Feedback is one of your most powerful tools as an employee, manager, and business leader. To the extent that highly engaged businesses see more than twice the productivity of organisations with low engagement. And employers are starting to realise that polling their people once or twice a year won’t cut it. There is a better way to understand how your people feel. That’s why we want to show you the key difference between an employee survey vs employee check-ins.

You need the right tools for the job to understand how engaged your employees feel. Yet, annual or bi-annual engagement surveys are still widely used in many workplaces, despite significant shortcomings and evidence showing they simply don’t work.

Check-ins and engagement surveys were developed to tackle the same issue: low employee engagement. But that’s where the similarities end.

Annual employee engagement surveys don’t cut it anymore

In recent years, the interlinked concepts of employee engagement and employee experience have garnered a lot of attention. This is a good thing. It means that attention is being given to things like wellbeing and work/life balance. Toxic aspects of workplace culture, such as the expectation of presenteeism, are being critically examined.

However, it’s also led to the proliferation of employee engagement surveys. Not to mention the rise of various tech companies that provide them. But we’ve known for some time that these traditional annual surveys are on the way out.

Gartner asked if it’s time to toss out the annual employee survey. They predicted that 59% of organisations would use sources other than surveys for engagement data by 2019, rising from their 2015 level of 30%. We’re well past that point now. And judging by the popularity of the Zensai employee check-in, Gartner’s predictions seem to be holding at least somewhat true.

The pandemic exposed the need for greater employee wellbeing support. It exposed the need for new tools to ensure engagement by giving staff the means to work productively. As a result, more businesses are looking at methods of gathering engagement data, like employee check-ins, that allow feedback to occur in a timelier manner. So, let’s look at the breakdown of employee surveys vs employee check-ins to see which one reigns supreme.

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of surveys vs check-ins

So, how does the traditional annual survey stack up against a regular employee check-in,
we hear you ask? Spoiler alert: It doesn’t do well.

Annual employee surveys aren’t totally useless, in that they’re better than having no engagement tracking policy at all. But that’s not a high by to clear, by any stretch.

These pros and cons are grouped into loose categories to help give you a good overview of the differences, and why check-ins win every time. They are:

  • Purpose and outcomes
  • Accuracy
  • Inclusivity and personalization
  • Effort and timeliness

Purpose and outcomes of employee surveys vs employee check-ins

Survey KPIs focus on participation

One of the major KPIs of any employee survey is to get as many responses as possible. After all, one of the best ways to be representative is to ensure everyone fills one out, right? Broad participation is great. But placing too much emphasis on the number of participants can come at the cost of content.

Check-in KPIs are around improvements

Our check-in fits neatly into everyone’s day-to-day routine. This makes them easy to implement and therefore participation rates grow organically for most clients. Our updates are more than just a bunch of boxes to tick or response sections to fill.

❌ Surveys are one-way requests for information, built for HR

HR lay out a set of questions that they hope their people will a) answer, and b) answer honestly. These are typically anonymous as it’s considered to be the best way to encourage honesty. These employee surveys add to an employee’s workload from both a time and stress point of view. “Who will read my answers?” is one concern. So answers become generic and neutral. They don’t expose your employee’s true underlying feelings.

Check-ins are two-way conversation starters, built for employees

Check-ins on the other hand tell HR about engagement and sentiment as a by-product. The purpose of a check-in is to support employee development through frequent feedback and reflection. Check-ins are designed for employees, not just HR. Check-in updates then feed our 10Pulse algorithms to indicate engagement and sentiment at a more subconscious level. Employees benefit from the self-reflection and manager feedback. And HR understand the real pulse of the business.

❌ Surveys are purely about engagement, with no employee ownership

The questions in an employee engagement survey are all focused around how engaged and connected you feel to your team, job, and company. It doesn’t take into account how well you’re performing or your ambitions.

Check-ins are about personal development, and employee accountability

Check-ins are the polar opposite. Check-ins are designed to be a framework to understand and improve an employee’s engagement and performance over time. Employees have the tools to take control of their own personal and professional development. And is accountable for it.

❌ Surveys don’t give you a solid ROI for the time and money invested

80% of businesses say annual surveys aren’t beneficial. And that’s despite all the time and resources that go into prepping and running them. That’s why it’s essential to find a better, more continuous employee feedback method.

Isabel Collins, founding director of Belonging Space, highlighted how expensive these surveys can get: “I’ve seen large financial institutions with huge cultural challenges spending £500,000 every two years on these surveys that ask 12 or 24 questions, but don’t give any rich feedback on which you can base decisions. It’s a bad use of a lot of money.’

Check-ins give you better ROI and noticeable long-term impact

Incremental change is the foundation of Zensai. People can see that their check-in feedback is seen and acted upon. They can see the benefits to them. Our people analytics service provides compiled data and bespoke reports based on your organisation’s updates. Gone are the days when HR have to lock themselves in a room with a week’s worth of provisions just to sift through a mountain of surveys for useful insights.

Accuracy of employee surveys vs employee check-ins

Surveys are a one-off data point, giving you a snapshot in time

The biggest issue with annual engagement surveys vs employee check-ins is right there in the name. Much like with annual performance reviews, the fact that they only happen once a year means they’re giving you an incredibly limited view. You might learn about your organisation’s engagement in that moment, which is great. But without other reference points to compare it with, you’ll struggle to establish trends and actionable insights.

They struggle to effectively capture the trends of your workplace. Engagement and performance can change from month to month, or even week to week. Even when you have survey feedback, it’s at risk of becoming irrelevant very quickly.

