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How To Pick The Right Employee Survey Questions in 2021: The PeopleMetrics EX14 Model

2020 changed the way we work forever. Whether your workforce is on the front lines, completely remote, or a combination of both, it's never been more critical to measure and understand the employee experience. Employee survey questions during COVID-19 need to address the new challenges we're facing, while also staying true to employee survey best practices.

In this session, we'll walk you through The PeopleMetrics EX14 Model - our employee survey questions template for measuring employee experience in the modern age. This model captures the data you need to truly understand and improve the employee experience across industries and work environments. 


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Sean McDade: ...while some of the questions you'll see are definitely newer-type questions, the fundamental tenets of a great employee experience are pretty much what it always was...

[GRAPHIC WITH MUSIC: "PeopleMetrics LIVE! Employee Experience"]

Madeline Good: Hi everyone, welcome to PeopleMetrics LIVE! Today, we're talking about how to pick the right employee survey questions to capture the data you need to truly understand and improve the employee experience at your organization. If you've got any questions for our team, please drop them in the comments below and we'll be sure to answer them. So Sean, we know that work looks a lot different than it did at the beginning of 2020. What has changed about employee experience in the last year?

Sean: Well, tactically things have changed for some workers in terms of where they may be working and how they're interacting with their
colleagues and customers, but fundamentally, nothing's changed.
The tenets of a great employee experience in 2021 - February now we're in - are the same as they were in February 2020 and February 2015 and before... Maybe some of your tactics definitely are going to have to change. And we're looking forward to getting into that today with this PeopleMetrics Live!

Madeline: That's really interesting. So even though everything has kind of been turned upside-down since March of last year, you're saying that what matters to employees has always been the same -  even looking back 10, 15 years... The fundamental parts of a great experience are the same even if the ways you deliver that experience have changed.

Sean: For sure. Technology is definitely something that's become more and more of an enabler of a good employee experience,
but it doesn't substitute, for example, for a great conversation with the person you report into helping you solve a problem, or helping you understand what your career path is, or helping you understand how your work fits into the bigger picture of the organization. Those things haven't changed, and we're going to go through what we think are the five pillars of a great employee experience now. And I'd argue they're pretty similar to what they've always been. Although the questions that you may ask
within each pillar are certainly a little different than they were, say, 10, 20 years ago. Kirk, anything you want to add to that? You've done this work for a long time.

Kirk Lohbauer: For sure, yeah. Some folks might be surprised to hear that the fundamentals haven't changed at all, even though so much has changed. But really in my work with these organizations, what you're going to find when you're measuring a specific company's employee experience is that each company is different - has its own weak points and its own strengths and has its own changes that are going on at any point in time. 2021 there have been a lot of changes, but the fact is those changes are still to how are we delivering on the fundamentals of the employee experience and that's what's been the same over time.

Sean: Let's get to the slides. We sometimes we have slides here,  sometimes we don't. We did a study last year across the United States with... I think it was over a thousand U.S. full-time employees across a variety of industries... to understand and update our model of employee experience. And while some of the questions you'll see in it are definitely newer-type questions,
the fundamental tenets of a great employee experience are pretty much what it always was. And we're going to go through all of those today and I'm looking forward to it.

Madeline: Alright here we go.


Sean: So we call this The Hierarchy of Needs. So this is kind of like a Maslow model, where fundamental needs need to be fulfilled before other needs become even relevant. So in the Maslow model, it was like Safety: if you're not basically feeling safe, you're not as concerned with being Self-Actualized, which is the highest order need in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. So here, there are certain employee needs that need to be taken care of before ones that are what we would call "higher order" needs get even considered. And the first one is always Resources. And the quote that I like to attach to that from an employee is: "I feel valued." So basically it means, "I'm getting fair return in terms of pay for what I'm expending in terms of energy, effort and all of that," and "I'm able to utilize tools" - and in this case, we found that "cutting edge tools and tech" are something that now is really important,  where before it was just maybe "resources or tools to do my job..." Now, today's worker definitely appreciates having the most modern... it doesn't have to be crazy stuff, but it's just things that most people have to do their job, like a Zoom account for certain jobs, or Slack or Teams if that's the way you communicate. You know, a computer that basically turns on quickly... Right? Like we're not talking about for most employees something out there, but it is definitely the first level of any good employee experience.

