Employee Surveys

The Value of Open-Ended Survey Questions

open-ended survey questions

If you’ve ever spent time with a two or three or four-year-old you know how exhausting it can be. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to wear socks? Why does it rain? Why? How come? Why?! Those never-ending questions are a young mind’s foray into the wonder filled world of learning.

Open-ended survey questions are an equally critical learning tool in the work world. They give organizations and leadership a glimpse at how employees think, perceive, and feel about certain subjects and why.

Because open-ended questions involve a greater amount of a respondent’s time and effort, the secret is to ask strategically, thoughtfully, and sparingly. You don’t want to overwhelm and exhaust your employees when launching an engagement survey.

To establish a benchmark for tracking and monitoring trends over time, closed questions are your best choice. A set of fixed responses makes it easy to tally, calculate percentages and compare results:

 I would like to see organization [xyz] change its approach to remote working:

Strongly Agree   Agree Neutral Disagree   Strongly Disagree

But when it comes to open-ended survey questions — the why, what for and how queries — you’re looking at an altogether different beast.

employee engagement survey solutions

The type and wording of open-ended survey questions draw out different kinds of answers and insights.

Whimsical open-ended questions give permission to be creative yet honest:

If you were granted one wish by the Job Genie, what single workplace change would you request? 

Pointed open-ended questions typically get straight forward responses:

What one workplace change would you like to see?

Like just about everything there are two sides around the question of an open-ended question. On the downside:

  • Answers come in different degrees of detail; some responses are vague, others long-winded
  • Misinterpreted questions can lead to irrelevant answers
  • Some employees may feel intimidated by questions or have difficulty expressing themselves; literate, articulate employees have a distinct advantage over those less so
  • Collating and analyzing written responses is a time-consuming and difficult process; making sense of tens of hundreds or thousands of comments needs resources to review and thematically categorize answers, subjectivity can become an issue.
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On the flip side, open-ended survey questions:

  • Give deeper insights into complex issues
  • Invite an unlimited number of answers which can lead to unanticipated findings
  • Invite creativity, self-expression and a richness of detail
  • Employees can use their own words to qualify and clarify responses, share feelings, attitudes and their level of understanding around a subject — revealing thought processes, logic, reasoning, language preferences and a wealth of other information
  • Can be used for secondary analysis to give contextual information (correlating responses geographically, by function or department, age, gender, length of service, and so on)
  • Avoids the bias that may result from pre-set answer options.
author patricia bell newson

About Patricia Bell Newson

A graduate of Canada’s leading Journalism Degree program, Patricia Bell Newson is an accomplished writer and communications specialist. As a key member of the TalentMap team, Pat leads the company’s thought leadership with full force producing weekly content on employee engagement and best practices in employee surveys. Pat’s experience in advising leaders on strategic approaches to sensitive issues, priorities, and policies together with her ability to research and easily grasp various concepts regarding the workplace has been a great asset in creating valuable insights for HR leaders.

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