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We’ve seen a digital revolution in recent years, but what impact has that had on employee research so far? JB Aloy, head of employee research at Ipsos MORI, discusses the current picture and why we should be cautious about applying some of the latest digital developments.

It’s almost become a cliché to say that barely any aspect of life remains untouched by the incredible speed of development in technology. Businesses have revolutionised how they are researching the needs of their customers, but can the same be said for those of their employees?

Staff now have a number of channels on which to voice their opinions, from mainstream social media to internal collaboration platforms and enterprise social networks. Mining these as sources of staff intelligence and creating real-time feedback loops is often described by the industry as the future of engagement measurement and a replacement for the traditional all-staff survey. Wearable technology could be a game changer in this field, allowing passive measurement of staff behaviour. The thinking is that surely staff should always be in a position to share feedback, anytime and anywhere, just like customers do. However, what is as yet unclear is how far along this path employers would be happy to tread, and where exactly is the value in using new tech as a supplement or replacement for traditional employee research.

A vision of the future

In his novel, The Circle, published in 2013, Dave Eggers describes a typical digital workday in a fictional digital company where staff performance is partly assessed on social media contributions, where dozens of surveys are to be completed while dealing with customer requests and volunteering to constantly wear a camera puts staff members on the fast track to promotion. Employee rankings are based on social influence; posting, networking, petitioning, liking and commenting are turned into standard job requirements. As you would expect, all online interactions are monitored and analysed by the company. The definition of employee engagement includes being switched on, day and night, to keep up with news feeds and corporate events.

Even though the technology is now available, workplace digitalisation doesn’t quite mirror Eggers’ imagination. Augmented reality in internal communications doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for most companies in the short term. And perhaps that’s only right, given most organisations and their staff would probably consider this intrusive and counterproductive.

New survey practices

That’s not to say employee research hasn’t moved with the times. Formats have evolved to factor in digital usage – as well as the decline in attention spans. Device neutral surveys, compatible with smartphones, tablets and desktops, are being conducted using shorter, more focused questionnaires. Quicker turnaround pulse surveys are available to inform HR and business decisions and to optimise change management. Quantitative research can be complemented with online focus groups or bulletin boards. In addition, research deliverables have become more visual. Engagement survey results are often communicated internally via infographics, and story-telling techniques are recommended to get messages across.

Analytics have significantly improved as well – this applies to text analytics capabilities in particular. Very large volumes of comments in multiple languages can now be analysed much more effectively. Most importantly, managers can be better supported in their action-planning process. Access to tailored outputs like online dashboards including trends and benchmarks, tutorial videos and communications guidelines is enabling real ownership of the employee engagement programme.

Evolution not revolution

So far the digital impact on employee research practices has not been entirely transformational; and while that would indicate there’s potential for growth, there are a number of specific challenges for communicators and management to overcome:

  • The sensitive nature of employee research should never be underestimated. There are major anonymity and security considerations when conducting staff surveys, and for good reason. Many employees would not express any negative opinions without strict confidentiality guarantees. Plus, companies want data to be both securely stored and managed in compliance with privacy laws.
  • The insights from unstructured information mining are entirely different to that from a staff survey which looks for specific responses on key themes. For example, employees are unlikely to post comments about their lack of understanding of the new corporate strategy on an open social forum, but this is the kind of information management will want to know.
  • The reliability of data relies on the relevance of both the questionnaire and the sampling approach. If you don’t ask the right questions, in the right way, to the right audience, no amount of analysis will be able to provide the information needed to meet the research objectives.
  • Survey fatigue is a common phenomenon. Staff need to see the actual impact of providing input on a regular basis. Otherwise, participation rates logically drop over time.
  • Employee engagement must be clearly distinguished from employee mood. Employees can be “happy” because they are about to go on holiday or even to hand over their resignation letter. Happiness should not be confused with being “engaged”.
  • Finally, access to the internet at work is still far from being generalised. Although 76% of UK employees say they are “familiar with digital technology”, less than 10% indicate that a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy is in place in their company (based on the 2015 Edenred-Ipsos Barometer about Employee Well-being and Motivation in Europe). The days of paper questionnaires are not gone for a number of categories of staff.

Data integration

The opportunity for communicators is to find the right combination of both old world and new world techniques. If you decide to invest precious budget in a mobile app to monitor staff sentiment, you have to ensure the insight from it is valuable and has a practical business application – and that you stay on the right side of acceptability for your staff.

All leading tech companies still conduct yearly engagement surveys, so there must undoubtedly be strategic benefits to it. The key success factor is the full integration of data coming from an increasing number of sources. The recommended first step is always to get the most out of all existing information by further integrating HR metrics, prospective, current and past employee data as well as customer research. Only a few organisations have reached that level of sophistication to date, leaving room for improvement for the vast majority of businesses and their research suppliers.

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