Should you choose a qualitative or quantitative employee engagement survey?

James Caldecott
September 1, 2022
Should you choose a qualitative or quantitative employee engagement survey?

Digital employee engagement surveys are a powerful mechanism to address the global disengagement problem. (A problem that’s becoming increasingly obvious: Gallup recently found that 23% of the global workforce is engaged - and that's a record-high. In Europe however, only 13% (13%!!) are actively engaged.

Whether delivered through a standalone survey tool or an integrated employee engagement platform, digital surveys amplify HR’s reach beyond the scope of one-to-one interviews, gathering valuable workforce insights at scale.

Employee feedback can empower you to better understand the issues your people face, and identity areas to improve. A laudable goal, given the most engaged businesses outperform the least engaged by 22% on profitability and 10% on customer ratings.

But all surveys aren’t created equal. Qualitative versus quantitative is a debate as old as time. Irrespective of delivery engine — tool versus platform — the right methodology is critical to ensure your investment pays off.

Qualitative research is the process of collecting, analysing, and interpreting non-numerical data, such as language. Qualitative research can be used to understand how an individual subjectively perceives and gives meaning to their social reality.

Quantitative research
involves the process of objectively collecting and analysing numerical data to describe, predict, or control variables of interest. The goals of quantitative research are to test causal relationships between variables, make predictions, and generalise results to wider populations.

In this article, we’ll explore how qualitative surveys stack up against quantitative surveys, to help you decide which methodology will best help your people (to help your business)

Qualitative surveys have a depth problem

Employee engagement surveys have traditionally been qualitative, usually taking long-form annual form. And on the surface, this tradition makes sense. The beauty of qualitative insight is depth, and depth feels like a necessity for true understanding. If your friend, partner, or family member was unhappy you’d sit and talk to them about it. You’d ask questions, listen, empathise, and (hopefully) get to the heart of the issue fast.

It seems logical to treat the workforce in the same way, replicating this process in scalable digital format. But that’s where the problems with qualitative surveys stem from. First, the relationship between an organisation and its employees isn’t the same as these interpersonal relationships. The relationship between colleagues is, maybe. And perhaps the relationship between team members and their manager, if you’ve got great managers. But that’s not the dynamic at play with employee surveys.

Qualitative surveys offer the possibility to gather deeper subjective truths — but this value hinges on honest, vulnerable input that stems from a close, trusting relationship. Can your organisation truly claim that? Few can.

Then there’s the problem of interpreting qualitative survey results. Imagine your annual survey delivers a goldmine of detailed, honest responses that hold the secret to solving all your people’s problems and transforming your culture. Great.

But how are you planning to interpret and use those insights? Most organisations don’t have anywhere near the HR resource to process this data, so ultimately survey responses do little more than gather dust. In practice, then, qualitative surveys often don’t achieve much apart from perpetuating survey fatigue and adding to your people’s busy plates.

Are quantitative surveys the answer?

It’s not so simple.

If qualitative surveys are struck off, are quantitative surveys an easy answer? In some ways. The biggie is that quantitative surveys actually provide useful insights for HR, because they generate consistent numerical data that’s easy to analyse.

The big plus of quantitative surveys is that they make it easier to turn data into insight. But insight alone doesn’t create change –action does. That’s the major reason to choose an integrated engagement platform over a standalone tool: because it helps you move one step further, from insight to action. With Winningtemp, HR and managers don’t only get a constant stream of real-time insights presented through an engaging, personalised dashboard. Our AI also translates those insights into recommendations for change, so managers can act fast to solve problems.

Quantitative surveys don’t solve the vulnerability problem though. Like qualitative surveys, the quality of input you’ll get depends on trust. And if you’ve already gone down the track of qualitative surveys that don’t add value, getting employee buy-in and building this trust might be an uphill struggle. True culture change ultimately comes from employee ownership.

Choosing a survey tool that supports anonymity can work wonders here. Qualitative surveys make true anonymity impossible to guarantee because text feedback contains more identifying features. Quantitative surveys don’t have this problem, so you can guarantee your people their answers aren’t traceable.

There’s still the problem of depth, though, this time from the opposite perspective. Quantitative surveys can illuminate surprising truths, allow comparison, and show trends — but they lack the richer context of qualitative surveys. If qualitative surveys give too much depth, quantitative surveys perhaps don’t offer enough.

The best of both worlds.

This knotty problem is exactly why Winningtemp’s engagement platform combines qualitative and quantitative insights. We use AI to send micro-surveys of 1-5 short quantitative questions each week tailored to individual employees, using our engaging four-point emoji scale.

But employees can also add anonymous comments to add depth and context to their answers, which opens an anonymous open conversation with the relevant manager.

The truth is, there’s no magic bullet for the engagement problem. The continuing debate about qualitative versus quantitative methodologies is testament to that. But in practice, an engagement platform that incorporates both — and critically, generates a constant stream of recommendations — is a powerful way to turn your employee data into concrete employee engagement improvement.

Watch our two-minute demo video to learn how Winningtemp helps you make your people data work for you.

James Caldecott is the UK Head of Sales at Winningtemp. He joined the business in early 2021 and has experience heading up sales functions across a wide range of technology businesses. At Winningtemp, James and his team focus on growing the UK market by educating businesses on immediate issues such as ensuring mental health, stress, and overall wellbeing is monitored proactively, all within a safe environment. Positive and negative trends are all triggered by real-time data and this is essential to creating strong high spirited workplaces. Outside of work, James is on his third attempt at training for the London Marathon in October, that’s if it goes ahead…

About the author
James Caldecott

Focusing on people

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