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The truth and the whole truth

1 January 04

Suggestd ways of conducting staff surveys to improve motivation

by Mac Mackay

What is the best asset of your firm? Its reputation, knowhow, client relationships are all meaningful assets but they are all embedded in your people. Take staff away and what have you left – a nice office and some IT? So, if your best asset is your people, do you really know how well they will perform?

Many practitioners believe that they know whether their staff are happy and satisfied with their job, despite never having asked them. Partners often focus on technical skills and billable hours or case completion, rather than people’s ability and motivation on which performance rests. How can disgruntled staff provide excellent client service on which the future of your firm depends?

You cannot guarantee that you have guessed your staff’s views correctly, and it is not worth losing good people (or good clients through sloppy service from someone discontented). Not only may it be difficult to find other people with the same skills, the cost may be burdensome: visible costs of advertising and recruitment, and hidden costs including stress on others as they try to cover for the absent person, potential client dissatisfaction, and time and expenses lost training the leaver – plus the risk that they may take clients with them.

So, do all your staff hold the same high views of the firm on issues that are important to them? Research in some firms has shown considerable inconsistency in staff perceptions across partners, department heads, fee earners and support staff. Even where partners and managers consider that some fee earners in a firm are content and give an excellent service, the service from others may fall far short of client expectations.

Even if you ask your staff for their opinion, do you actually use the information? Collating and analysing views, deciding on the requisite steps to improve staff retention and morale and then actually implementing them are equally important. Staff do not mind if you ask for their opinion on how to make improvements in performance; in fact most feel quite flattered. What they do object to is when, having taken the trouble to give their opinion, you fail to take any action to improve.

Plan to manage the outcome

It is vital to use the information or the exercise will have been futile, resources wasted and staff expectations raised in vain. Plan what you intend to do but do not be over-ambitious in the first instance. It is better to do something small that is seen to be successful, than a large-scale project that risks failing for lack of commitment. The results of the analysis may suggest one or more of several courses of action:

  • Do new working procedures need to be introduced?
  • Are any problems firm wide or limited to departments, offices or individuals?
  • Should senior fee earners be encouraged to change behaviours? Evidence from staff can be a most persuasive tool!
  • Do staff expectations need to be managed because it is not possible to deliver what they actually want?
  • What changes can you implement first?

Always take a very positive approach when obtaining staff views. In many instances, resistance from managers may arise from a fear of finding out that their staff are demotivated – no one likes to receive criticism about their work. Choosing who will tell the manager and how they will be told is important. If behaviours need to be changed, show the person how they need to change – do not expect them to be able to without guidance or training. Encourage people to learn from their mistakes and always lead by example.

You must also consider whether to give feedback on the results to all your staff. At one firm we worked with, the partners said they were going to undertake an audit and publish the findings. Then we were brought in to undertake the work. When we presented the findings at a partners’ meeting, the managing partner was so horrified with the result, he demanded that we rewrote the report to hide their shortcomings!

Some further points to consider

Your objectives: What are you trying to achieve? Always have a clear objective. For example, if you want to know how to improve operating procedures, you can often do this informally. If you want to evaluate views of your managers you have to ask them independently – there is no substitute. The questions you ask of staff have to reflect aspects that are important to them – there is no point asking someone about staff car parking if they commute by bus. Moreover, merely asking whether your staff are satisfied with your policy on holidays does not tell you how to improve it.

Your outcomes: Do you want an overview of staff satisfaction, an in-depth evaluation of key areas of the firm, or an exploration of how well departments work together? Different techniques need to be employed for each objective and you may need a mix of approaches to get the full picture.

Your actions: Think carefully about what you are really going to change and what you are not. There is little point raising an awareness of issues that you have no plans to do anything about, like asking if staff would prefer a different location when you have just acquired a new office block. However, it might be worth knowing if staff have any particular problems getting to and from work on time where a small change in hours or flexible working might fit better with public transport.

Your responses: People are more likely to be truthful if their responses are anonymous, but it is useful at least to be able to identify a department if the results highlight a particular problem. Response rates are invariably improved if replies are returned to an independent third party for analysis.

