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5 min read

When someone says the words “staff survey,” do you rub your hands together in excitement, or do feel your body deflate in dread? 

Chances are, if you’ve had to endure the cycle of poorly executed staff surveys in the past, you respond with the latter. While surveys can be a useful way of measuring employee engagement and identifying what your business can do to improve it, there are many mistakes that turn the endeavour into a vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations that deflate everyone involved.

Too often people think:

We’re going to run a survey and we’ve got one shot at it so let’s throw in every question about employee engagement and culture that we can think of, and we’ll analyse it all and we’ll have a great time in the data wading around in all the fun that offers.

Meanwhile, while the HR or leadership team are cutting that data across every metric they can think of, the employees who’ve spent a good deal of their time giving detailed feedback are left wondering if their responses have disappeared into an administrative black hole.

The employee survey questions may have touched a nerve or reminded them about an issue that needs addressing, but sometimes it’s up to 6 months before they see any results, or worse, they never actually see results and the next thing they hear about surveys is when it’s time to complete the next one.

Too often, the energy and focus is very much on the “measuring” and “reporting” on employee engagement, and not a lot on the “doing” anything to move the needle or the “responding” to the issues raised.

It’s time to take a different approach to staff surveys

I don’t want to throw the idea of the annual staff survey out completely — it still has some merit. But on its own, it’s often not enough to provide reliable, actionable insights. What most organisations need is an indicator between these annual surveys to determine if they’re making progress and if dialogue is happening where it needs to. 

Surveying staff doesn’t have to be a gargantuan project or impossible task. The idea is to ask more targeted questions to specific people within the business, more frequently. 

1. Start with “why”

If you’re so worried about asking the wrong questions or offending people by leaving some questions out that you end up with a survey that takes employees half their day to complete, then you haven’t started in the right place. When building a survey, we recommend designing it so it takes an employee no longer than 10-15 minutes to complete.

Reflect on where the existing gaps are in your business and what you’re trying to achieve by getting insight from your people’s experience at work. More importantly, ask yourself what you can do with the information once you have it, using the capabilities and resources you have — not what you wish you had.


Remember, relevance is key. Focusing on specific goals will determine what you’re going to ask people, and what specific group or what area of the business you’re interested in and able to work with. This means you won’t get to ask every question, and that the surveys you release over the course of a year might look different from business unit to business unit. That’s perfectly ok. If you genuinely want to do the right thing by people, you should make sure you’re asking relevant questions and providing relevant actions.

Learn more about how employee surveys can shape your engagement journey »

2. Decide on the type of information you are trying to glean

It’s good to consider what type of information you want employees to provide, and what data you’ll be able to do something with. Not all survey questions are equal, which is where tools like the survey selector the team at Reward Gateway and I worked together on come in handy. It helps you determine what you want to achieve with a survey, and creates an editable survey template with appropriate questions. This might include a focused survey or a mix of the following:

  • Personal (internal) vs observational (external) information

Certain questions ask about how a person experiences the workplace, versus what they observe in others or around them. 

  • Giving people a voice or an opportunity to explain - qualitative information

Open text answers contain detail - but you need to be prepared to respond to both the good and bad stories that you receive. 

  • Data/metrics - quantitative information

These findings can bolster your understanding about the business or provide insight that allows you challenge existing perceptions.

  • Open dialogue / feedback

These types of questions are designed to encourage transparency and are best used with coaching. 

best staff survey questions

3. Focus on asking the questions that matter to your people

When it comes to releasing targeted staff surveys that measure the pulse of an organisation, asking the difficult questions can be challenging but failing to do so makes the entire exercise a waste of time. There’s no use focusing the questions on a topic like pay and benefits or wellbeing if you know your employees are concerned about leadership and trust.

If we’re not asking them about it, then they can’t give feedback on it.

Only you know the state of play in your business at the moment; listening to even a few stories of employees’ experience will allow your to glean some understanding of the gaps or resistance points.

If you’re unsure of where to begin, the general engagement survey template in the Survey Selector taps into all elements on the Engagement Bridge™. Using this methodology can identify what you need to work on, and from there do a deeper dive into specific elements of employee engagement your business can make progress in.

Find the best survey questions with our Survey Selector tool.

The point of a survey is to help you understand these at a deeper level and start a conversation where it is needed. If the results aren’t what you expect, that’s even more reason to engage in further dialogue.

The important thing is to keep the dialogue going, to start a cycle of reporting the results, taking action based on the information you’ve received, and to recognise progress as it happens. The more you do this, the further you take your organisation on on the employee engagement journey.

Surveying staff is just one step in that process, and what matters most is what you do with those insights and how you use them to build a better place to work. We’ll explore more of this in upcoming posts.

Joe Hart

Joe Hart is an organisational psychologist and executive coach. He works with individuals, teams and organisations to help them tap into what makes them tick. This includes running one-on-one coaching, Psychometric assessments, workshops or organisation-wide diagnostics that help people engage in the conversations that create change.

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