War, the art of engineering, and pulse surveys – an in-depth look at the history of employee surveys

Employee surveys are an established concept, and most businesses perform them as a matter of course. But they go back a long way, and there's an element of drama about them too.

When Gallup established "Engagement Surveys" more than 30 years ago, they were pioneers. But the history of surveying commitment began as far back as the Second World War. During this period, the US spent large amounts of money on examining the behaviour of the soldiers with a view on improving their morale. As with the traditional format of today, questions were asked about everything - from the quality of the food to the extent to which soldiers trusted their officers.

The forerunner of the employee survey
– an innovative steelworker

The roots of these surveys can be traced all the way back to the late 19th century when Fredrick Taylor, an innovative engineer, began studying how staff attitudes affected productivity in the steel industry. In this study, the primary queries were "What is the attitude of employees toward the company's policies and practices?" and "What can be done to remove points of irritation and improve attitude?"

The conclusions of the survey weren't all that far removed from the truths of today:

  • A lack of support among staff is often responsible for a lack of trust in targets and guidelines
  • Policies must be aligned with staff attitudes and needs in order to create a sense of commitment.
  • Many factors other than pay influence employees' attitudes towards their work
  • Employees' chances of making their voices heard influence trust in the management

This employee survey wasn't just a short-lived thing, it became a lasting trend and really took off in the 20th century. This was very much due to a study carried out by the National Industrial Advisory Board in the US (1944-1947), which demonstrated high levels of productivity among companies that carried out "attitude surveys". Given the insight that staff surveys were a success factor in industry, the American government provided a great deal of support in order to increase their use.

Things weren't better in the old days

Memories of sunny summers that went on forever and white winters aren't the only things that make us feel nostalgic for what used to be. Reports on natural disasters, conflicts and the follies of youth may make us think things were better in the old days. Take a look at Gapminder if you need a reminder of how much progress we've made. Gapminder is an initiative by Hans Rosling which aims to pass on information on how things are in the world. By all means take the "ignorance test", which will reveal how small a minority of people are actually enlightened.

This also applies to employee surveys. Most reports reveal the shortcomings in annual staff surveys which create frustration among staff, management and HR alike. Nowadays, we have pulse surveys instead which focus on slightly different things: &frankly, Winning temp, Peakon and Officevibe are just a few examples. What do you think? Were things better in the old days? Give it a try and see for yourself!

Work environmentEmployee Engagement

Caroline Fjellner

Caroline Fjellner

It’s all about people. That's why I love watching our company grow – the more the merrier. When not busy cultivating &frankly, I spend time on cultural cultivating; movies, food, radio (severe P1 addiction), books, etc.

Latest posts

Subscribe to new posts