Employee engagement: challenging times

Unless you’ve been in quite a bubble you’ll know that a large portion of media coverage on the rail industry has been focused on poor service performance (since the recent timetable changes) and striking staff.

Add to that the recent National Rail Passenger Survey results showing an overall slight decline in satisfaction among passengers.  The industry has taken a bit of a battering, and this raises questions about what impact that has on staff morale and engagement.

Statistics have shown that well over a third of the UK adult population has never considered working in the rail industry.  And research by RDG earlier this year suggests that four in five women have never considered a career in the sector.

Measuring engagement through staff satisfaction surveys is commonplace.  In fact it’s increasingly becoming a metric that many include in their annual reports.  Surveys can help to identify highly dissatisfied clusters within a business, areas where the opposite is happening and where best practice principles can be learned and replicated, and identify overall challenges that the organisation faces.

Feedback is usually gathered via a self-completion survey, and a well-designed survey provides some highly useful information.  And by that I mean one which adheres to a strict policy on confidentiality and anonymity, gamifies the questions to make them interesting and enjoyable, provides open questions so the employee feels they really have the chance to say what’s on their mind, explains why they should take part, how long it will take and how the results will be used.

Nevertheless, it’s important to be aware of some key shortcomings of this approach:

  1. There’s a fundamental issue about measuring engagement which doesn’t get spoken about very often: no one can agree on what drives engagement, even academics. Most seem to agree that trust is important but, beyond that, which factors are most important is up for debate.  So if no one can agree what it is, how can we measure it?  In particular, how can we boil it down to a single number?  (Probably the most commonly requested metric we get asked for.)
  2. Consider the nature of self-completion surveys. You’ll know yourself that you’re most compelled to give feedback on a product or service when you’ve got something particularly positive or particularly negative to say about it.  The same applies here.  These most positive or negative groups within an organisation are the most likely to give feedback OR may be more likely to give feedback when they’re having a particularly good or bad day at work!  So how representative is that of their typical day at work?
  3. The diversity of environments in which employees work can also be problematic. And the rail sector couldn’t be a better example of this.  Not everyone sits in front of a computer all day.  Not only does this make actual participation more challenging, but it also affects how easy it is to communicate the benefits of giving feedback and how the results will be used.
  4. Too many surveys fail to make a real impact on the business. A number of factors can cause this.  Examples include the time taken to deliver results across the business, a change in business priorities, risk-averse managers reluctant to make change and the effort or complexity of making changes happen.

The survey isn’t going anywhere just yet, but things will eventually change.  Breaking Blue use a number of techniques to address some of these issues which they continue to refine and develop. This includes using qualitative techniques, the use of continuous measures using digital channels, and drawing on principles from behavioural economics to drive action and overcome risk avoidance, to name but a few.  The company believes it’s only a matter of time before its surveys really do drive the change that customers require.*

*An article by Breaking Blue