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The ultimate guide to employee pulse surveys

11 min read
Pulse surveys are becoming increasingly popular in the realm of employee feedback. Most people associate them with being shorter and more frequent than an annual engagement survey, but a lot of confusion still exists about what the term “pulse survey” exactly means.


What is a pulse survey?

Pulse surveys give organizations the freedom to measure whatever they think is important to measure on a regular basis. In our experience, the term “pulse” is often used to refer to everything that’s not an annual or bi-annual engagement survey. This can lead to confusion about what this survey type actually is and when to effectively use it as part of an employee listening program.

Pulse surveys are different from engagement surveys, lifecycle surveys (onboarding, exit, candidate reaction, etc.), and ad-hoc employee surveys. In short, a pulse survey is simply a mechanism for measuring feedback that’s not bound to measuring specific topics or content.

This means that the content being measured can (and should) change from organization to organization and even one survey to the next.

Shorter, more frequent check-ins

True pulse surveys meet the following conditions:

  • Tracks the same item over time (for example, “How likely are you to recommend your company as a place to work to people you know?”)
  • Is considerably shorter than an engagement survey and easier to complete
  • Is more frequent than traditional measures surveys (i.e., more than once a year)
  • Happens at a regular time interval (most organizations use them quarterly or monthly)

Employee Pulse Survey Conditions

Pulse surveys are just one of a number of different employee feedback mechanisms you could choose to use outside of an engagement survey. Through our years of experience working with organizations on their survey programs, we’ve come up with a checklist to help companies define whether pulses should be their best-fitting approach.

What are the advantages of pulse surveys?

Pulse surveys are growing in popularity, not only because they are shorter and reduce the amount of time it takes employees to give their feedback, but also because they introduce a new dimension to results analysis: time.

Where an annual engagement survey is a once-a-year snapshot of your employees’ engagement, pulses allow you to track items month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter so you can check in (and react) more regularly, plot trends over time, and start to link improvements back to actions you’ve taken in the organization.

Pulse surveys are more agile than traditional methods of collecting employee feedback (e.g. annual census survey), giving employees the opportunity to provide feedback more frequently, and organizations the chance to react more quickly to that feedback.

Traditional employee surveys, such as the annual census engagement survey, tend to be too infrequent. After all, only asking for feedback once a year means it’s incredibly difficult to check in on the progress of action plans, as well as being difficult to align feedback measurements with business outcomes.

Our research shows that employees want to provide feedback more regularly.

77% of employees want to provide feedback more than once per year

Significantly more. Most employees would prefer to provide feedback four times per year, rather than just a year during an annual census engagement survey.

Want to get started with your own? Take a look at some of our free Employee Experience (EX) survey templates

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Why use pulse surveys?

When employees have the opportunity to provide more frequent feedback, it creates an environment where employees feel valued and heard.

People are 12 times more likely to recommend their employer if they feel like their feedback is being listened to and actioned.

Pulse surveys can be used to measure anything that matters to employees and the business. Some of the most common uses include:

  • helping maintain an early warning system for important business metrics (e.g. a safety pulse or customer service pulse)
  • measuring the effectiveness of action plans, particularly those implemented following a traditional engagement survey
  • helping you to understand the relationships between different types of employee feedback, as well as other important business outcomes that are tracked frequently, such as voice of the customer (VoC), performance, and turnover.

What can a pulse survey measure?

The short answer is anything! Pulse surveys are a feedback method that is not content-specific. What you ask should be tailored to your organization’s priorities, goals, and what you need to track.

In fact, the only content-related mandate for a pulse is to have some consistency, so you’re able to track the same item over a period of time and see how it changes from one month or quarter to the next.

With that said, we do see synergies in the types of content organizations choose to measure with their employee pulse surveys.

Below are a couple of the more common uses we see:

  • Engagement Pulse (completely replacing the annual engagement survey): a pulse survey that includes a shorter (maybe only 2-3 items) measure of employee engagement, along with measures of the core drivers of engagement (autonomy, career progression, alignment to strategy)
  • Action Planning Follow-Up Pulse (run in conjunction with the annual Engagement survey): A pulse to monitor the action plans set after your annual engagement survey with structured, regular feedback to help you measure progress and make changes to your plans, should you need to.

