The Value of 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.

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.

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.

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