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How employee communities can improve the way we do employee engagement research

The concept of Employee Engagement has excited the HR industry for at least two decades. During this time, countless case studies have statistically reaffirmed what makes common sense; that engaged employees result in better business outcomes. In simple terms, happy employees result in happy customers and ultimately happy profits.

Status quo

The techniques used to measure employee engagement have remained largely the same over the last 20 years, involving a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods. A typical approach has involved distributing a questionnaire to all employees, either preceded or followed by workshops, focus groups and one-to-one interviews to explore key themes in greater detail. An action plan is then set in place, implemented, and followed up with subsequent surveys (usually annually) to measure its success. Although online completion of surveys has speeded things up, the process from start to finish takes several months.

“It was always felt that this is the best way to get the true, undiluted, unbiased picture of what satisfied, motivated and engaged your employees,” said Andy Buckley, Research Strategy Director at Join the Dots.

The problem is, “the way that organisations have gone about measuring and understanding employee engagement and how to use that feedback to drive the actions forward hasn’t changed. The methods haven’t moved with the increasing pace of business change,” he said.

This is where employee communities have a role to play. Buckley is confident that employee communities, which are still in their relative infancy, can augment traditional employee research methods and make the process of improving engagement simply more engaging.

They also have the potential to bring employee engagement surveys to life and help organisations get closer to their employees, he added.

How does it work?

An employee community is a private, secure and anonymous online space, hosted by an external third party, usually a market research company. Participation is exclusive to employees of the organisation and voluntary. Its purpose is to allow employees to anonymously discuss issues that impact upon their engagement. HR and the leadership team can potentially take part in these discussions, particularly during live online chats and Q&A sessions, although all discussions are moderated and observed by the market researchers.

Employee communities are effectively tapping into the conversations that employees have every day but which management are not always privy to, explained Buckley.

“And we’re just trying to bring those natural conversations into the open and discuss them in an adult to adult way.”

Once an online community has been set up, employees are sent a series of research tasks. Some of these tasks are quantitative, such as surveys, and others are qualitative, such as online focus groups or discussion forums, said Buckley.

Who should use online communities?

“I think they are for really forward-thinking HR Directors, who feel like their employee engagement surveys have only taken them so far and now they need something more nimble and flexible to take them to the next level,” said Buckley.

“And it’s also linked to change in organisations, both the nature and speed of change. Traditional employee opinion surveys are kind of creaking at the seams, trying to keep up.”

How do you get a diverse mix of people to join employee communities?

Effective employee communities need to reflect the broad opinion of the organisation: not just the polar opposites of really engaged employees and those who have an axe to grind.

To ensure employees with negative agendas don’t dominate the community, Buckley said it is important that all employees are very clear about the Terms and Conditions when they sign up. Posts from employees who try to hijack a certain topic will be moderated out, and that individual will be taken to one side by the moderator and gently reminded about the community’s purpose and their obligations. Although all participants are anonymous to their organisation and the research company protects their confidentiality in normal circumstances, ultimately the market research company knows who everyone is. This adds a further layer of protection against defamatory comments, and is one of the key benefits of using a third party to administer the community.

Typically, online communities result in a 20-50% sign up rate. For most organisations, this means the community will contain a broad spectrum of people at all the different stages of their employee lifecycle, and varying levels of engagement with the business, from ‘aspostles’ to ‘terrorists’.

The reasons people join employee communities are varied, added Buckley.

“You get the power seekers, who like to share their opinions and want to influence the direction of the organisation; you’ve got the information seekers whose participation is more driven by the need for knowledge about what’s happening in the organisation; and then you’ve got your social seekers, who primarily join because they simply enjoy talking to their colleagues and talking about work.”

Six ways online communities benefit existing employee engagement research methods

Relationship building

Despite their name, employee engagement surveys tend to be anything but from the employees’ point of view. And due to being run usually once a year, nor do they have the ability to build relationships and trust with employees in the way that online communities do, said Buckley.

Yet it is only by building relationships and trust that organisations will achieve their goal of engaging their employees emotionally, which in turn encourages employees to feel part of the wider organisation and to want to be more productive for that organisation.

Similar to the way face-to-face focus groups and in-depth interviews work, online communities are a great way of really diagnosing, exploring and understanding the issues that are highlighted by the census survey. The added benefit of online communities is that this process can be done on an ongoing and iterative basis, enabling both the collection of insight into what drives employee engagement, but also action planning.

Single point in time

Employee engagement surveys only get feedback from employees at a single point in time. This means the results can be very dependent on what is going on within an organisation at that particular point, and can skew the broader picture, explained Buckley.

By comparison, online communities are ‘always on’, which means that they are fast, flexible and timely. You can follow employees’ journeys with the organisation and their relationship with that organisation over time, picking up on the issues and opportunities as they arise.

“What you want to do is to keep connecting with employees on a regular basis. By having constant dialogue you can make small changes, then check back in to see how effective those changes have been, then move forward.”

Genuine exchange of information/dialogue

One of the limitations of employee engagement surveys are that they are not a genuine exchange of information, said Buckley.

Even if the design of the questionnaire has been influenced by employee focus groups and a pilot, the majority of questions are effectively framed and determined by management, focusing upon the needs of the organisation. The survey effectively results in a one-way Q&A communication, whereas a qualitative online community allows for more natural, two-way dialogue. The conversational nature of online communities helps organisations to develop more ‘human’ relationships with employees, enabling both sides to influence the agenda, he said.

Speed and cost

Annual employee engagement surveys generate huge amounts of data which can take months to process, assimilate and distribute, before even thinking about how to even action it. Before you know it, it’s time to start planning and distributing another one, said Buckley.

By having an online community in place, organisations can reduce the turnaround times on exploring different issues that emerge from an employee survey to a matter of days.

