What is a pulse survey?
Organisations need to keep up with the pace of technology innovations and workplace developments, and to do this, more frequent employee feedback is needed. Cue the emergence of employee pulse surveys, which are a valuable internal communications tool for listening to employees and gathering feedback more frequently than the in-depth, holistic annual employee engagement surveys. They’re not intended to replace the annual employee surveys – rather, use pulse surveys to sound out with your employees smaller, more urgent issues, specific needs, key populations, or track trends.
The employee pulse survey also reflects the social changes and expectations around feedback. Research from Qualtrics shows that employees nowadays want to provide feedback more regularly. In fact, 77% of employees want to provide feedback more than once per year.
The responses you collect should be both quick and actionable. A pulse survey is much shorter than an employee engagement survey. The pulse survey questions and their length vary, based on the purpose of the pulse, frequency of the pulse, topics being measured, and the people receiving the feedback (e.g. EX Centres of Excellence vs. line managers.)
What does an employee pulse survey measure?
There are no rules about what you should ask, which makes pulse surveys so versatile. Your questions will depend entirely on the goal you want to achieve.
Pulses are used to explore and gain insight. We suggest starting with key issues or populations identified in your holistic engagement survey. Use the pulses to deep dive into a smaller number of key topics and track progress, measure the effectiveness of action plans implemented following previous survey engagement, provide an early warning system for important business metrics or simply check in (and react) more frequently.
Employee experience feedback is not an exercise in measurement, but an exercise in action. Every item in your employee pulse surveys should contribute to your goal in some way. Strip out any ‘nice to have’ items and avoid the temptation to throw in unrelated survey questions.
Make sure your items apply to all your respondents, or use branching to direct people to relevant items. People lose patience trying to respond to items that don’t apply to them, and fudge or abandon the survey.
Most importantly, keep your pulse survey focused on action. If you can’t take action on a specific question, consider whether you really need to include it.
The right mix of metrics
The way to get the best out of your pulse survey is to ensure a balanced mix of the three main types of survey items – outcome, driver and open text:
Also known as a KPI, this is what you are interested in measuring, e.g. Employee Engagement, Intentions to Stay, Inclusion, Wellbeing. Usually, you’ll want to see the scores for this trending upwards over time.
But, the challenge is that outcome items themselves are not actionable.
These are the company practices or behaviours that have an impact (positive or negative) on the KPI you’re tracking. For example, the top employee experience drivers in EMEA at the start of 2023 were:
- confidence in the future of the company
- opportunities to grow and develop
- belief in the company values
Identifying the key drivers requires statistical analysis, but reporting dashboards can do the heavy lifting to run this analysis automatically and surface the drivers for you (see .
3. Open text
Open text lets employees write in verbatim feedback, adding valuable depth to your insights. Sticking with the example above, you may follow the outcome and driver items with an open-ended question for the respondent to r describe their experiences with specific people, practices or situations.
The qualitative data you get back adds context to the quantitative data from your outcome and driver items. Generative AI now means that Artificial intelligence can be used to easily understand the sentiment, strength of emotion and topics from structured verbatim feedback from surveys, as well as unstructured voice and text comments (but this is a separate topic for another time).
Structuring your pulse surveys
We recommend using the 70:20:10 rule of thumb structure:
- 70% Driver/actionable items
- 20% Outcome items
- 10% Open-text items
Remember, while you will want (and need) to measure trends over time, employee experience feedback is not an exercise in measurement, but an exercise in action.
Therefore, most of your pulse should be actionable items. It’s tempting to throw in more ‘outcomes’ so you can report scores back to the organisation, but ultimately, interesting as outcomes are, you can’t take action on them.
For example, you know a key driver of Employee Engagement is employees’ perceptions of growth and development in their role (and longer term with the company). What is more useful to you – knowing your ‘score’ for a KPI, or identifying the improvements you can make to that key driver?
Finally, when looking at your pulse survey items, you may want to consider anchoring them around a specific time period, e.g. last quarter, or last month. This is particularly useful when you are asking employees to respond to a survey item on a regular basis.
Categories of pulse survey items, with examples
N.B. There’s no ‘off-the-shelf’ approach to pulse surveys. Your organisation is unique and the purpose of your pulse surveys will be unique and will vary too. Start with your purpose, which will inform the exact mix of items to include in your pulse survey.
And, in this next section, we will refer to employee pulse survey questions as ‘pulse survey items’. This is because modern employee surveys, and pulse surveys in particular, rarely ask questions. Instead, respondents rate statements to reflect their experience.
We recommend measuring five critical EX key performance indicators (KPIs) for the employee experience, and tie those into the 25 drivers they can act on to improve the employee experience.
Which categories and items you select will depend on the issues surfaced in your annual survey.
Here’s our (non-exhaustive) list of items that make up a good employee pulse survey. You really can ask anything you believe to be important.
Structure your survey with the 70:20:10 rule, always leaving an open text box for free comment.
