HR Technology - Is Anybody Listening?

By Drew Robb Nov 1, 2004
HR Magazine, November 2004






Software helps Office Depot respond to employee survey results.

Conducting employee surveys can be a good way to create a more engaged and productive workforce, but only if the employees receive feedback on their answers and see their comments influence company policy. Otherwise, it is as Bob Dylan expressed in A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall: [I] heard 10,000 whisperin and nobody listenin.

Office Depot Inc. has 50,000 employees to listen to. It surveys each of them annually and then conducts follow-up meetings and creates action plans based on the survey data. Recently, the company automated the survey and planning process using employee engagement surveys from Kenexa, a privately held firm in Wayne, Pa.

What makes an engagement survey relevant is that an organization has something in place to turn that data into action and that the employees will see and feel that something positive has taken place, says Hank McNeely, PHR, Office Depots director of employee programs and services. Then it becomes part of the culture.

Measuring Engagement

Office Depot is a $12 billion office supply company that was founded in 1986. Headquartered in Delray Beach, Fla., it has 900 stores in the United States and Canada, and another 200 in Europe, Central America and Asia. In addition to its retail locations, the business services group has 1,200 trucks delivering supplies from regional warehouses directly to its customers, and the international division handles Internet sales operations in 13 countries outside North America.

The company has 140 employees working in HR, either at the Florida headquarters or out in the field. Employee surveys are not new to Office Depot; McNeely, who has been with the company for 11 years, says the company was already conducting employee surveys when he started working there. In 2000, however, Office Depot management decided to begin focusing on employee engagement in the annual survey.

It is less of a traditional opinion survey, McNeely explains. Instead, it tries to [measure] how engaged our employees are in the work they are doing. Do they understand what their jobs are, what their goals are? Are they excited about their work? Do they understand what the customers need?

The Office Depot survey questions use a Likert scale process in which the employee is given a question and answers it on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being Strongly disagree and 5 being Strongly agree. They also have an option of answering Not applicable. Using a 1-to-10 scale is too detailed, but a 1-to-5 scale produces more meaningful results, McNeely says. He also prefers that method to asking open-ended questions.

We have found in the past that open-ended questions do give you some information that is useful, but on the whole it is harder to evaluate whether they strongly agree or disagree with something, he says. Instead, we give them questions that can be responded to more quickly.

Getting Rid of the Paper

Initially, Office Depot employees completed the surveys on paperboth the earlier opinion surveys as well as the new engagement polls. That is not unusual for companies like Office Depot, says Troy Kanter, president of Kenexas HR capital management business.

Over the years, the survey industry has evolved away from a paper process, he explains. But in certain verticals such as retail or hospitality where people dont all have access to a computer, some still use paper.

Two years ago, however, Office Depot decided to go electronic.

Part is a cost savings for ourselves, and it is a time-saver for managers and HR since there is no paper to distribute and collect and no missing shipping boxes to chase down, says McNeely. It is also a part of our culture to be as paperless as possible.

Kenexa works with Office Depot on crafting the survey questions, and does any programming necessary to link the survey into Office Depots intranets and portals where employees fill in their responses. Questions are translated into eight languages. As the survey period nears, Kenexa software maps the organizational structure, and logins and passwords are then assigned to each employee. When employees log in, they access a page on Kenexas servers designed with the look and feel of Office Depots site.

Each survey consists of 48 questions. Though Office Depot may vary the questions somewhat from year to year, most stay the same so they can track changes in the responses.

The surveys are conducted each July or August, and employees have two weeks in which to complete them. There is no time limit for answering the questions, but Greg Shewfelt, a senior analyst with the information technology finance department at Office Depots headquarters, says it takes him about 10 minutes. He prefers the electronic surveys, he says.

I like the flexibility of doing it online. This last survey I did at 11 at night, which is a big deal to me, he says. I dont have to worry about a piece of paper, having to put it in a box, the confidentiality of it.

Creating a Plan

At the end of the survey period, Kenexa analyzes the results using proprietary software as well as business intelligence tools from SPSS Inc. of Chicago. After about four weeks, managers receive a link to results pertaining to their area. Then comes the important part: putting the survey results into action.

