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Pulsing with a purpose: building an effective employee research program

  • Lewis Garrad

    Practice Lead & Partner, Employee Experience Solutions, International at Mercer

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What are the biggest internal and external challenges your organization is facing?

In recent years, a growing number of organizations have started implementing pulse surveys to complement or replace their annual employee engagement survey. Intrigued by technological advances, the power of Big Data and the promise of artificial intelligence, many leaders, managers and  HR professionals are eager to gather employee feedback on a  regular basis, using short assessments to evaluate workforce  attitudes and engagement levels on a quarterly, monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

Gathering regular feedback from employees in today’s dynamic business environment makes sense for many reasons.  When pulse programs are well designed, they can generate valuable real-time insights about employee engagement levels, core concerns, performance barriers and emerging organizational problems. But we have also noticed that many organizations are pulsing without a plan, naively assuming that more data will lead to better insights, better management and better performance. Without a well-designed research strategy, we have found that frequent pulsing can actually overwhelm leaders and managers and decrease employee engagement.

If your organization is currently conducting pulses or you are about to embark on a pulse survey campaign, it is critical that you have a robust research strategy in place — one that starts with your business priorities and considers everything from research methods to analytic techniques (See Figure 1).  In this paper, we highlight five critical questions to consider before launching your next survey.


WHAT ARE YOUR STRATEGIC BUSINESS PRIORITIES?

Over the past two decades, the world of work has become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Based on our research, employees are definitely noticing.

30% of employees do not have a clear sense of where their organization is headed.

32% are not confident in their organization’s ability to adapt to external changes

44% do not have a good understanding of their future career path.

Source: Latest Mercer | Sirota global norms

These results suggest that in many organizations, a good number of employees are feeling confused, concerned and disoriented, and the future of work looks murky at best.  

Considering these conditions, getting a regular read on the employee experience makes good sense. The savviest leaders realize that evidence-based decision-making, advanced people analytics, organizational sense making and organizational learning are all critical in today’s business environment. As a result, many leaders and decision makers are eager to gather feedback on an ongoing basis with the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of employee attitudes, concerns and observations.

But some organizations make the mistake of rushing into pulsing without having a clear idea of what they really want to learn, assuming that a series of quarterly employee-engagement pulses will suffice. If your organization is having a motivation, commitment or retention problem — and leaders are taking steps to address these issues — quarterly pulses focused on engagement might make sense. But if not, this approach may not generate much insight.

When we work with clients to design employee research programs, we start by focusing on the business first. What are the biggest internal and external challenges your organization is facing? What are your main strategic priorities and challenges? How efficiently is your organization operating? How effectively is your organization changing and evolving? What are your main people priorities? By exploring these questions with our clients — before even considering what items to include on a survey — we can help them think carefully about what they need to learn as an organization. We have found this information is the critical foundation for any successful employee research program, providing the basis for more tactical decisions about instrument design, sample selection, administration techniques, and report and action plans.



GETTING STARTED

For modern organizations, developing an effective employee research program is a strategic imperative. In today’s complex business environment, evidence-based human resources, advanced people analytics and ongoing organizational learning are all critical for organizational performance. Central to these practices is the employee perspective. Without regular feedback from the workforce, you will find that leaders, managers and decision makers are flying blind.

If you are about to launch a pulse program, you are in a unique position to help your organization explore its most pressing people problems, performance challenges and strategic priorities. But pulses are not a panacea. Without a clear plan in place, they can backfire — producing more noise than signal.

The best employee research programs are carefully designed from start to finish. By clarifying your business priorities, developing a clear research agenda and thinking deeply about instrument design, survey administration, results reporting and post-study actioning, you can ensure that your research efforts are relevant, rigorous and have a real impact on the way your organization operates. The best way to do that, we’ve found, is to think through each step of the process.

The five questions presented in this paper can help you get started. Before conducting your next pulse, we recommend giving careful consideration to each. If you don’t have clear answers, you may not be ready to conduct a successful study.

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