What Is An Employee Pulse Survey? The Ultimate Guide

What Is An Employee Pulse Survey? The Ultimate Guide

By Megan Steckler - August 13, 2021

As new technology makes survey deployment and analysis faster and easier, pulse surveys for employees have grown in use and popularity—to the extent that some survey providers counsel a pulse-only survey strategy. At Perceptyx, we don’t endorse that approach—but we do recognize that in the proper context, they are a very useful and valuable part of a comprehensive listening strategy.

But what is a pulse survey? It might be a short questionnaire with a few items intended to monitor engagement throughout the organization, or a survey delivered to a small sample of employees as part of an ongoing series. It could be a follow-up to a census engagement survey, targeted to a specific topic to gain additional insight. What a pulse survey is for one organization might be different from how another organization defines or uses it.

Whatever their purpose, pulses are generally shorter, quicker, and more frequent or spontaneous than other types of surveys. They’re great for tracking trends, managing change, and drilling deeper for insights on specific topics, but they don’t offer the depth or breadth of data, insight, or reporting provided by a census survey.

In this article, we’ll examine different types of pulse survey objectives and strategies, and present a list of pulse survey best practices you should follow to get the most benefit.

Identify Pulse Survey Objectives First

What you need to know (and when and why you need to know) should define your pulse survey strategy. As you should do with all surveys, start by considering the insights you need—what are the business problems you are trying to solve? Your purpose will fall into one of these categories:

  1. Monitoring: Pulses can be good for taking temperature checks, though it’s important to keep in mind that no survey should be just about a score. If you want to track engagement trends, quarterly or semi-annual pulse surveys of the entire organization or smaller samples of employees can provide feedback in between census surveys—but an engagement score will only tell you about the current level of engagement. It won’t help you understand why it’s at that level unless the survey is designed to reflect actionable insights. Pulse surveys, like all others, should only be done if you plan to do something with the information.

    In engagement monitoring, that something may be to look for hotspots where you need to dive deeper for insights—but the ultimate intention should always be to identify areas for improvement with action. After all, there’s little value in learning that engagement has fallen since your last census if you don’t plan to do anything to address the issue.
  2. Tracking progress: Pulse surveys can be useful for checking the effectiveness of actions taken in response to employee feedback. Rather than waiting for the next census survey, a pulse survey deployed to all employees or a sample group can provide information on whether the needle has moved on areas targeted for improvement.
  3. Drilling deeper for insights: If a census survey reveals issues around a certain topic or area of the business, a follow-up pulse survey can provide additional information about the issue to guide action. Pulses can also be useful for exploring specific, strategic topics beyond the scope of the census survey. Topics such as total rewards, change management, corporate communications, diversity and inclusion (D&I) and social justice issues may warrant a deep dive pulse survey of their own.
  4. Informing course-corrections during organizational change: The COVID-19 pandemic provided an object lesson to many organizations of the value of rapid feedback. Pulse surveys are useful for keeping track of employee perceptions during reorganizations and mergers as well. We expect engagement to drop when there is upheaval; pulse surveys can help identify friction points so they can be addressed quickly and help bring engagement levels back up more quickly after big organizational changes.

Once you’ve defined the purpose, you can design the survey components and what they will measure.

The past year has shown how pulses can play a critical role in any listening strategy and be tailored to the needs of the organization. While some organizations wanted feedback on what workers needed to feel safe in work environments, others wanted information on how to best manage remote work. Pulse surveys were able to help many organizations answer these critical questions quickly so they could take the actions needed to support their employees. Organizations are now using pulse surveys to help shape their return-to-work plans and procedures.

Aside from the purpose, the design and timing of the pulse survey are important. Survey items should elicit the information needed to address specific problems, and the cadence of surveying needs to fit with the cadence of change in the topic or area you want to monitor or track as well as the cadence and capacity for taking action.

The key to getting the insights you need is to ask the right questions. Learn how to craft survey items that generate actionable feedback with our free guide, The People Analytics Playbook.

Potential Drawbacks Of Pulse Surveys

Whatever your objectives for doing a pulse survey, keep in mind that pulses have limitations in terms of analytics and reporting. A pulse survey often won’t provide enough data for deep analysis; small sample pulses also won’t provide useful data for managers or others in the lower levels of the organization. This is why a pulse-only survey strategy is, in our view, inadequate—it cannot provide the breadth and depth of information you get from census surveys, which you need for establishing baselines and pinpointing problem areas in the employee experience.

