A 15 stage plan to getting the most out of employee research

At Ask Your Staff we believe that employee research should be conducted with the same rigour as customer research – otherwise you are showing your own employees a lack of respect. This can impact on retention rates, the willingness of staff to promote the company and therefore the wider company brand.

Employee research should be greeted with enthusiasm rather than resignation, if there has been a bit of planning.  Here is our framework for undertaking a successful research project.

Getting information from staff on company growth

Recent research from the Open University has questioned the standard approach to breaking down siloism by creating cross-departmental working teams in some instances – if one department is seen as being favoured (often the sales department) then it can lead to the other departments ganging up on them and actually making things worse.  The point of this research is clear, before taking action you need to understand as fully as possible what the issue is.

1.     Why do you want to do it?

The first point of any project is to understand what the company wants out of a staff survey.  Different people and departments may want a different focus from the research (not all of which will be appropriate).

Looking at what has led up to this decision, not just the triggers for the research but any longer term issues (team morale, relocation etc.) are going to be important for you and, if you use one, a researcher to understand the fuller picture.

Examples might be:

  • I want to do a survey so I can present the board with an indicator to justify a pay rise
  • We need to benchmark employee satisfaction as we are about to embark on change
  • We have a retention issue
  • We want to be the company of choice for local talent
  • We need to improve productivity and want to know where the issues are
  • We want to be seen as a good company
  • We want to be seen as thought leaders in the marketplace

Understanding the reason why you are doing an employee survey will help you plan and decide on the route to go.  If you are looking to justify a pay rise or simply to provide an employee engagement figure as a key performance indicator then it is best to simply buy a template and use that.

Benchmarking is a good example of why you are looking to need to know the reasons for doing the research – are you competing against other companies in your sector or competing with other large employers locally or even self-employment. Even if you recruit nationally and there is a cluster in locally e.g. financial services in Norwich or automotive manufacturers in the West Midlands – it may be better to get the information in other ways or ask well-crafted questions to staff about the competition.

2.     What is the wider need for employee research

Employee research is a highly cost effective way of understanding the company from a different perspective.  Marketing (internal brand), IT (impact of infrastructure of employees and customers) and finance (cost effective retention strategies) may all have an interest in asking a couple of questions to employees to have honest answers.

Involving other people at an early stage is good practice because you can gain buy-in and the biggest problems employee research has is that nothing happens as a result.

It is very much a wishlist at this stage and you may have to manage expectations as to what is possible.

3.     What information do you have already

Understanding what information you have on employees and the company is important as it will help in terms of creating theories to test and enable you to reduce the questions on the questionnaire and improve segmentation.  Being able to drill down into teams of less than 5 is intrusive and employees may well object even if the research is being undertaken by a third party as you can cross-tabulate and find out exact answers.

Information may include – gender, team/team leader, location, contract type, ethnicity (this needs to be handled sensitively), time in the company and more specific questions on time taken off in the last year (relevant for a survey on stress and wellbeing), when was the last time they went on a training course and how the company would contact them (email/phone/letter etc.).

Other information that is also important is staff turnover, staff promotions, major changes to the company in the last few years and even relevant comments from management reports

If you do have information from past surveys, 3600 feedback an intranet etc. then that can also build up a picture of what information you have.

It is worth noting down what information you have available as this will form part of the researcher or internal brief.

4.     Creating theories to test

There are two ways of conducting research – the European way of creating theories and then testing them by collecting/analysing the data or the US method of gathering all the data first and then creating theories.  In most cases it is an iterative process, where theories are created, tested, amended etc rather than a simple two stage process.

The idea is not to bias the research but to understand what aspects need to be prioritized and what questions you would want or expect answers to.

Make sure that all the questions are written down – some may be more appropriate for other methods of information gathering than simply a survey such as focus groups, depth interviews, appraisals/360 tools or simply observation.

Understanding what actions you will take on the basis of certain scenarios is important as well.

5.     Framing the project

The final element before putting together a brief is understanding how to frame the project.  Using SMART guidelines for each element of the process is well worth it – if stakeholders have suggested information they want it is worth understanding how they would use it.  Consider what information you need to make results better – for instance if you think that communication is an issue (it usually is) then the information means nothing unless it can be broken down into tone, frequency, method of communication and even type of communication.

Time, money, infrastructure, company politics and competence may all be constraints on the project in different ways. Not all of these have to be revealed but it is helpful for a third party to have some idea of the issues.


