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Measuring Employee Engagement During a Crisis

Monitoring employee sentiment and gathering feedback is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

​As an essential business, United Facilities has remained open during the coronavirus pandemic. The warehouse, distribution and logistics company, which is headquartered in East Peoria, Ill., made changes to protect employees from the potential spread of the virus, including using enhanced cleaning procedures, altering workers’ schedules and increasing fresh air flow.

To find out how the 400 employees felt about these changes, company leaders asked managers to conduct interviews to measure workers’ sentiments. 

“We recognize these are special times, so we had a special survey for COVID-19,” says Tammie Rogers, the company’s senior HR generalist. The survey asked about the company’s response to COVID-19, the altered processes and whether those processes made employees feel more comfortable about coming to work.

“Managers administered it in one-on-one conversations with the employees,” explains HR director Renna Bliss, SHRM-CP. The responses were uploaded to a SharePoint site, along with the managers’ summaries and recommended actions. 

The information is visible to HR and executives, Bliss says, but managers are tasked with making recommendations because “we believe it’s better for the data to be interpreted at the local level.” 

Adds Rogers: “Employees really appreciated the managers taking the time to ask.”

Measuring employee sentiment and gathering feedback is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in widespread anxiety and a lot of dramatic workplace changes, including large swaths of employees who began working from home. Employee engagement, which had been fairly static for the last 20 years, reached an all-time high of 40 percent in July, according to a Gallup survey of 3,127 full- and part-time U.S. workers. 

Why? Some say the primary reason is employees who were disengaged got laid off en masse, but others believe the increase is the result of improved communication between employees and their leaders. For companies to maintain a motivated, productive workforce, HR professionals need to find the best methods to gather and interpret employee feedback, including from remote workers, and make changes accordingly, experts say.

US Employee Engagement Trends

What Is Engagement?

Employee engagement is often used as a catch-all term for employee job satisfaction, motivation, productivity and retention. Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Job satisfaction, productivity and retention can all be affected by an employee’s level of engagement. 

Some of those elements are easy to measure, such as retention rate; others, such as employee motivation, are harder to gauge. 

To make the most of employee engagement efforts, organizational leaders must be clear about their primary goal, experts say. Do they want to reduce turnover? Improve productivity? Increase employee enthusiasm? 

Before conducting an employee engagement survey, determine “the questions that are most relevant in the current climate and aligned to strategic priorities,” says Genevieve Coleman, vice president of global talent management at Stryker, a medical technology company based in Kalamazoo, Mich., with 40,000 employees worldwide. 

Then, consider the timing. Is it wise to measure employee engagement during a pandemic? Absolutely, HR professionals say.

“Collecting survey data in ‘bad’ times is actually more or equally as important as [doing so] during ‘good’ times,” says Chris Roederer, senior vice president and chief HR officer at Tampa General Hospital, a teaching hospital that employs 8,500 in Tampa, Fla. 

The hospital last May conducted a pulse survey—which is a short, targeted survey—about COVID-19. The result? 

“The single most important action step was to create a daily communication plan,” Roederer says. “Team members were fearful for their health, their jobs, compensation and family members. We addressed all of those issues and concerns on a daily basis.” 

As part of its response, the hospital added COVID-19 updates to its daily safety meetings and provided extra pay to those employees working with COVID-19 patients, he says.

Various Methods

Regularly scheduled employee engagement surveys are mainstays for measuring employee sentiments, but most HR professionals gather employee feedback in a variety of ways. Those include:

Annual surveys. At Amplify Credit Union, a financial cooperative with 202 employees in Austin, Texas, the HR team collects feedback each year through an online survey. 

“At one point, we were using SurveyMonkey and conducting our survey in-house,” says Jenny Voigt, SHRM-CP, senior HR generalist at the credit union. “That worked well enough, but there are always those who will be concerned about the anonymity of an in-house survey, and unless you have some statisticians on your team to help you correlate each question with employee engagement, it’s pretty hard to know what to focus on because each question carries the same weight.” 

Pulse surveys. Unlike annual employee engagement surveys, which tend to have dozens of questions on various subjects, pulse surveys seek input on specific topics by asking five to 10 questions. 

