Get Off the Pulse Survey Bandwagon and on to a Smart Survey Strategy

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Managing Partner & VP of Consulting SolutionsEmployee Engagement, Pulse SurveysLeave a Comment

Over the last few years there has been a trend with employee surveys to use a “pulse” methodology. The spirit of this approach is use short (5 – 10 survey items, less than 5 minutes to complete), frequent surveys to capture ongoing employee feedback. For some organizations this may take the form of a check-in between annual engagement surveys, whereas other organizations ask for weekly feedback. However, over the past year we have noticed a trend in which companies that were pulsing regularly (4 times a year or more) have started to pull back in terms of the frequency of asking for feedback. While the reasons vary, we often hear that it can be too much for the survey team to keep up with, there is a concern over survey fatigue, and perhaps most importantly, the organization does not have enough time to digest and respond to the feedback before the next survey. Given that there is a lack of a consistent understanding of what a pulse survey is and how to get the most value from the approach, the aim of this blog is to share our experience with the most effective approaches to leveraging pulse surveys.

Three Great Reasons to Use Pulse Surveys

Rarely have we seen clients get value from running pulse surveys simply for the sake of monitoring employee sentiment. As with any survey, there has to be a strong “why” behind the reason for requesting feedback or the results are mildly insightful at best. Here are three scenarios in which pulse surveys do provide useful insight:

1. You expect something has changed

Pulse surveys can be a great way to understand how employees are feeling about change with in an organization. For example, consider using a pulse to understand employee ideas or concerns after a major announcement, such as an organizational restructure, leadership change, or introducing a new product or strategy. Checking in to make sure employees understand the reason for the change, how it will impact them, and their ideas for ensuring smooth execution can be great input for leaders.

Change may also come in the form of effort being taken in response to feedback from an engagement survey or other forms of employee input. For example, let’s say an organization learns from an employee engagement survey that employees would like more meaningful and frequent feedback from their managers. In respose, the organization revamps the performance management process from being an annual “event” to quarterly one-on-one development conversations. A pulse survey can be a great way to check in and ensure that the new process is having the desired impact: Are employees getting value out of the converations? Are conversations actually happening on a quarterly basis? Do employees feel like it has had a meaningful impact on their growth and development?  All too often we see organizations implement a new initiative in response to employee feedback, but never close the loop to see if the new approach is having the desired effect. Pulse surveys are a great way to verify that the desired change is happening or if refinements or major course corrections are needed.

2.When you need more information

Another good use of pulse surveys is to dig deeper when you need more information. For example, let’s say your organization is experiencing a spike in turnover in a particular department or location. Checking in with employees at that location to more specifically understand what is driving turnover can result in targeted, informed solutions.

Organizations often desire more information to better understand key topics from an engagement survey. Imagine an organization learns that communication from senior leadership is a key driver of engagement. A simple pulse designed to go deep into the topic of communication can help answer questions such as: Where in the process of cascading information do messages get stuck? What do employees what to know more about? What are their preferred method/s of receiving information? Understanding the root cause of issues can ensure the right solutions are put in place to solve the right problems.

3. Put structure around your survey strategy

A common objection to using pulse surveys is concern around survey fatigue. And it’s true – when pulse surveys are done for the sake of surveying with no solid “why” behind them, employees tend to burn out. We have seen organizations that put an overemphasis on encouraging survey participation with very little focus on following up on the feedback. The result can be that employees just click through the survey so they can say they participated, without taking time to respond accurately and honestly. The result is less than useful feedback and the process becomes more about going through the motions than a meaningful way of gaining insight.

Pulse surveys can actually help combat survey fatigue by putting structure and regular cadence to asking employees for feedback. For example: setting up a quarterly pulse to measure enagagement and other topics that are top-of-mind for the organization can help avoid a continuous flow of random requests for employee input. Inviting each business function to work with the survey team when they need feedback so that it can be incorporated into the pulse survey can put more strategy into the process and help avoid over surveying. We have seen organizations pulse on engagement while also including topics that are relevant to the organization at the time. Examples of such topics include: community giving, employee well-being, reactions to an acquisition, feedback on a leadership meeting, or a rollout of a new technology platform. The quarterly survey format keeps the number of surveys to a minimum but gives leaders a forum to seek feedback as needed.

Pulse surveys can be powerful when they are used to answer key questions, managed strategically, and are input for leaders to help them lead smarter.

How does your organization get the most value out of pulse surveys?