February 11, 2022

Lauren Kelly

Where Employee Engagement Tools Fall Short

10 minutes

We may be cresting the Great Resignation wave in 2022, but in the wake of the 75.7 million people who quit their job in 2021, HR leaders need to address retention in an entirely new way.

What HR teams are dealing with

Obviously, COVID-19 and its impact on the workforce can’t be ignored. Shifts to remote work, business pressures, labor shortages, and burnout have all been compounded by the pandemic. But these aren’t new problems.


The past decade has seen major shifts in how employees relate to their workplace. We’ve seen an emphasis on work-life balance grow, to the point where some jurisdictions are enacting legislation to establish clear boundaries with their employer. We’ve seen employees disciplined or even fired for social posts or conduct that did not align with the company’s values. Generational differences in the workforce have required HR to shift its priorities. A more competitive job market has made talent attraction and retention a major headache for HR. 

What hasn’t really changed though is that employees want to feel heard, valued, and engaged at work. HR professionals have been struggling with how to manage these conversations at scale for years, but hybrid and remote work have only exacerbated the physical and cognitive distance between employees and leadership. Tools that may have worked (at least somewhat) in the past - Town Halls, meetings, or focus groups - don’t capture the breadth of data available across a distributed workforce. Tools allegedly designed for this purpose - engagement surveys and polls - aren’t built for depth of discussion and may leave you with even more questions.

Where current tools fall short

Meetings, Focus Groups & Town Halls

Given the option, it would be great to talk out all your strategic business concerns and employee retention ideas in person. Get everyone in a room and brainstorm and solve the world’s problems. You could vote on ideas and rank priorities and fill a huge white board. Everyone would be engaged, excited, candid, and respectful.

I think you know what I’m getting at here - while meetings, focus groups, and town halls have their place, it’s not when leveraging the intelligence of an entire workforce. 

  • With remote and hybrid workforces, particularly at a large scale, it is impossible to get everyone in a room together. The logistics alone are staggering, never mind the research that shows the most effective meetings have fewer than 8 people.
  • Any time you choose a subset of the entire population for a meeting or focus group, that outcome is subject to selection bias
  • While you’re getting depth of opinions, they could be a false representation of the group as a whole.
  • Attendees may be reluctant to speak up in these groups because they lack anonymity. Employees fearing reprisals or discrimination may be silent or agree, and the group could lose valuable ideas.

While remote-work tools have given us the opportunity to have more people “in the room,” they haven’t solved for including all the perspectives in the room. 

Surveys & Polls

Surveys and polls are handy for getting quick answers to easy questions, particularly with forced choice responses. You can tabulate response frequency and make decisions. 
A wedding guest may get to choose chicken, fish, or vegetarian - there’s no room for open responses, and no chance of discovering new information.

When it comes to learning from your employees, however, surveys often fall short. 

  • By forcing a choice among available options, surveys manufacture consent for the most popular selection. Respondents may be choosing the option they hate the least, rather than an alternative they’d actually prefer. 
  • Choosing between options can create polarization and division. Not every question is a clear choice - there may be alternatives that would create agreement for everyone that your team hasn’t thought of yet. 
  • How questions are phrased and which answers are included reflect the inherent bias of the team creating the survey. 

Some feel the solution to these issues is to include open-ended questions, so respondents can address the subject matter in their own way. While that seems like a good idea, it’s going to create a headache for everyone involved. Open-ended questions invite thoughts into the void, where they must be combed through and evaluated individually. Even with tools designed to assess open-ended questions, you can only really see what people said and how often - you have no idea how people who didn’t answer the question feel about those things, and you also likely didn’t receive any ideas on what to do about them.

This may explain why one Forbes study showed that “58% of companies are not taking meaningful action on the data from their employee engagement surveys.”
Surveys and polls are also inherently one-way communication.They cannot replicate the two-way dialogue necessary for evolution of thought or collective agreement. When it comes to addressing opportunities and threats of most import to the business, surveys will just not cut it.

Cut through the noise


Likely what you want to get from engaging your workforce on topics of importance is collective intelligence - that is, intelligence and ideas that emerge from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of individuals in a group. 

Collective intelligence isn’t just crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is simply the collection of information or opinions from large groups of people–really just another type of large survey. Collective intelligence, however, takes all those individual perspectives and, usually leveraging technology, helps the group simultaneously submit, align, and prioritize those insights. When done well, the process itself creates buy-in on the priorities. 

Tools like surveys and town halls may be able to extract parts of that equation, but you’re going to be sacrificing either breadth of discussion or depth of opinion, while introducing biases and roadblocks to the data.

ThoughtExchange addresses these barriers to collective intelligence by offering: 

A safe place to share independent thoughts, anonymously
A bias-free method to evaluate the thoughts of others in the group
A fair process for each thought to be considered equally
A tool to understand what matters most
By asking the right questions at the right times, collective intelligence can provide leaders with the insights they need to make decisions that will really impact the business’ goals. By including more (and more diverse) voices in the decision-making process–including voices outside the C-suite or the business area in question–you’re more likely to generate new and innovative ideas. By allowing your employees to rate other’s thoughts, ideas rise to the top whether or not they were the most frequent suggestions, and no matter who said them. Everyone wins.

Collective intelligence reduces attrition

Beyond the strategic business reasons for leveraging employee collective intelligence in this way, participating so actively in these conversations will help employees feel heard. The leadership team can see exactly what matters to employees, and either act or explain why they are not acting. The conversation can happen in real time. 
With retention issues plaguing organizations across the globe, wouldn’t you like to know what your employees have to say about it?

As I’m sure you know, employees who feel heard, who feel that their contributions are valuable, are more likely to remain with the company, and perform better. The not-so-simple act of listening to employees at every level of the organization can have a significant impact on your HR KPIs. 

More than that, asking the right questions about what matters to employees can yield surprising and actionable results that inform the business’ overall strategy. One ThoughtExchange customer used an Exchange to develop a long-term hybrid work strategy that adequately addressed the most highly-rated concerns, while balancing business needs. Other customers are using Exchanges to develop employee retention strategies, making sure to offer benefits and highlight values that best align with their workforce’s needs while contributing to the long-term health of the organization.

By tapping into all of the authentic voices of your team members, you can begin to understand what they actually need and want. It could be something you didn’t expect, something that differentiates your organization—something that you never would have thought of. Curious?

Lauren Kelly
Lauren Kelly is the CMO of ThoughtExchange. Prior to ThoughtExchange, Lauren served as Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Irvine Company Office Properties, and has held roles at organizations including Dell and Pepsi Co. Lauren has years of industry experience advising and coaching business leaders across categories and sectors. She has a passion for disruptive tech, global branding and go-to-market for innovation.

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