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Pulse Surveys for Employee Engagement: The Complete Guide & Best Practices

Here's everything you wanted to know on employee pulse surveys.

Picture this. You’re a Senior Project Manager, Software Engineer, or Cloud Solution Architect at Microsoft.

You walk through the door at 9am, or log on remotely from home through your company laptop, and receive a survey from your HR department.

The survey has a few questions asking about your experience at Microsoft.

Sounds par for the course for a Fortune 500 company, right?

It does until you learn that Microsoft sends these surveys to some their employees every day.

If you’re a tech company, consulting firm, or any other high-performance business, you understand how essential high employee engagement is to your company’s success.

Microsoft certainly does.

But what exactly is a pulse survey? Aren’t annual surveys best practice and presumably enough?

And even if you want to take a page out of Microsoft’s book – it is a trillion-dollar company, after all – how do you even get started?

Buckle up. We’re about to introduce you to the wonderful world of pulse surveys.

What is a pulse survey?

A pulse survey is a short survey distributed to employees on a frequent basis. Fast, easy, and painless is the name of the game.

Some companies distribute them once a week, others every two weeks, and others once a month. Generally speaking, they should be distributed at least once a month, at minimum, to deliver value.

Pulse surveys give HR departments and business leaders real-time insight into how employees feel at different points in time.

Pulse surveys vs annual surveys?

Annual surveys vs pulse surveys

Annual surveys gauge organizational health at a specific point in time while pulse surveys help you identify and measure trends.

Think about it this way.

You wouldn’t measure your sales metrics once a year. You wouldn’t even measure them twice a year. You measure them per sales period or per financial quarter. The same logic should be applied to measuring employee engagement .

Why? Because what gets measured gets managed.

This is incredibly important for HR departments who want to continually improve and refine their employee engagement initiatives.

Pulse surveys are a straightforward way to chart how company changes affect employee engagement.

Pulse surveys also have higher completion rates than traditional annual engagement surveys. Annual survey response rates sit at around 30% to 40%.

Meanwhile, pulse surveys enjoy a healthier response rate of 90% or higher .

Sparkbay allows us to get honest employee feedback. The insights we get around employee engagement enable us to be more proactive and fuel quality conversations.

How Exegy® used a data-driven approach to improve engagement with Sparkbay

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This is because pulse surveys are shorter and employees aren’t as prone to survey fatigue.

Survey fatigue is when employees feel exhausted by surveys and either avoid doing them or engage in behaviour that impacts your survey results like straight-lining or satisficing.

Understandably, employees trying to get work done don’t prioritize 40-minute long annual surveys.

Plus, thanks thanks to their ability to capture trends, Pulse surveys are the only surveys that can predict turnover risk:

Combining turnover data with answers from recently departed employees, solutions such as Sparkbay can uncover the reasons behind high turnover and predict which employee segments are at an increased risk of turnover.

Pulse surveys benefits

Repetition can be good

When you ask a series of high-quality questions on a regular basis, it keeps the topic in the forefront of employees' minds. They'll be thinking about engagement more frequently, which will inevitably lead to them thinking of how their level of engagement might increase if certain changes were made. As you keep administering an employee pulse survey over time, your employees will get used to providing increasingly helpful feedback.

Actionable insights

What is the general mood among employees? What are their motivational triggers? How is morale? Employee pulse surveys will generate actionable insights into what's going on with your employees and what is affecting their engagement. You'll have your finger on the pulse of your workforce – and that's invaluable.

Boost morale

Most employees are eager to provide regular, ongoing feedback to their company. But in many workplaces, opportunities for feedback are surprisingly few and far between. Just by regularly soliciting feedback from employees will signal to them how much you value their input. This can lead to increased employee engagement and morale in and of itself.

Fast feedback

In the fast-paced digital world of the 21st century, your company can't afford to wait for an annual survey to find out what's happening with your employees. The kind of agile HR needed for success in a tight labor market requires a way for you to get more frequent, regular feedback throughout the year.

Benchmarking and monitoring trends

As you develop an ongoing stream of data from pulse surveys, you'll have the opportunity to see trends over time as well as identify the impacts of specific events or changes at your company.

