When companies first began collecting data on the employee experience, a norm quickly emerged: HR would create a lengthy survey, send it out to all employees, analyze the responses, and share key findings with senior leaders. And that was it—until the next year, when the same process would unfold again.
But over time, employers began to realize that this approach was no longer enough to monitor employee engagement. In today’s world, the most successful organizations are those that are nimble and agile, able to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. Things like introducing a new product line to better address the needs of customers, bringing in a CEO known for his or her innovative leadership, or altering the structure of a department to streamline workflow are changes a savvy organization might make over the course of the year.
The problem is, an annual engagement survey won’t help you troubleshoot in real time. By the time you ask employees for their feedback using this approach, the new product line may have already crashed and burned, the CEO may have axed a deeply-valued benefits program, and the new departmental structure may have had the opposite of the desired effect, adding cumbersome red tape to employees’ daily workflow. It’s possible your most talented people are long gone, happily employed by a more responsive organization. With so many changes happening all the time, leaders began to realize they couldn’t wait a year or two to ask for feedback anymore.
The “pulse survey” addresses this exact problem. These surveys are designed to be convenient to complete: two to five questions that take just a minute of employees’ time and gather data on a few specific areas of interest. With surveys this quick and easy, leaders could get employee feedback every day if they wanted to.
But just because you can get daily feedback doesn’t mean that you should. Many employers have experienced the very real phenomenon of survey fatigue, wherein the participation rate in surveys begins to decrease as the frequency of surveys increases—and as fewer people voice their opinions, the less meaningful the data becomes.
At Newmeasures, we often hear clients asking, “How often is too often to survey employees? What’s the sweet spot?” The answer, as you probably guessed, is it depends.
But what exactly does it depend on? Here are three things to consider.
1) Major company events.
Short pulse surveys are particularly useful when they are tied to big events or changes that are happening within the company. Maybe there’s been a recent merger that drastically impacted the company brand. Maybe a new senior leader has stepped in and announced sweeping changes in the way resources will be allocated throughout the company.
Whatever the event may be, if it’s catalyzing broad change within the organization, chances are your employees have opinions. Getting a read on how they perceive these changes early on, before they have a chance to spiral out of control, allows the organization to pivot and manage the change more effectively. And by tying your pulse surveys to major corporate events, you also signal to your employees that you recognize that these shifts are likely to affect them, and that you care enough to listen.
2) Capacity for action.
However, listening is not enough in and of itself. Before you spend a bunch of time developing and implementing employee pulse surveys, you need to honestly assess the organization’s ability and capacity to take action on pain points and opportunities illuminated by the feedback.
Survey fatigue is not just the result of people becoming tired of filling out cumbersome surveys; a one or two question survey shouldn’t be that much of a burden. Survey fatigue is also a product of people feeling like, “What’s the point? I’m going to spend five minutes of my time trying to make myself heard—yet again—and the execs aren’t even going to look at what I have to say or do anything about it.”
The lesson from this is that your organization should only be surveying employees—whether through a full-length traditional survey or a quick pulse—if it has the means to address concerns, take action, and communicate to employees how their data is meaningfully contributing to the decision-making process.
Instead of focusing on survey frequency, leaders would do well to consider diversity. What I mean by this is that doing just one type of survey is probably not going to give you the insight you need to improve employee engagement or significantly contribute to your bottom line. Having a regular survey that dives deep into the employee experience every year or two in conjunction with shorter pulse surveys throughout the year (designed to get feedback on major organizational changes or to monitor how well an intervention is working to address a common employee concern) is likely to be your best bet in improving the retention and engagement of your most talented people.
In conclusion, “how often should we survey employees?” is really the wrong question to be asking. Instead, you should be taking a hard look at major shifts within your organization, assessing the extent to which you have the resources to implement a change based on feedback, and moving forward with a multi-faceted approach geared toward insight and action.