Madeline: On the other side, if you're not looking at tech, this can apply to - especially in COVID times - things like PPE or other kinds of equipment that's necessary in a frontline kind of position to do your job and feel safe doing it.

Kirk: Sean, this is kind of around the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, which is building up towards Self-Actualization - where of course, you have Safety as that base. Here, what we're building up towards is a Satisfied Employee or an Engaged Employee where, similar to Safety, what we're getting with Resources is that if you lack the resources to do your job, it doesn't matter the rest of it.  You are going to be constantly frustrated and constantly hitting roadblocks in what you do, and there's no way to build up to the rest of the pyramid to feel engaged. And so it does form that foundation and this is, of course, very important because employee engagement leads to so many things of retention, effort, customer satisfaction... So you need to make sure you're hitting every part of the pyramid.

Sean: So the bottom line on this is: resources need to be there and folks need to feel valued enough where they're receiving what they need to do their job and getting a fair return for it. And "Ex1" and "Ex2" - those are the questions in our model. So that's "Employee Experience Question One," and "Employee Experience Question Two" in our model. We ask these on a five-point agreement scale and it's very simple and quick to fill this out.


Sean: Alright, the next part of the pyramid is... once folks feel valued, then it's about "Do I really fit in here?" You know, "is the culture something that's a culture fit for me?" And here are some really specific questions that we find really matter to today's employee. This diversity question is becoming more and more important. People want to work the with people in diverse environments. Not just diversity in terms of demographic diversity, but diversity in terms of ability to think differently, to have a different opinion, to approach a problem differently. If that diversity question goes around a lot of different items. That one is a more modern or more recent question that we saw pop that we certainly didn't see pop several years ago, but it still fits into, we think, the culture bucket. People need to feel like their ideas and opinions are heard and valued. That's a big part
of fitting in. And fun - that's another more modern one, although we've had that one for a while in our model. But we find that workplaces that employees feel like are fun tend to be ones that they stick around a lot longer. They tend to exhibit, as Kirk was saying, discretionary effort and just want to be there, and that's
more and more the case. In remote environments, that's becoming challenging, and we can talk a little bit about that
in a second - like how do you make a remote work environment fun? And then finally, aligning with the company values. So when folks feel like they've aligned with the values of the company, they're feeling much better about the company and they feel like they fit into the culture. So "I fit in here," we think, is a really important next step to getting towards what Kirk was saying, is an engaged, committed employee who is exhibiting discretionary effort.

Kirk: Yeah, and as we're working up through the pyramid here, you can certainly see how it makes sense, where, after you have the basic tools to do your job and you don't have any
frustrations as far as, "I don't have the resources I need," from there, you're thinking, "but do I actually enjoy it?" You know, "is that interaction there for me?" This is certainly key and certainly in the past, you might see Culture coming up - especially if there is an acquisition - you know, you're merging with another company. And there's a lot of things that Culture touches on, but exactly as Sean was saying, these four questions are what we find with employees today are top of mind across the experience - whether you're dealing with a remote workplace, acquisition, various other things... These are the bedrocks of a culture that you want to build.

Sean: Can I geek out just for a second here? I want to make sure people understand. So we started with like 75 questions on the study that we did across the whole U.S. and we did a factor analysis and we saw that these questions fit into these groups and then we named them these things. So we named it "Culture" after we saw that these four questions sort of grouped together within the culture bucket. So it's kind of a technical term, but there may be a couple people who are interested in how we came up with these things, and that's how we did it and that is an important thing to note.

Kirk: We did start with 75 questions here, and it's good to pare down. I think historically, when you come to employee surveys, they can be very very long, and certainly my experience with these projects is that you're not going to act on all of those items. The fact is if you're not understanding culture with these four
questions and some open-ends, then you're not going to understand it with 15. So if you want to build an effective program, make sure it is targeted and something you can work with.

Sean: Right. Part of the employee experience is the experience they have answering your questions. So if that experience is poor... if you're asking them 100-150 questions and that's taking them 20 minutes or a half hour, that's part of their employee experience. So the fewer questions, the better. We think that these work, but most of our clients use these as a starting point and then add a couple, or flip a few... but we have benchmarks on all these, which is why a lot of companies will keep most of them - because they want to compare where they are versus other companies. But I think the key message is like Kirk said: make it short. An employee survey that you're asking about the experience shouldn't be more than 10 minutes. And ideally it's more like 5 to 7 minutes.