Higher response rates

The long-form annual employee survey often feels more like a chore to get through (or ignore entirely) than a nimble channel for vital employee feedback. Short, simple employee pulse surveys ensure more people will complete them because they can fill them out quickly.

How can pulse surveys help HR leaders improve the employee lifecycle?

Pulse surveys give HR directors complete control over the employee lifecycle, which consists of 5 stages: recruitment, onboarding, development, retention, and offboarding.

Onboarding phase: better integrate employees with pulse surveys

Once an employee completes the recruitment phase, they move on to the onboarding stage.

Companies underestimate the importance of the onboarding stage at their peril. About 20% of employees leave a company within the first 45 days of employment, and this is often due to a poor onboarding process.

The interesting thing is that most companies aren’t aware that they have a poor onboarding process.

In fact, one of the most common mistakes is confusing the onboarding process with orientation. In reality, companies with high retention rates treat the onboarding process as a year-long endeavor.

But even a company with a year-long onboarding process may not offer the best experience.

A pulse survey can help HR identify specific problem areas in their onboarding process.

Examples of possible pulse survey insights into the onboarding process include:

  • Employees felt like their first day or week on the job was chaotic.
  • Employees did not know what was expected of them within the first three months.
  • Employees on cross-functional teams did not have time to meet the people from other teams that they would be working with frequently.

Without a strong onboarding process, initial excitement about a job can quickly evaporate, leaving employees eager to return to the familiarity of their old job.

And if they are highly qualified and highly skilled, those employers will be waiting to take them back with open arms.

Your current employees are a treasure trove of information. Use pulse surveys to discover what they would have liked to experience as a new starter. Then use those insights to design a stronger, more effective onboarding process.

Development phase: improving training with pulse surveys

The development stage of the employee life cycle is another area where pulse surveys deliver significant value.

During the development stage, employees are trained, receive feedback on their performance, and engage in one-on-one meetings with their manager. They gain a better understanding of their team’s goals and the organization’s larger goals.

Pulse surveys can help HR leaders understand how well this process is structured.

  • Do employees feel like they receive enough training?
  • Do they wish they had access to more resources or people within the business to complete their job more effectively?
  • Do they want more frequent one-on-one meetings with their managers?

These pulse surveys can be distributed to employees who have recently finished the onboarding stage.

Retention phase: improving employee engagement with pulse surveys

Finally, we arrive at the retention stage of the employee lifecycle. This is the stage that receives the most attention during conversations about employee engagement and employee retention.

Employees who are in the retention stage have a solid understanding of their role and know where to go to access the resources they need.

At this stage, the job of HR is to cultivate and maintain an environment that encourages these employees to stay.

After all, employees in the retention stage are incredibly valuable.

They’ve demonstrated their competence by sticking around, acquired invaluable institutional knowledge, and built relationships across the company that make cross-team projects and accomplishments possible.

With pulse surveys, you can measure a number of factors such as:

  • How employees feel about the company’s overall culture
  • Whether employees feel their company prioritizes diversity and inclusion
  • Whether employees feel like there are advancement opportunities within the organization
  • Whether employees feel they have access to challenging projects and opportunities
  • Whether employees feel excited and motivated by their day-to-day work
  • How employees feel about recent changes (e.g. addition/elimination of free lunches on Fridays, a change to their benefits)
  • Whether employees want more options in their packages (e.g. healthcare plans, retirement plan matching programs)

Above all, pulse surveys allow for frequent check-ins, so that HR leaders don’t learn about a toxic work environment or a perceived lack of opportunities only after their top performers have left.

Is your organization ready for pulse surveys?

Pulse surveys best practices

Select the questions

Most vendors offer a library of pre-written questions, as well as the ability to create custom questions based on your requirements. You should choose between 4-10 questions that cover a wide range, such as pride, relationship with direct manager, workload, or personal wellbeing. Ensure the questions aren’t ‘leading’ or overly vague.

We find that more than ten questions in a single survey results in survey fatigue, where employees start clicking next or leave the default response in, as a way to hurry up and get the survey complete.