This is not to say that pulse data is useless—but used in isolation, they lack the richness and detail of information often needed to surface insights. In most cases, pulse survey data is most useful when it is correlated to and cross-referenced against census and lifecycle survey data; then patterns may begin to emerge. In that context, pulse data may be key to unlocking insights.

Another issue is that organizations often underestimate the effort that goes into frequent pulse surveys. From an HR standpoint, it can become cumbersome for the team and strain resources. When HR is constantly occupied with collecting and analyzing data, there is less bandwidth for acting on insights gleaned from the data. This can lead to “lack of action fatigue” in which employees grow frustrated with being constantly asked for feedback but not seeing their feedback leveraged to make improvements. Employee response to pulse surveys is already lower than response to census surveys—the internal Perceptyx database shows that an average of 79% of employees participate in census surveys, versus only 67% in pulse surveys—so it’s important to limit surveys to align with your ability and intention to take action.

Employees will wonder “What’s the use?” of a pulse survey if nothing comes of it, causing them to disengage. As shown in this Perceptyx Insights Brief, 74% of organizations that took action following surveys showed improvements in engagement, while only 8% of organizations that did not take action after surveying increased engagement. Action should always be the ultimate objective, so it’s important to not let survey frequency get in the way of making improvements.

Pulse Survey Best Practices

As we’ve outlined, pulse surveys for employees are a critical component of a comprehensive listening strategy, provided that they are focused on solving business problems and their limitations are recognized. In crisis situations, when you need to get feedback quickly from your people, pulse surveys are the best tool for the job. But whether you are needing data to inform crisis response or simply need more information to address an issue in a specific department or location, these pulse survey best practices will help you achieve better business outcomes:

  1. Start with a strong foundation. The company-wide census survey provides a deep understanding of the employee experience, robust analytics reporting, and the ability to action plan at the lowest levels of the organization. Pulse surveys that can’t be compared to a baseline have no context and provide limited insight; the census survey provides a baseline and context for the pulse.
  2. Define a clear purpose. Before you decide on a pulse survey strategy or methodology, determine the insights you need that you can’t get from census data, the business or talent issues you’re trying to solve, and what you’re going to do with the data.
  3. Determine frequency or timing. How quickly do you expect the survey topics or issues to evolve? How much time do you need to communicate and act on the results? Don’t let a too-frequent pulse cadence get in the way of taking action.
  4. Identify target employee groups. Whose feedback do you need? Is it a company-wide pulse survey to monitor engagement? Do you need a random sample to track progress on improvement initiatives or feedback from a specific group to drill deeper on an issue affecting a division or job type? Your purpose will generally identify your target group of employees.
  5. Set clear expectations for follow up. Who’s accountable for analyzing and acting? Who will get the reports, and what will they be expected to do with them? How will you communicate and share what you’ve learned? All aspects of follow up should be defined and planned.
  6. Evaluate, re-evaluate, and continue to check in on your listening strategy. Make sure your strategy fits your needs, and adjust it when it doesn’t. Just because you may have planned monthly pulses, don’t stick with the plan if you find it doesn’t leave you enough time or bandwidth to follow up with action. The cadence of taking action matters more than the cadence of pulse surveys, so re-evaluate if you find your initial plan isn’t working and make a course correction.

Pulse surveys can be a valuable part of your listening strategy, allowing quick feedback during times of change, a way to monitor engagement and track impact of actions, and a way to drill down for additional insights on specific topics. The flexibility of pulses is one of the best things about them. What’s most important is that you have a clearly defined purpose for your pulse—and a plan to act after you get the results.

See the way forward to a more comprehensive listening strategy.

The Perceptyx platform helps you develop a flexible listening strategy that fits the needs of your organization and uncovers insights to improve the employee experience and performance. Combined with survey design assistance from our people analytics experts, you can zero in on employees’ perception of the experience in every part of your organization, and identify the specific factors with the biggest impact on the outcomes you want to improve.

Perceptyx provides support in addressing those issues as well, with easy-to-implement action planning. Our platform not only helps you keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s perceptions—it also helps monitor actions and outcomes to help you build internal best practices.

Get in touch to see how we can help your organization improve the employee experience to increase engagement—and profitability.

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