How to design survey questions that reveal how people really work

October 9, 2019 by Meghan McDonald

How do people really work? When you’re designing an office environment, understanding this can seem like a holy grail of insights—powerful and elusive. (Learn five reasons so many workplace design surveys don’t help you reach that understanding.)

At Survature, we’ve researched this question of how people work, and we’ve come to think of it not as a holy grail, but as a structured project.

By designing the right workplace survey questions, you can build an understanding, layer by layer, of how your client’s employees work.

 

Start with the foundation: Design questions using everyday language

Words like “cowork” or “retreat space” are common in your line of work. For the average person outside the workplace design industry, these are not real-life words. Most people don’t intentionally define their different work modes, and they may be jarred (or worse, stumped) by questions that assume they do. Design your questions to reflect ones workers are already intimately familiar with:

  • What am I doing?
  • Who am I doing that with?
  • Where am I doing that?
  • What are we trying to achieve?

 

The next layer: Understand the team you’re designing for

Don’t stop asking about department, job title, age, and gender—but also don’t stop there. The goal is to understand the individual in the context of the team, and to understand how team dynamics shape work outputs and expectations. Design questions that will uncover these things:

  • What is expected of the individual
  • What is expected of the team
  • What are the team’s deliverables
  • What roles (as opposed to job titles) exist in this team
  • The team’s make-up based on the generalist vs. specialist continuum

 

Keep building: Understand workplace interactions

In an office environment, one worker might have a dozen brief interactions one day, retreat in their office the next day, and snatch 15-minute increments of desk time or conversations between four long meetings the next. That person doesn’t intentionally track who they talk to, why they’re talking, or how much of that time was brainstorming vs. telling stories about their kids. Many surveys ask the impossible—they ask respondents to assign accurate percentages to the amount of time they spend in different interactions or locations. That impossible question to answer could look like the following:

percentage-of-total-work-time

 

Translated into real-life language, the more human way is to recognize the inevitable “subjective-ness” in the answers and use a more humanized format. The question then becomes more simple, direct, and meaningful, such as the following:

sources-of-distraction-affect

 

The next level: Understand the possibilities for a new space

Workplace design surveys often ask a slew of questions to rate satisfaction. The data that tells you how satisfied workers are with their current office environment, their desks, their meeting rooms, or the break area has limited power to predict what workers will need or want in a new space. Satisfaction questions may highlight some pain points, but to understand the possibilities for meeting workers’ wants and needs, also ask questions that go deeper, like these:

  • What does doing your job well look like?
  • What do you need in order to do your job well?
  • Who should you be working with closely?

 

Capping it off: Understand sub-cultures

Asking about work processes can lose people in the weeds. Culture is a better indicator than work processes of how each team or department functions. Corporate culture is one aspect of this, but it has limited ability to help you understand how people really work. You’ll get much richer data—data that can help you predict how they’ll react to your new design—by asking questions that specifically reveal the team or department’s sub-culture, like these:

  • How do team members give and receive feedback?
  • What role do departmental values play in your everyday work?
  • When do you feel most motivated?
  • How does your department respond to challenges?

 

Build it and understanding will come

It may not come immediately or with crystal clarity, but you can build your understanding of how people really work. By designing the right workplace survey questions, you can capture more accurate, authentic answers from respondents—and gain powerful insights for your corporate designs. Coupling the right questions with behavior-enabled surveys, like Survature’s own AnswerCloud™ technology, allows you to understand even more.

The next post in this three-part workplace design series will share the biggest differences Survature sees between what workers say they need and the things they leave unsaid—things you definitely need to know.

Meghan McDonald is a Knoxville-based freelance writer with a bent for science and a love for art. Meghan received her MA in creative writing from the University of Tennessee in 2012 and has been writing for organizations that serve people through science and/or art ever since. She’s pleased to be writing with Survature, a company that brings together data science and design. Read more of her work at meghanmcdonaldwriter.com.