Highlights from Compference19 Session: Employee Engagement After the Data with Christina Atkinson, Human Resources Director of Public Accounting Firm Durward Jones Barkwell & Company (DJB)
Human Resources is expected to be the cheerleader for the business, to champion the decisions made by management while simultaneously advocating for the employee experience. This can be a tightrope to walk. However, by soliciting employee feedback on rewards and recognition and being transparent about the results, you can increase employee engagement and build a stronger employer brand.
At Compference19, Christina Atkinson, Human Resources Director of accounting firm Durward Jones Barkwell & Company LLP, led a session on Employee Engagement: Take Two After the Data about how to organize data, what to do with negative employee comments, how to communicate transparently and effectively, and the importance of aligning rewards and recognition programs to core brand values.
First, Organize Your Data into Meaningful Drivers
If you conduct employee surveys, you likely have a lot of data but less knowledge of what to do with it. You know you can’t just hand an Excel spreadsheet over to management. You also can’t just send the data to employees.
In most cases, it makes sense to start by compartmentalizing the data into meaningful drivers that can be understood and acted on individually. Focus on what is going to be most useful to your audience. If you aren’t sure, refer to your company core values or mission statement.
For example, you might have asked your employees questions about teamwork, job stability, job safety, and compensation. Job safety, although important to HR and legal, isn’t necessarily something that employees consciously think about. If your business is an office environment that is generally safe, they probably don’t notice. As such, it may not be worth talking about as its own category. However, if your organization has identified ”authentic communication” as one of your company values, you can align whether employees feel highly satisfied or highly dissatisfied with job safety as an indicator of strong or weak communication.
Similarly, if you survey your employees about compensation, you can tie the responses to employee engagement and your core values. For DJB, pay transparency is a strong measure of the company’s commitment to its values. Because DJB uses PayScale for insights on market data to determine pay bands, pay transparency ensures fairness and builds trust in the company’s commitment to communicating authentically.
Use NONCONSTRUCTIVE Comments and Objections to Your Advantage
Reviewing employee survey data can be a little harrowing. It’s important not to fixate on comments people leave — especially negative comments that are nonconstructive. It’s also important not to jump straight to the comments, as this can color your perspective on the insights and set you up to feeling negative, resistant or biased toward exploring causes and solutions.
Read everything, but then let it go. Most HR departments are familiar with squeaky wheels or “frequent flyers” who communicate with HR often and are more negative than other employees. A well-designed and well-executed employee feedback survey will be anonymous, of course, but you can still sometimes tell who is commenting based on prior interactions. Regardless, participation is what you want. Employees are giving you the answers you asked for, and that’s good, even if it’s not always what you want to hear. Recognize too that unhappy employees are more likely to comment than happy employees, so take negative comments with perspective. Focus on the data as a whole and what actions you can take to fix problems for people.
If you really want to make the most of the comments, share them anonymously in an open meeting. Discuss them as a group. This is useful because it shows participants that they were heard and that you aren’t afraid of their feedback and want to work with employees on devising solutions for perceived problems. It might also work in your favor if it’s obvious from the reaction of the group that the negative sentiments are not shared by everyone. Regardless, visibility is part of the culture of transparency that you should be striving for.
You should also expect other kinds of objections. In HR, it’s common to hear that the time isn’t right for what you want to do, that it’s tax season or budget season, that it’s too expensive or not the way things are done in your company. People are prone to resist change, especially change that is difficult or feels too untested and risky. For example, you might hear that employees don’t really want options to work from home and that only a small sub-section of employees expects this, but if you are doing things right, you will have data to show the truth. You might find that all employees in the company would like remote work options, but only a particular group was brave enough to ask for it. When the data is clear, you just have to be patient and persistent. You have to develop advocacy skills. You have to learn how to socialize decisions. And if the data is not clear, get more data.
Ask Employees What They Want
When it comes to fixing areas where employees have expressed dissatisfaction, the best course of action is to involve them in the solution.
One way to do this is to invite employees to focus groups (don’t forget the treats!). This can be particularly great for getting employees from different office locations or departments who don’t normally interact to connect and collaborate with each other.
A focus group is a perfect opportunity to ask employees what they want. For example, let’s say your benefits package received negative feedback in a recent survey and you want to dig into the specifics of what people find most objectionable about it. If your employees had a magic wand, what changes would they make? If resources are limited, what would they be most willing to give up in exchange? You can ask your employees questions like this directly in a small group setting.
