Pulse Surveys: The Right And Wrong Reasons To Do Them


The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pulse Surveys

All trends take flight because they offer users a benefit over existing offerings.  Pulse surveys are no different, and they can be very useful tools in understanding employee engagement and the employee mindset.  However, the benefits giving rise to their increasing popularity may not be the reasons one should be using Pulse Surveys.

Pulse Surveys are becoming more popular for two, or perhaps three, key reasons:

  1. They are cost effective (read: can be cheaper) – especially compared to the annual or bi-annual employee engagement survey.
  2. They are (or should be) shorter, and therefore easier for employees to complete (but also easier for HR people to develop with fewer, more straightforward questions).
  3. They can be creative – and introduce an element of fun.

These are all good things, but will they help us with the ultimate goal, which is understanding and improving employee engagement?

Promoting Pulse Surveys for the Wrong Reasons

There clearly are significant benefits to pulse surveys, and I’ll review those below.  However; what I find misleading, and somewhat irresponsible, is that pulse surveys are being promoted largely by propagating a number of myths about employee engagement and the “traditional” employee engagement survey:

Myth #1: Surveying more frequently will catch employee sentiment which is missed by the annual engagement survey – as is illustrated by this quote:

“By examining frequent, real-time feedback from employees, companies can make small, subtle changes that are highly focused but could have a big impact on engagement”, says Jacob Shrirar, Officevibe’s director of customer happiness.

Our experience in working with hundreds of organizations over close to twenty years indicates that while there are always “quick wins” in change efforts to improve engagement over time, the drivers of engagement most often require intensive and sustained organizational and culture change which takes place over months, if not years.  For the large majority of organizations, we survey, employee engagement is driven by factors such as professional growth and learning, trust in senior leadership, and having a shared organizational vision (among others). The fact is, these drivers, and overall employee engagement, just can’t be changed that fast. While “small, subtle, changes” can have a beneficial impact, they alone are rarely enough to move the engagement needle.

Myth #2: Employee engagement surveys are too long, so response rates are declining.  More employees will answer shorter (pulse) surveys.

A quick Google search on the phrase “Pulse Surveys” reveals that many of those who are promoting pulse surveys are basing their argument on the premise that employees are increasingly finding standard engagement surveys too long, as well as less relevant; therefore, response rates are declining.

Our experience shows that nothing could be further from the truth.  In organizations with a history of conducting employee surveys on a regular basis, experience clearly shows that the response rate is not a function of the length of the survey, or its frequency (given a standard employee engagement survey which takes 15-20 minutes to complete).   What explains the most variability in the response rates whether or not action is taken based on the survey results. Response rates are high when employees want to change things, and decline when no change takes place, regardless of how short or zippy the survey is.

Therein lies the hidden danger of pulse surveys, which many of my well-meaning clients and contacts in HR may have not yet realized.   Each and every time we solicit employees’ input (on issues ranging from engagement, or where to hold the next summer picnic), there is an expectation that the feedback will be used in decision-making.  Whether it’s a short pulse survey, a standard engagement survey, or a “fast blast” poll on the company intranet, each time we ask employees to provide input, employees expect their input will be listened to and used.   The more frequently we ask employees for their input, the more expectations we will create for response and action, and the more difficulty we will have in analyzing and acting on all of that data. If we won’t/can’t act on the input, employees will become cynical – regardless of whether it’s a pulse survey or a full-blown engagement survey.

Finally, when a trend is in its infancy, it tends to gain much attention (“the buzz”); however, little attention is paid to longer term, unforeseen consequences.  From experience doing many pulse surveys (before they were trendy), one of the unforeseen consequences is that after conducting frequent pulse surveys on a range of topics, organizations are left with a series of unrelated, ad hoc, and unconnected tidbits of information on very specific issues; however, when HR tries to piece together all those bits of information to understand underlying issues which drive engagement, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible to arrive at a coherent picture of the state of employee engagement in the organization.

The Best Reason to do a Pulse Survey

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe that pulse surveys are beneficial and useful tools.   Pulse surveys are an ideal way to measure the impact and gather feedback on specific initiatives once they have been implemented.  Therefore, we can ask specific and focused questions; which were not asked as part of the engagement survey, so we’re not just using the term “pulse” survey for a shorter, cheaper version of the engagement survey.

The Bottom Line: Pulse Surveys are a highly effective tool to measure employee attitudes. 

Like everything else, we need to know when to use them, and when not to. DO use Pulse Surveys:

  • To measure engagement on an interim basis, when (and only when) you want to measure impact of specific initiatives which have already been implemented;
  • To assist decision-making when the results will be used directly and visibly in the decision (e.g. should we do this or that?)

DON’T use Pulse Surveys:

  • Solely as a cheaper alternative to measuring employee engagement. While there may be short-term cost savings, you will inevitably be left with more questions than answers.
  • When you are not certain you will be able to act on results (just like with employee engagement surveys).  Also, don’t fall into the trap of believing that some information is better than none. If you aren’t in a position to act on results, then asking employees for input will result in lower response rates, cynicism, and lower engagement than not having done the pulse survey at all.

The Best Practice

Generally speaking, the approach used by our clients with the highest levels of engagement is to conduct a comprehensive employee engagement survey every two years; conduct one or two pulse surveys in between to measure the impact of specific initiatives and see if there are substantive changes in engagement; and, conduct more fun “fast blast” polls on the company intranet to gain employee input on specific decisions.

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