When do workers feel comfortable to report on their everyday lives?

When it comes to response rates, most workers will at first not trust a new reporting system. This means that we should expect most workers not to feel confident enough to pick up the call or take up the opportunity provided to give feedback on working conditions and their everyday lives. They need time, an easy experience, and incentives that outweigh their perception of the risk. This is so crucial given that in the majority of their working environments the opportunity to provide honest feedback has never been the norm.

Starting direct worker reporting

Some workers may never risk giving candid feedback about their working conditions.

Perhaps they work in a setting where one worker several years ago, maybe even months ago, dared it and lost their job. Many workers are in such precarious circumstances that candour seems a luxury they can ill afford in their daily struggle.

But even in these workplaces, we do and will continue to find workers who will still risk it.


Given this reality, those of us who are granted access to the results from direct worker reporting (aka worker voice) roll-outs need to understand what we are seeing.

The first call cycle, and in some settings this persists into second and third call cycles too, will attract low response rates. Does this mean the results are meaningless? Certainly not.

When only a few workers have crossed the rubicon and answered the call, and those workers have had the courage to complete the survey, their data and the results summarising that data remain the best insight we have thus far into a given workforce’s working conditions.

When these early results deliver a detailed picture, this is an achievement – the early participants’ shared achievement. Do we immediately act on these results? We advise our clients to wait until the second call cycle given that in most cases in the second call cycle, other workers get the opportunity to participate and confirm what is needed.

We also advise clients that they need to give the supplier the opportunity, following the first call cycle, to proactively spot urgencies and work towards resolving them without external pressure or support.

How to increase initial response rates

To mitigate this fear and accelerate trust, we are obliged to show workers  – with patience and tenacity – that direct worker reporting need not be a risk at all.


Drawing on our experience, we have identified a number of factors that enhance response rates and builds trust:

  1. Workers try something new if they have witnessed others doing it safely ahead of them. The opportunity to watch another worker report on working conditions or well-being, and witness that worker not being punished or suffering negative consequences is invaluable. Calling workers in batches enables a grapevine effect to work across a given workforce. The safe or positive experience of the early adopters spreads across a site, and triggers increased uptake for the following batch of calls and for the next call cycle.
  1. Workers try something new if they stand to benefit personally and directly from doing so. So for direct worker reporting, the role of incentives is huge. Effective incentives speak to what a particular workforce perceives as valuable for their everyday lives. In the case of mobile engagement with workers, calling credit is the easiest to administer. Not every worker needs to get the reward but every worker needs to stand an equal and reasonable chance of winning. Too few prizes – a low chance of winning – or incentives that are too humble in their value – will have little or no effect on response rates.
  1. Workers risk providing critical feedback when they are convinced that it is safe to do so. The need to guarantee anonymity is critical to ensure workers participate. One cannot guarantee anonymity when gathering data using face to face contact, or in the case of requiring workers to share accounts in their own voice whether during working hours or thereafter. This is why our approach of mobile engagement which simply requires workers to press numbers on their phones is a safer option for most workers.
  1. Workers are more likely to try out reporting if is it easy, contained and undemanding. What does this mean for the user experience requirements of direct worker reporting?

a) The survey has to be short. In our experience this is 20 questions or less. Surveys that exceed this length suffer from much higher numbers of incompleted responses.

b) Each question has to be simple, literal, and contain a single focus.

c) The response options need to be predictable, clear and mutually exclusive. You cannot beat the tried and test options of yes, no or don’t know when it comes to clarity and ease of use.

d) The number of response options should not exceed three. In a busy workplace, trying to recall response option 1 of 5, for example, is too demanding.

e) An easy question means that no mental calculation is required. Asking a worker in a noisy environment saturated with distractions to calculate average working hours per week is unrealistic.

f) An easy question uses informal phrasing in a home language or at least a language spoken daily.

g) It’s not about what you ask, but also how you ask it. An easy first reporting experience for a worker also means a friendly experience. At &Wider, we use voice actors with a warm and accessible tone of voice, rather than scholarly or authoritative. We use female voice actors who have a maternal quality, as they have been selected by workers again and again as a preference when sharing sensitive data.  


A higher response rate can be expected in time

Workers will participate repeatedly if their participation is valued. This can be demonstrated with a short feedback SMS message valuing the insight gathered. At best, we can share some of the headline results with workers and thereby demonstrate that management is also willing to reciprocate and similarly risk being transparent. But this is not always feasible.

Trust will be built by continuity, by staying in touch with workers and showing them that listening to them is not a passing fad, but rather the introduction of a new norm.

In sum, we need to demand less of workers when it comes to the first opportunity to report directly and anonymously on their working lives – requiring less time, involving less complexity, and offering a reward.

We must be more patient with worker trust, and accommodate the reality that most are scared and the experience will at first be daunting.

Some of the above trends will still be apparent in the second call cycle, but many will be resolved by the third cycle. The chances of a strong response rate in this third cycle and subsequent ones is dramatically increased with simple feedback to workers and with some evidence that management is acting on at least some of the findings from the surveys, however modest this action may be.

Exercising patience and investing a lot in a seamless worker experience will pay impressive dividends, but giving up early will set us back and further challenge worker trust in direct reporting next time around and for years to come.

So our final message to brands and suppliers is this: invest in growing worker trust iteratively and demonstrate that you are in it for the longer term. Workers will reciprocate in time.  

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