Your sample: You should decide how many staff you are going to survey and whether they are to come from a cross section of your firm, by department, or everyone. Do not let senior fee earners interfere with the selection. You want to know all views, good and bad. Many firms report poor response rates on tick-box based surveys. This may be because they are similar to “hotel bedroom” type surveys with little content that is important to staff.

Your culture: Above all, your partners and management team need to be accessible and personable, to ensure that everyone feels confident in putting forward ideas and issues that will create value to the firm and raise the level of client service.

Techniques, pros and cons

How you obtain staff views depends on your resources, the size of the firm, and the nature of its work. Various methods are possible. You may want to segment your firm according to work type and use a different method for each segment. You may find it cost-effective to use an independent third party.

Limited resources should not prevent you from obtaining staff views, although you sometimes have to think about how you can do so. One firm asked its staff every six months or so whether there was any way its service could be improved. Notes were taken and periodically collated. Any action was then decided on and implemented. Unfortunately, staff were never particularly forthcoming, as they did not feel they could criticise the partnership’s approach to new initiatives.

When we undertook an audit on behalf of this firm an enduring comment from all non-partners (including senior fee earners) was that they suffered “knee-jerks from the chief-jerks”! In other words, the partners would demand time be spent researching this or that sector without ever thinking though the resource implications of what they were asking, giving feedback on what they decided to do with the information, or giving credit to those that put in the extra effort.

The table shown above aims to summarise the pros and cons for various approaches for obtaining staff views.

Writing your questionnaire

Putting the work into the hands of a specialist company may be your preferred route, but if you go it alone the following guide should help with your questionnaire:
The introduction. Consider how you will promote what you are planning to staff beforehand and what you plan to do with the findings. Then, in a covering note, explain the aim of the survey and tell staff how to complete the questionnaire in a brief introduction.
The questions. Use closed questions if you are using a rating scale. Concentrate on issues that are most important to staff – those that relate to their situation. Keep the format simple and uncluttered. Customise the wording of the questions for the level of staff. Check with a few staff that you have covered all the important aspects of their situation and that the questionnaire is user friendly before you send it out.
The scales. Research has indicated that survey respondents may use the mid-value in a rating scale with odd numbers to record an ambivalent response. This can be overcome by either using a 1 to 4 scale or by ensuring that you give a descriptor to each value. For example, the following scales can be placed alongside each question and clients asked to tick or circle the number that most accurately represents their view:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

Or

  • 5 Excellent
  • 4 Very Good
  • 3 Satisfactory
  • 2 Poor
  • 1 Very Poor

If you want to know how important something is to staff, you can add another scale such as the one below, again alongside each question. This information allows you to address any issues that are particularly important where your firm does not meet their expectations.

  • 5 Extremely important
  • 4 Very important
  • 3 Important
  • 2 Not very important
  • 1 Not at all important

It can be very useful to find out ways of improving working practices by asking open questions, such as: “If you could make any improvement in working practices anywhere in this firm, what would that be? Please use the space below to let us have details”.
Other additional questions can give diagnostic information:

  • Have you asked to attend an external training course in the past year? Yes/No
  • Was your request satisfactorily dealt with? Yes/No
  • Do you have a clear development plan in place for the next 12 months? Yes/No

Analysing the results

Rating scale questions can be analysed on a spreadsheet. Show responses as a percentage of the staff that held each view: a useful tool to persuade managers of a need for change. Calculate a mean (average) value when assessing the importance of each aspect of your staff opinions.
Analysing the open questions may be more difficult. Check whether there are any glaring problems or any common themes in the responses.
Consider whether you have the time or expertise to conduct and analyse the survey or whether outside help would be better.

Do what you said you would!

As mentioned earlier, if you thought through what you are going to do with the findings, it is essential that you keep your promises to staff.
Those firms that are undertaking regular staff surveys are able to better manage their most valuable asset – their staff – and improve their service to clients. And that makes for significant improvements to their bottom line, too.