How to Analyze and Interpret Employee Engagement Survey Results?

Looking to analyze employee survey results? Here's a guide to best practice survey analysis in 2021.

There they are, sitting in your inbox: The results from last month’s, company-wide, employee engagement survey.

Are your employees generally satisfied, or is there work to do?

Your leadership team loves data and these survey results will provide the numbers-based ammunition you need to secure some funding for those people and culture projects you’ve wanted to get off the ground.

Right as you’re about to open that email, another five come in with differing levels of urgency.

You decide to put the employee engagement survey results on the backburner until later that day. But when the end of the day comes and you draw up your to-do list for tomorrow, there isn’t enough time to review those results.

This process repeats itself, over and over again, until two weeks have passed and those survey results remain unread.

Eager to get them out of the way, you delegate the review to a member of your People team.

Or, you quickly skim through the data, pull out the first interesting stats you find, and base your year’s projects on them.

This isn’t a great idea.

Employee survey data holds ample information and each data point brings several promising action items – if you’re willing to think about them.

Plus, it’s not just enough to use employee survey data to inform your future projects. It’s important to use employee survey data to communicate to employees that they’ve been heard and that they’re understood.

How to analyze employee survey results:

Take your time to carefully review survey results

Schedule time to review your employee survey results

Reviewing employee survey results isn’t something you can do in between meetings, or worse, during a meeting.

They contain ample data points that must be carefully and thoughtfully reviewed.

Depending on how your engagement survey platform delivers the data, you may receive the data in something as overwhelming as a spreadsheet to something as user-friendly as a visual representation.

If your data does arrive in spreadsheet format, avoid a feeling of overwhelm by taking the following engagement survey analysis steps.

Block off time in your calendar

If you think you can review all of your survey results in 15 minutes, think again.

This isn’t something you want to rush or skim.

Instead block off a few hours in a day – or an hour spread across several days – to pore over the data.

If you delegate this to someone, make it clear what the time commitment is, so that they don’t feel pressure to quickly pull out results at random.

Write down what your main questions were before the survey

As a leader, you likely have assumptions or working theories about your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges from a people perspective.

Your survey data will either confirm or deny them.

Use these research questions to frame your survey results analysis. This will help you engage with the survey results as opposed to passively reading them.

Filter results by subgroups of interest

Is there a specific subgroup of the company where you’re experiencing the most challenges?

Use the filtering functionality of your spreadsheet to focus on these groups first.

This helps you compare and contrast different areas of the organization, and understand why some functions perform better than others.

Plus, it allows you to prioritize your time if you’re on a crunch. (Although, you should try to avoid this by blocking off time in your calendar for survey results analysis!)

Interrogate your data

It’s hard to tell which data you should pull out.

After a while, it can feel like you’re basically replicating your spreadsheet in a word document!

So when you’re looking through your survey data, interrogate it.

Ask overarching questions like,

  • “What are the most common responses to these questions?”
  • “Which responses are impacting our company culture and overall performance the most?”
  • “Which group of employees is most impacted by this prevailing issue?”

This approach does two main things.

  1. It makes it easier to digest the data.
  2. It clearly connects the data back to issues that your leadership team actually cares about.

This approach is better than simply forwarding survey results to managers.

If you find a spreadsheet of survey results overwhelming, then managers will definitely find it overwhelming. Especially if they have minimal guidance on how to review and operationalize the data.

Benchmark your engagement survey data

One exceptionally useful method of understanding survey results is benchmarking.

Benchmarking is the process of comparing survey data to another set of data measuring a similar phenomenon.

Translation: It means asking questions like,

  • “How did we do last year compared to this year?”
  • “How are other companies doing when it comes to employee engagement and satisfaction?”

Benchmarking is also important, because it prevents you from labelling a failure as a success.

For instance, an 80% employee satisfaction rate may look like a good thing...until someone at your meeting points out that the engagement rate last year was 95%.

Similarly, you may think a turnover rate of only 15% is successful...only to find out the average turnover rate in your industry is 7%.

Benchmarking ensures your survey data is contextualized and rooted in reality.

So how do you go about getting the data you need to conduct a benchmarking exercise?

Your first port of call is your previous year’s engagement data. If this is your first year conducting an employee engagement survey, then this isn’t applicable.

A tool like Sparkbay automatically provide a side-by-side comparison of your previous years’ survey results (or month, quarter as you see fit) to your current survey results.

You can purchase market research data or commission a separate market research project in order to find industry data.

Alternatively, tools like Sparkbay also tell you how you compare to companies in the same industry as yours.

Once you’ve analyzed your survey data, considered your key research questions, and benchmarked your data, it’s time to organize this data.

By the end of this process, you may have identified a list of 8 to 10 problems or potential problems within your organization. Now, it’s time to take a solutions-oriented approach to analyzing it.

