The Institute of Internal Communication


Are you still relying only on your annual survey to find out how your workforce feels? That’s only one way to listen to your employees; your organisation is full of data about their attitudes and behaviour. In part one of our four-part feature on measurement, we look at what IC teams should be thinking about when planning either their engagement survey or a more holistic measurement approach.

5th October 2017

Internal communicators should be like marketers, measuring user experience and journeys, and the cause and effect of messaging. If I send out information, I want to evoke an action.


The staff engagement survey is on a journey. Although the familiar annual tick-box format of evaluating employee opinion remains many organisations’ main method of establishing what is and isn’t working, increasingly internal communicators are assessing not the business’s activities, but rather their effect on employees. New approaches are emerging to find out how people feel.

“Lots of communicators hate numbers,” says Sean Williams, vice-president of US-based True Digital Communications. “They hear ‘measurement’ and a sweat breaks out.”

Businesses need to stop thinking of measurement as a statistics process. It provides critical insight that is intrinsic to creating effective internal comms strategies. Without sound evaluation and research, comms planning has no foundation.

“If we do not understand our impact on business objectives, internal comms has no defensible reason for being,” says Sean. “If your objective is improving financial results, step back and look at the factors that influence that and measure your impact on those. Work back to place your measurement in context.”

More than a data-collecting exercise

Benjamin Ellis, CEO of SocialOptic, a software company that delivers data-driven decision-making tools, believes many internal communicators simply collect data and then see what it tells them. “That’s a hairy thing to do,” he says. “You need to understand why you are doing engagement work. You want to improve it, but what are the specific end goals?”

He recalls working with an organisation whose customer service had dipped. They assumed, therefore, that employee engagement must be bad, so they aimed to gather data around that. It turned out most employees were happy, but there were process issues around interactions with customers.

“If they’d gone in without a focus for their survey, they’d have missed that objective,” says Benjamin. “When you start with a focus, you create more valuable data that you can act on.”

Sean co-leads a project commissioned by the Institute for Public Relations in the US to measure effective IC standards. The taskforce has concluded that productivity, innovation, continuous improvement, reputation, employee retention and safety are the six key areas where internal comms can add value on organisational impact.

“Starting with those assumptions, you can then look at what sort of innovation your organisation expects, or if you’re retaining the employees you wish to retain, or if you have a safe workplace,” says Sean. “From this knowledge, you get a sense of the relevance of your comms activities. Look at where you are. Are you in a place where reputation is good? Or are you struggling to realise operational efficiencies? Is there a lack of trust?”

No one should be measuring all factors at once and internal comms teams need to have some idea of the framework they’re working within.

Measure more than a moment in time

While you can’t measure all issues at once, you should be measuring all the time. Digital environments have given internal comms greater access than ever before to constant facts and data.

Drew McMillan, head of colleague communication and engagement at Virgin Trains, has voiced concerns about the annual survey for years.

“It’s a fallacy,” he asserts. “You end up with a tonne of data pertaining to a snapshot in time. Would any business ask its customers just once a year how they felt about a service they were using every day? And we measure other information like sickness absence, sales or revenue in real-time. If you believe your employees are your most important asset, why only ask for their feedback once a year?”

Rob Dumbleton, digital consulting director at creative technology company 27partners, suggests not only should measurement be a constant process, but internal comms teams should track every piece of work: “Internal communicators should be like marketers, measuring user experience and journeys, and the cause and effect of messaging. If I send out information, I want to evoke an action. Are people sharing it, commenting on it, liking it, rating it? Are they creating a second wave of engagement? Finding that out is far more valuable than telling staff to fill in a 50-question survey. There is a place for that, but those surveys are just a checkpoint in time. Comms teams need to push the boundaries of how and when they measure staff engagement.”

Planning the logistics

Once you’ve nutted the objectives, there are logistics to consider. Avoid running a survey during typical holiday months, when your workforce is thin on the ground, and don’t launch it when staff are at their busiest – either seasonally or the time of day – or when the company is going through a rough patch. Likewise, don’t prey on a positive mood swing – when everyone has just had a pay rise, for instance. You want a real, typical response.

Even if internal comms hasn’t instigated the survey, the team has a key up-front role in setting the scene for employees – to tease the survey, explain the timeline and outline how important their feedback is.

“Be sincere,” says Sharon Kennedy, principal consultant of Engage & Prosper. “Highlight that something needs to happen off the back of it, let them know they’ll be included in the results and that you plan to address any issues. You’ll do more harm than good if you don’t.”

Internal comms teams also need to consider how and when to use outside experts. Not only do these professionals know the pitfalls to avoid, but an independent resource can be critical to ensure openness and transparency.

“If employees don’t feel they can trust the internal system, there’s a chance they’re not going to answer honestly to a survey from comms or HR,” says Sharon.

An expression of total confidentiality will be rewarded with more honest feedback. While most surveys are anonymous, people could be identified once they have ticked the details around gender, ethnicity and business area – and even from an IP address. With the General Data Protection Regulation coming in to force May 2018, compliance and storage of data must be on every internal communicator’s watch list.

“Employees may be concerned that whatever they freely say is going to find its way to the wrong person,” says Sharon. “Some clients will ask us to tell them who has not completed the survey, but we won’t do that. It undermines trust and we can’t risk people being treated differently because they haven’t filled it in.”

This article is the first part of a four-part series. Members can read the other three parts here on method, analysis and follow-up. If you are not an IoIC member and would like to read more Voice Online content and take advantage of other benefits, you can join IoIC here.


Internal communicators should be like marketers, measuring user experience and journeys, and the cause and effect of messaging. If I send out information, I want to evoke an action.


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