Make sure that you account for your time and that of your colleagues, even if you are using a third party.  A third party offers a number of advantages but will not know the company as well as someone who is already there.  The most important consideration is on the time and place for the employees to complete the questionnaire – accounting for staff time will not only ensure that the questionnaire stays focused but if you can allocate time for them to complete the questionnaire then the response rate will be higher and the data will tend to be better in terms of quality as you are indicating by your actions that their feedback is important.


It is worth focusing on value rather than money, but setting a budget is always useful – as mentioned earlier this should include internal and external costs separately.  It will show the finance director you are on top of the issue and help with the brief as it will keep you mindful of what can be done for the budget.  If you can include some idea of the value of the project – this may be in terms of improving retention rates, reducing sick days or increasing productivity.  Sometimes cashflow can be a real issue if someone leaves and the company has to pay high recruitment costs at the same time as having reduced capacity.


If you are looking to undertake a staff survey then any third party will want to know what access the employees have to email and how they would be likely to undertake a survey (mobile, laptop etc).  This basic information is often not provided but can be crucial in creating a methodology as online questionnaires are generally the best way to conduct this sort of research as they allow for various media types (short videos, pictures etc) to be included and more importantly routing – this would allow individuals who have worked for competitors to compare them to you or recent recruits (providing there are enough of them) to assess the process of induction or onboarding.

Getting the right software is also important – I tend to use one that is one of the most secure as I value customer/employee confidentiality even though there are other products that offer a better looking questionnaire or having better analytical options.

Company Politics

This may be sensitive and you may not want to communicate this internally for obvious reasons but warning a researcher about potential issues or working out ways to deal with those who may fear the results (some middle managers may be worried about their position if they are anxious about how they are perceived), is good practice as it will improve the end product.  A good specialist will always ask if there are any other issues and recently picked up on a situation where one middle manager was the subject of criticism and was able to analyse the information sensitively.

6.     Options for research

Most people think of employee surveys as 100+ grid questions with an open-ended question that takes up 20 minutes of their life and never seems to lead to anything.  In other words something that detracts from the brand. There are other options around that can be used:

  • Tailored questionnaires – still an employee survey but related to the needs of the company and individuals.
  • Pulse questionnaires – much shorter questionnaires on a quarterly or even monthly basis to see what staff think on a specific issue.
  • Conjoint analysis – this is where key elements are chosen at random from a list and customers or in this case employees are asked which they would prefer. It can be used to assess employee packages, branding etc.
  • Focus groups – these can be done with departments, managers, individuals etc. but are often only a small sample of individuals – they can be a great way of understanding issues highlighted in other research or giving a wider perspective on a new product or service.
  • Depth or qualitative interviews can also be used for the same reason – this may be more appropriate for sensitive subjects which they would not want to relate to focus groups
  • Observation/ethnography – rarely used but highly effective in understanding how teams work together. Diaries are not used so much in research but allowing individuals to post short videos on their mobile devices about their experiences is a very effective way of getting a different level of information.
  • Desk research – analysis of appraisals, exit interviews, recruitment interviews, intranet/webscrapping – if done well can also help tease out some of the issues – but they may be highly biased though and may in some cases be unethical.
  • Gamification – this can be a marmite solution as it can be an effective way to see interaction and incentivize good behaviour. Some individuals take to them and others really do not like them, it does depend on the workforce.

7.     Writing a brief (internal or external)

It is always worth writing a brief – even if you plan to do the work internally as it gives you or your colleagues a chance to look at the plan and suggest improvements.  The internal brief will need a little more information about how you are going to go about undertaking the work (methodology) rather.

Rigid procurement processes only really work if you are looking for a standard approach (in which case this white paper may not be for you) and you should leave at least half an hour for each contractor you approach to talk to you about the issues – this gives you an opportunity to assess them and whether you can work with them.

A telephone conversation will allow you to talk about potential issues that you may not want third parties knowing about and allow researchers to understand the issues in greater detail.

  • Brief summary of what you are looking for from the work – ideally outcome-based, this is really what success will look like.
  • Background to the research – a short paragraph on what has led up to this stage and why the research is required, this should give the researcher a better perspective and understanding on why you are looking to undertake employee research.
  • Objectives for the research – A little more detail on the objectives for the project including the objectives from other departments (if compatible) and how this will help the organisation.
  • Description of what is to be researched in greater detail – the more information you can give at this stage the better. This should include
    • Number of staff, access to internet, teams/locations or other natural ways of segmenting the information by the structure of the organisation, languages required
    • Other information that can be provided (most software can incorporate information from excel/CSV files), access to facilities (for instance a room for focus groups) and previous reports to allow comparison over time etc.
    • The hypotheses that you may want to be assessed
    • What you are looking for from a researcher or an outline methodology is doing it in-house. Some options are suggested in section 6 but it is not an exhaustive list and it is always worth asking a skilled interviewer what they thing.
  • Outputs required – one of the core parts of the research project may be the dissemination of the results. These may include:
    • Report
    • Summary reports for teams and departments – do not get drawn into having too many summaries as teams generally teams of less than 15 -20 will be wary that their managers have access to their results. The more reports you want the more you are looking at an automated solution rather than insight into employees
    • Infographics
    • Press releases and PR – a great way of reinforcing the findings of any research is to get it into the local or trade press
    • Automated presentations/Videos
  • Constraints
  • Timescales
  • Budget (including payment stages if necessary)