In addition to the above, some organizations choose to track whether their company values are truly being “lived” in the organization (sometimes forming part of a broader culture initiative), or check in on employee sentiment more regularly through an organizational change program.

Once a need for pulse surveys has been identified, they can be a valuable tool to bring the voice of employees into business decisions more regularly which will enhance the overall employee experience.

 


What questions should be included in a pulse survey?

When it comes to running a pulse survey there are no “must-measure” questions or ‘items,’ as a pulse survey should be a strategic addition to your overall employee listening strategy.

Any pulse survey program will represent an investment of time from your employees and your resources, so you should focus on measuring only things that are relevant, and important to your organization.

Start with the organization’s strategic priorities, then consider the HR department’s goals. One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is failing to include either outcomes or drivers in the survey.

For example, only measuring engagement will tell you nothing about “why” employees are engaged or disengaged, thereby making the survey “unactionable.”

When thinking about the structure of your survey, we recommend using the 70:20:10 rule of thumb:

  • 70% driver or “actionable” items
  • 20% outcome questions/items
  • 10% open-text questions/items

From there, consider the following common and useful measurements:

Engagement

The vast majority of employee pulse surveys run using our solutions include some measure of engagement. This can include multiple engagement questions (e.g. “I am proud to work for this company”) or a single item such as eNPS.

Action planning themes

Many organizations use pulse to gauge the effectiveness of action plans that arise from the traditional engagement survey.

For example, you may want to understand the extent to which employees agree with the statement, “I have seen positive changes taking place as a result of previous surveys.”

The specific survey content will change from organization to organization but can essentially duplicate the themes from the engagement survey that triggered an action plan.

Strategic initiatives

Oftentimes organizations launch strategic initiatives or product enhancements that would benefit from employee feedback. The specific content of these surveys should be customized to the organization and the specific initiatives being launched.

For example, the organization may be undergoing changes such as restructuring and it may be an opportune time to receive feedback on how employees are perceiving those changes (e.g., “This company does a good job of helping me understand how changes will affect my work”).

We suggest measuring low scoring or surprising survey items, employee reactions to new programs or initiatives, or measurements that matter to executives.

READ MORE: What questions to ask in a pulse survey

How long should a pulse survey be?

A useful rule of thumb to remember is that the more frequent the pulse survey is administered, the shorter it should be.

For example:

  • Monthly pulse: 10-15 questions
  • Quarterly pulse: 15-20 questions
  • Bi-annual pulse: 20-30 questions

READ MORE: How to avoid survey fatigue

How often should pulse surveys be used?

While many organizations ask, “how often will employees have to take the pulse survey?”, the real question should be “how frequently does the business need to see results from the survey, and how quickly can the business respond to the results?”

Take into account these 3 factors:

1. How frequently the constructs you are measuring are likely to fluctuate

For example, if your goal is to measure employee mood (not our first recommendation to clients new to pulse), then it’s reasonable to expect employees’ moods to fluctuate very frequently.

This could be daily and perhaps even more than once per day. However, if you’re measuring employee engagement, and the drivers of engagement, then daily or weekly measurement does not make sense.

Engagement levels are not likely to fluctuate in such a short period of time.

2, How often can the business absorb and communicate results

When you administer a survey to your employees, it sets an expectation that leaders will use the results to take action. Surveying employees and then failing to communicate back or act on the results can backfire and create feelings of distrust and disengagement among employees.

It’s also a surefire way to decrease future survey response rates.

This doesn’t mean you must always take immediate action after every survey you administer, but it does mean you should be prepared to review each set of results and aim to understand them.

When considering the right cadence of your pulse survey, think about how often the organization can react to survey results. This should, at a minimum, mean there’s some communication of results back to the employees who participated in the survey and some sort of reaction or action plan(s).

3. How long it takes for action plans to be implemented

As mentioned, action does not necessarily follow from every pulse survey.

For example, a pulse check on the effectiveness of action plans implemented earlier may show that additional action is not needed.

However, you should always “plan” for possible actions following each pulse survey. Not only does the business need time to review, communicate and decide on actions, but the time needed to implement action plans may also need to be considered.

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