A Fresh Take On Annual Employee Engagement Surveys

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - December 13, 2018

Chapter 2

Is the annual employee survey dead?

A Google search for “annual employee engagement surveys” returns several first-page results announcing its demise, coupled with advocacy for frequent pulse surveys.

Critics say that annual census surveys are too slow, too cumbersome, too old fashioned, and results are outdated before they are distributed to managers, and that frequent pulse surveys allow HR to “always be listening”. The theory is that frequent, short surveys of small groups of employees keep leaders and HR up-to-date on employee engagement, and paint a more accurate picture of employee perceptions by gathering data at many moments in time. Some companies have gone so far as to implement pulse surveys in lieu of the annual census survey of all employees.

Is this a mistake? When well designed and administered, census surveys provide a wealth of information about employees as a whole, while also providing detailed data on important subsets of the organization, including departments, locations, gender, job types, and more. Census surveys provide an in-depth global picture of the employee experience at one moment in time. Thanks to the nuances in that picture, themes and trends can be detected and addressed.

In this chapter, we’ll examine the criticisms of the annual employee engagement survey, the benefits of census surveys, and how they fit into the big picture of the employee experience.

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Table Of Contents

Are criticisms of annual employee engagement surveys valid?

One of the criticisms levelled at annual census surveys is that they are “old-fashioned;” for some that equates to “obsolete.” Employee surveys have been deployed in organizations for close to 60 years and in wide use for the past 40. During that time, the focus of survey questions and the metrics have no doubt shifted—in the 1970s, employee satisfaction was the focus, versus employee engagement or employee experience today—but to condemn the annual employee survey based on outdated assumptions would be a mistake.

Rather than dismiss the annual survey as obsolete, consider why it is still in use in organizations: It provides businesses with data they need to inform strategy and drive improvements. While it may be an infrequent measure, it’s a comprehensive one, and the information collected can populate a rich database for deep HR analytics. Census surveys also enable feedback and action planning discussions between managers and employees, a valuable organization effectiveness exercise.

Another common criticism is that annual surveys are “too slow.” While this may have been true 40 years ago, when it took weeks to collect paper surveys, compile paper reports, and analyze the data, there’s no reason for it to be true today. With new technology, data can be analyzed and reports released immediately after the close of survey administration.

The other criticism often raised is that annual surveys are cumbersome—too long and too time-consuming to complete. But there’s no reason an annual survey has to be lengthy; well-designed employee engagement surveys can ask 25-30 insightful questions to capture an understanding of the employee experience and be completed in less than 10 minutes.

If employees are truly a company’s most important asset, isn’t it worth asking for 10 minutes of their time to find out what they think? More to the point, doesn’t asking for a greater time commitment communicate “We really want to know what you think,” better than “How engaged are you right now on a scale of one to five”? This is an important point, deserving further exploration.

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A Fresh Take on the Annual Employee Engagement Survey

As outlined above, the criticisms levelled against the annual census survey of all employees lack validity, and any perceived problems are easily addressed. But we should also consider the message sent by abandoning the annual survey in favor of frequent pulse surveys.

Pulse surveys are ultimately one-way communication. Asking “Are you engaged now?” “How about now?” numerous times may provide a snapshot of engagement at multiple moments in time, but the responses offer no clues for how to address issues. The pulse survey may be measuring and listening, but it offers little opportunity for two-way conversation.

The manager reporting and team feedback component of the census survey process represents manager and employee interaction in problem solving. Annual surveys engage employees in the conversation, while pulse surveys treat engagement as a metric—something to be measured rather than an opportunity to engage. Abandoning the annual survey in favor of pulse surveys pulls away from human interaction and eliminates the back-and-forth human element of the annual survey. Engagement is a product of the entire employee experience; eliminating a tool that includes the engaging elements of conversation and participation is unlikely to increase employees’ connection to the company.

This is not to say that pulse surveys have no value—they can be a useful and valuable component of a broader continuous listening strategy that probes multiple issues of strategic value to the organization, including follow-ups to census survey findings. But when designing a company’s continuous listening strategy, don’t eliminate the census to accommodate pulses.

To use a medical analogy, if a pulse survey is taking the temperature of employee sentiment at frequent intervals, then the annual employee engagement survey is the yearly physical exam measuring all the metrics of good health. There can be value in measuring temperature, but if that’s all you do, you’ll never know why there’s a fever.


The annual census survey diagnoses the causes of problems and suggests a treatment plan. It can be coupled with follow-up pulse surveys to measure the efficacy of treatment and raise the alert if changes in the treatment plan are needed. But without the diagnostic tool of the annual survey, measurements alone will not effect a cure.

Could your company use a comprehensive annual check-up?

If your company could use some help in maintaining good health, get in touch with Perceptyx today. Our powerful people analytics platform captures the insightful data you need to monitor, diagnose, and treat the issues that most impact the employee experience. We couple annual surveys with continuous listening during pivotal moments to inform improvements in the experience—and increase engagement—during every stage of the employee journey.

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