What if you held a survey and no one came?

By Deborah Jones
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/18/2001

Our employees feel like they’ve been surveyed to death.”

“Staff response rates to surveys are low.”

“People complain that we’re always assessing the situation, but nothing ever changes.”

Sound familiar? Many organizations have some or all of these concerns about workplace surveys — and it primarily comes down to a lack of planning as to what to do when the results are in.

Delving into the reasons why response rates are low, the biggest factor is usually lack of feedback after the fact. A detailed action plan addresses this issue, allowing an organization to effectively followup on a workplace survey. For illustration purposes, let’s use the example of a needs assessment on organizational health.

The fastest, easiest and seemingly most inexpensive way to meet workplace health promotion needs is to implement a program, without doing the necessary “homework” first. This ignores the cornerstone of a successful program: a thorough needs assessment. An assessment is the basis for any successful strategic plan for workplace health.

If you’ve completed a needs assessment you’re already ahead of at least 50 per cent of Canadian organizations that have health or wellness-related programs in their workplaces. Most large organizations across Canada claim to have health promotion programs in place, but far fewer have done a needs assessment. Those organizations that have seen positive bottom-line results from a wellness initiative didn’t skip to implementation before doing their baseline work.

The three major planning activities for successful implementation of organizational health strategies are:

•assessment;

•development of a strategic organizational health plan; and

•program design.

Only once this is done is it time to implement.

Employee input

A needs assessment, or survey of any kind, is of little value unless there is commitment to share results and make changes. This needs to be the top priority in the action plan, and if individuals are aware that the results will be shared, it can even improve the response rate.

Sharing findings can be done in a variety of ways, such as printing the findings in a staff newsletter, or regular open staff forms where discussions about the results are open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Good communication about what the results mean, which issues can be acted upon, and the reasons why others can’t at the present time also avoids the creation of unrealistic expectations — one of employers’ biggest fears about conducting surveys.

Developing solutions and celebrating strengths

Holding focus groups with small groups of staff will provide more input into survey results, as well as giving people an opportunity to share views as to why the results look the way they do, which is invaluable information in the planning stage. Reports on strengths and challenges in organizational culture can be much more focused and meaningful with this additional information, and can be used to define strategy and program goals.

For this type of forum, it is often helpful to bring in a facilitator who understands culture change, but is from outside the culture being assessed. If, for example, one of the issues identified was work-life conflict, the cultural norms around this issue and how they may be reinforcing the conflict can be discussed, identified and addressed. Is staying late a norm? Are people given a “hard time” if they go home on time? Do leaders reinforce this culture by coming in on weekends and staying late themselves? Are people rewarded (directly or indirectly) for this behaviour?

These discussions can also address the company’s values and assist in determining how the behaviours that are supported reinforce these values.

Gap analysis

Another integral aspect for the research group or workplace health team that takes ownership of the survey response is addressing the needs “analysis” — taking the “where we are” results and comparing them to the “where we want to be” goals. In culture surveys, this means comparing current norms to desired norms.

Strategic organizational plan

Now that needs have been identified, analysed, shared and discussed, the healthy workplace team can draft a strategic action plan for change, ideally tied into the overall business goals and objectives of the organization.

Some companies may even develop a “charter” or code of ethics as a part of this plan, outlining acceptable behaviour around particular issues. For example, if one of the cultural issues identified is long working hours, suggestions for a new company code might include scheduling meetings only during core hours, banning breakfast meetings, and taking your full holiday entitlement.

Other organizations have added interactive workshops on culture change into their strategic plans. For example, one company that identified a lack of community and openness in their organization provided workshops where the current and desired norms around community and openness were presented and discussed, behaviours and actions to close this gap were strategized and individuals had a chance to practice these new behaviours.

Another commonly identified issue is absenteeism, which is also a cultural problem. A major American corporation reported that employees hired into departments with low absenteeism records tended to keep their own sick days down, and those hired into departments with higher rates of absenteeism tended to take more days off.

Understanding this made it clear that absenteeism in this company was a matter of attendance norms. In cases such as these, a strategic approach to developing a more attendance-oriented culture makes sense.

The organizational health plan could include any or all of the following strategies around attendance:

•leadership commitment to attendance goals;

•leadership modeling of this behaviour;

•recognition and compensation systems that encourage good attendance;

•organizational policies and procedures;

•inquiries about past attendance during recruitment and selection of new staff;

•establishing attendance norms during employee orientation and education; and

•incorporating attendance goals into performance appraisal systems.

Reassess and reinforce

One more essential piece of the puzzle includes putting a mechanism in place to ensure that changes made as a result of your assessment and subsequent plan are reinforced and that a reassessment of goals is conducted occasionally.

Include a strategy for reassessment and reinforcement of new norms or behaviours as a part of the timeline in your strategic plan.

A rule of thumb is to review your strategic plan at minimum on a yearly basis. Are the goals and timelines that have been set realistic? Have evaluation and tracking measures been put into place? What positive changes have been seen as a result of this plan? Have these changes been communicated to the employee groups being affected by the change? How can the desired norms be further reinforced? It may be helpful to develop a series of questions such as this prior to the evaluation phase, and discuss each of them carefully with the team upon reaching this stage.

Again, if the results of the cultural changes, evaluations and tracking are shared with staff and positive trends are seen, they will be more apt to fill out further surveys, as the reality will be that in this organization, they are listened to, and things do change.

Deborah Jones is president of Well-Advised Consulting Incorporated, a company that provides consulting expertise on strategic planning for organizational health. She also chairs the annual Health, Work & Wellness Conference, She can be reached at (604) 739-7873 or deb@well-advised.ca.

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