Madeline: That's a great point - that the survey taking experience is part of the experience, and I think keeping it short also keeps in mind that, like Kirk said, the end goal is to actually act on the results of the survey. So if you're overwhelmed with answers to 100 questions or something like that, that might not be something that's
actually actionable for you to make a difference in how you're delivering your employee experience.

Sean: It's noteworthy that we're talking about this here on the Culture piece, because Ex6 talks about aligning with the company values. Something you often find with company values is if they're too long, employees aren't going to even know how to align with them. And so similarly, within how you're communicating and trying to build your experience within your company, don't make it too excessive and difficult for your employees. That goes from the core values you express, and then down even to the survey when you're asking them for feedback. That's such a good point, and both of you know this is one of my pet peeves. You know, at PeopleMetrics, we went down to three values because what I found is - people can't really remember more than three or four values. Even the great Zappos - their company values was something that was celebrated there, and they had so many of them. You know, most people at Zappos apparently could only remember three or four of them. So my recommendation across the board, and I know that this isn't part of this PeopleMetrics LIVE!, is everybody should have company values, but my recommendation would be to have no more than four of them, because that way it's just easy for people to understand, remember, and then most importantly live those values.


Sean: Alright. After the employee feels valued and they fit in, the key thing starts becoming, "Am I growing at the company?" So I can fit in, but it doesn't mean that it's the right place for me and my career and I can grow. So there's a couple questions that fit into this Growth bucket. One is my manager, and that's an important part of an engaged employee - and a lot of research has shown that employees don't necessarily leave companies, they leave managers, right? So "my manager provides opportunities for me to learn and grow." And then the feedback process at the organization, which is usually the manager, "helps me improve," right? So they have a career path and then they get constant feedback or regular feedback that helps them in their role. And this is one, Kirk, you know, talk about things that we've seen over the years - this isn't new - this is something we've been asking for 20 years.

Kirk: Basically, yeah. Absolutely. And it's one where often companies can trip up - this is one of those hurdles to clear of... it's easy to understand at a company, "I need to give you resources," and sometimes your culture can sprout organically, but to actually make sure your employees understand, "here's how you can grow, here's how we value you," that takes effort, and can be a frustration that will commonly lead to employees leaving a company. And just one last thing I would note here is that "growth" doesn't necessarily need to mean "career." It should mean, "I, in my day-to-day, feel that I am growing, feel that I am
learning. Even if it's not necessarily in a title or position, but that I don't get a sense of stagnancy, I get a sense of growth," which can be the case in absolutely any position, whether it has some growing career path or not.


Sean: This is an oldie but a goodie: Purpose, meaning "my work matters," is the pillar for great employee experiences and engaged employees. So the sense of purpose in my work, I'd say
for every study we do, this is probably the number one driver of employee experience and engagement. In like eight out of ten, right, purpose from the work... no matter what, this is not going away. And it doesn't matter what role you have, whether it's front office, back office, front stage, backstage... whatever role you have, feeling like your work means something is a huge huge thing. And then of course, being empowered to get work done, right? That's, "I feel like I have the decision-making authority to make decisions to get my work done the way I see fit," right? These two questions are, like I said, oldies but goodies. I think we've been asking both of these, Kirk, probably since you started at the company, and actually even before that.

Kirk: Yeah, precisely. And to your point, it's always one of those
top drivers, and another one where it can be difficult... it requires conscious thought and effort from you, which is why, to our mind, the measurement of it is so important. Because it can be hard to
just imagine, "are we as a company giving purpose to all of our employees?" That's not something you would necessarily just
be able to anecdotally understand. You need to make sure, since it is a driver, since it is a bit of a higher-level need, that you're
measuring it and acting on it.

Madeline: I think it's worth noting too that you get to purpose only by having the levels of this pyramid that are below it. I'm thinking of when I see, "I get a sense of purpose from my work,"
that means I need to understand and be able to easily live into what the company's values are. Or "feeling empowered to get things done" has something to do with your manager believing in you and telling you that they believe in you to do that work and being aligned with the mission. So these things certainly are growing on each other.


