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New employee engagement tools replacing annual surveys

Say goodbye to annual employee surveys. New approaches and better technology are coming to places like Mission Health System and upending the employee engagement tools market.

Mission Health System devoted time and effort to create a positive workplace for its more than 12,000 employees. The western North Carolina-based healthcare provider increased employee perks, added recognition programs, operated a booming employee wellness program and invested in employee engagement tools, namely a 100-question annual survey.

Despite these efforts, engagement survey scores remained flat, while frustration with the engagement efforts increased. The numbers caught the attention of the organization's top leaders, who started asking hard questions about their engagement programs.

"Why are we dumping money into these big programs that are showing no results in the way that people actually feel about coming to work?" said Nancy Critcher-White, director of team member engagement at Mission Health. "What are we measuring and how are we measuring it and are we measuring the right thing?"

High employee engagement is a top strategic priority for Mission Health, Critcher-White said. It can result in "an environment where everyone can be their best, [which] leads to excellent healthcare."

Mission Health ends use of annual engagement survey

After an investigation into alternative employee engagement tools, Mission Health decided to end the use of its annual survey. The healthcare provider switched to shorter, more frequent pulse surveys delivered at least once a quarter, giving managers the ability to more quickly identify and address management issues.

Mission Health elected to use tools such as StandOut from The Marcus Buckingham Company Inc., a performance talent management firm acquired last year by ADP.

While pulse surveys helped, the key to improving engagement at Mission Health was facilitating regular communication between employees and their managers. The company did this using a check-in application. Each week, employees used the tool to share their weekly progress, concerns and upcoming efforts.

Nancy Critcher-White, director of team member engagement at Mission Health System, a healthcare provider for more than 12,000 employees in North Carolina Nancy Critcher-White

A check-in tool is a two-way communication vehicle, Critcher-White said. If team members don't receive meaningful attention from their leaders about near-term issues, they won't feel engaged.

Amy Leschke-Kahle, vice president of performance acceleration at Marcus Buckingham, made a similar point when she said that measuring engagement itself doesn't increase engagement.

"Just because you measure something doesn't mean you move it," she said. The check-in process, which encourages frequent conversations, is what increases engagement.

Annual engagement survey in steady decline

Mission Health made the move to a pulse employee engagement survey in 2015, which was a bold move at that time. When it made the switch, 90% of all organizations were still using annual engagement surveys, according to Gartner.

But Gartner expects those numbers to steadily decline. In 2019, the consultancy predicts only about 74% of organizations will still be using large engagement survey approaches, which, for most, is an annual or biannual survey. By 2020, that number is expected to drop to 63%.

Mission Health now has enough experience with its new approach to know that it works. Engagement scores have increased, and the new system has led to a "multiple point decrease in our first-year turnover," Critcher-White said.

You can't practice HR in the same way that you practiced it 10 years ago -- even five years ago, at this point.
Nancy Critcher-Whitedirector of team member engagement, Mission Health System

Mission Health is not alone in looking for new tools. The reason large annual survey use is declining is because they are "time-consuming and slow," said Brian Kropp, group vice president of Gartner's HR practice. It can take three to six months to prepare a survey, collect the data, analyze it and disseminate it. Plus, annual surveys are backward-looking.

"You get a snapshot of what the world used to look like, which is really easy to explain away because you can say, 'well that was six months ago,'" Kropp said.

Pulse surveys may be the top competitor to annual engagement surveys, but they are far from the only alternative. The market for employee engagement tools is seeing a variety of technologies that can glean engagement independent of surveys, Kropp said.

These are analytical tools that look for engagement clues in employee behavior. They may include the use of social media monitoring to check for employee dissatisfaction and building monitor systems that track when people arrive and leave (see sidebar).

The latest engagement tech trends

Engagement technology experimentation is wide-ranging, from cameras that track facial expressions to embedded microchips that replace ID passes, but that can also track an employee's movements and interactions with other employees. Some of the leading alternative tech trends, according to Gartner, are:

  • Employee movement data. About 26% of large firms with revenue of at least $1 billion are using employee movement data. This may include analyzing data generated by badges to swipe in and out of the office. If employees, on average, are leaving work earlier, arriving later and taking longer lunch breaks, those can be indicators of declining engagement.
  • Email data. Approximately 16% of large firms are scraping Outlook calendars to understand how employees are working with each other. Employees who isolate themselves can be less engaged. Six percent of companies are also analyzing employee emails and texts for similar engagement clues.
  • Social media data. Ten percent of large firms are using social media to monitor engagement. An increase in employees who update their LinkedIn profiles, for instance, may be an indicator of an engagement problem.

Changes ahead with employee engagement tools

The market for employee engagement tools involves some broader shifts with HR tools, said Dan Elman, an analyst at Nucleus Research.

Performance reviews, as well as engagement surveys, are also seeing a shift to tools that can provide more frequent feedback, Elman said. Firms want to track changes in performance and in engagement closer to real time.

A major goal with employee engagement tools is to minimize turnover.

"Every person that they lose that they don't think they were going to lose is a cost they weren't planning on," Elman said.

When discussing the changes with engagement tools, Mission Health's Critcher-White made note of her relative youth as a millennial, but she used it to give context to the pace of change in HR.

"You have to be able to embrace the tools that are out there," she said. "You can't practice HR in the same way that you practiced it 10 years ago -- even five years ago, at this point."

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