Focusing on Focus Groups

Numeric data — like survey results and participation rates — gives you objective information about your communication strategy or, for that matter, any aspect of your wellness program. Subjective feedback gathered in focus groups, in contrast, can reveal the real needs and motives of the people behind your numbers.

Gain Deeper Insight

A focus group usually includes 8-12 attendees representing your target population, convened in person to provide input about a specific program feature. Your overall wellness program is too broad a subject to elicit meaningful feedback. But you might, for example, use a focus group to home in on:

  • Low program participation
  • An activity you’re thinking about launching
  • Existing or planned incentive structure
  • Program communications (the focus of this article).

This subjective feedback process helps you learn about attitudes and culture, understand employees’ experience, and expose actionable information you may have otherwise overlooked. Focus groups help you understand the reason quantitative data is turning out the way it is — for example, why the night shift doesn’t attend programs you designed just for them, or why survey respondents rank resilience above financial wellness.

You should conduct a focus group — like any assessment — only when you’re confident you can act on findings. Giving voice to employee preference for instant-messaging announcements compared to intranet banners, for example, can backfire if you don’t have access to instant messaging.

This isn’t a spoken survey, where the facilitator asks scripted questions and jots down individual responses. The value of focus groups lies in having attendees open up with deeper, sincere sentiment. Encouraging them to converse casually, building on — or even challenging — each other’s comments, is essential. Once I’ve established trust among members, I spend most of the time listening to them converse with one another.

Capitalize on Group Dynamics

I led a series of focus groups for a large employer that realized employees were disregarding important email blasts from HR. If I had just asked, “How do you like emails from HR?” participants likely would’ve said they accept them as a necessary evil, or a similar safe and superficial response. Instead, I opened a discussion about how they got information in general, then steered the conversation to how they received important updates about their work. This led to their preferences for getting information and how they felt when they saw an HR message in their inbox: overwhelmed, irritated, and like their time wasn’t valued.

Spontaneously brainstorming, they agreed they needed a tiered system to indicate importance, stipulating Action Required or Action Requested, as appropriate, in subject lines. I hid my dismay; the HR department and I considered the tone of Action Required to be off-putting. Based on our own assumptions, we wouldn’t have listed this simple solution as an option in a multiple-choice survey question, nor would it have shown up in open-text responses, which lacked the dynamics of a focus group.

Another unexpected finding occurred in a separate group exploring this same topic. A participant mentioned the United Way campaign table tents the company displayed on conference tables, in break rooms, and in employee cafeterias. Other members enthusiastically endorsed table tents as a pleasant and effective mode of communication. This was another surprise. In fact, HR was confidentially planning to prohibit table tents. Upon further discussion, I learned that removable table decals are a popular, contemporary alternative to table tents that would accommodate this employee preference while addressing HR concerns about clutter and waste.

These are examples of findings that led to significant improvements in the company’s communication with employees.

Do It Yourself

You can conduct focus groups as a one-off or as a predecessor or follow-up to a survey. Some organizations use them to clarify what they should ask on a survey. I like to do them after, because surveys usually reveal unexpected findings that warrant more specific firsthand feedback.

Though you may be able to hire a trained facilitator or borrow one from your company’s marketing department, you can learn to lead focus groups. You’ll improve with experience, especially if you have the opportunity to observe an expert.

Tips for getting started:

  • Work with the organization to recruit participants who represent a cross section of the population you’re trying to reach. Consider job grade, shift, age, gender identity, and other demographics.
  • Give potential participants advance information, emphasizing that the focus group is an opportunity to be heard.
  • Depending on target population size, expect to conduct multiple groups. This lets you confirm that others share the sentiment of that group, and it’s not just an outlier.
  • Be sensitive to organization hierarchy levels. Employee feedback is almost always inhibited in the presence of those higher on the ladder, so try to conduct groups of frontline employees separately from managers.
  • Ask all participants at the outset of a session to agree “what happens in the focus group stays in the focus group.” They shouldn’t share what was said, who was present, or anyone’s demeanor. Supply a talking point (like, “We just chatted about wellness communication”) attendees can use when asked by curious coworkers.
  • Emphasize your own commitment to confidentiality — promise other stakeholders will receive only an anonymous summary — and stick to it.
  • Include employees who don’t participate in the wellness program. To learn about communication preferences, for example, you need to hear from people who have not gotten the message, as well as those who have.
  • Limit the group to 8-12 employees and plan to complete the session in 1 hour.
  • Offer healthy refreshments, with more substantial items if the session occurs during mealtime.
  • Ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions.
  • Record the focus group and refer to the transcript when summarizing your findings and creating your follow-up plan. Inform participants in advance that you will be recording the session. If you can’t record it, bring an assistant to scribe.
  • Arrive early and greet each participant. Seat the group around a conference table or in a circle.
  • Establish a connection as soon as possible with participants — they need to trust you. In introductory remarks, remind them of the group’s purpose, including how you will use the feedback. Let them know when you start the recording.
  • Summarize key points you’ve heard at the end, then describe next steps for using the feedback and ask if anyone has anything additional to say.

Published tip sheets and scripts won’t match your unique focus group situation, but here are good ones you can refer to for ideas:

How do you get people talking? In my next column, I’ll share creative, interactive techniques to evoke the most meaningful focus group feedback, even from reluctant participants.


Bob MerbergBob Merberg
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.

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