What is a solutions-oriented approach to problem solving?

A solutions-oriented approach avoids two toxic behaviours: evasion and playing the blame game.

When leaders pretend a problem doesn’t exist or put what they view to be medium-sized problems on the backburner, they give a small problem the oxygen it needs to become a massive problem.

On the other hand, when leaders focus on assigning blame, they create a culture of shame and fear.

People become scared to admit mistakes, committed to the status quo, and hesitant to present new ideas or solutions.

Instead of asking, “Who can we blame?” solutions-oriented leaders ask, “Why is this happening?” and take a curious, empathetic approach to problem solving.

It’s helpful to view your employee engagement survey results the same way by taking the following steps:

View people & culture challenges as opportunities

Instead of lamenting the fact that your employees are actively looking for other jobs or that your teams have a poor relationship with their managers, get inspired and excited.

You have the luxury of honest answers which gives you the information you need to improve your company and keep it competitive.

Openly admit when there’s a problem and communicate that finding a solution is the priority

If there’s a significant problem, share that with your organization so that it’s acknowledged.

This builds trust while also making it clear that it’s been recognized at the leadership level and that there are plans to develop solutions.

Keep emotions out of it

View problems as discrete entities to deal with as opposed to tying them up with people.

Instead of saying, “What’s so bad about our managers that employees are leaving at record speeds?” ask “What is preventing our managers from delivering the environment, support, and resources employees need to thrive?”

The first question focuses on laying blame. The second answer focuses on improvement.

Develop a plan

Show up with solutions, not problems.

Once you’ve reviewed your employee engagement data, consider different possible scenarios and action plans.

You won’t have the entire answer – and you should probably engage with others as well as the people affected for a better understanding of possible solutions – but try to start the conversation by presenting opportunities, not obstacles.

Review results with managers

You’ve done it. You’ve taken a massive spreadsheet with rows and columns of data and turned it into a digestible document with key takeaways and possible solutions.

You’re ahead of the game, because you now have what’s known as actionable intelligence.

Actionable intelligence is the difference between information you can turn into positive change and information that’s overwhelming to review.

Actionable intelligence is what allows you to have a meaningful conversation with your managers.

Managers face cognitive overload

Empathize with your managers. They have ample information coming their way every day.

They have to ensure they marshal their entire team’s resources to produce a result, they have to do this while managing conflicts, and they have to do this while jockeying for support from other teams.

A massive spreadsheet adds one more hassle.

This is where the disconnect often happens between employee engagement surveys and employee engagement improvements.

A company will go through the time and expense to carry out a survey only to wind up disregarded by the people in the best position to turn platitudes into practice.

Suggestions to increase employee engagement aren’t always relevant to managers’ day-to-day work

Then there’s the issue of relevance.

A survey may suggest doing one thing, while the day-to-day operations on the ground suggest that’s unrealistic.

When something’s irrelevant or unrealistic, people disregard it and move forward with what works.

How do you overcome these hurdles?

Incorporate managers into the survey data review process

Once you’ve done your own review of the data, invite managers to review the data as well.

This review should be a scheduled meeting with a clear agenda and mandatory attendance.

At this meeting, make it clear that the focus is on finding solutions, not assigning blame, and emphasize that while you have come up with potential plans of action, you want managers’ insight because they have the best understanding of their teams.

You should also arrive prepared with research, case studies, and examples of why increasing employee engagement is important.

A meeting with managers can go in a few directions.

Depending on the existing culture they may:

  • Completely agree with the survey results and your intended plans of action
  • Agree with the survey results but have objections to the potential plans of action and provide suggestions
  • Show hesitation or defensiveness about the idea and view the entire exercise as an inefficient use of time

Ideally, you want to walk out of a meeting with a preliminary understanding of how managers fit into your larger employee engagement strategy. Will you need to:

  • Simply incorporate their feedback into your existing strategy, or
  • Invest time into educating managers on the importance and profitability of employee engagement

Educate your team on the importance of employee engagement

If you need to invest time in education, don’t be discouraged.

Instead, be curious.

Reminder yourself what your current company values are and align the benefits of engagement to those values so you can demonstrate its importance.

For instance, a sales-driven culture may be more focused on performance and closing the deal.

Translation: They care about metrics and revenue.

So your pitch will need to include research and case studies on how employee engagement increases revenue.

If you have a product-focused culture, demonstrate how employee engagement increases innovation and collaboration.

And regardless of function, you can appeal to the shared manager pain of hiring after losing a team member on short notice.

Tie employee engagement metrics to managers’ performance metrics

What gets measured, gets managed.

Introduce engagement metrics, such as employee satisfaction or retention, into managers’ performance reviews.

When managers are evaluated on their ability to close deals or deploy products, they take steps to improve their skills whether it’s by booking more client meetings or upskilling their team.

