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Employee surveys must be anonymous. Right?

by Nils Reisen

When we first started to develop Pulse, we took it as a given that anonymity is the sacred cow of employee surveys. Not only is it strongly emphasized by users and providers, but it’s also ensured in almost all cases. The argument goes something like this: Employees will only be open and honest if they don’t fear the negative consequences for speaking their mind. Anonymity eliminates this fear.

Sounds logical? We thought so, too. Yet we quickly noticed that anonymity in employee surveys not only raise some very fundamental questions; it also creates more problems than it solves.

WikiLeaks or Wikipedia?

The basic tenor of employee surveys reminded us of WikiLeaks. A platform to uncover unethical behaviour, where the whistleblowers have to remain anonymous to avoid ending up in jail. Is an employee survey the right place for such escalations? Maybe in some cases it might be necessary, but these form the minority of the day-to-day problems that companies typically struggle with. Are we prepared to accept a climate of distrust and fear just to cater for these rare cases? And should they not be addressed by other means?

We believed that employee surveys should be much more like Wikipedia. An open platform where everyone can contribute their knowledge and experience so that we can learn from each other and make progress together. Wouldn’t that be much more desirable than blind esteem of the sacred cow? So we took a closer look.

Anonymous surveys are like a witch hunt

When we delved into the literature on anonymous feedback (e.g. this article in the Harvard Business Review), we quickly found out that we’re not the only ones to question this approach. We discovered some fundamental disadvantages associated with anonymous employee surveys. Such as:

  • “Kill the messenger”: with an anonymous survey, the company implicitly communicates that it is dangerous to openly speak your mind and the feedback givers must therefore be protected (WikiLeaks)
  • “Witch hunt”: crude attempts are to try to identify the authors of negative comments. Which often results in other team members being held responsible for statements they never made.
  • Let off steam: anonymity encourages people to vent their frustration and to exaggerate, which in our experience, rarely forms the basis for practical improvements.

These are pretty valid points, aren’t they? So what about open feedback?

  • A catalyst for constructive feedback: if I know that others can see my feedback, I will proceed more thoughtfully. How should I formulate it so that it is as valuable as possible for the recipients? (By the way, you can find tips for giving and receiving constructive feedback here).
  • A basis for discussions: only transparent feedback fosters constructive conversations and thus ultimately leads to concrete improvements.
  • Equal rights for all: employees and managers can view each other’s feedback. This prevents potential company imbalances, created by groups using the control of information to gain more influence.



Change needs a constructive dialogue

This made it clear to us: anonymity is not the solution. The sacred cow was in danger, but we didn’t want to slaughter her yet. With Pulse, we wanted to create an employee survey where feedback is not merely collected, but it becomes the basis for meaningful improvements, for all the employees. For that to happen, the responses must be understood in detail: the reasons and the respective context must be apparent.

Who other than the teams themselves are best able to evaluate the feedback in context, identify the causes and implement meaningful improvements? For practical improvements to happen, the feedback must thus be available to everyone in the company – in a format that allows further discussion.

Not everything must be transparent for improvements to occur

It was important to us that teams throughout the company could learn from each other. However, in this case, what is most relevant is what was said and not who said it. Therefore, the comments of colleagues from other teams can still be displayed anonymously. We didn’t want to go for full transparency with the numerical results either. For the discussion, it is the overall situation in the team that is relevant and not individual rating. Therefore it’s sufficient that only the team scores are shown and not individual ratings.

These insights led us to a simple principle: To my team members, my comments are shown with my name, to everyone else I am anonymous. Ratings are only displayed in the form of team scores. So we didn’t have to slaughter the sacred cow just yet, maybe just restrict its movement a little. We now had a plan, and the time had come to implement it.

Arguments are good, concrete experiences better

Not surprisingly, management, HR and employee representatives had some reservations about the move away from anonymity. The arguments above were useful for the discussion, but we lacked evidence that our ideas would work. “It’s not a problem for me, but it probably won’t work for the others” we often heard. The “others” were different depending on whom we talked to (e.g. call centre or production staff).

Only one thing helped: trying it out. True to our background in Design Thinking methods, we went through the entire process in a series of pilot tests with a total of 17 teams, including extensive personal debriefing sessions at the end. This was very helpful for the concrete design of the tool and methods and led us to one critical conclusion: it works.