8.     Outsourcing

A skilled researcher can help and even take on the project from this stage onwards. However you need to get the right researcher for your organisation.  Generally there are three types of provider, market research/survey specialists, HR specialists and IT specialists.

IT specialists are ideal for a standardized form, emailed out and an automated report/number of reports – you will then be able to analyse the results and create recommendations. They are ideal for the very largest companies and multiple locations such as banks, high street stores and government agencies.

HR specialists are again better for fairly straightforward survey approaches and can often provide recommendations from a position of experience.

Market research and other survey specialists (such as behavioural psychologists) will give you more options and potentially a better quality of information. They can make recommendations based on the information but not on their experience or work with an HR specialist who can offer this.

Finding the best fit for your company will come down to the personalities and their reaction to the brief.  Most contractors will want to put together a short proposal as this clarifies what they are expected to do for the price.

Proposals should be SMART and linked to your brief rather than an off the shelf solution, the less prescriptive the brief the more diverse will be the options suggested.  A staged methodology or plan for the project is the main body of the work, indicating how the work can be done in the time required for the budget suggested.

9.     Formalising a plan of action

When you have received the proposals and decided on a contactor or been given the go ahead to do the work internally, you will need to formalise your plan of action.

Look back at the notes and the brief you have put together and create a checklist to see if the proposal can answer all that you want.  Some issues may need to be shelved at this stage an included in a separate project, but others may be missing or require additional techniques.

Remember that the data gathering needs to be realistic and it is worth creating a list of where in the process and how information will be captured.  The scale and frequency of an issue will not be covered in a focus group whereas questions of internal branding can only be considered at a topline level by a questionnaire.

Overall focus groups should be around an hour and a half as a maximum, allowing for a warming up stage of around 20 minutes and a similar winding down pressure and a questionnaire should not take individuals more than 10 minutes to complete.

Understanding how the mechanics of the fieldwork is also important – online research should contain a number of reminders (if the number of individuals in the company is small then phone calls may be worthwhile) or other reminders (memos, reminders from supervisors etc).


If possible getting validation for the findings will help strengthen the evidence – this may be from using different processes or seeing whether the analysis fits in what is already suspected or can be gleaned for other indicators – for instance no one outside marketing uses the CRM system.

This is a key part of the design of the project and of the questionnaire – do you have different sources of information agreeing or do they disagree and then you try to work out why.

This should ideally be built into the process or the design of the questionnaire/topic guide.

11.Questionnaire/topic guide design

There are plenty of templates of questionnaires online and some of these are extremely good, the questions have worked and the end product is clear.  Not all the questions may be relevant or you may want to add other questions for your organisation.

However the structure of the questionnaire (or topic guide is crucial) as respondents work more effectively if they can get into a flow with a questionnaire.  Looking at the checklist of questions you need is a good way to structure this – you should even use warming up questions in a questionnaire.

Putting questions into blocks, communication, reward and recognition, training etc is an easy way to get the employee to focus on these elements at any one go.

Understanding how you are planning to analyse the information as well is useful – for instance if you want to look at engagement indicators then Gallup’s G12 is a good place to start (you can add a layer on to consider whether individuals are transformationally, emotionally or transactionnally engaged as well), these can then be fed into the blocks.

Open ended questions are not frequently used in employee research because they take time to quantify them – however only asking such questions of a section of employees (those who have been at the company for under 3 years or reported that they were unhappy at work) will lead to some valuable evidence giving context to the issues.

Topic guides are less restrictive but still need a framework – using the innovation technique “Jobs to be Done” can work effectively as a conceptual framework as it gives you units that are compatible to more fully understand the employee/user/customer experience.

12.Sampling and fieldwork

For focus groups, observational studies and depth interviews, it is likely that you are going to need to undertake sampling.  Most firms/organisations are of such a size that asking everyone for their views is easier than sampling, for companies with less than 400 staff the number to give a good statistical basis is close to the total number of staff anyway.

