In a recent blog focusing on the evolution of traditional company-employee relationships, my colleague Danielle Hegarty, wrote about the crucial importance for companies to really listen to their employees.
“In the same holistic vein of always looking at employees in the totality of their talents rather than the limitation of a specific skillset, there is no better way to gain this insight than to simply listen. Question and explore yes, but listen, listen, and listen again,” she wrote. Wise words, indeed. But, of course, while that’s all very fine in theory, too many companies and organizations struggle to put it into practice. How many times have we heard people say management doesn’t listen to them? How many times have we said it ourselves in our careers?
By now, it’s generally accepted that effective internal communication is key to employee engagement, and in turn the ability to really listen is key to great communication. It’s something we take very seriously here at Poppulo, which this year resulted in our award from the Great Places To Work organization as the best company in Ireland for listening to its employees.
In recent years there has been something of a revolution in the ability of companies to listen to their workers, through a proliferation of apps, ESNs, video etc. The annual behemoth that was the company employee survey no longer reigns supreme, though it can still play an important and useful role.
Innovative software such as Poppulo’s pulse surveys makes it possible to literally check the pulse of an organization by embedding surveys and quick polls in emails, quickly and easily encouraging two-way communication and giving employees a voice. As internal communications measurement expert Sean Williams has stated, whereas previously surveys were a big and onerous undertaking, it’s now possible to conduct smaller ones more frequently, concentrating on specific areas of interest in the business or organization.
Whether it’s the big annual survey or the smaller more regular and frequent pulse surveys, they play a central role in another important means of really listening to what employees are thinking and feeling: focus groups. Just like surveys, they can have a tremendous influence on employee engagement – for better or worse. If the feedback people give in a survey is seen to be ignored, then it really shouldn’t be surprising if it leads, at the very least, to a lack of engagement.
It’s the same with focus groups. Focus groups can have advantages and disadvantages. Conducted well, they can play a very useful role in employee engagement, but if not they can backfire badly, creating negativity and even disillusionment. The key is knowing how to conduct them properly, who to involve, how to manage difficult personalities, what questions to ask and what to avoid.
But no matter how well constructed, managed and executed surveys or focus group sessions are, their success or damaging failure will be determined by the F-factors: follow-through and feedback. If you don’t do either properly be prepared for disenchanted employees. On the other hand, implementing even some of the suggestions offered in focus groups leads to positive engagement because the message is clear: management is really listening to what we have to say, they care about what we think and how we feel.
So how should focus group questions be structured, and what are the pitfalls to be avoided?
- Firstly, the focus group itself needs a focus if is to be productive. The focus, the purpose, the objective of the session or sessions will determine the questions that will steer its direction. So it is imperative that the objective is clearly articulated to everybody from the outset – everybody must be clear about that. What a focus group most certainly shouldn’t be is a group chat without direction or it will quickly disintegrate into a pointless mess.
- According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the key to question design is specificity: “Questions should be designed to solicit the views of participants regarding specific issues. General questions generate general thoughts. Specific questions generate specific thoughts and bring to light the detail necessary to define issues in such a way that effective action can be taken.
- As an example, the SHRM points to the differences here:
“What do you think about the new benefits plan?”
“What are the two most important changes in the new benefits plan?”
“What is the most positive aspect of the new benefits plan, and why?”
As the SHRM points out: “The first question will most likely generate little more than shrugs. The other two questions, however, ask participants to categorize their thoughts around specific aspects of the topic. Using more specific questions incites the type of discussion that yields meaningful, rather than vague and general, information.”
- In her excellent Top Tips & Traps for conducting employee focus groups, which you can download here, Angela Sinickas recommends avoiding questions with yes/no or very short answers, as these are unlikely to lead to meaningful discussion. (She also advises not letting a focus group become a complaint session: “After identifying problems, have the group prioritize them and then spend most of the time brainstorming solutions to the top three problems.”
- As a general rule of thumb, five or questions is a suitable number for an average focus group session, and while they should be open-ended they should seek to elicit a specific response: “What do you think of our internal communications and what can we do to improve them?”
- There should be a logical flow to the question structure, opening with something to set a relaxed tone to the proceedings, asking people to introduce themselves and what department they work in, for example. This can be followed by another general question, perhaps about their ideal view of what a company’s internal communications should look like.
- Then you get into the business-end of the session with very specific questions about what they think is wrong, what’s working, and what needs to be done to improve things.
- Many focus group facilitators like to end sessions with a wrap-up question, such as “from everything we discussed here today if there was one thing you could change straight away about our communications, what would it be? In addition to wrapping up the session in an inclusive manner involving all participants, a wrap question can also serve the purpose of highlighting issues that are considered most significant by the people who matter most.
- If you want expert insight into using focus groups you might like to download a webinar for Poppulo by Cindy Crescenzo, President of Crescenzo Communications, here.