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Employee Pulse Surveys: Your Go-To Guide

By Nick Hayter - October 22, 2021

Employee pulse surveys, already growing in popularity before the COVID-19 pandemic, exploded in use over the past year and a half as employers sought more timely feedback from employees to help navigate the crisis.

However, even as more organizations adopt employee pulse surveys, questions about exactly what constitutes a pulse continue. The one point of agreement is that pulse surveys have a lighter “touch” or footprint than the annual census or engagement survey – either because the pulse has fewer questions or because it's administered to fewer people.

Our view is that a pulse survey can be many different things – and used for many different purposes. In this article, we’ll look at different employee pulse survey examples and pulse survey best practices – useful for whatever type of pulse strategy you adopt.

What is an Employee Pulse Survey?

A pulse survey differs from an annual census or engagement survey in that it does not attempt to collect information about the entirety of the employee experience. Typically, a pulse will be focused on one objective (e.g., capturing employee feedback about a specific program or business process) or one topic area (e.g. manager effectiveness). A pulse survey is often a check-in, “taking the pulse” of organizational health and sentiment in the periods between more comprehensive census surveys.

Employee pulse surveys are just one element of a successful continuous listening program. To find out what else you should be doing, download our free guide, Continuous Listening: Developing The Right Strategy For Your Organization.

Determine Your Purpose

Employee pulse surveys provide a great way to listen and act on employee feedback, and can be deployed to the entire organization, a random sample, or a selected group. These are some of the most common objectives when conducting pulse surveys:

  • Tracking sentiment over time
  • Gaining better understanding of employee needs by “drilling down” on specific issues
  • Staying connected with employee perceptions during times of crisis

Determining the “best” type of pulse survey requires a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. For example, an employee pulse survey could be used for: 

  1. Monitoring
    Pulse surveys can be used as a regular “temperature check.” Common employee pulse survey questions are the four indicators of engagement or employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS). Monitoring pulses can be done on nearly any cadence: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or biannually. You can invite selected subsets of your workforce, use random sampling, or even invite your entire organization to participate on a regular basis.
  2. Discovering
    Pulse surveys can be used as a “deep dive” into specific topics and issues. You can use pulse surveys to follow up on known barriers to engagement – surveys focused on recognition or other distinct topics such as vision and direction, communication, or growth and development. Here, you may want to select “hotspot” business units, geographic regions, job roles, or tenure bands – or you may want the survey to go to a representative sample of your workforce.
  3. Responding
    Pulse surveys can be tied to planned business events to gauge employee reactions or to gather suggestions about organizational changes and business updates.
    We’ve also witnessed recently that pulse surveys are used to rapidly collect data on emerging topics to help you respond quickly and decisively to unplanned situations. Though listening to your employees is always important, that need is amplified during turbulent times. You can use ad hoc, just-in-time pulse surveys to connect with employees at scale, alongside other ways of keeping lines of communication open with your people.

The purpose of your pulse surveys will determine both the survey cadence and the groups surveyed – as well as the number and type of questions you ask – so be clear on your objectives before you decide to do a pulse.

How Often Should You Survey?

The cadence of your pulse surveys depends on your objectives and your organization’s capacity to conduct surveys according to best practices as well as your ability to follow up with action. 

If you design an employee pulse survey program to frequently monitor employee feedback but do nothing with the incoming information, don’t be surprised if your program fails. Employees will begin to view your pulses as a fruitless exercise. Rather than helping you improve employee engagement and business performance, your program may lead to lack-of-action fatigue, where people view surveys as an insincere exercise. 

A potential pitfall of a frequent pulse strategy is the “wait and see” effect. Rather than act, leaders noticing a downward trend developing in a monthly pulse might, in fact, delay taking action. Because another round of feedback is right around the corner, they may decide to wait for the results of the next survey. This can lead to mistrust among employees that survey feedback is valued, resulting in declining participation over time.

Another stumbling block for a frequent pulse survey cadence is that some organizations just don’t yet have the technological readiness or internal capabilities for daily, weekly, or even monthly pulse surveys. If your annual census survey requires a lot of HR employee involvement to handle reporting, dissemination of results, and mapping trends to connect the dots between surveys, then consider carefully before adding 12, 52, or 365 more surveys throughout the year to their to-do list! You may need to improve the readiness of your HR data or – more likely – adopt a crawl, walk, run approach toward your pulse survey strategy.