Sometimes you’ll learn that employees are working off of incorrect or assumptive data. Maybe they heard that a competitor offered a benefit you don’t, or at a price that seems impossible. If you have strong market data, you can check the facts and offer insights to your employees that show them that you are providing the best deal.
If a focus group reveals a lot of possibilities but no obvious decisions, you can follow up with a survey to a larger group to determine which options are most appealing to employees. People understand that you can’t do everything. Rather than guessing what will be most valuable to your employees, consider giving them a few choices and letting them vote.
Communicate Communicate Communicate
Whatever decisions you make, communicate them.
Employees want to know what you are going to do as a result of their participation. They also want to know what you are not going to do.
The tools available for communication are many and varied. You can do email blasts or newsletters summarizing the decisions. You can go on a roadshow to each office explaining the plan in person as part of a presentation. You can conduct interactive Lunch & Learns in person or via telecommunication technology. Usually, a variety of communication is best, especially if the changes are important and deeply impact the employee experience.
The important thing is that employees understand the decisions you made and why you made them. The ‘why’ is really important, especially when it comes to rewards and recognition. If a perk under discussion didn’t come to fruition, explain what was inadvisable about it. If a benefit that is feasible has to be delayed, let people know when they might expect it. People appreciate transparency. They want to see that you are advocating for them, that you are giving them the best you can when you can, and why you decided the way that you did.
Tie Employee Rewards and Recognition to Core Values
After an employee engagement survey is a great time to let people know that your company’s core values are more than just a poster on the wall.
Although it’s common for core values to be decided by company founders or executive leaders, employee engagement and commitment to core values is stronger when they arise naturally from the business and when employees are involved in defining what they mean and how they are exemplified in day-to-day interactions. This can be done with a representative sample or a few hundred employees and is often part of a larger branding strategy or brand refresh managed by your marketing department or third-party agency.
Once your core values are established, you can reinforce them by tying them to recognition and rewards programs. Not all recognition and rewards programs have to relate to monetary compensation or employee appreciation parties either. In fact, the more you tie rewards and recognition to your core values, the less likely this is, unless your core values are “get wealthy” and “have fun” (which they could be).
For example, if one of your values is “authentic communication”, like DJB, you can institute a program where employees are encouraged to submit questions to the leadership team and — if their question is chosen —rewarding that employee with one-on-one time with an executive.
If one of your core values is “balance”, you can offer flexible work arrangements and work-from-home opportunities as part of your employee value proposition. To formalize the program, consider an application process and a probationary period to evaluate the productivity and effectiveness of the employee when he or she is working from home. However, do make sure that you keep such a program separate from a special accommodation request (such as caring for a sick relative).
Finally, if one of your core values is “accountability”, you can offer career coaching to help employees be responsible for designing their own career path. In practice, this leads to higher employee engagement because employees feel like they have more control over their career and support from the company in helping them achieve their aspirations. You can also offer employees more generalized training as part of a learning and development program, such as technical training, social etiquette seminars, or leadership courses.
Measure and Evolve
Using employee feedback data to increase employee engagement is not a story with an ending. Keeping people motivated and excited to work at a company requires constant measurement and evolution. It’s a good idea to continue reaching out, soliciting feedback, and sharing data in a loop of participation, communication, and improvement.
Success can be measured over time. For example, your first engagement survey might not get the participation levels you want. But if you advocate for employee engagement and – more importantly — continue to communicate insights and promote the successes you are having, you can expect participation levels to improve. At DJB, the first go-round of participation in the employee survey was 80 percent. The next year, it was 98 percent. You can also work with a third party to take a pulse on employee satisfaction and employee engagement to determine if what you are doing is working. You can also ask if people like the programs you are rolling out as a result of their feedback.
You can also measure employee engagement more simply by surveying whether employees would recommend a friend to work at your company. This is similar to the Net Promoter Score, and although an Employee Net Promoter Score (or eNPS) has its detractors, it’s a useful question for determining whether employees think your company is a great place to work. You can also ask variants of this question, such as “how happy are you working at [organization]?” for insights that hit closer to an individual employee’s satisfaction working at your company. You can also ask related questions such as whether employees are proud to work at your company and whether they wear promotional items branded with the company logo outside of work. These answers will give insight into how positively employees view your brand.
Regardless, the important thing is that you are soliciting feedback directly from employees and sharing the insights back to the organization. By being transparent and communicative, you can build trust in HR, increase employee engagement, and strengthen the employer brand.