The surveys are tied into the creation of action plans for the coming year, says Anita Cayuso, a supervisor in sales accounting. She begins by printing out the analysis and the accompanying documentation, which contain suggestions for ways to improve upon the key survey findings. As a manager, she also uses a module in the Kenexa software to generate an action plan for her area. She then schedules a meeting with her staff to go over the main points in the survey results.

You dont want to touch on every minute area because you could be in the meeting all day long, Cayuso says. Everybody is interested in the results and wants to have their opinions heard on the surveys.

Afterward, she meets privately with each employee to address areas in which they have excelled, areas of concern and areas in which improvement is needed. Together they set goals and create a game plan for the employee, and Cayuso follows up on that plan throughout the year.

The surveys give me a very good view of areas I need to address with my employees, she says. As a supervisor, my responsibility is to take them out of their comfort level and to challenge them to do a little bit more.

She keeps these individual plans in a folder in her office; only the group plan is kept and tracked online.

Driving Positive Change

These surveys and their follow-up are having an effect, both for individual employees and the company as a whole.

The survey gives us an opportunity to see where we are as a department, says Shewfelt. It gives me an opportunity to provide some feedback in a way that can be grouped meaningfully, and it drives positive change.

For example, during the action planning that came out of the survey, Shewfelt and another senior analyst heard they were getting a bit stagnant in their jobs. So they switched duties, which gave them each a new area in which to develop personally and gave the department greater depth.

The survey also gives him a better sense of the entire company as a team, Shewfelt says. I like the visibility into what the opinions are in the company and how my department is doing relative to the rest of the company, he says. Just because Im not a manager doesnt mean I dont want our department to compare favorably with the rest of the company.

On a companywide basis, automating the action plan has been more important than just automating the surveys, McNeely says. When the supervisors view the surveys, they just have to hit a link to go right into the action planning tool. These plans, which are updated quarterly, then cascade up and down throughout the organization. The company has compared survey results with business scores for different locations and found direct correlations between engagement levels, profitability, employee retention and customer service, he says.

Looking Beyond Shades of Gray

While Office Depot prefers the Likert scale method, other companies find value in data gleaned from open-ended questions. For example, the Plano, Texas-based information technology firm Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) uses a mix of the Likert scale and open-ended questions in its employee surveys. Once each year, EDS conducts a web survey of all 130,000 employees, and three times a year it does a sample survey of 20,000 employees using proprietary survey software that draws organizational information from the companys HR management system from SAP of Walldorf, Germany.

EDS is undergoing a cultural refurbishment, and the survey has come to play an important part as a feedback mechanism, not just to line-level managers but [also] to executives, says HR data analyst Greg Talkington. Our executives and board of directors expect a very thorough briefing on what the survey says.

Initially, EDS analyzed only the multiple choice questions using data mining tools from SAS Institute Inc. of Cary, N.C., and SPSS. Line managers would receive a copy of their employees answers to the open-ended questions to read and draw their own conclusions. But there was no way to aggregate and summarize these answers on a companywide basis, so top management never saw this data.

They cant read through 5,000 pages of comments, says Talkington. We decided there was so much richness in there that we needed to analyze it on a higher level and look for trends across the enterprise.

To achieve this, he purchased Polyanalyst from Megaputer Intelligence Inc. of Bloomington, Ind., one of a growing list of tools designed to interpret and analyze text data, taking into account syntax and context.

It goes in and sets up different subsets of comments and is very smooth at forming unions between groups of comments, Talkington says.

In addition to adding these analyses to the quarterly and annual survey reports, he also runs custom reports for specific projects. For example, when EDS started a program for training line managers on conflict management, the company adapted some training scenarios from the survey information.

We are launching a program on coaching and mentoring, and I will go in and analyze the surveys in the same way, Talkington says. There is a lot of benefit to be had from looking at this data, and it has made a big difference from an HR standpoint.

Drew Robb is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in technology, engineering and business.

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