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Using employee surveys to solve workforce conflicts

Published on April 15, 2002
on TechRepublic.Com

When most people think of surveys, it's likely in the context of industry trends, public opinion polls, and consumer product evaluation. But surveys are finding a niche in the IT department these days as CIOs and tech leaders realize how valuable the tools can be for investigating, and ultimately, solving workforce problems.

As one company relates, a survey effort focused on friction between employees not only helped ease the conflicts but also improved overall project quality as well as the dialogue between staff and corporate management.

Using surveys to investigate problems

When the number of employees mushroomed from 200 to 450 at Internet systems integrator Context Integration in 1999, a "certain amount of chaos" followed, recalls Chuck McCann, director of strategic services at the Burlington, MA-based company. The impact was substantial— for the first time in its history, the company was facing project delays.

Management suspected that part of the problem was friction between new hires and more tenured staff, as new hires hadn't yet embraced the Context approach in completing projects.

Management decided to find out if their hunch was right and survey the workforce— all 450 staffers. Due to the large number of employees and Context's inexperience in conducting employee surveys, the company turned to Minneapolis-based Gantz Wiley Research, a company that conducts research into employee and client satisfaction.

Gantz Wiley conducted the company's surveys during the second and third quarters of 2000 at a cost of $22,000, which included survey design and consulting fees. The survey process was relatively painless, says McCann. Gantz Wiley first met with Context executives to learn about workforce concerns and survey issues (such as the confidentiality requirement) and then designed an Internet-based survey.

While the survey was being designed, Context's employee-relations group, called the Ministry of People, began informing workers about the impending survey via e-mail notices, companywide conference calls, and personal reminders.

When the survey was ready to be rolled out, employees were issued a unique code identifier and password for accessing the survey form. This process assured employees that answers couldn't be traced back to individuals, explains Mark Schmit, Gantz Wiley's executive director of employee surveys.

Results confirm management hunch

While most organizations can expect 65 to 75 percent of workers to remit a poll or survey, an astonishing 90 percent of Context employees answered the call. The high response was tied to Context's prep work and internal notification effort.

Three weeks after the survey data was compiled, Context had the survey analysis in hand. "We didn't actually get a lot of surprises, which in itself was a very positive thing for the management team," says McCann.

The results confirmed what Context leaders suspected: New employees had brought their own methods and tools for getting work done into their jobs at Context, and it was clashing with the tenured workers' approach.

Additionally, the survey revealed leadership insight: Employees were concerned about personal and professional development and said they needed a better understanding of company culture and business direction.

Set a course based on the information Obviously, conducting a survey and getting an analysis is worthless if the process stops at that point. Context then held meetings with employees to discuss possible avenues of action to solve the workforce conflicts. The goal wasn't to solve every issue initially, explains Schmit.

"While five or six things may need to change, you can only focus on one or two," he explains. Context followed up on the employee feedback and the meetings with a three-pronged approach:

  • To address confusion on project implementation, Context began training all new employees in Context's project methodologies. It also began periodic process reviews.
  • To improve communication, the company initiated all-hands meetings typically led by the CEO, who addressed employee questions and concerns.
  • Quarterly employee reviews were begun to align technology and business objectives with employee learning goals.

Context was able to get projects back on track, as well as boost employee self-confidence through its efforts in response to the survey results.

"At a time when there was a feeling that the company might be getting too big, it reassured the people that the management team was still concerned about them," says McCann.

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david southgate
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