“This year has been an unprecedented challenge, and creating forums to collect employee feedback has been more important than ever,” says Coleman, who notes that Stryker deployed a pulse survey in the spring with a second one planned for the fall. “Pulse surveys allow us to gather employee feedback on a targeted set of questions that address topics most relevant to the current climate.” 

Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources, recommends fielding pulse surveys because they can be created quickly and the response rates tend to be higher than for longer surveys.

Focus groups. Cappelli says focus groups are good for gathering data on complex questions, such as whether to implement a wellness plan. 

At Stryker, Coleman says, “we collect employee feedback using a combination of quantitative surveys, listening sessions, formal and informal focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and ongoing dialogue with leaders.”

Internal social media platforms. Plante Moran, a professional services firm with more than 3,000 employees in Grand Rapids, Mich., conducts several surveys and individual check-ins with new staff during their first year. However, the company mainly relies on its intranet for collecting feedback. 

“We have group chats and threads that staff leaders participate in daily,” says HR director Diana Verdun. “This is a great way to understand how our staff is feeling and dealing with different situations in real time, rather than limiting feedback to certain moments during the year.

“Some may worry, especially in times like this, about asking for feedback and coming off as out of touch or insensitive,” she continues, “but since our continuous feedback model is a part of our culture, it works well in good times and in challenging times.”

‘Don’t ask every question under the sun. This is truly a case where fewer, focused questions give you more than asking every question in the book.' - Jenny Voigt, SHRM-CP

Leader accessibility. Plante Moran also holds town halls and small-group staff meetings. “These smaller sessions encourage an open dialogue,” Verdun says. “We have our team partner system, where leaders in each office are assigned a small group of staff to develop.” 

Direct access to decision-makers can make a big impact. At Tampa General Hospital, a registered nurse’s comment to the CEO, who regularly walks the campus to talk to employees, prompted a significant and beneficial change. The nurse complained that the hospital bedsheets repeatedly came untucked, creating safety issues for the clinicians and patient care techs. IV lines got tangled in the sheets, and patients became uncomfortable. 

“As a result of that situation where the team member expressed her concerns, the entire hospital—1,007 beds—transitioned to fitted bedsheets, beginning in the ICU,” Roederer recalls.

Stay interviews. After United Facilities’ HR team was asked to help slow the constant turnover among forklift drivers, Bliss decided stay interviews might be part of the solution. In the first year of implementation, the company reduced turnover at three locations. The reduction created a significant cost savings, too. The HR department discovered that losing one forklift driver cost the company more than $11,000 and that 43 percent of departing drivers left in the first 90 days. 

The HR team expanded the use of individual stay interviews to all employees to learn the employees’ greatest needs and build individualized stay plans.

“We collect one-on-one feedback after their first week of employment, after the first month of employment, and then on an annual basis,” Bliss says. 

Managers are coached to ask employees, “What can I do to help? What would you like to see more of from me?” Employees can state what they want. Even if they don’t want the manager to do anything differently, they know the supervisor is available and listening to them, she says.

Dick Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention (SHRM, 2018) and CEO of C-Suite Analytics, a consultancy headquartered in Longwood, Fla., says, “The best thing about stay interviews is they lead to the creation of solutions. Many companies think surveys are the same or better, but surveys just give you data. They give the best employees’ input the same weight as someone you will fire tomorrow. Top performers do the work of their job plus four others. You can’t lose your top performers. If you don’t use stay interviews, you won’t know what they think.”

Stay interviews provide United Facilities with a better sense of employees’ thoughts and feelings than generic employee surveys do because the supervisors also get a sense of tone, inflection, passion, body language, and other verbal and nonverbal cues during the in-person meetings, Bliss says. 

“By gaining involvement at the manager level, we get more engagement,” she says. “In one of our locations, several employees asked about advancement opportunities. The conversation afforded us the ability to probe their specific interests and provide additional training to prepare them for the next steps. In January 2020, three people were promoted to new positions based on their qualifications and expressed interest.” 

In a more recent case, a stay interview revealed that one employee’s work schedule was no longer a fit for her, so a shift change was approved.