Most employees welcomed the new transparency with “Finally!”

By now, we had grown quite fond of the whole transparency idea, but it still came as a surprise to us how positively our colleagues received the new approach. We were preaching to the choir. “Finally!” was often heard from our beaming colleagues and not, as feared, “Without me!”.

However, the feedback from over a hundred employees did not entirely convince all of our stakeholders. We tested the wrong teams, they said and therefore they gave us new, “difficult” teams, 18 in total. The criteria for nominating these additional colleagues were unclear. Not surprisingly, it also worked with the “difficult” teams.

Now everyone was on board, and the first survey started in October 2016. As expected, it went down very well and matched our experiences from the pilot test. To date, we have been using Pulse within multiple companies for a good three years. Our conclusion?

Employees are good with open feedback

The implementation of Pulse at our customers’ companies always goes down without problems. Of course, it is crucial to provide comprehensive information about why you have chosen the path of transparency and what you would like to achieve. But in the end, everyone can handle it pretty well.

And the sacred cow? It has given way to a constructive feedback culture. We have observed an interesting trend: over time, not only did the response rate of the surveys go up, but more and more employees wrote more, longer and increasingly critical comments. At the same time, the feedback culture in the company was continuously better rated. Details on this will soon be available in another article.

Do you have feedback or questions about this article or Pulse? Would you like to be informed about future articles? Just contact us at team@start-pulse.com.

Employee surveys can be radically reinvented, too

Disruptive inventions often come from outside the respective industry. It wasn’t a taxi company that invented Uber and not the hotel industry who came up with Airbnb. At Creaholic, we have been creating innovations based on this principle for the last 30 years: “We’re a team of entrepreneurs, each of whom has specific areas of expertise … and many more areas of ignorance. We know that invention requires both.”

The same story goes for Pulse, our innovative employee survey. Pulse is radically different: Employee feedback is open within the team and improvements are implemented bottom-up instead of top-down. Instead of just giving feedback on the current work situation and hoping for improvement, Pulse provides everyone in the company the opportunity to improve their cooperation and work environment on their own responsibility.

The idea for Pulse was born in the Customer Experience department

Pulse originated at Swisscom*. Inspired by Silicon Valley and complemented by our own experience, we had built up a culture of innovation at Swisscom over the last ten years. This culture aimed to change and advance the company from within. With our team “Human-Centered Design” (HCD), we have developed strategies, offers, methods, KPIs, tools and workshops that help Swisscom and now numerous other companies to work in an innovative and customer-centric manner. HCD consists of product designers, market researchers and the occasional psychologist. Interestingly – and essential in this context –, there are not many people with an HR background.

We came across the topic of employee surveys by pure chance

One of the projects implemented by HCD was the Customer Centricity Score (CCScore), an empirically derived KPI that measures customer orientation throughout the company based on 15 factors. With the CCScore, companies can systematically design and continuously monitor their path to becoming a customer-centric company.

The CCScore is collected internally in the form of an employee survey. While working out the CCScore, we noticed that the “actual” employee survey – a colossus with 70 questions that has been in use for the past ten years – caused quite a bit of frustration. Many questions, much hope, little effect. We have described why this was so here.

So much frustration and waste did not seem appropriate

We firmly believed that feedback is a valuable tool to improve our work, collaboration and the general working conditions. We were also convinced that everyone wants to do a good job but is facing individually different and continuously changing obstacles. These can usually be overcome rather quickly, but not by one person alone, but together as a team. Apparently, however, the previous employee survey was not able to help remove these obstacles.

We confronted the head of HR with this insight. After initial reservations, we got green light to think intensively about how a better solution might look like. Moreover: at that time, a large number of different surveys on various topics was used throughout the company. We were asked to consolidate the internal survey landscape on this occasion.

We worked on this task in the same group that had already developed and introduced the Customer Centricity Score. This interdisciplinary team consisted of HCD and HR experts, supported by a representative from Corporate Communications. I was part of the team and was able to bring in another essential experience. I had introduced the Net Promoter Score as a customer survey at my previous employer and had thus gained much knowledge about short and useful surveys. While there are some essential differences between customer and employee feedback, the basic idea is the same: feedback is a gift. It can help everyone in the company do a better job – provided it gets to the right person at the right time and in the right form.