The same logic applies to engagement. When managers know engagement metrics impact their promotions, raises, and bonuses, they’ll be more inclined to understand what day-to-day activities boost overall engagement and focus on activities like:

  • Improving communications with employees
  • Scheduling one-on-one weekly check-ins
  • Creating professional development plans with employees

This also sparks curiosity into how employee engagement supports other business objectives.

Rather than viewing employee engagement activities as checkbox exercises, they can use one-on-one meetings and better communication to support their existing work.

A one-on-one meeting becomes an opportunity to identify and eliminate roadblocks preventing a team member from contributing fully.

A newly-introduced, 15-minute, all-hands meeting every morning makes it easier for team members to touch base, communicate, and keep a project moving.

Managers struggle to have effective conversations with direct reports

It’s easy to assume that all managers know how to “manage”.

What do we mean by this?

Well, in many organizations “manager” is simply the role that a great individual contributor moves into next.

But an excellent developer or an excellent business development representative doesn’t automatically have the skills required to successfully manage people.

If this is the way promotions happen within your company, it’s time to ask:

Do our managers even know how to have conversations with their direct reports?

Is the extent of their communication instructions or hastily written email requests?

Or do they take the time to understand their team members’ unique strengths and weaknesses, develop employees, and provide the resources they need to do their jobs well?

If it’s the former, it’s time to help your managers get better at having one-on-one conversations with their employees.

They should also prepare for these meetings and cancel only when absolutely necessary in the same way they would for meetings with a client or their own manager.

At the same time, managers want to avoid booking meetings for everything in the name of “face time”.

This can be frustrating and distracting for employees that want to get their work done during work hours.

So before sending that calendar invite, first train managers to understand what types of meetings they can hold such as:

  • One-on-one meetings: Suitable for weekly check-ins and development conversations
  • Onboarding meetings: Suitable for bringing a new team member on board. Onboarding meetings are not a “one-and-done” proposition, and they are not the same as the orientation session HR delivers.
  • Decision-making meetings: Suitable for voting on a solution to a problem that’s been previously discussed and where solutions have already been presented.
  • Brainstorming meetings: Suitable for working through a tricky problem that requires input from different team members.
  • Problem-solving meetings: Suitable for coming up with solutions to an issue. The issue should be clearly articulated at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Project kick-off meetings: These meetings get on the same page about a project, assign responsibilities, set a timeline, and clarify next steps.
  • Retrospective meetings: These meetings identify key learnings from a previous project.

Employee engagement results require manager-led problem-solving meetings

Once you’ve agreed on a course of action with your managers, ask them to hold a problem-solving meeting with their individual teams.

During this meeting, they can share the results of the survey and ask employees for feedback on what they want to see changed.

As a team, managers and their employees can set S.M.A.R.T. goals on what they want to work on to improve collaboration and engagement over the next several months.

During these meetings, managers can ask questions such as:

  • What should we start to improve?
  • What should we do to continue to improve?
  • What should we stop doing to improve?
  • What’s the one thing we should immediately focus on improving over the next couple of months?

This helps managers act on feedback in a meaningful way, while keeping their day-to-day activities and operations running.

How can HR support managers?

First, it’s worth noting: HR’s job is not to manage a manager’s team for them.

Instead, HR’s job is to help managers be the best managers they can be by providing guidance and support.

What does this look like in practice?

It means that instead of working with individual employees, HR teams can focus on developing resources and tools that help managers become self-sufficient. These resources may be:

  • Templates or guides for setting professional development goals and objectives with team members
  • Suggestions on the frequency and content of one-on-one meetings with team members
  • Portals or guides that summarize the professional development resources available to employees

Once these resources are available, HR teams can focus their energy on meeting individually with the managers who are struggling the most.

Automating the process of coaching your managers

You can use a learning platform or Sparkbay to deliver automated coaching to your managers.

Sparkbay ensures that each manager is focused on the right issues for his or her team, allowing managers to build and execute action-ready plans through an intuitive, guided framework.

Leveraging Sparkbay’s deep analytics and predictive capabilities, the platform analyzes data gathered from employee pulses to identify current and potential engagement issues. It then recommends specific focus areas and concrete actions that managers can take to improve.

Ensure managers are held accountable for implementing employee engagement strategies

Ask your managers to create an action plan that focuses on one or two areas of improvement within their teams with S.M.A.R.T. goals to boot. Schedule meetings to follow up. This ensures managers stay accountable and that employee engagement isn’t put on the backburner.

Transform employee engagement survey data into powerful insights

Employee engagement surveys gather rich data about how your employees are feeling, how well they’re working within their team, and whether they plan to stick with your organization over the long term.

Make the most of this data by turning it into actionable intelligence, converting it into a strategy, and empowering your managers to work these insights into their day-to-day operations.