Check-ins give a real-time view of employee engagement

By having employees check in every week or so, you’ll get a more consistent view of engagement over time. This is the first step to being better able to pinpoint trends and changes, which enables you to affect them. Trends give you a much clearer picture of what’s happening in your organisation. They help you to see patterns and make decision based on hard data. Rather than responding with a knee-jerk reaction.

Regular check-ins enable managers to react quicker. It also provides a far more detailed account of engagement over time. With fresh data coming in every week, managers also get a much better idea of how effective their responses actually are when they do something to address employee concerns. This helps prevent problems from festering unnoticed, which is just one way employee check-ins can reduce turnover.

Surveys can breed dishonesty, or overly critical feedback because they’re anonymous

So let’s say that your organisation distributes quarterly employee surveys. Or even worse, maybe they only do so annually. These surveys might ask employees to rate things like workplace satisfaction, or how they feel about recent changes. One of the first issues with these surveys is the assumption that their results are entirely honest.

Organisation-wide employee surveys depend on a trusting relationship between management and employees. The problem is that a significant amount of employees don’t trust their bosses, including over a quarter of UK employees. Employee surveys also tend to be too widely spaced to build good reporting habits. When they do come around, they’re liable to contain a dizzying amount of questions. So employees are put in a position where it’s extremely tempting to just power through it.

Check-ins build trust through transparency

Staff check-ins help to build trust and encourage your staff to report issues more openly. This is also helped by the fact that with regular check-ins, employees can more easily see the impact of their updates when reported issues get resolved. In turn, this drives them to be more open with their concerns in the future. After all, the best way to get someone to do something is to prove it gets results.

Our staff check-in system isn’t anonymous. But we ensure privacy by keeping your updates between an employee and their line manager. Managers can pass an update up the line to take an issue further. But first, they first get the go-ahead from the employee. This allows your team members to highlight issues specifically affecting them. Managers can even customise update questions on an employee level. The aim of our check-ins is to develop trust in the workplace to the point where anonymity is unnecessary.

Inclusivity and personalization of employee surveys vs employee check-ins

Surveys typically use one size fits all questions and timeframes

Surveys provide general sets of questions to large numbers of people. You may get lots of N/A responses if some questions aren’t relevant to all employees. This can increase disengagement because employees may feel that their time is wasted answering questions that don’t matter to them.

Check-ins are highly customizable and AI-driven

Personalizing questions on the employee level and getting new recommendations from our machine learning algorithm are just two of the ways Zensai helps you get the most out of your employee updates. Managers can also post responses to individual answers that can only be seen by that employee. This helps to facilitate effective, confidential two-way feedback without even having to set up a one-to-one. Of course, you should still be having one-to-ones, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Zensai also uses machine learning to suggest proven questions based off of results from similar businesses. Then the algorithm creates bespoke reports full of actionable insights that previously overworked HR personnel might miss.

Surveys are limited by sample size

HR might well try to survey everyone in the business, but that doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. It’s not unusual for employees to be short on patience for these surveys. And if they never seem to result in change, that outcome becomes way more likely. In bigger organisations employing thousands of people, it’s not even feasible to try and survey everyone. So, that means HR must decide how to select “representative” samples.

Check-ins include your whole organisation

With our weekly check-ins, staff are responsible for submitting their own updates. Then there are managers, who only have to review updates from their team. Breaking down the distribution of responsibilities means HR don’t get stuck with the whole burden. This makes collecting feedback from everyone much more feasible. Then there’s the fact that it’s much easier to get someone to fill out a small weekly check-in than it is a huge stack of survey forms.

Effort and timeliness of employee surveys vs employee check-ins

Surveys are time-consuming

A lot of busywork goes into setting up employee survey vs the ease of running employee check-ins. First, HR has to establish what questions to ask. Then they have to produce the survey, and get it into the hands of employees. Everyone completes their surveys over a period of time. The turnaround on this sort of thing can take weeks, or even months.

Traditional employee surveys can be a pain to plan out and distribute. Even if you’re doing it electronically. HR has to sit there and sort through it all for meaningful information. Plus the sheer amount of time it takes to fill out can really cut into your employees’ work schedules.

Check-ins are lightweight and time-efficient for employees

A weekly check-in is a structed way to collect insights about an employee’s engagement and performance. It does that without the need to ask questions as direct (and game-able) as “do you feel engaged?” Instead, employees take time to reflect and record items for their own personal development. The software analyzes these updates to indicate engagement and sentiment at a more subconscious level. Employees benefit from the self-reflection and manager feedback. And HR understand the real pulse of the business.

Why continuous feedback is essential as you make the decision between employee surveys vs employee check-ins

If you want employees to stay engaged over the long-term, then you absolutely need an ongoing feedback process. If you’re not exchanging feedback with staff on a regular basis, then the problems they experience are much more likely to get swept under the rug and go unaddressed.

Creating a check-in culture based on exchanging regular feedback allows you to establish an ongoing dialogue that encourages employees to be open about workplace issues. It also helps you to follow up and see if your solutions have had the effect you intended, or whether you’ll need to go back to the drawing board.

But employee check-ins are also key for helping your staff members to work effectively and keep improving. A major factor in employee disengagement is when staff have a poor understanding of
their responsibilities and their employer’s expectations.

Having a regular employee check-in lets you stay up to date on objective progress and make sure your employees are moving in the right direction without having to worry about being a micromanager. Feedback-based workplace culture can improve employee performance, boost workplace morale, encourage passion in the workplace, and even reduce employee turnover.