5 Strategies to Combat Employee Engagement Survey Fatigue and Boost Participation Rates

Written by
Kathleen O'Donnell
Kathleen O'Donnell

Our email inboxes at work are pretty full these days–and that’s on a good day. On a bad one, it’s fair to describe them as overflowing and overwhelming. There’s the daily updates to wade through, company news, internal communications, tasks to complete, and so much more.

You know that implementing an employee survey is one of the best ways to measure your employee experience efforts. If you don’t ask, you won’t know!

So when that annual employee engagement survey lands in inboxes across your company, how many of your employees are actually taking the time to give thoughtful, honest answers?

But your survey will only yield results if you get enough employees to respond, and many organizations struggle to get a high participation rate. As a rule of thumb, a 75% participation rate is a good number to aim for, but research firm CustomInsight says that employee survey response rates typically hover around 25%-60%.

What can you do to get most—or all—of your employees to participate in your surveys, without sacrificing quality responses?

Read on to find out!

1. Set up your survey for success

Your strategy to increase your survey response rate begins with setting up your survey for success. Increasing participation rates doesn’t mean you need to compromise the quality of your survey—far from it! You just need to be smart about how you set it up.

Start by focusing your survey only on addressing your most critical business goals. This isn’t the time to ask about everything under the sun—so what’s most important to the success of your organization and the employee experience?

Narrow your focus strategically. (Asking questions that measure employee engagement is always a great idea.)

This is critical because shorter surveys get more responses—the longer your survey is, the more chances your employees have to get pulled away by other work priorities and abandon the whole thing without completing it.

In addition to the decreased time spent answering each question as surveys grew in length, we saw survey abandon rates increase for surveys that took more than 7-8 minutes to complete; with completion rates dropping anywhere from 5% to 20%.
–SurveyMonkey

Need help deciding which questions you should be asking employees in your surveys? Use this guide to creating the best engagement survey.

Stay focused on those key business goals. SHRM says you should treat your employees like your customers when you survey them—respect their time, their survey experience, and focus on what’s most valuable for you and for them.

Another vital area to think about when you’re setting up your survey is anonymity and privacy concerns. Employees won’t feel free to be honest and open if they sense there may be retribution or retaliation. Set up strong privacy controls, and communicate those clearly to employees so they feel safe being honest.

And finally, make sure you’re asking clear questions. Don’t be vague or pack in too much jargon or HR-speak. You’re trying to make it easy for employees to give thoughtful feedback in the middle of a busy workday, so ensure they don’t have to read a question three or four times to understand what it even means. 🤨

2. Analyze who’s asking

For a full range of thoughtful, impactful feedback, you first need an understanding of who’s asking what. Perhaps your sales team has a recurring pulse survey posted in their Slack channel, or your CEO requests written feedback from their executives each quarter.

The reality is, who is sending out your survey has a big influence on the type of feedback you get. For example, it’s likely that HR would send out employee engagement surveys. While answering, a respondent would probably consider:

  • If I write about a certain situation or employee, would it be considered as “escalating to HR?”
  • Am I going over my manager’s head by submitting this feedback?
  • Does HR have context into this situation I’m describing?
  • Can HR actually address my feedback?

The reality is, employees may feel more comfortable giving feedback when they know who will reading it. That doesn’t mean you should just give up, however! If you’re at a larger organization, it might be worth gathering your managers and creating an employee survey strategy. For example, HR can ask the broader employee sentiment questions, like the eNPS or Gallup frameworks, while managers can be tasked with asking team-specific questions. This way, you can continue to gather employee sentiment without overwhelming them with one huge survey.

Plus, once you understand who’s responsible for sending out which surveys, you can prevent survey fatigue by avoiding duplicate questions and prioritizing the really crucial questions.

3. Educate employees

You already know why your employee engagement survey is the key to creating a great employee experience.

But do your employees know that?

Or are you just sending them a link announcing the annual survey is here again, and hoping they complete it?

You’ve probably spent lots of time and effort on hiring the right people, training them well, and ensuring they’re engaged with their work. That means your employees are pretty focused and busy during the workday. They might not have much time to spare for optional activities.

If you don’t articulate why your survey is important for their experience, they’ll probably just see it as another box to tick on their already too-long to-do list.

Your employee engagement survey communications plan should begin before the survey even goes live. Tell employees why you’re sending the survey, whether it’s your first or your hundredth survey.

Make sure you’re communicating why their feedback is important, and what you’ll do with that feedback once it’s collected.