Topics for discussions can be distributed to the employee community via email at the click of a button. For global organisations this does not only save time but also saves on the cost of getting different people together for focus groups in different regions.

Levelling the playing field

Compared to traditional face-to-face employee research methods like workshops and focus groups, online communities level the playing field. They give an equal voice to all employees giving you a more representative view of employee opinion. In focus groups and workshops for example, extraverts, long term servers and/or employees with greater seniority tend to dominate the discussion, no matter how good the moderator. This is not so in online communities, where everybody gets a chance to express an opinion in his or her own time. The fact that it is anonymous also makes it easier for people who are shy about speaking in public to have their say.

Social animals

Human beings are by and large social animals, which is why online communities work so well, said Buckley.

Employees typically talk to their colleagues about their life and work experiences in the workplace, so all an online community is doing is tapping into those conversations.

This is why online communities get that more natural, authentic conversation going, he said. It also allows the researcher to better explore whether opinions expressed on paper during the survey are truly as strong in reality, and crucially to find out more about how people feel rather than just what they think.

An end to annual employee engagement surveys?

Definitely not, said Buckley.

“I am not suggesting that organisations replace their employee engagement surveys with employee communities. What I’m suggesting is that an employee community augments these surveys.”

Buckley said annual employee surveys are still essential, because they signpost what the key issues are within an organisation, and are also a clear statement from the business that everybody can have their say on a wide range of issues. The surveys also provide senior management and investors with important KPIs, from which performance bonuses are often linked.

The problem, said Buckley, is employee engagement surveys aren’t that effective in telling organisations what to do next, especially if the organisation is performing strongly on engagement. Even with data modelling and driver analysis, the survey can identify a problem but falls short at understanding why the problem exists and how it can be fixed, he said. That tends to be left to post-survey workshops which only involve small numbers of employees, to HR, or some other working group to try and figure out.

“So online communities can really support in the areas of diagnosis, understanding and then action planning and implementation,” he said.

For example, a classic issue which often emerges from employee surveys is a lack of feeling valued or recognised for their work, said Buckley.

“But what does ‘feeling valued’ actually mean? How can an organisation of 10,000 people, like a cinema for example, with job roles from head office to projectionists and ticket sales staff, genuinely make people feel recognised and emotionally valued for the work that they do?”

Trying to answer this question is often based on guesswork and often broad brush initiatives are implemented. However, if you take the concept of ‘feeling valued’ into an employee community, you have the opportunity to explore and discuss it with different groups of employees, and understand the need states and context of when and how they feel valued, and go on to develop more targeted and relevant solutions, said Buckley.

Ideal model

The kind of model that Buckley believes works best is one where organisations carry out an initial census employee survey to identify the key issues. To keep the costs down, it doesn’t need to be a belt and braces survey of 100 statements, so long as the main areas are covered, because the specific issues are going to be diagnosed in the community.

“From that we work with HR to break down those issues into a number of research tasks or activities for all employees or specific job role types to take part in, and then we choose the methodology which best suits that task.”

Once the task has been designed, the agenda almost takes on a life of its own because the conversation is very much driven by what the community says about what parts of the issue are most important to them.

“So subsequent research topics will take into account the feedback so far,” said Buckley.

Organisations can even open the forum up for community participants to start their own threads and conversations which the market researchers follow and moderate, he added.

The beauty about online communities is that they are not only about diagnosing issues but they are also about finding solutions to those issues, identifying possible actions, implementing those actions and then following-up on those actions.

“During the implementation of the idea or the solution you have put in place you can check back with people and ask how’s it going, which bits of the solution are working which aren’t working, how it can be tweaked and made better. Whereas with an annual employee survey, you’d have to wait a year to do that. Although some large companies run interim pulse check surveys, they are very dry, and fail to engage employees in the same way.”

Why not have HR run the online community?

The reason an independent third party works better than HR, for example, is because employees often feel HR is operating from the organisation’s point of view and not from an employee point of view.

The role of a market research company is therefore not only to design the research questions, research tasks and research programme, but to also act as an independent arbiter.

“We have no axe to grind; we are just literally that independent, unbiased researcher. So we’re not trying to drive the conversations to a particular outcome. We’re just literally listening to what people have to say.”

Buckley said market researchers are the effectively the voice of organisations’ employees.

“We are a mirror of employee opinion, sentiment and emotion, and can give organisations that genuine sense of things that they don’t necessarily want to hear or find difficult to hear. And you won’t pick this kind of feedback up on Yammer because its not anonymous; we provide that really important third party perspective. But clearly for employees, because the community is run on our servers, they can be reassured that they can give their open and honest views without personally identifiable data going back to management.”

However, just because participants’ anonymity is protected under the Market Research Society Code of Conduct by having that third party involvement, it does not mean organisations do not retain a lot of control.

Anonymity does not mean employees will be able to make outrageous and inflammatory comments. This is because the market research company not only knows their identity but they also sign up to Terms & Conditions before participating.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, if they say anything defamatory, something that you can’t say in the workplace, they can be identified by us and appropriate action can be taken. It’s really important that all employees understand the rules when they sign up, both for the benefit of the organisation and their own protection.”

Moreover, unnecessarily disruptive participants can be removed from the community if they breach the Terms and Conditions.

“It is still a carefully managed environment, it’s not a wild west social media that you can’t control,” Buckley concluded.


Join the Dots is a consumer insight agency, which uses a combination of primary and secondary research to help its clients navigate change. The company specialises in online insight communities, digital research, advertising, customer experience, mobile and product & service optimisation.

For more information on how employee communities can improve the way we do employee engagement research contact Andy Buckley on +44 (0)161 242 1100 and/or andy.buckley@jointhedotsmr.com