The End of the Engagement Survey?

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By Max Mockett, Head of Research and Technology, The Hot Spots Movement

A few months ago, two survey companies had a violent public debate about the merits of measuring engagement as an indicator of performance. On the one side, Gallup argued that engagement (which it defines as 12 specific elements) predicts performance outcomes. On the other, Leadership IQ claimed that there is often an inverse relationship between engagement and performance, meaning that engaged people can still be low performers.

This debate hit the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review, but for me the debate seemed to be missing the broader and more urgent point: that surveys and the companies that advocate them are missing a huge shift in the way that
we work.

There is no doubt that engagement has some effect on employee productivity. Gallup and Leadership IQ agree on that much. However, administering yearly surveys to measure and benchmark engagement is no longer revealing insights into how people want to
work. When talking to companies on the topic of engagement, there is growing indifference and even resentment towards the yearly grind of administering, analysing and reporting on abstract and aggregated engagement scores. The
employee engagement survey is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was.

A social approach to engagement

Organisations are inherently social constructs. Traditionally, the sheer scale and complexity of many global organisations has led to the creation of hierarchies of command. The engagement survey reflects this hierarchy, being sent from the top to gauge the sentiment of those further down the line. Yet we all know that technology has now evolved to such a point that work no longer relies on hierarchies and the simplifying constructs of command-and-control. The complexity of global organisations can be mirrored and enhanced by complex self-organising online communities. In this context, the idea of employee engagement surveys seems anachronistic, and should give way to something that is not only far more collaborative, but also something that is instantaneous.

We’ve been working on FoWlab for five years now. What started off as a simple online forum for our Future of Work Consortium members to come and discuss our research has since become a world-class platform for conducting online “Jams”. Though we never set out to create an alternative to employee engagement surveys, we think we may have created something that augments, and most probably succeeds the traditional survey in the field of engagement.

FoWlab, as the soft-spoken woman in our video will tell you, is a guided online conversation that harnesses the collaborative intelligence of an organisation’s employees to find solutions to its complex challenges. At first glance, FoWlab looks like Facebook or Yammer. But it’s not a platform as much as it is an online event. And it is more a research tool than a social hub. It runs for just 72 hours, and is constantly facilitated by a global team of researchers.

Unexpected insights

In the last three years, we have conducted FoWlab Jams for many of the world’s largest companies, and the most interesting thing that has come out of the experience is that it delivers many of the same insights as employee engagement surveys, but in a way
that itself creates engagement rather than simply measuring it. Part of this is down to the fact that it builds on many-to-many relationships and interactions, rather than simply being a one-to-many consultation. FoWlab encourages participants to ask their own questions on subjects that they feel passionate about, and develop the ideas of other participants in an open and truly collaborative conversation. Engagement surveys, limited as they are to predefined questions that tend to be sector-agnostic, have a tendency to miss vital information.

A great example of this came out of a FoWlab Jam we ran with PwC’s millennial population. Dennis Finn, Vice Chairman and Global Human Capital Leader at the company, said that “by encouraging our employees to freely discuss why they chose to work for PwC, and how their working lives could be improved, FoWlab was great at delivering unexpected insights that the survey would never have touched on”. The Jam ran parallel to a broader company-wide survey and, in addition to confirming many of the results that came out of the survey, FoWlab revealed that a great deal of millennials at PwC were fixated on their physical wellbeing and thought that the ability to spend time at the gym was a crucial factor in their engagement levels at work. The issue of physical wellbeing wasn’t covered in the survey, nor do many other engagement surveys ask about it.

A common criticism we hear laid against surveys is that they tend to confirm what you already know. You can feel when your employees are unengaged at work, and putting a percentage against that feeling isn’t going to do much. But running a FoWlab jam not only helps organisations diagnose problems that you may not have preempted in a survey, it can also help generate solutions to those problems. Of the three days that FoWlab runs, one day is dedicated exclusively to action steps, asking “how can we turn the insights discussed over the past 48 hours into tangible solutions?”

So while Leadership IQ and Gallup continue to argue about the meaning of engagement, we at the Future of Work Consortium are building the future of engagement by involving the people you want to engage in a collaborative discussion about the future of the organisation.

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