That doesn’t mean you need to commit to taking specific actions ahead of time. But you do need to give employees a sense of why their time spent taking this survey is valuable, for their own employee experience and for the company.

4. Reward responses

This is the part where you throw a pizza party for the department or team with the highest employee engagement score, right? 🍕

While pizza is never a bad idea, rewarding survey responses has to be strategic.

And to be clear, rewarding respondents doesn’t mean bribing or encouraging employees to give your organization high ratings. That’s not helpful to anyone!

Bad: treating the team with the highest employee engagement score to all the pizza they can eat.
Good: treating teams with a survey participation rate over 90% to plentiful pizza.

Your rewards should encourage participation, not results. Why? After all, if a leader is doing a great job engaging employees, shouldn’t they get a reward? But that actually goes against the goals of the survey.

If you’re nudging employees to rate their experience higher than they would without a reward, like pizza for a high rating, you’re not going to get a clear picture of what’s actually going on with employee engagement. You’ll just find out who really likes pizza.

The right way to reward employees

On the other hand, if you’re rewarding employees for participating in the survey, regardless of the results, then you’ll get more honest responses. You can use rewards platforms like Bonusly to thank and recognize employees and departments that deliver high survey response rates, or pizza, or whatever works best for your workplace culture.

Rewarding employees for participating is about more than just a simple swap of prizes for responses. It shows employees that you truly value their insights and feedback in the survey—that their responses are so important to you that you want to put recognition and rewards on the line for them. It’s not just a box to check off.

That’s a powerful message about how much you value their input. And our experience has shown that monetary rewards are much more engaging and get more participation than non-monetary ones–so this might be a time to put your money where your mouth is.

5. Actually take action

This step might be last on the list, but it’s one of the biggest things impacting your survey response rate. Only 22% of employers are actually getting good responses from their engagement surveys, and it all comes down to intent. Are you surveying employees because you’re curious, or “just checking in”? Or are you doing it with a willingness and desire to make changes?

Only 42% of HR execs say their company is completely willing to take action on any survey question. That means most companies are running their engagement surveys a little bit like this:

  • Asking what’s going well, and what’s going wrong
  • Patting themselves on the back for what they do well
  • Shrugging their shoulders at what’s going wrong
  • Doing it all over again next year

While your leaders might not be literally shrugging at bad results—maybe you’ve even set up committees to pour over results and write those results up—it amounts to making your employee engagement survey an experience in disengagement.

If you’re continuously asking employees for their honest feedback about their experience at your company, and they give it, and in return they don’t see any changes happening? That’s super discouraging!

In fact, 93% of Highly Engaged employees believe their company takes their feedback seriously, compared to just 41% of Actively Disengaged employees, according to Bonusly’s 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report.

If you’re asking employees every year how satisfied they are with their compensation, and continually getting feedback that they’re unhappy, and you keep salaries and benefits at the same level, why are you even asking that question in a survey?

The message employees are getting from this annual experience is that your team doesn’t really care about what they say. Asking employees how they would change things implies a commitment to making changes. But are you actually able to commit?

Don’t survey just out of curiosity, or employees will get the message that feedback doesn’t lead to change. And they’ll stop offering feedback at all.

If this last point has gotten you a little (or a lot) worried about doing an employee engagement survey at all, no need to fear! Plenty of leaders are concerned about how to balance employee satisfaction and engagement with company needs—and it doesn’t need to be an either/or situation.

If you receive feedback that you can’t currently take action on, be transparent about it. Your employees are smart—they’ll know when you’re avoiding or skirting around issues, so it’s best to address feedback with honesty. Even saying something like, “I know a lot of you have asked about professional development opportunities and tuition reimbursement, but unfortunately we don’t have the budget for it at this time without compromising our competitive salary rates,” is a definitive, straightforward answer that your employees will appreciate.

In fact, Harvard Business Review has some great suggestions for how to balance the two so both sides are satisfied. Employee engagement is really about autonomy, ownership, and recognition: you don’t need to double salaries or install ping-pong tables on every floor to improve the employee experience.

Takeaways

Setting up an employee engagement survey is great—but ensuring you’ll get lots of high-quality responses is a little more complicated.

By setting up your survey thoughtfully, explaining why you’re asking employees to participate, rewarding them the right way for answering, and taking real action on their feedback, you can increase your survey response rate and get the information you need.

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Originally published on December 10, 2020 → Last updated December 10, 2020

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications specialist, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications. She’s also a full-time traveler who loves spending her time writing in little Greek cafes about life as a digital nomad.

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