Employee surveys can provide some useful information about employee attitudes and aptitudes but are a poor substitute for engaging face to face with people. For one thing, not everyone believes that employee surveys are anonymous. Unless people are so dissatisfied they are ready to run the risk of repercussions they probably won’t be totally truthful, at least not in writing.
This means that companies that conduct employee surveys may get plenty of innocuous feedback on what kind of soft drinks people would prefer at the next company meeting and maybe even the odd toned down criticism or suggestion. Surveys may also be a useful tool for analyzing general skills or preferred types of compensation or benefits by demographic group. However, they probably won't result in full disclosure about poor management practices, inefficient processes or slacking coworkers.
Talent management is a human problem first and a software problem second. A company of any size generally needs some sort of technical solution to support performance and compensation processes and employee surveys may be part of a comprehensive talent management solution landscape. But regardless of company size, also important is the good old-fashioned, non-technical art of conversation.
It’s only natural: people will share more with another person who is really interested and listening than with an online survey tool. And potentially, it’s the information that people hesitate to document in a survey that may be used against them that you really want to know.
Another point to consider is that people who are not in the direct communication path of decision makers may have great ideas worth tapping into. A case study that demonstrates this point was recently presented by the editors of HR Executive Online, in which a company invited employees to form teams and come up with a 10-minute, three-slide presentation for a new product idea and its marketability. Two finalist teams were chosen and given six months to prototype their ideas with paid time off from their regular work. Today, one of the products stands an 80% chance of going into full production, while the other holds a 50% chance.
Not a bad result just for listening to people who don’t normally get a chance to share their thoughts and ideas with executives.
Some people may prefer the possibly anonymous, in-your-own-time format of online surveys. And there may be some generational differences in preferred approach. But generally speaking, companies that want to connect with people and create a team culture won’t get very far without talking with people.