Should you be using digital focus groups?

June 16, 2021

Though the importance of employee listening has been amplified, finding successful ways to collect critical employee feedback and input has become exponentially more challenging. Knowing what to even ask our employees as our work and lives continue to flex and bend and we return to work in ways we never before envisioned is an obstacle for many.

Thankfully, employee listening methods are constantly evolving. One of the new and innovative ways to listen to employees is by conducting a digital or virtual focus group. Mercer has been using Remesh's powerful online platform to collect insights in real time, even with a virtual, distributed workforce. Digital influences just about everything today, and employee listening is no exception. Organizations are leveraging the powerful flexibility of the online focus group.

Recently, we spoke with Mercer's Employee Research Principal Consultant, Megan Connolly, about what aspects of using digital focus groups clients find attractive. She has found that the anonymity and the ability to collect rich qualitative data and ask the participant self-reporting demographic questions that go beyond what's available in the organizations' HRIS (e.g., sexual orientation, disability/caregiving/military status) to be among the most common advantages noted. She also added that clients appreciate employees' candid ideas for improvement, allowing executives to use an evidence-based approach for action planning and strategy setting.

The what and why of digital focus groups

A digital focus group is an online conversation between a moderator (a Mercer consultant) and a group of employee participants. A set of statements or questions is loaded into the platform and presented to participants at a scheduled time to read and answer. After the session has ended, the data are aggregated to ensure respondents' confidentiality and then presented to the organization in a variety of ways for assessment.

An online focus group can complement traditional annual employee surveys, which provide a more in-depth assessment of employee experiences and gather larger quantities of data for deeper conditional and intersectional analyses. Based on findings from the annual employee survey, an organization may choose to use an online focus group to collect additional qualitative data to research particular findings.

Digital focus groups are well suited to establishing a dialogue around employee experiences and ideas, gather input to inform priorities for action, identify crowdsourcing solutions, and inform strategy.

They are quick to set up and administer and, like a traditional focus group, allow the moderator to react in real time (e.g., ask "on the fly" questions during the session). As is happening for other meetings in the world today, the participant can join a focus group remotely, from a place of their choosing, anywhere in the world.

Another clear benefit of digital focus groups is that results are available almost immediately, whereas a traditional focus group likely relies on notes from a moderator or scribe, which then need to be cleaned, aggregated, and collated into a comprehensive report.

With a tool like Remesh, a number of quantitative insights are available immediately after the session concludes. Powerful artificial intelligence with machine learning and natural language processing analyzes qualitative feedback in real time. The virtual focus group can have a "personal" feel and yet provide a sense of anonymity not inherent in face-to-face sessions. This advantage is hard to underestimate in our new remote reality, where many employees miss interacting with their colleagues and yet gathering in person remains challenging in many ways.

What to ask, that is the question

Digital focus groups can address a wide variety of topics. Sometimes crafting the questions or knowing how to dissect a topic is quite an arduous task. Luckily, Mercer has created a number of ready-to-use focus group questions that cover many essential areas — employers simply need to choose the bundle that meets their needs. Examples of some of the ready-to-use question bundles include change management, flexible work, wellness, well-being, mental health, total rewards, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

For a more customized approach, Mercer offers comprehensive consultative support. Through several interviews with leaders and key stakeholders, Mercer consultants identify main categories of evaluative and open-ended questions. After that, Mercer’s organizational psychologists carefully draft the questions to ensure valid responses. Decades of organizational research experience have allowed consultants to recommend certain wording of questions that have worked well for our clients, especially those in a particular industry or facing specific challenges.

How have others used digital focus groups?

Over the last couple of years, digital focus groups have become very popular with Mercer clients due to their speed, ease of administration, and quality of insights. Of course, the increase in remote working has cast a spotlight on this method of research. Here are a few examples of the valuable insights that can be discovered via a digital focus group.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

For most organizations, DEI has become a top priority in the past several years. The first step in the journey to creating a diverse, inclusive workplace is to understand the current employee experience. DEI-related conversations touch on many sensitive topics (e.g., sense of belonging, biases, feeling marginalized) so a focus group format is best suited to identify the nuances of how people truly feel. When employees are in a safe (i.e., anonymous) environment and asked to join a conversation with their colleagues, it helps them to share what they really feel and what they feel their employer should know.