EX KPIs are the measurements a company should track to ensure they are providing a great employee experience. We have identified three core KPIs and two optional ones to measure:
This remains the definitive employee measurement. Many organisations use slightly customised versions of Engagement, but all have the same core principles:
- Recommend: This explores the employees’ relationship with the company. Advocacy, or likelihood to recommend the organisation as a place to work, has long been shown to be an important part of engagement.
- Motivate: This taps into employee motivation. It measures willingness to give discretionary effort, or go above and beyond.
- Personal accomplishment: This explores an employee’s connection to their job and their work. When employees feel their work gives them a sense of accomplishment, it’s key to having a sense of job purpose, which is becoming increasingly important.
Experience vs Expectations
This captures how well you are living up to your employees’ expectations about their experience at your company. The Experience vs Expectations measure helps organisations connect employee experiences throughout the employee journey, creating a true picture of the employee journey over time.
Intent to Stay
Linked to turnover, Intent to Stay is another well-established measure of an employee’s overall organisational commitment. It behaves differently from engagement; after all, a highly engaged employee may still want to leave the organisation. It’s a separate, and equally important KPI. We recommend measuring Intent to Stay using a specific, time-bound question rather than a general sentiment-focused question.
Inclusion (optional KPI)
It’s well known that diversity and inclusion lead to a positive company culture, and companies are increasingly focusing on DEI initiatives. There are three components in the Inclusion KPI:
- Equity: Equal outcomes for different groups of employees in the workplace, so that all employees have fair and equal access to opportunity
- Belonging: Without feeling that they belong, employees cannot feel included in their workplace. All employees should feel positively connected with their workplace and colleagues
- Authenticity: Employees must feel they both belong, and can be their authentic selves at work.
Wellbeing is an essential part of modern employee experience, particularly post-pandemic, as the lines between work, home, and remote working have become increasingly blurred. Wellbeing looks at:
- Trusting relationships: Employees should feel they have social connections and meaningful relationships in the workplace to draw on, to help them get through challenging times
- Self-positivity: When we feel positive about ourselves, we tend to feel better about life in general. A strong baseline of self-esteem or self-confidence is important to overall employee well-being
- Energised: This can be an essential indicator of potential burnout. Employees who feel energised at work have high levels of wellbeing.
25 drivers of EX
Drivers of EX are the critical topics that will influence the KPIs. They incorporate the aspects of work that are important to employees today. Each driver flags up to the company which areas they need to focus on to improve their overall employee experience.
Some drivers are better measured quarterly (faster-moving and more actionable responses), and some biannually.
Drivers to measure quarterly:
1. Authority and empowerment
Ensuring that employees have the minimum autonomy they need to do their job.
Cooperation between employees within a team and across teams.
Open communication within the company.
4. Managing change
Supporting employees to adapt to change
5. Performance and accountability
Knowing what is expected of employees their role and what they will be held accountable for.
6. Psychological safety
Voicing opinions without negative consequences.
Being seen and having work recognised.
Having access to the resources needed to be successful.
Expectations about being treated with respect at work.
10. Role fit
Making good use of skills and abilities
Feeling safe at work.
12. Survey follow-up
Belief that positive change will happen as a result of the survey.
13. Trust in leadership
Confidence that senior leaders are making the right decisions for the future of the company.
14. Trust in manager
Having a manager who is dependable, fair, honest and genuinely caring. .
15. Work life balance
Managing job responsibilities in a way that enables healthy work-life balance
Drivers to measure bi-annually:
16. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
Believing that the company is making efforts to have a positive impact on the world.
17. Customer focus
Focused on delivering products and services to customers
Culture of ethical business decisions and conduct
19. Growth and Development
Opportunities to learn and develop a career.
Opportunities to meaningfully contribute to progress and ‘own’ processes and roles.
21. Living the values
Belief in the company values
22. Pay and benefits
Fair rewards linked to performance.
23. Strategic alignment
Carity on the direction the company is taking, the role of employees in supporting the strategy and belief in the strategy
Access to training to do the job .
25. Work Process
Work processes that enable employees to be productive.
Ownership of pulse surveys
As well as centrally defined pulse surveys, increasingly we see a democratisation of pulse surveys, with ownership for not only the feedback, but the definition of the pulse surveys themselves sitting with local leaders, HR professionals and managers.
While there will always be a role for centrally driven pulse surveys, the need of local managers to check-in and react quickly, and the expectation from employees themselves to provide feedback, require an agility that can be provided by pulse surveys.
This is resulting in the evolution of the role of the central EX team, changing from survey owner to a true Center of Excellence. These EX Centres of Excellence provide local leaders, HR and managers with pulsing tools – within guardrails – in which they can select from a library of tried-and-tested survey items, select the pulsing schedule and population, and access reporting dashboards.
Is there a better way of phrasing this rather than “see here”. For example, “details on how statistical analysis can be embedded into reporting tools to easily enable dashboard users – from frontline managers to your People Analytics team – are explored and illustrated here.”