Going back to the floor

Gathering feedback from employees can provide a useful insight into the way a company is run, highlighting any problems and raising valuable suggestions for improvement, says Alicia Clegg

Brand consultants tell a story about a hotel that boasted of its dedication to customers. A businessman arrived late one night buffeted and battered by a nightmare journey. As the porter walked him to his room, the weary traveller talked ruefully about needing a whisky. Shortly afterwards, he heard a knock at his door and looked out; in the corridor sat a bottle of fine malt whisky, courtesy of the house. After his stay, the traveller wrote thanking the hotel for its magnificent gesture. The porter, by then, was scouring the job centres, turned out on his ear for having crossed the line between caring for customers and reckless extravagance.

The anecdote, whether true or apocryphal, speaks volumes about the knots that companies tie themselves into when the values that they publicise seem at odds with employees’ experience of what management expects of them. A business may shout to the world that it “goes the extra mile” for customers, but just what that means to staff on the frontline, caught between the conflicting policies of finance and marketing, may be far from self-evident.


Building strong brands is all about being consistent. Gradually firms are waking up to this fact and, as they do so, more and more of them are turning to employee research to help detect any unexploded time-bombs of misunderstanding that may lie in wait beneath their operations. One consequence of this in terms of workplace research is a shift away from the traditional once-a-year, catch-all surveys of staff attitudes, towards shorter, more focused bursts of research designed to tease out the contradictions between the company’s overall business objectives and the strategies pursued by different arms of the business, such as marketing, human resources and internal communications.

Brand agency Enterprise IG senior consultant Nicole Wassall, describes two classic situations in which she has seen brand strategies unravel. The first is where staff have “grasped intellectually” how their brand has to change in order to prosper, but personally they have no enthusiasm for the direction their employer is asking them to take. An example might be where a company has diversified out of its core business into a new product area. The second situation, typified by the hapless hotel porter’s experience, is where employees identify wholeheartedly with the values of the company, but lack the know-how and the training to turn the brand promise into profitable reality.

Driving marketing strategies through an organisation is not just about communicating ideas dreamed up at headquarters and hoping that they take root in the field. When brand strategies fall apart it is often because the company’s advertising has drifted out of touch with what the company is capable of doing for its customers in real life. In such instances it is the people dealing directly with customers, not the people in corporate marketing, to whom the firm should be listening, says Purple Market Research managing director and spokesman for the Market Research Society Stephen Bairfelt. “Smart companies test their advertising amongst employees as well as consumers.” Drawing upon personal experience as a research manager for Shell, he adds, “Before Shell makes a claim it asks forecourt staff ‘Can we do this, and if we can’t, why not?'”


While the idea of weaving employee research into the day-to-day fabric of the business is catching on, the most common research vehicle is still the once-a-year company survey. Yet even here change is in the air. BMRB Stakeholder Solutions associate director Melanie Jugdev says: “The centre of gravity has moved from talking to employees simply because it’s seen to be a good thing to do, to something a lot more commercially focused.” One feature of this is the replacement of employee satisfaction by the concept of “employee engagement”.

For something that promises to turn the “fluffy” corporate trend of finding out how happy employees are into a metric that can be used to improve workplace productivity and profitability, employee engagement is a surprisingly elastic, even “fluffy”, concept itself. The basic building blocks of an engagement survey, whilst not standardised, typically include measures to gauge whether employees understand and are committed to the goals of the business; enjoy and feel supported in their job; want to stay with the company and would recommend it to friends as a good place to work.

Mobile operator 3 recently hired talent management consultancy Getfeedback to conduct an engagement survey of its entire workforce. “What we found was that our people have a great appetite for information, far more so than in other firms,” says 3 director of people and property John Vickerman. “Knowing how 3 is performing as a business, and where it is heading, came out as the single biggest influence on employee engagement, ahead of pay and other issues.”

The 3 findings demonstrate an important point. While the top-level indicators of an engaged workforce – pride in the company, loyalty, commitment to doing a good job – are common across companies, the factors that drive those positive feelings vary enormously from one to another. As participants in a pioneering business, operating in a dynamic and risky market, 3’s young employees get a buzz from feeling part of the action and at the centre of things. In more mature industries the priorities of the workforce would probably be different, says Getfeedback co-founder Alison Gill. “The idea that there is a common set of questions that can be asked of every business is a complete fallacy.”

Even within businesses the issues that matter most to people will change from one year to the next, depending on what is going on in the company and how the make-up of the workforce is changing. This poses the chicken-and-egg conundrum of which questions to ask to be sure of picking up on the things that weigh most heavily with people. One possibility is, of course, to do some exploratory qualitative research to help map out the territory for the main quantitative study. According to Bairfelt it is an effective solution, but one which cash-strapped clients often turn down. “A lot of clients insist that they just want a quantitative study. We think that is dangerous, because then you get employees coming back saying ‘why did you ask this but not that’.”


Guaranteeing the anonymity of participants is a big issue in employee research, and one which can have a major effect on how candid people are willing to be. Some of the safeguards that companies adopt to ensure people do not fear comeback from management are pure common sense – for example, offering staff the option of answering online or by post, or interviewing people in a relaxed sociable environment, away from their bosses and immediate work associates. Other precautions may be less obvious. BDRC research manager Katie Vosper says: “If someone has a very distinctive way of talking, such as a catch-phrase or mannerism that makes them easy to identify, it is better to leave the quote out.” She adds: “It is also important to exclude any background detail, such as the speaker’s age, gender or grade, that could offer clues to their identity.”

How questions are worded can make a material difference to the quality of responses that employers get back. One of the major culprits, in this respect, is management speak. Ideas Bazaar director Simon Roberts says: “A lot of the time, in business, people talk around issues. Often it is the language that is used that is the problem. If you ask a question in a way that reflects your corporate mindset you force the respondent to play the same game, which makes it unlikely that you will find out anything new.”

To break out of the linguistic prisons in which they incarcerate themselves, companies need to pick up on the language that people use when they are being themselves. One way to do that, according to Roberts, is to send in ethnographic researchers who immerse themselves into the workplace to chat to people and shadow volunteers as they go about their work.

The high cost of observational research makes it unlikely that ethnography will catch on in the working world to the extent that it has done in consumer insight projects. But at the top end of the market there is certainly a willingness to experiment with new approaches that go far beyond the remit of traditional employee research. As an example of this, Roberts cites an ethnographic study which Ideas Bazaar undertook for the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, looking at how professional staff were juggling an ever-increasing volume of administration with the core business of serving clients. “Really good employee research dispels the myths about organisations and tells you how change really comes about in firms,” he says.

From humble beginnings, employee research is developing into a diagnostic tool for understanding the complexity of the workplace and the cultural and departmental barriers that block companies from getting to where they want to be. But while a minority have shown themselves willing to adopt new approaches, many more – whether through lack of resource or imagination – remain locked in a repetitive cycle of annual surveys that change little from year to year. This is short-sighted and, ultimately, counter-productive. As Jugdev puts it: “If a brand cannot speak to its employees, how can it hope to speak to its customers?”

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