Announce the survey to the organization

You want to minimize the sudden shock that employees may receive getting an unsolicited email with a link to some pulse survey they have never heard about. You have to prepare and announce your pulse surveys carefully, to ensure good response rates. This is best as an organization-wide email from the CEO, or a discussion point at your next townhall meeting.

Schedule the survey

Before starting the first survey, you want to consider the frequency you are going to survey employees, and the most suitable day and time to ask. For example, asking at the start of the workweek may not be ideal, nor is it ideal to ask on a weekend. We find many companies send them mid-week, to get a real sense of what the mood is like ‘in the trenches’.

Select areas to improve and areas to celebrate.

Identify where you need to improve and source employee feedback. Involving your employees in the decision-making process empowers them by giving them a voice to help you achieve success.

Share results

Many organizations share the results of their surveys with the entire team, whilst others share the reports only with direct managers or the leadership team. It’s important to share both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ responses, although we see all feedback as positive in its intent.

Take action!

This is the most crucial step. If you are collecting employee feedback and doing nothing with it, this can be far worse than not asking at all. It is very disappointing for employees who spend time responding to surveys, to find that nothing happens as a result; this makes people feel ignored and not valued.

Is your organization ready for pulse surveys?

The good news is that pulse surveys can be insightful whether you have a lot of pre-existing survey info on your employees or none at all.

But it is important to check that your business leaders and HR team share the same attitude about how to roll out pulse surveys.

The following organizational conditions are crucial for pulse surveys to be successful:

Employees must understand that pulse surveys are meant to give them a voice, not to “spy” on them

Without the right messaging, pulse surveys can feel intrusive and interruptive.

Your company should execute a solid internal communications campaign that lets employees know that the purpose of the pulse survey is to give them a voice and provide up to date info on the company’s culture.

Managers must encourage their teams to participate, not just the HR department

If the HR department is the only department encouraging employees to complete pulse surveys, they’re bound to fail.

There should be buy-in from across the business. Managers, directors, and senior leaders should all be emphasizing the importance of the pulse survey.

Periodical emails from someone as high up as the CEO, reminding employees of the importance of pulse surveys, can go a long way, too.

Senior leaders must act on feedback to avoid undermining the value of surveys and creating survey fatigue

No one likes answering the same question over and over again.

If employees continuously respond to pulse surveys and witness no changes, they’ll either stop taking them seriously or stop taking them full stop.

Senior leaders should step up with impactful changes that show participating in pulse surveys precipitates change.

Choosing the right pulse survey software

If you have made the decision to adopt an employee pulse survey within your business, great! Now you need to consider which software vendor to choose.

1. Survey Customization

Your pulse survey software should have the capability to mix and match survey elements, such as timing and population, to fit your organization’s culture. You should have a choice of open-ended, or multiple-choice questions.

2. Real-Time Results

The quicker you have the data, the sooner you can act on it. Your pulse survey software should give you access to results in real-time so you can make real impact fast.

3. Manager-Friendliness

Whilst the survey itself may be easy to complete, what are the reports like? If they are heavily technical or hard to understand, you will waste precious time trying to get insights from them. Your pulse survey software should help managers take an active role. Intuitive reports should keep managers in tune with the feedback from their teams and help them act on data.

4. Dedicated support

Training should be available as you begin creating, collecting, and analyzing pulse surveys. What if you have more questions? Your software provider should offer dedicated support to help your culture improvement journey.

5. Automated coaching

Find a pulse survey platform that includes in-tool guidance for targeting high-impact opportunities. Pulse surveys will uncover multiple improvement opportunities – make sure that your software also provides additional learning to help your team managers prioritize and improve.

Pulse surveys empower HR leaders to quantify their work & demonstrate impact

Finally, pulse surveys allow HR leaders to quantify their work.

HR leaders who want to claim their seat at the table must be able to tie positive company traits like high retention rates, reduced turnover, and increased productivity back to their initiatives.

Pulse surveys provide the granular data HR leaders need to accomplish this.

They can chart the impact of HR actions by showing how HR used quantitative pulse survey methods to identify a problem, clarify it, find a suitable solution, and then optimize the solution to produce a successful outcome.

Interested in pulse surveys? Learn more about our people analytics and employee engagement software.

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