Some employers might argue that stay interviews are too time-consuming, but Bliss says that’s a false assumption. 

“It’s a time investment,” she concedes. “For some employees, it’s only 10 or 15 minutes. For others, it’s much longer. But when we think about how much time we spend running ads and interviewing to replace an employee who leaves, it’s a no-brainer for us.”


Take a Deeper Dive

Stay interviews are one of the best tools for measuring employee engagement. 

Dick Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention (SHRM, 2018) and CEO of consultancy C-Suite Analytics, recommends asking the following questions:

•  What do you look forward to each day when commuting to work?

•  What are you learning here?

•  Why do you stay here?

•  When is the last time you thought about leaving and what prompted it?

•  What can I do to make working here better for you?

Then, “leaders must be trained to ask key follow-up questions to get deeper answers and to demonstrate they care in order to build trust,” Finnegan says. —K.T.


Focused Efforts

The best employee engagement surveys are precisely targeted. 

“Don’t ask every question under the sun,” Voigt says. “This is truly a case where fewer, focused questions give you more than asking every question in the book.

“When possible, give your survey company the demographics of all the employees invited to participate in the survey, rather than asking demographic questions in the survey itself,” she continues. “This saves time on the part of your team members, and it makes them more comfortable with the process. But it also ensures you have the data you need to be able to see if the issues the company is having are stemming from a particular department, level of tenure or minority group.” 

Voigt recommends using an external company to administer the survey. “Don’t be afraid to budget for and use a consultant to help you work through the results,” she adds.

The more personal the methods for gathering data are, the more likely the data will be to yield insightful comments.

“Some feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with a manager or team partner with whom they have developed a trusting relationship,” Verdun says. “For others, our internal social media platform provides a 24/7 option to share ideas and suggestions. Each company is unique, so how people prefer to provide and gather feedback should be centered around what’s conducive for the business. 

“Keep in mind, surveys are just one tool,” she says. “They may work well, but they aren’t the only method. Open lines of communication are also important.”

It’s critical, as well, to look for ways to take action based on the results.

“Look for actionable items and track those action items,” says United Facilities’ Rogers. “To create a trusting relationship, show you’re actually taking steps based on the feedback.”

In turbulent times like these, employees crave interpersonal communication. HR professionals need to create environments and opportunities for employees to share their desires and difficulties in personalized ways, and then respond to the feedback in a way that makes the employees feel heard. When this happens, the organization’s leaders will build trust, which is the foundation of any successful workplace.  



Avoid These Common Mistakes

The biggest mistake companies make is launching employee engagement surveys and then taking no action to address the results. 

"If companies are just checking a box to say they've done a survey, then they might as well stop wasting everyone's time," says Jenny Voigt, SHRM-CP, senior HR generalist at Amplify Credit Union. "Nothing kills engagement like asking for an opinion and then not acknowledging the response with action."

In a 2018 LeadershipIQ survey, 59 percent of HR executives admitted their organizations took no action or only easy actions based on employee engagement surveys. 

"There may be no quicker way for staff to lose faith in leadership than when they've been asked for feedback but nothing changes," says Diana Verdun, HR director at professional services firm Plante Moran.

Here are some other tips for fielding more-effective surveys: 

Don't ask too many questions. The longer the survey is, the less likely employees will complete it, which means there will be little to no data to analyze. "We've used a number of different tools over the years, some of which were 50 to 70 questions long, which got a little fatiguing," Voigt says. 

According to an OfficeVibe study, 20 percent of people abandon surveys if they take more than seven minutes to complete.

Don't assume a low-scoring area is important to employees. Voigt cautions HR professionals not to get "sucked into focusing on the areas that have the most negative response. Those may or may not be areas that are actually impacting employee engagement, and companies waste a lot of time, effort and money addressing issues that really aren't important to their team members." 

Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Verdun advises HR professionals to take their time coming up with viable response plans. "The desire for immediate action can cause organizations to react instead of having a measured approach to implementing changes," she says. "By taking a measured approach, we can better evaluate feedback, gauging how an issue will affect people, and use continuous communication to let people know we're looking into these matters." —K.T.


Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

Illustration by Yvetta Fedorova