You survey your employees too much

DigitalOcean’s Matt Norman explained what leads to survey fatigue and how companies can avoid it.

Matt Norman, chief people officer at DigitalOcean

DigitalOcean Chief People Officer Matt Norman has been involved in company surveying for decades.

Photo: DigitalOcean

Matt Norman has spent decades thinking about surveys.

Norman, the chief people officer at DigitalOcean, said one of his first jobs in human resources was running employee engagement surveys for a company that operated across 170 countries. Even then, about 30 years ago, Norman said HR leaders were talking about how to run surveys in a way that ensured the highest response rates and honest answers.

Now, Norman said, one of the most prevalent issues across companies is simply fatigue. Employees get too many surveys, and it’s often not clear to them what happens to their responses. But being actionable about results as well as intentional about the length of surveys and the time of year in which they’re conducted can incentivize employees to dedicate more attention to them.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How would you define survey fatigue?

It’s the result of asking the same question repeatedly and doing absolutely nothing about it, where employees don’t see any purpose in continuing to provide feedback.

If you ask somebody for their opinion, and it's used in a way that is constructive or drives an improvement in some way, shape or form, people don't get tired of giving feedback. But you can ask too many questions and you can get tired of it. If every group and every organization is sending out a survey, “How did we do today?” it just gets a little absurd.

What's an example of survey fatigue?

No. 1: Survey far too much. Let's say you have several disparate surveys. Let's say the IT organization wants to send out a weekly survey on how people think about their laptops, and the HR team wants to send out a weekly survey on how people feel, and the marketing team wants to know weekly how people feel about the new ad campaign. Asking a question that has seemingly no end in sight or very little relevance or very little action associated with it is one thing.

The second thing is asking the question and then doing nothing with it.

Three is not delivering feedback on what was done. Inevitably, most companies do some form of employee engagement survey at least once a year. And inevitably, compensation is one of the lowest-scoring items across the board every single time. A company can [choose] to address compensation and educate people on how they measure compensation … Employees may not like the answer, but at least they'll have a better foundation for it. Or, a company could just stop asking the question. There are some examples of some very large tech organizations that have just stopped asking the question about compensation altogether because the relevance became relatively low, and the likelihood that you can create enough expertise within the entire population of an organization to understand compensation and the nuances behind it became so low that some of them just gave up.

That reminds me of several months ago when Google said it wouldn't adjust compensation to match inflation. How do you decide whether to take the question out or keep having the conversation?

Surveys are about credibility with your people, and the world isn't about telling people everything they want to hear and doing everything that they want done. Unfortunately, the real world is a series of decisions that we all get to make, and inevitably trade-offs that we have to make. So for us, we continue to ask the question, “Is top performance recognized at the company?” Interestingly, the data point is that 61% of our population feels that top performance is recognized, which is great because most companies don't have 61% of top performers [who feel they are recognized].

What’s the consequence of employees facing survey fatigue for companies?

I think your response rate would drop. The psychology behind a survey is that the people that have something to say are the first people to respond. So if I just keep sending out a survey and sending out questions, the people that are going to respond are going to be the people that really want to be heard, and for some reason and human behavior, those tend to be the people that really want to say something bad.

I think you know it can start to affect business performance too if you're asking too much, you’re asking people to start taking time away from their job to give feedback to the organization that the organization isn't going to do anything with it. That's a problem. Employee feedback is incredibly valuable, but you have to recognize that it's just one of the many tools.

Could you speak to DigitalOcean’s approach to surveys? When you decide to conduct a survey, and what steps do you take after that survey?

We do conduct some surveys on a departmental basis. I think marketing might be the team that conducts them the most. Then we have some global, all-employee surveys. For those big, overarching, all-employee engagement surveys, we follow a very regimented structure.

We also try to conduct surveys when we have some downtime, so we do these things called recharge days. We give employees on average about 12 additional holidays per year. So those generally equate to very long weekends, like four-day weekends, or in some cases, some situations, five-day weekends. We try to launch a survey around that time so that people can sit back and when they're having their cup of coffee in the morning and not worried about getting on their first Zoom call, they can take a two-minute survey. The other big criteria for us is making sure that the survey is short and sweet. That it’s concise, it is clean and people understand the language behind it.

How big of an issue is survey fatigue?

Do I think it is an overarching business concern? No, but I do think it’s an employee dissatisfier. And if you get to a point where your employee base is saying, “Why bother?” then you have started to dissociate your employees and your engagement in a way that they're starting to lose faith in the organization. And that is more catastrophic to a company and to the health of an organization than any amount of survey fatigue ever could be. As soon as your employee base starts to lose faith in you or that people aren’t taking action, you've started the process of people thinking there's someplace better to be.

So once an employee indicates there's something that they don't like about a company but the company isn't listening, then it's kind of a ripple effect from there?

I wouldn't say that all employee dissatisfaction stems from survey fatigue. But I think some employee dissatisfaction could certainly stem from survey fatigue. If you tell a leader in your organization 15 times, “This is a problem for me and nobody's trying to do anything,” but they just keep asking, “Hey, what can I do to make it better?” and you've told them 15 times and they never followed up with you and you’ve never seen any noticeable change in order to improve, are you going to continue to have faith in that person? Are you going to continue to say, “Hey, let me tell you for the 16th time.”

What can survey fatigue teach companies about how to handle other parts of employee check-ins, like one-on-ones and general team meetings?

The thing that can translate to all of those is be action-oriented. Be clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying the word “no.” And if somebody says “Hey, is there a pay increase?” [you can say,] “No, there's not. But let me tell you why.”

The clearer we can be with each other, whether that be manager to employee, peer-to-peer leadership, whomever that is, if we can translate that into a clear and concise opportunity and an alignment, then there is no need to say “no,” because everybody knows the direction that they're going. Everybody knows how they are aligned to the bigger goal. Everybody understands what the mission is. And they're not asking the question anymore. And if we can get to that point, and if any organization can get to that point where everybody is in complete understanding of how they contribute to the end goal … that's an incredibly powerful position to be in.


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