How to Gauge Employee Satisfaction, One Question at a Time

There's nothing quite like that gut-wrenching feeling when an employee gives notice. It's especially tough when the employee was one of the good ones, and when you didn't see it coming, says David Niu, founder of TinyPulse.

"Regardless of geography, company size, industry, that sinking feeling when an employee gives notice is universal," Niu says. "You're losing a member of your team, there are morale issues to consider, not to mention the hard and soft costs of a talent search, recruiting, interviewing and hiring a replacement -- it's haunting," Niu says.

Niu's company, TinyPulse, was formed to directly address many of the problems companies face when trying to improve employee engagement, satisfaction and retention, he says.

By anonymously polling employees frequently using one question at a time, Niu says the solution can help address small problems within the company before they become major issues.

Keeping Your Finger on the Business's Pulse

"I came up with the idea that businesses should constantly have their finger on the pulse -- hence the name -- of their employees," Niu says. "Most companies do [performance] reviews once a year, but businesses change more than once a year. You don't check your finances once a year. You don't evaluate your business strategy just once a year, so why do we put culture and people and their engagement and satisfaction last?" he says.

The answer to that question is simple: Because it's so hard to do and it's very inefficient, Niu says, at least if businesses take the "traditional" route of asking for and then evaluating employee surveys.

First, Niu says, not only do you have to develop questions, but you have to set aside time to read the responses, categorize them, prioritize them, and then develop a plan to address them. Even in small organizations, the task can seem Herculean, and many companies just don't want to deal with the hassle, he says.

TinyPulse attempts to turn this process on its head by asking one, highly specific question at intervals that are customizable to fit each business.

"We wanted to make sure that these questions were open-ended enough that employees would easily be able to answer them and provide additional feedback, but also be targeted enough that HR and management could hone in on trouble spots and actually fix them," Niu says.

Some examples of TinyPulse questions used by clients:

Name one process that, were it eliminated, would make you more productive.

How transparent is management?

Please rate the quality of the snacks in the kitchen.

That last question, Niu says, was one he asked of TinyPulse employees, and it generated a surprising response -- hatred. "We're a very small office, so I'd been bringing in a bag of pretzels here and there, and it turned out no one liked that particular brand." he says. "In and of itself, that's not a huge issue -- but if you're in management, and you don't know these things, big or little, how can you fix them?" he says.

Definitely Sweat the Small Stuff

Of course, the TinyPulse tool (which costs $3 per user, per month) itself isn't a solution. The effort you put into it is what you will get out, and it's incumbent on the company to take the information gathered and address the issues raised, Niu says.

One client, for instance, asked employees to name one thing about their office that really bothered them, Niu says. The employees overwhelmingly agreed that the water available for drinking was less than tasty.

"The information he received was quite shocking to him," Niu said. "In one case, an employee told him, 'The water tastes like a toilet bowl!' and the client said, 'We've been in this office space for three years, and no one told me. I was horrified; but I went out and invested in a water filter, and suddenly, the morale in the office improved and everyone was happier,'" Niu says.

The TinyPulse tool allows employees to send their feedback anonymously, which contributes to an open and honest feedback environment, Niu says. It's one way to help employees feel that their concerns are being heard and that they are expressing dissatisfaction in a safe environment without fear that their jobs might be in jeopardy.

"A key feature is the anonymity. People need a safe, secure place to share, but also to confirm that their feedback was received," Niu says. "One of the things we encourage is that management relay to their employees that the feedback has been received, and then have meetings about what can and cannot be addressed and within what timeframe," he says.

All businesses are bound by time, financial and resource constraints, and thus aren't able to address every complaint, he says. But simply acknowledging employees concerns and letting them know they're being heard can go a long way toward improving engagement and satisfaction -- and retention, says Niu.

Though it can take between six and 12 months of sustained, concerted effort to change a workplace culture, making a visible effort to do so can show employees that their company cares about them and wants to make things right, Niu says.

"We wanted this to be a way for companies to address retention issues before they become a major issue," Niu says. "This is a great way to uncover blind spots within your organization and take action to correct them."

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