How to Use Open-Ended Questions in an Employee Engagement Survey

Increased levels of HR administration have made open-ended questions less appealing for engagement surveys. With automated pulse surveys, it's possible to analyze responses accurately in real time.

Using open-ended questions to gather feedback from employees should be considered one of your essential tools when putting together an employee engagement survey. However, knowing when to use them and what they’re best suited for takes some consideration

One of the strongest benefits of open-ended questions is that they can deliver detailed, practical information that you can act on immediately. With qualitative data you don’t need to wait and analyse trends to learn what actions are increasing or decreasing engagement—people are often quite literally telling you, and their responses become a great source of easy wins.

There’s also something fundamentally fulfilling about offering respondents the chance to share what they care about, even if it’s a little off script—as opposed to only allowing them to choose from your predefined answers.

That being said, there’s a clear reason why many businesses shy away from open-ended questions. Making sense of potentially tens of thousands of text responses requires resources and analytics capabilities that many organizations feel are out of reach. That means HR leaders should consider when to use open-ended questions carefully.

When to Use Open-Ended Questions

The most essential difference between what makes a good subject for an open or closed question is whether the response is something you want to measure over time to view trends.

For example, autonomy—the feeling that you can use your talents as you see best—has featured heavily in theories around human motivation for decades. Any employee engagement survey should be able show you whether employees feel they have more or less autonomy over time—and to do this accurately, a quantitative scale is required.

For instance, employees rate out of ten how strongly they agree with the statement: “I feel like I am given enough freedom to decide how to do my work.” Asking only an open-ended “Do you feel you have the freedom to decide how to do your work?” may throw up some interesting responses, but gauging whether you’ve improved a few months down the line, will be far less scientific.

In contrast, open-ended questions are most useful when they gather input and ideas on specific or time-sensitive subjects. If you’re looking to gauge real-time opinions on a new company initiative, or on a just-passed company event, then open-ended questions are far more suitable.

What Open-Ended Questions Should I Include?

Several HR leaders who have made open-ended questions an integral part of their employee engagement surveys recently shared their most effective questions with us. We’ve now added these questions to the Workday Peakon Employee Voice question library for you to try in your own organization:

  • If you had a magic wand, what’s the one thing you would change about [company name]? The obviously fanciful element of this question prompts people to be a little more imaginative—but also more honest and straight talking—rather than tempering their responses based on what they think is possible.
  • What do you think our core values are? Whether those carefully thought out company values are really what employees experience everyday should be of interest to any leader.
  • What’s the one thing that would improve your productivity right now? As opposed to the more imaginative “magic wand” question, this delivers very practical responses as to what employees need.
  • What’s on your mind right now that you would like to tell us? One of the beauties of open-ended questions is they enable respondent to set the agenda to a certain extent. This question is a good example of that, and can capture important feedback that falls outside other questions.
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you at work this month? Discovering the highlight of peoples’ months is the first step to making more of them.
  • What team event would you like to see next? All open-ended questions in Workday Peakon Employee Voice can be set to appear at a frequency of your choosing. Using this once a month, or once a quarter, keeps a steady stream of ideas for team events flowing.

Reaching useful conclusions from these questions can be difficult without technology (or a lot of manual work). That’s why we’ve built text analysis into our employee voice platform, which allows it to analyse feedback from your employee engagement surveys in real-time, and create groups of responses based around meaningful topics.

For example, the productivity question above could bring up “office noise," “meetings,” and “approval process," grouping all of the comments related to these subjects together. This way, you’ll automatically see how many people are talking about something, and all the specific points of view on it.

A Balance Between Open-ended and Closed Questions

Of course, questions don’t necessarily need to be exclusively open or closed. Thanks to the legacy of long annual surveys with little technology behind them, people often assume that you should only include a few open-ended questions in each survey. With 40-50 questions on the table, not only did that represent a lot of work for the HR team to unpack, but a lot of work for the respondents.

With pulse surveys, this doesn’t need to be the case. The surveys themselves only take a few minutes to complete, and the resultant text is analysed in real-time. That’s why we can include both a quantitative and open-ended qualitative element in each of our questions.

In the example above you can see the respondent answering with a score of seven, and then using the optional comment field to explain more. These comments add color and nuance to the data. The combination can also provide deeper insights that either independently: the numerical scores can show if something is a statistically significant issue, and within this context, the comments can show us why—and provide practical pointers as to how we improve.

Moving forward, it’s important that we don’t view open-ended and closed questions as separate entities. With modern technology solutions, it’s possible to integrate both, providing a more rounded view of the employee engagement landscape.

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