In one example, a large telecom company wanted to find out employees’ current satisfaction levels with the state of DEI and suggestions for improvement. With Mercer's help, the organization conducted several digital focus group sessions to accommodate different time zones and locations. Employees shared their views about many things, such as their relationships with their managers, recruitment, and development practices, sense of belonging, and comfort in being oneself. Employees also shared their suggestions by answering open-ended questions.

When all was said and done, the results were quite positive but revealed several opportunities for change. Although employees had very positive views on their relationships with their colleagues and immediate managers, and felt valued and included, their work experience could be improved by a more frequent open dialogue about DEI issues, better work flexibility, and growth opportunities. A deeper data analysis showed that certain demographic groups felt particularly disadvantaged. After a careful synthesis of quantitative and qualitative findings, Mercer consultants were able to give the client not only a clear picture of the current state of DEI, but also a list of recommended priorities driven by data and by demographic group(s).

Total rewards

We've said it before and we'll say it again, pay and benefits are the foundation to getting it right when it comes to attracting, motivating, and retaining employees. What that looks like today might be different from what it looked like a decade ago, but getting it right is still paramount to securing a spot as an employer of choice. In this example, a mid-sized pharmaceutical company wanted to use a regular evaluation to get insights into the current state and potential improvements of their total rewards package. As they were in a tough competition for top talent, a top-notch total rewards package had been one of the strong attraction and retention elements for this client. By hosting several digital sessions, they were able to collect feedback and opinions from respondents of different genders, ages, tenures, locations, and positions in the organization's hierarchy.

From these digital focus groups, the organization learned that their rewards package was very strong in terms of retirement offerings, healthcare benefits, and type of work — all good news! However, data indicated that employees would like tools to better manage work-life balance and improve professional development and long-term retention incentives. Qualitative insights from questions allowing the employees to provide free-form answers revealed employee preferences and suggestions of how to modify the current plans (e.g., stock options as a long-term incentive or a rollover of unused time off for a better work-life balance). The total rewards leaders now had a clear understanding of which components of the rewards package worked well, which employees preferred, and which areas they would focus on for improvement. From there, they were able to present their findings to the key stakeholders along with a plan of action.

Return to the office

A global hotel chain planning to implement a hybrid work schedule chose to run digital focus groups to ensure a smooth transition. The objective of the focus groups was to find out whether employees were well informed about the changes, found transition support helpful or lacking, could recommend ways to make the transition better, and might identify possible challenges and advantages of the new work model from the employee perspective.

Those who participated in the focus groups generally appreciated the support of their immediate manager and colleagues and the comprehensive communication about the change, and they were looking forward to socializing with their colleagues back at the office. Employees also shared their views on what an effective transition would look like, the support they would need, their concerns with returning to the office along with possible ways to address those, and recommendations of how to make working together in the hybrid future more productive and enjoyable.

Rather than looking at prevalence data on what other companies were doing to transition to a hybrid work schedule, this thoughtful organization saw the value in engaging their employees in order to develop a custom plan to meet their needs. Over 70% of participants felt that conducting the return to office focus group was one of the most effective ways the organization supported employees during the transition.

Looking for more information?

A true partnership with employees helps to ensure a bright future for an organization and successful implementation of organizational initiatives. With constant change being an integral part of the new reality, an agile employee listening approach, like a platform to conduct digital focus groups and ready-made survey questions, is critical is ensure organizations have an engaged workforce.

Ready to learn how Mercer's employee listening experts can help you determine whether a digital focus group is right for you? We're here to help. Give us a call at 866-605-1031.

About the Author

Liubov Phillips, PhD., Consultant, Employee Research
Liubov joined Mercer in 2019. She is involved in survey design, data analysis and interpretation, conducting virtual focus groups, and creating and delivering client presentations. She is passionate about providing clients with data insights to assist sound decision-making.