Our goal: define a new setup for internal measurements, with CCScore and Pulse as central elements. We presented our plan and some initial ideas for Pulse to the board and got their buy-in. Now we had roughly a year to develop the method, write the software and implement Pulse at the company.

Radical improvement demanded radical change

At that time, we did not know that we would be turning quite a few things upside down. At the beginning of the project, we assumed that a modern survey (short and concise) and a timely software solution (real-time results for everyone) would be enough. But the more we looked into the subject, the more we realised: If we really wanted to create a new method that does the trick, we’d have to change some very fundamental elements.

If employee feedback is to lead to tangible changes, it must be available where it has the most significant impact: in the teams. After all, they know best what the results of a survey mean and which improvement measures are possible and useful for them. To properly work with the results, they need to be able to both view and discuss the comments of their colleagues. This, in turn, is only possible in a meaningful way if the feedback within the team is not anonymous.

Once we had realised this, we “only” had to convince our stakeholders. Management, HR and employee representatives had great respect for the move away from the usual anonymity. They feared that employees would either no longer dare to write comments at all or that the feedback would then be used against them.

You can read about how we managed to do this in detail in the next article. So much ahead: we had quite a few good arguments in favour of open feedback, but the success was mainly due to the approach we took. We systematically translated our ideas into prototypes as quickly as possible and tested them with our future users. We put many different variants of our method and software tool through their paces, getting feedback from over 500 employees and 35 teams. When we were finally ready for the launch, one thing was clear – to us, but also our stakeholders: the new approach worked, and the fears were unfounded. When the first survey started in October 2016, there were no surprises. The new approach was very well received throughout the company, entirely in line with our experiences from the pilot studies.

Non-expert naivety helped us to get the idea, systematic testing led us to the final product

If you want to solve an old problem in a radically new way, it helps if at least some of the problem solvers come from a different area.* A large part of our team did not come from the HR department and therefore had a certain healthy naivety about the issue. Delicate aspects, such as the anonymity of such surveys, were much less charged here and could thus be questioned more easily. The key for us was that we did not engage in endless discussions, but tested our hypotheses consistently. Our goal, convictions and principles remained constant throughout but thanks to our iterative approach we could gradually improve the product until it worked. Not surprisingly, it differed rather significantly from our original concept.

Do you have feedback or questions about this article or Pulse? Would you like to be informed about future articles? Just contact us at team@start-pulse.com.

*Swisscom is the leading telecommunications company in Switzerland.

With Pulse to concrete results: How localsearch combines employee feedback and OKRs

By Claudia Leu

The classic, anonymous annual employee survey with many questions and quantitative data no longer corresponded to the dynamic, innovative culture of localsearch. So the HR managers set out in search of a better alternative. With Pulse, they found what they were looking for.

Localsearch wanted to sharpen the focus of the annual employee survey and place more emphasis on the company’s purpose, its clients, and the development of its teams and employees. The survey should be short and regular, but at shorter intervals and more frequently. The goal was to obtain qualitative feedback from employees that is useful for the company. Ideally, these should be transparent comments that strengthen an open, non-judgmental feedback culture. These were localsearch’s main requirements for a new survey tool.

Pulse takes a different path

Today, Pulse replaces the classic employee survey at localsearch. The advantage: With only seven questions, the survey is more efficient and more appealing. The results can be viewed immediately after completing the survey. Instead of letting off steam anonymously, the focus is on transparent, constructive feedback. The feedbacks are are shown within each team with name and photo and to all others in anonymous form. Every single team is responsible for working with the survey results. Instead of an annual employee survey, Pulse surveys the current mood two to three times a year.

Faster reaction time in digital change

With its digital business model, localsearch is at the forefront of digital transformation. Pulse and the team at Creaholic are ideal partners in these fast-moving times. With feedback loops at shorter intervals, localsearch reacts to rapidly changing situations and increases the company’s reaction time. The results are available in real-time. Teams initiate changes directly.

“You really have your finger on the pulse of the company. When the team reflects on its current situation three times a year thanks to the survey and discusses smouldering conflicts but also innovative ideas, this is an enormous enrichment for the company. I don’t think a classic employee survey can do that.”

Gabriela Schenker, localsearch

Every single employee can make a contribution

At localsearch, the teams discuss the Pulse results in workshops and jointly define measures. Just for the next three months and not for the whole year as in the past. In this way, the desired improvements become tangible and can be achieved more quickly. Employees at all levels actively work with the feedback and can thus make a difference – even with small changes.