Sean: ...and our final level of the pyramid is feeling an emotional connection. We also talk about this in customer experience. Creating an emotional connection with your customer creates really good outcomes, and it's the same with employee. Pride is an emotional connection that an employee has with an employer within a company, and it really fits into a bunch of different areas. Senior leadership is huge. They must trust them to make the right decisions - another question, Kirk, that we've always had that has always been a key driver of employee engagement. But we also are starting to see things like reputation in the industry being important, and being known for producing products that are really high quality. These are sort of newer items, but they make a lot of sense. And finally, that the company is good to its customers. Like, you don't want to go to... when we used to be able to go to cocktail parties before COVID... maybe it's Zoom parties or whatever people do these days, right? You want to go to a Zoom party where if people know your company, they know it in a way that's a positive thing rather than something that's known for a negative kind of customer experience or reputation in the industry. So our our model is: if people feel valued and they fit in and they feel like they can grow and that their work matters, then they're proud to be part of the company and then they're very likely to be an engaged, committed employee who would display discretionary effort - which means they go typically above and beyond what's typically needed within the role. And when you have lots of engaged and committed employees, you tend to have really good customer experiences, which ultimately then lead to very very good financial things, right? Like customer loyalty, increasing the number of products customers buy... You
also will reduce employee attrition. It's just easier to recruit good people when you have a lot of good committed people with you. It just all sort of makes sense.

Kirk: I think the fact of it being on top is very important, right? It's that highest need and it is another one of those where it's hard to express, and it takes conscious building to get there, and it does, as you say, often tie to the customer experience, to your reputation in the industry... That is very important, and I think just the way the whole pyramid really aligns to delivery in a way of, "do I have the resources to deliver and be proud of the work, do I enjoy that work, do I have the path to grow and better deliver on that work I do, and have a sense that there's a purpose to what we're delivering and I'm proud to be a part of that delivery?" That is on a parallel path with customer experience in a way that you can see why delivering a good employee experience delivers a positive customer experience - because they are so aligned in what employees want.

Sean: Madeline, I know somebody's going to look at this model and say, "well wait a minute, what about the different generations of employees? Don't they want different things?" Somebody might say that, right?

Madeline: Yep.

Sean: And we wondered that too. We found that these are important across generations, but we did find unique questions in each one of these pillars that are specific to the four major generations.

Madeline: Thank you guys for walking us through this pyramid. I certainly have a better understanding of how these build on each other and how important it is for you to have a proud employee workforce that is advocating for your company - both to other talent and to your customers as well. So I've got one question here before we close out, which is: "How do you actually get
employees comfortable with answering employee experience surveys?"

Kirk: That ties a lot to that culture piece, but we find an aspect of
getting employees to respond to fill out an employee survey is
making them comfortable. A lot of that comes down to, "do I feel that I can be honest without a sense of reprisal?" And that comes down to, "I have to make this survey anonymous and make it clear that we really mean it - that you can be totally candid in what you
say and it will be held anonymous," which is often where we find
being a third party administering those surveys helps. Because we communicate to employees, "this is a totally anonymous survey. Your responses go to us and at no point will you be identified to your employer," and that really helps folks choose to respond, and then open up and provide honest responses.

Sean: Right, and that anonymity fits into both... obviously we wouldn't share any individual response with anyone, but also in the reporting, there's reporting safeguards in our software platform that only allow a certain number of open-ends to be
viewed within a category, because once you get into low numbers, even if it isn't one... if it's multiple people, you can still maybe figure out who said what. So we group those at higher orders. We don't show less than a certain number within a given report. So it's more complicated and involved than it sounds, but it's really important to make sure that that trust is there, as you said.

Madeline: Definitely. Especially if you want folks to be filling these out over time, multiple times, and engaging with those surveys, not just a one-off. Well, it looks like we're right at time, guys. Thank you both for sharing your time and expertise with us today. This was an awesome conversation about how to pick those correct employee survey questions.


Madeline: I'm just going to show our questions here underneath each of these sections. Of course, if you're interested in learning more about this, you can certainly reach out to us.

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Posted on 02-04-2021