. When designing surveys, senior management and HR leaders must ensure the survey questions aren’t a slog to answer, triggering survey fatigue that might prompt people to just give up. “Order matters because people’s willingness to complete the survey diminishes with each additional question,” said David Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of Voices, an online marketplace platform for voiceover talent.

It also matters because the right order of the survey questions can build a natural narrative for respondents as they think about their work life. When designed well, a survey will prompt employees to consider the big picture of their workplace, as later questions dive more deeply into their individual work experience. This kind of design can elicit more thoughtful reflections.

“Ordering survey questions a certain way can make the overall intention of the survey more clear,” Kackley said. “One question can provide context to the next, and answers can build on each other.”

Questions Should Flow Naturally, Like a Conversation

The optimal questionnaire design starts with higher-level queries about the organization as a whole before drilling down to more sensitive questions. “It’s a bit of a warmup,” Ciccarelli said. “It’s guiding the survey participant along to the point where they feel like [they’re] opening up more about [themselves] personally.”

Ciccarelli compares it to small talk: “You talk about shared experiences first — [like] the weather, whatever sports were on, travel, [and] holidays, and then you go into more personal stories later on in the conversation,” he said. “The same [concept applies] in structuring a survey. You want to…capture all these shared experiences and then slowly but surely move toward the individualized, personalized experiences.”

The style of survey questions can also reflect this top-down approach. Using multiple choice questions toward the beginning of the survey can help respondents engage with ease, and think about high-level concepts before moving down to more reflective, open-ended questions.

When Lambrecht works with clients on employee engagement surveys, she recommends they order it by dropping down organizational levels with each bucket of questions. Here’s what that looks like: 

  1. Organization: These questions dial into employees’ thoughts about the overall organization, Lambrecht said. The type of questions might include: 
  1. Leadership: The next set of questions would focus on the company’s senior leadership. Specific questions might include: 
  • Is leadership sharing information transparently? 
  • How frequently do you hear from leadership?
  • What channels or platforms are most effective for receiving communication from leadership? 
  1. Managers: These types of survey questions then home in on an employee’s managers or management. General questions include: 
  • Are you comfortable giving feedback to your manager
  • Does your manager listen to your concerns?  
  • What could your manager provide more clarity on?
  1. Team: From there, the questions begin to focus on team relationships. Queries might cover: 
  • Are there clear lines of communication on your team? 
  • Is it easy to collaborate with team members? 
  • How often do you give or receive feedback from your team members?
  1. Individual: Then, the survey should focus on more personal questions. Questions might cover how the respondent feels about their role at work, including: 
  • Do you know what you need to succeed in your role (personal attributes, skills, competencies, resources, etc.)?
  • Do you understand the company’s compensation philosophy, and how to earn a promotion
  • What resources would help you grow or reach the next level of your role?
  1. Personal: The final set of questions zero in on an individual’s experience even more deeply, covering topics such as: 

The exact buckets and wording, according to Lambrecht, will depend on an organization’s unique needs. A small company, for example, might not have teams. Or an organization with only in-office staff won’t need to ask about remote collaboration tools. 

She also recommends allowing employees to leave written comments about each grouping of questions. Many surveys will ask close-ended questions with specific response options — multiple choice questions, Likert scale questions (a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), or yes/no answers. Opportunities to provide written comments to more open-ended questions can reveal additional information and insights. “It’s important to have as much context as possible to understand where there are trends,” Lambrecht said. 

Where Does an eNPS Question Belong?  

Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) questions measure how employees rank the desirability of a workplace through a rating scale from 0 to 10. Employees are asked whether they would recommend the employer to their own network, and it is a popular query to include in broader employee engagement surveys.

“Those questions almost always are among the first questions,” Lambrecht said. In a survey that starts with the big picture, it’s a big-picture question to ask. And some experts believe that putting it at the top ensures that answers are not clouded by the previous questions.

But others leave the eNPS questions for the end of the survey after employees have mulled over their work life. It’s what Ciccarelli does when surveying his employees. “It’s giving someone the opportunity to reflect on all of their answers up to that point and then asking the punchline question,” he said. 

Make It Easy to Participate

When sending out surveys, a response rate of about 75% should be the goal, Lambrecht said. 

And it’s important to keep in mind that as employers build out surveys, other design aspects are critical beyond the order of questions, including:  

  • Question Consistency: To make it easier to measure successes or failures over time, make sure the questions asked are the same or very similar to those you included in previous surveys — especially the answer options for multiple choice questions. It makes internal benchmarking and other survey research possible, Lambrecht said. “That will give you that roadmap for heading in the right direction,” she noted.
  • Survey Ease: An intuitive flow is key, along with a clear picture of how long the survey will take and what percentage has been completed. “If the process seems disorganized or incongruent, a responder is more likely to abandon the survey,” Kackley cautioned. 
  • Survey Results Action: You can have the perfect survey with the optimal number of questions in just the right order, and still have flagging interest and responses. That often happens when employers have distributed employee engagement surveys in the past — and then done nothing with the feedback.

When you ask employees what they think of an organization and where improvements can be made, you have to be ready to share the results and take action. Consider it a “transparent feedback loop,” Lambrecht said.

“That’s what gets people to fill out the next survey — they saw the results, [and then] they saw the changes that came to their workplace,” she said. “And now they’re motivated to share their thoughts in the next year’s annual survey.” 

Ready to learn more about employee surveying? Download our free eBook The Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement Surveys.