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We used to think about focus group as only a method of marketing research. And that’s true, partly. But it could be also a brilliant HR tool and channel to talk to your employees. Surveys only tell you about what is, but won’t let you discover what could be. And this ‘could be’ could make the biggest difference for you but mostly for your employees.

Conducting a focus group with employees may have many different reasons and benefits. But one is really strong and It’s called the Hawthorne Effect. Back in 1927 in the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois,  Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo along with associates F. J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson started investigating what has an impact on employees effectiveness e.g. brightness of lights, humidity or psychological aspects like breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership. As a result of this research, the researchers were really often in the factory to observe how people work. Like in a classic experiment, they split workers into two groups: one with stimulation, one without. Their findings were that regardless of they did e.g.regulated brightness or added breaks and so on, workers worked more efficient in both groups. The main conclusion of this research was that paying attention to worker’s needs would improve productivity in general and it doesn’t matter what the employers actions are, it is enough to be interested in the workers, walk around and observe. Since that time a lot has changed but the findings of this research are still actual and accurate: people work better when they feel that you really care about them.

Think first what do you prefer? Complete surveys about your needs and concerns or take part in discussion and speak up?  I prefer to talk, but definitely not face to face! Talking to your boss or people above you is a challenge itself, which I think most people want to avoid.

For many employees, an honest conversation about working conditions is extremely difficult. If you really care about your employees don’t push them in this position. It is not for everybody. The solution is to find a method that can give more chance of dialogue and at the same time create a completely anonymous, honest situation.

First of all – anonymity.  Employees need to feel safe and comfortable. Nothing gives it more than anonymity. Frankly speaking, if after the interview you start guessing who took part in the discussion then it doesn’t make sense at all. It should be a mutual exchange: honesty for honesty. Methods of research do matter. Traditional focus groups don’t help you reach your goals.  I encourage to use online focus groups, without a camera. Nowadays everybody uses Messenger, Twitter or Facebook, so it is a natural habitat for many employees. When you will be sending an invitation to the interview remember to add this information:

'This interview will be fully anonymous. It will be a written conversation without a camera. Nobody will be trying to guess who you are. Please feel free to say whatever you feel and think. This is time especially for you. What you say will help us to improve our working place and condition of work.'
Gosia Palys-Dudek

Also, it is really useful to choose online focus group tools where employees can use a nickname instead of their real names, or roles. Then it is important to add this information to your invitation:

'Please don't use your real name/ surname/ position or any information that can reveal who you are.'
Kasia Palys

It does matter who moderates traditional focus groups but not at all who does online focus groups. Even the CEO could do it, why not? If they wanted to learn more about the atmosphere in their company, they could do it. It could even be stimulating for employees to have a chance to really honestly talk with their boss. It could work, especially if changes are implemented as a result of these online interviews. Some companies hire a professional moderator to do an online focus group. But who knows more about your company than you? This is also a great opportunity to explain some decisions and settings. And remember: this is not a research, you don’t need to prepare a report, this is a intimate honest dialogue.

Give employees four options when they can join the interview. Two of them should be during work time, two in the evenings. Some people prefer to talk about their work only at work, they should have this possibility. But for some employees it can be really uncomfortable, especially if they work in an open space and it is hard to hide. If you really care for true answers allow them to take part in the discussion in the circumstances that they choose by themselves.

Please try to avoid Fridays and Mondays. On Mondays, people are very busy and need to plan their whole week, so let them do their job without any disturbance. On Fridays nobody thinks about taking part in an interview and talking about their concerns, they are in the middle of planning their weekends. The best time is the middle of the week.

In our experience, it is best to send the invitation a week before the interview. And then again day before the interview and the last time 10 minutes before the interview’s start. Don’t ask employees to sign up anywhere. It is good to do it when you conduct an online focus group, but not for internal honest anonymous discussion.

Beginnings sometimes could be hard so do not be discouraged.  You need to remember that this is a new situation for people and they are not sure what they can expect. You can try to create habits of taking part in online interviews, people love repeatable things because they can feel safe and prepared. Then you have to do it regularly like every Wednesday: work time and after work. It is very important to demonstrate that employee’s voices can change something.  Give them a time to realise that their opinions prompt adjustments, then really soon more employees will join your next online interviews.

When your employees will find these online interviews useful then It won’t matter how long they take. Time will pass inattentively. But setting an unlimited time isn’t a great idea. In our experience this kind of online interviews are better to do more often but in a shorter form. Especially in the beginning.  One hour is sufficient, even if you don’t have enough time to talk about every topic. It’s definitely better do shorter  online focus groups with your employees more often rather than one long less often.

Keep in mind:

– Repeat as many times as possible that this kind of interview is without a camera. This helps a lot during the recruitment process.

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Good luck with your online interviews.