“Our employees deal with the Pulse survey in an open and solution-oriented manner. In the past, employees often used the survey to let off steam. Today, they do not only mention problems but also autonomously propose solutions. One particularly impressive suggestion was a job rotation that was meant to promote understanding between different teams.”

Gabriela Schenker, localsearch

Transparency changes the feedback culture

The idea of making all comments of the employee survey transparent triggered some uneasiness and rejection in management and HR managers at the beginning. However, our previous experience with Pulse surveys in other companies shows that this uncertainty quickly subsides. This is also true of localsearch. The comments in Pulse are visible to all employees at localsearch, and at team level even with the name of the author. When Pulse was introduced, the comments were still relatively passive and cautious. After two surveys, however, the employees gained confidence and commented actively and in a solution-oriented manner.


“The introduction of Pulse has raised transparency in the company to a new level and greatly improved the communication culture among employees.”

Gabriela Schenker, localsearch

Another positive effect of Pulse is the breakthrough of the prevailing culture of harmony, which is particularly pronounced in grassroots Switzerland. Conflicts have negative connotations, yet there is huge improvement potential in constructive conflicts, especially concerning a learning and error culture. The new transparency of Pulse promotes honest feedback and takes away the fear of making mistakes.

Pulse is versatile

However, localsearch not only uses Pulse to survey employee satisfaction but also employs the instrument to anchor its four principles of leadership and cooperation (“performance-oriented”, “solution-oriented”, “simple” and “inspiring”). The questions asked in Pulse always focus on these four principles. In this way, a regular impulse is given to the employees to discuss the company principles in their team. And more importantly: to think about how they can apply and live them in daily business. Change is constant in the working environment of a digital company, but the principles and purpose remain constant. Pulse creates stability in fast-moving times.

localsearch also links Pulse to their OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). In the team workshops following the surveys, each team develops an objective for the next three to four months and defines key results against which they can measure the achievement of their objective.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions

Efficient teams communicate better. Alex “Sandy” Pentland from MIT has researched this relationship in detail and published the results in the Harvard Business Review.

If you want to promote the feedback culture in your company with an effective employee survey, Pulse is the right solution. Learn more. In a short interview, we will answer your questions and show you how Pulse helps your teams develop impact.

Gabriela Schenker works in HR Development. She supervises further education projects in the areas of leadership, coaching and company health management. Together with her supervisor, she is responsible for Pulse at localsearch.

localsearch

localsearch is the leading marketing and advertising partner for Swiss SMEs. The product portfolio of localsearch supports companies in being found online, acquiring new customers and retaining them in the long term. With simple and effective solutions for online marketing, competent on-site consulting and an attractive price-performance ratio, localsearch ensures the success of SMEs in the digital world. With local.ch and search.ch, localsearch also operates and markets the highest-reach directory and booking platforms in Switzerland.

New features 2019

How's the work with the Pulse results going? Could you already implement concrete improvement measures? With our new features this has just become even easier: Now you get the most important results of your team directly by e-mail, you can like comments and – thanks to our new materials –  you can moderate the discussion of results in your team with confidence. Find out more here.


Feedback culture: How do I write valuable comments?

Constructive comments are the most valuable form of feedback in Pulse. With our new nudges and tips for filling out the survey, everyone can now write constructive comments easily.


Detail scale: How are the ratings distributed?

With the “Show distribution” feature, you can see how often the individual ratings have been selected on the 10 scale. With a click on one of the three categories (Improve, Neutral, Keep it up) you can also filter the comments. This allows you to quickly identify the most urgent challenges and derive areas for action.


Results e-mails: Where do I start with improvement measures?

In the team-specific result e-mails you will receive the most important results of your team directly into your inbox. This allows you to identify more quickly where your team is already well on its way and where improvement measures should be taken. 


Like function: Has my team member struck a chord with me?

The comments are the heart of the Pulse survey. With the new like function, you can like comments written by other participants. This allows you to emphasize important aspects.


Templates: How do I get the most out of the results discussion?

Pulse makes it easier to do a good job when you're working with the feedbacks in your team. New tips and materials, such as a detailed guide and a workshop canvas, will help you running an effective results discussion.


And even more ...