Rule number one for pulse survey cadence is: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. This means: 

  • Unless you’re simply monitoring engagement, don’t ask employees for feedback if you don’t have the resources or bandwidth to follow up with action. 
  • Even when you are monitoring engagement, use what you learn from the trend to act if you can – even if that action is just a follow-up survey to dive deeper and gain more information about potential issues.

What are the Best Practices to Follow for Pulse Surveys?

For pulse surveys, keep in mind that you need to do the same things you do for other types of surveys. Pulse survey best practices include:

  • Establishing a clear purpose
  • Maintaining a commitment to action
  • Communicating promptly following the pulse to share results and to inform employees about actions taken in response to survey feedback 

If you can’t incorporate all these best practices into your pulse survey, don’t do the survey; it may do more harm than good.

Some survey providers – typically those that offer only pulse survey software – recommend a move away from an annual census survey in favor of “pulse-only” strategies with very frequent (and perhaps intrusive) surveys for local teams or for the entire organization. While there are situations where frequent and even daily pulses may be appropriate, many issues don’t need to be tracked frequently to be critical focus areas for change. A well-deployed annual census survey with follow-up actions and appropriate monitoring will be more effective than frequent pulse surveys with constant measurement but no action.

These employee pulse survey strategy examples from clients demonstrate the value of adhering to pulse survey best practices:

  • Client #1 set up a quarterly pulse survey to track engagement trends. The selected sample included all employees in specific divisions/departments, and the client shared survey results with managers in those units. But because the surveys focused only on engagement – an outcome – they provided no actionable information for managers and failed to move the needle on engagement or improvements in the employee experience. 
  • Client #2 runs regular census pulses that track engagement but also include a question set focused on manager effectiveness, the employee/manager relationship, or team enablement (workload, work processes within the team, etc.). Client #2 also shares survey results with managers, but in this case, managers are getting information that is useful for taking action. If a manager’s team members report that they aren’t having career conversations with the manager for example, because this type of data is being collected regularly, the manager can take action to improve before the next survey comes around.

The moral of the story is that like all other surveys, pulse surveys should be deployed with the goal of getting actionable feedback and taking action. There’s nothing wrong with monitoring engagement of course, but a better strategy would be to use those results to pinpoint areas in the organization where a problem may be brewing and you need more information, rather than sharing it. Survey results shared with managers can only lead to improvements if the pulse was designed to empower managers to take action.

Build an Employee Pulse Survey Strategy That Works For You

As we’ve noted, there are many different types of pulse surveys and survey cadences suited to different purposes. What’s most important is to adopt a pulse strategy that provides your organization with the information you need at the intervals needed.

While we’ve seen growing demand for pulse surveys, the most common trend is that our clients continue with their census survey program to create a wide and deep database for analytics. Many clients then choose to complement their census survey data with employee pulse surveys. This is a best-of-both-worlds approach: Census surveys establish a baseline, allow for tracking changes at multiple levels of the organization, and help identify issues for further exploration; pulses help to monitor, discover, or respond to emerging issues as needed.

Regardless of the provider or platform you choose for conducting pulses, you will likely want to ensure that the pulse survey software you select allows you to integrate your pulse survey data with your census survey data, as well as other people data. With this, you can identify patterns and investigate outcomes; without this, you will be left with a lot of disparate data that is hard to connect to gain insights.

In the end, your pulse survey strategy should be based on your organization’s unique needs and be practical in terms of your capacity to act on employee feedback. Always keep in mind that action – for improvement – is the ultimate reason for surveying; it’s better to ask less and act more than vice versa.

Need Help Designing an Employee Pulse Survey Strategy for Your Organization?

At Perceptyx, helping companies design listening programs to address their unique needs is our goal. With custom surveys paired to our people analytics platform and expertise in all aspects of survey design, strategy, and communication, we can guide you in developing a strategy that will help your company thrive. Get in touch to learn more.

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