There are a couple of options:

  • Convenience sampling – this can be successful if linked to another event, getting volunteers etc. It can work and is the cheapest option, but those who may volunteer to participate could have their own agenda
  • Random sampling – fairly easy to do in excel using the RND function (then paste values and sort), it will allow
  • Standard stratified sampling – where individuals are groups/segmented before being chosen. Groups can be all similar types (managers, new recruits) or varied (one from each department etc). Depending on numbers the participants can be groups at random (the better solution) or can be manipulated to allow to for diversity within groups.
  • Thematic sampling – it is possible to ask individuals in a questionnaire if they would be interested in undertaking follow up research – these individuals could then be invited to a focus group or contacted individually to understand the information in greater detail (this would have to be done by the person/agency who undertook the research though).

In terms of fieldwork there are some basic points to remember to ensure a good response rate:

  • You will need to “sell” the research to employees by highlighting the benefits of participation (this should become a virtuous cycle after the first project)
  • You will need to allow them a convenient time to do the questionnaire – this may be in a ten minute period after lunch break for a survey or on a Friday afternoon.
  • It is also worth incentivizing teams to complete – this can be anything from biscuits to a donation to charity for the team/group who complete the survey fastest

In terms of the quality of responses it is worth:

  • Spending time on questionnaire design
  • Piloting the questionnaire and getting feedback
  • Monitoring responses to see for tales of straight-lining and other signs that the questionnaire has been filled out with little thought
  • Using an experienced facilitator/interviewer to encourage individuals to speak/participate


A questionnaire/topic guide is only as good as the information that can be extracted from it, however a good questionnaire/topic guide will create the structure for the report and make report writing fairly easy.

Response rates are crucial to understanding how robust some of the information is – for instance response rates from those who have internet access is likely to be higher than from those who have completed a hard copy questionnaire and as a result issues in the warehouse or from key customer facing staff may not be given the attention they require due to a lower response rate.

Analysis needs to be focused on your hypotheses or needs – what are the results and how does this help you.  How does the project help you solve your information issues and give you the level of detail to take action.

Cross-tabulations are key to this to seeing patterns in the data and there are customer segmentation techniques that transfer easily to employees.  Radar charts are also useful for assessing differences between teams especially for grid questions although bar charts are sometimes needed to put these in context.

Trying to stretch the data too thin can be a big problem with analysis so make sure there are sufficient numbers or other sources to validate findings.  Information from previous research can also be used effectively to show how things have changed, but again small changes may in effect be insignificant – if the “engagement score” increases from 70 to 71 this may not mean anything if the response rate has declined as apathetic or disengaged staff opt out.

Visual techniques such as process maps, mind maps, icons and pictures can be used highly effectively. They always have, with Florence Nightingale’s analysis of deaths in the Crimea a great example but technology means that visualization can be much more meaningful although some visualization options do need a good explanation.

A short report or presentation should be the basis for any information that is collected, but it does depend on why the information was needed and it may be better for the focus to be on a one page infographic or video for the board or senior management team which means that the detail is there in the report but the basis for decision making is readily available.


There are two markets that employee research should be geared towards.

One is the internal market (the employees) and it is worth telling them the results in a summary – with any actions that you are planning to take.  You are then provided them with evidence that their time has been used in productive way and if you take action, it should mean a good response when the research is undertaken again.

The other is the external market – research is fairly resource intensive so having some information that can be provided to the local press or trade press can provide a greater return on investment and reinforce the belief amongst staff about the company.  In most cases happy staff is linked to improved customer satisfaction levels so the two elements to putting out a press release are interlinked.

Some companies have a newsletter that is distributed internally and/or externally – if the newsletter is going externally then there needs to be a focus on the customer experience – a good internal communications specialist should be able to balance the needs of the internal and external audience well.


Good, robust research should make decisions easier as you have evidence of what the employees want and so can align what is good for the company and the staff relatively easily.  Most employees want to be part of a company that is progressing and developing staff, by asking employees for their thoughts you have the Hawthorne effect on your side and can adapt plans to make sure staff engage and push any changes to a successful conclusion.




We can offer employee surveys, focus groups and depth interviews from £500 excluding VAT, making us one of the most cost effective solutions in the UK.

The owner member of the Market Research Society and has 15 years’ experience in market research and public sector consultancy.

The firm uses software that is ISO27001 compliant meaning that online surveys are secure and our data protection reference is Z3163942.

 For more information or a free consultation on how to improve your staff research contact:  thomasp@askyourstaff.org.uk or call 0800 0937 883

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