  • Improved text analysis: We have improved the algorithm and let it train hard.
  • Simplified admin area: The administration of surveys is now even more intuitive and easier.
  • Participant management: Now you can add participants directly in the tool, adjust user information or correct mistakes.

We have implemented many other small and large improvements and will continuously add more. Stay tuned!

Why we got rid of Santa

By Nils Reisen

Who doesn’t know the good old employee survey? Many questions, a lot of effort, few noticeable improvements. At my former employer, a company with 20,000 employees, we used precisely this kind of survey. In a lengthy questionnaire, we asked employees about relevant and less relevant details. The results were not actionable, and we could only rarely translate them into tangible improvements.

It reminded us a bit of the wish list for Santa – and not only in this season of the year. Employees gave feedback on what was not going well and where improvements were needed. Santa looked at what he could conjure out of his sack. Unlike the real Santa, however, he often didn’t bring the right gifts.

Why did the employee survey have so little effect?

Although there was a lot of goodwill and heaps of time and energy spent, the feedback only rarely led to noticeable improvements. In spite of the fact that this was the actual goal of the survey. What was the reason for this?

The answer is simple: a basic marketing principle was turned upside down. The wrong information was sent to the wrong person in the wrong form at the wrong time.

The wrong information: presumed instead of actual engagement drivers
Although we asked a large number of topics, we focused on presumed engagement drivers based on which questions were asked and how. We could thus not identify relevant aspects that were not covered by the questions.

The wrong form: focus on numbers instead of underlying causes
We collected and communicated primarily quantitative data. The reasons for the evaluations remained in the dark. The summary of the results was another problem because so much valuable information was lost.

At the wrong time: months later instead of real-time
The evaluation of the survey was very time-consuming, and the results were only returned to the company months later – after which they still had to embark on a long internal journey. In the end, employees only received feedback when the survey was already a thing of the past.

To the wrong person: only management and HR (aka Santa) instead of everyone else
The primary recipients of the results were management and HR. They obviously should and did work with the results. However, this was often not easy, as many hurdles in the daily work were dependent on local and contextual factors. These were difficult to tackle top-down.

What if there was a tool ...
...that would make it easier for everyone in the company to do a good job? After all, this is the real goal of an employee survey. So we asked ourselves whether we could not create a solution that would make it possible for everyone in the company to ...

  • communicate, what prevents them from doing a good job,
  • find out what is going well at the moment and what needs to be improved,
  • define and implement measures that lead to tangible improvements.

We could not find such a tool – so we created one ourselves and called it “Pulse”. Here is how it works.

The right information: current engagement drivers and barriers
With Pulse, our primary goal is to find out what makes it easier for employees and what prevents them from doing an excellent job by shedding light on current and vital issues. For this purpose, we have created a dedicated question that measures precisely that.

The right form: written feedback
Written feedback is a valuable source for a comprehensive understanding of the root causes that led to the given ratings. For each question, we use two comment fields (“What I like”, “What I wish for”) – as well as a few tricks to get as much constructive feedback as possible. This demonstrably works: with Pulse participants now write almost ten times as many comments as with the classic survey.

At the right time: in real-time
As changes in companies are happening faster and faster, employees’ feedback has a short “expiration date”. Current issues should thus be identified and dealt with as soon as possible. That’s why Pulse shows the results in real-time to all participants immediately after they submit the survey.

To the right person: focus on teams
Employees’ feedback is best understood by the colleagues they work with day in and day out. They can put the feedback into perspective, identify root causes and drive useful improvements.
The feedback should hence be accessible to everyone in the company, in a format that enables further discussion and active implementation of improvements. That’s why with Pulse comments are shown to team members with name and picture. They are also visible to everyone else in the company – in anonymous form.

Pulse is bottom-up, not top-down

Unlike traditional employee surveys, Pulse uses a bottom-up approach. This means that employees are not only surveyed but also actively work with the results. They discuss the feedback in their teams and define what they want to change and how. Instead of writing a wish list to Santa, they shape their cooperation and their working environment in a way that makes the most sense for them in their context. They only turn to management when faced with obstacles that they cannot solve themselves (e.g. overarching tools or processes). And this usually starts with concrete suggestions as to what they would like to change.

The result? Many companies now use Pulse. You can get more information about Pulse on our website or in a personal call or meeting.

With this in mind, Merry Christmas!