Why should I use a third-party survey provider for my WELL project?

Why should I use a third-party survey provider for my WELL project?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019
/ By:
Angela Loder

Pre and post-occupancy survey tools have been around for decades and are recognized as robust tools for understanding occupant experiences, perceptions and levels of satisfaction on a variety of topics. A survey refers to the entire process of the evaluation of experiences, perceptions or opinions of people through a questionnaire, and the process of collecting, aggregating and analyzing that data.  

Here at the International WELL Building InstituteTM (IWBITM) we get asked a lot of questions about surveys, and in particular, whether or not projects can create their own. While projects can create their own surveys for Part 1: Select Project Survey of Feature C03: Occupant Survey, there are several reasons why you should consider using a third-party survey provider. Third party survey providers are organizations that are independent from the project they are evaluating. This allows them to conduct their evaluation without bias or influence from the design team, owners or managers.

What are some of the benefits of using a third-party survey provider? Below are some of the top reasons projects chose a third-party survey provider.

Make sure that you are focusing on the right topics

Third-party survey providers have taken the time to research and test what information is the most useful to get from occupants in order to make informed decisions and adequate evaluations of building performance, policy and other metrics. This is particularly important for developing good-quality questions and scales. Many of our pre-approved survey providers have worked directly with clients to help them understand the value of asking difficult questions so that they can fully understand the issues facing their occupants, see new ways of addressing them and show their staff that they are committed to really listening.  For example, our pre-approved survey providers go beyond just reporting on occupant satisfaction with indoor environmental quality; they also look at how employees work and whether or not the policies, programs and built environment supports them.  This goes beyond building science and integrates human resources, larger organizational goals, and human health and well-being.

Use good-quality questions and scales that have been tested (often called validated scales)

Ensuring that you have good quality questions and scales (a type of measurement) is probably the least understood benefit of using a third-party survey provider.  This is partly due to the perception that it is easy to create survey questions and that it does not matter how you ask the questions, in what order you ask them and how the questions have been worded.  Many years of experience, however, have shown that creating good-quality occupant surveys is an art and a science. It is so challenging, in fact, that there is an entire field devoted to survey and scale development-psychometrics.  When surveys include multiple topics, this gets even more complicated, since each field often has validated and tested questions that best measure their topic. This means that adding questions on health, productivity or even healthy eating habits to existing surveys - such as surveys on occupant satisfaction on indoor air quality - can be much harder than it may appear.  Creating survey questions without the necessary expertise can lead to participant bias towards one answer versus another (also called ‘leading’ questions), poorly-handled sensitive questions or misinterpretation by participants.

Customized survey questions by non-experts also miss the testing and benchmarking (comparison with a larger database [see below]) that third-parties provide.  Questions that eventually end up in third-party survey providers databases have been pilot-tested and verified using rigorous procedures to ensure that the questions are fair and actually measure what they are intended to.  They are a reliable indication of how occupants perceive their buildings, policies and operations. Given the amount of time needed to properly create, administer and evaluate an occupant survey, not using high-quality surveys is a huge missed opportunity to gather high-quality and insightful data on how a building’s policies and programs are working.  This is particularly important for surveys for WELL Certified projects that are meant to capture not just building performance, but more complicated metrics such as productivity, engagement, health and well-being.

Ensure participant privacy and data protection

Third-party survey providers must also conform to standard privacy and data protection protocols. For universities, this often means it must go through an Institutional Review Board (IRB) of experts at the university to ensure that only the highest quality research is allowed, and that all necessary protocols are followed to ensure participant safety, privacy and protection. Other organizations must follow national guidelines around privacy and data security, such as the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations on research using human subjects1 or the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)2,3.  While Human Resource departments may have experience dealing with sensitive information, they may not be set up to follow all the necessary protocols for ensuring participant privacy. Even if they are aware, there is the real risk that those answering the survey will not perceive the data analysis to be impartial or risk-free, and will not answer honestly.  Lastly, privacy protocols, combined with developing and testing good-quality questions, means that creating and administering good-quality surveys can be a lot more work than it may appear.

Neutral and Objective = Credible

There is a reason why many accrediting organizations and large studies require the use of third-party evaluation- it ensures the objectivity and credibility of the results. For example, the large Innovate UK Building Performance Evaluation Programme uses third-party surveys4. Other standard-setting bodies such as American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have all argued that third-party building assessment is an important part of Performance Measurement Protocols for Commercial Buildings5.  The World Green Building Council similarly encourages the development of robust evaluation tools and the use of a third party administration and assessment6, as does GreenStar7.  

Benchmarking

Third-party survey providers offer projects the ability to benchmark, or compare, how they are doing on a number of topics as compared to other buildings, whether in their own portfolio or to comparative building types and demographics. This allows for cross-comparisons and can help to justify improvements. For example, all of our pre-approved survey providers have many years of expertise and testing of their survey instruments, and can therefore offer projects perspective on how they compare to their peers.  Many also offer their survey in multiple languages.

Problem-solving and Education

Many third-party survey providers can also offer insight and potential solutions to problems or issues that can come up.  This can help to ensure that buildings are performing the way they are intended to, and that policies and programs are effective and helping those they are designed to help. For example, our pre-approved survey providers have found that the process of survey delivery, evaluation and support of possible solutions have helped with systems commissioning, lease renewal events (BUS/Arup, 2019; CBE, 2019), and adjustments post-occupancy to policies and programs that improved morale and employee engagement (Leesman Index, 2019).  Furthermore, many of our pre-approved survey providers are actively involved with ongoing research so that the results of their surveys help to shape better metrics and guidelines for occupant health and well-being.  Lastly, the process of using good-quality surveys can be a tool for education for both building participants and practitioners. Many of our pre-approved survey providers use anonymized findings in educational sessions with students and practitioners, and findings can help drive innovation and improvement.

Always compliant with WELL requirements

As we work directly with pre-approved survey providers, their content is always up to date and compliant with WELL requirements.

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If you have a survey that you would like considered for approval, please submit this to surveys@wellcertified.com.  For projects pursuing Feature C04: Enhanced Occupant Survey, a third-party survey provider is required.  

For those projects in interested in having customized modules or questions added to their surveys, for example to fulfill Feature C04, many of our pre-approved survey providers can also help develop these customized components (CSU, 2019; SPEQ 2019; BOSSA 2019).

Please do not hesitate to contact us at coaching@wellcertified.com should you have any further questions on the use of surveys for your WELL project.

 

In her role with IWBI, Dr. Angela Loder is responsible for identifying, directing, and managing evidenced-based research that supports the WELL Building Standard. As a research scientist, strategic planner, and educator, Dr. Loder brings over a decade of experience in interdisciplinary research and partnerships around occupant health, well-being, and the built and natural environment. Prior to joining IWBI, Dr. Loder ran her own consulting firm, working with municipal, regional, and federal governments on urban planning, sustainability, and health. Projects included community outreach on values around the urban forest for Boulder Urban Forestry; writing and implementing a $1.6 million dollar state-funded Active Living and Healthy Eating grant for Jefferson County, CO; and a federal interdisciplinary project linking energy conservation, occupant comfort, and behavior. Her doctoral research looked at the impact that visual and physical access to a green roof in Chicago and Toronto had on