What Workers Need vs. What They Say in Surveys: 3 Big Differences


Human beings are complicated creatures. You know that, but does your workplace design survey know it?

As a company focused on creating truly useful surveys, we know that surveys are a critical tool for workplace design professionals. We also know typical surveys can fall short because they don’t take human psychology into account. They can’t help you parse out the differences between what workers say they need, for instance, and what they’re really thinking. The resulting data can leave you directionless or, worse, point you in the wrong direction.

Here are three common reasons why workers’ explicit answers and implicit needs differ—and why you may not get what you need for a successful, data-driven design.

1. Social norms come into play: What if my boss sees my answers?

If workers know (or believe) their management will see the data, they may intentionally choose answers that seem more socially acceptable. Let’s say you’ve been engaged to design a new healthcare environment. This is a high-stress setting, so in your survey, you ask workers how they feel about a retreat space to prevent burnout. You know the management even wants to install retreat spaces—but workers are too uncomfortable to admit they want one. No one wants to be “that” person. Their explicit survey responses indicate they would much rather have space to focus or collaborate. Inside, they may think longingly about a retreat space—even choosing it initially—before prioritizing a different answer option.

2. Confirmation bias has a big influence: I know it, therefore I choose it

When workers are familiar with a process presented in a survey, they’re more likely to indicate that they prefer that process. That doesn’t mean they really, truly think it’s best. In fact, it may not even be their initial, gut response to a question. They may choose a new process, then think better of it and change their answer. This is how our “logical” brain operates—we gravitate toward what we know. A typical survey doesn’t catch this unfiltered response, the implicit preference for something new and different. Yet that implicit preference will deeply affect post-occupancy satisfaction with your design.

3. Survey fatigue creeps in: I just need this survey to be done

Attention spans are often shorter than surveys are. After five to seven minutes of answering questions, many people are simply going through the motions so they can finish the survey. Once fatigue sets in, respondents commonly default to the first answer option they understand (this is another way confirmation bias comes into play). The challenge for you is to limit the survey’s length without painting yourself into a corner where you investigate topics or design elements that aren’t actually the most relevant to your client’s workforce. For example, let’s say you limit yourself to aspects of office design and workplace wellness, and the resulting data shows high statistical significance. But what if you really needed to assess work tasks or departmental culture to maximize post-occupancy satisfaction?

How do you tap into implicit needs—and set your design up for success?

Social norms, confirmation bias, survey fatigue, and other psychological factors hamper the precision of your data. When your workplace design survey doesn’t capture respondents’ implicit responses, it can turn your data-driven design into a gut-decision process that undercuts post-occupancy satisfaction.

Thankfully, modern data science has figured out how to take human psychology into account. Serving up the right questions through technologies like behavior-enabled surveys allows you to tap into implicit needs. When you do, you can access much richer insights into how your client’s employees really work—and how your workplace design can make a real difference for them.

Want to learn more about behavior-enabled workplace design surveys or discuss strategies for getting the most accurate data? We’d love to chat! Click the “Schedule a Demo” button lower down on this page or click here to set up a call.

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.