Employee Pulse Surveys: The Complete Guide (w/ Examples)

If you're looking to start pulse surveys, you're in the right place. Read this quick guide to make the most of your staff pulse survey, track engagement levels, and understand if your action plans are working.

Great news!

Management wants to hear more about pulse surveys.

Ace this pitch, and you’ll get the budget you need.

Now that you’ve got your shot, you need to brush up on the ins and outs of pulse surveys, what they are, why they matter, and how they can have a positive impact on your organization’s people operations.

Buckle up. We’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about pulse surveys.

If you'd like to talk to one of our experts about pulse surveys, click here to schedule a quick call.

What is a pulse survey?

A pulse survey (also known as a "pulse check survey" or "pulsing") is a short and regular set of questions sent to employees to provide useful information on employee satisfaction and engagement.

As the term “pulse” suggests, a pulse survey is carried out to continuously gain employees' views on their work experience and identify issues they're having right now.

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.

What can a pulse survey measure?

Pulse survey can help you measure engagement in a way that’s not overwhelming for your employees.

Think about the last time you distributed a massive, half-hour annual engagement survey.

You probably spent a lot of time pushing managers to ask their teams to finish them.

Pulse surveys allow you to do this a few questions at a time, every few months, which also allows you to obtain more granular trend data.

The next time you have to present to your colleagues you can say things like, “Employee satisfaction increased by 15% overall between Q1 and Q2” and have the data to back it up.

Pulse surveys can go beyond general engagement surveys. They can also help you dive deeper on specific topics based on what your organization is experiencing.

Different types of pulse surveys include:

  • Onboarding experience pulse survey: Companies with a strong onboarding experience improve their retention of new hires by 82%. A new job can feel overwhelming, and it’s easy for people to compare their new environment with their old role (and sometimes go back if they don’t like what they see.) Sending out an onboarding experience pulse survey can help you gauge whether your new hires are getting along okay before they quit. That saves you a lot of money in recruitment costs.
  • Remote work survey questions: It’s easy to assume that employees will be automatically happy if they can work from home. On the contrary, remote work brings its own set of challenges such as a fragmented company culture, alienation, and overwork as the lines between work and personal life get blurred. There’s also the chance that employees can’t get access to the resources they need or the support they need. A remote work survey can help you identify gaps in the work-from-home experience and introduce initiatives that can help.
  • Merger and acquisition pulse surveys: If you’re going through a merger, and you want to keep tabs on how your employees feel about it to avoid turnover or decreased performance, you can distribute M&A pulse surveys throughout the process.
  • Diversity & inclusion pulse surveys: If you want to truly measure the effectiveness of your diversity & inclusion efforts, and go beyond metrics derived an annual engagement survey, distributing a diversity & inclusion pulse survey can help.

What are the advantages of pulse surveys?

Allows you to capture trends

Learning that 80% of your employees are satisfied is not enough.

It’s great for a vanity metric to share in your company communications, but it doesn’t do much to gauge your actual employee satisfaction.

While 80% sounds good, it’s not so great if it was at 90% the year prior.

Capturing trend data allows you to identify whether an element of your organization is improving or declining. It also allows you to measure the efficacy of your programs and policies.

For instance, trend data captured over the course of the year (e.g., monthly, quarterly) is much more useful than information captured annually.

If you change your benefits plan or introduce a new professional development program, your pulse survey data can tell you how successful that change has been.

Acts as an early warning system (act before problems become too big)

It’s helpful to spot issues early before they become big problems.

But when you have multiple areas of a business to look out for and constant daily demands, it’s difficult to be proactive.

Regular pulse surveys can serve as an early warning system for big issues.

For instance, you might notice that the number of people who say they see a future for themselves at your company has gone down.

Or that the number of people who feel they have a good manager has decreased.

These trends could be signs that you’re going to experience some turnover in the next few months, giving you an opportunity to address these issues before they cause a retention problem.

Better response rate

Let’s be honest – filling out long-form surveys is not a fun thing to do.

In fact, most employees only complete them because their managers push them to.

Annual survey response rates sit at around 30% to 40%.

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

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

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

More accurate (no straightlining or satisficing)

When you’ve got a busy schedule and a manager who keeps pushing you to complete a survey, you’re less inclined to put real thought and energy into your responses.

One way employees get the chore of a 25-minute survey out of their way is straightlining or satisficing.

  • Satisficing is when survey respondents answer survey questions with little effort. They only give "satisfactory" answers to get the survey over with.
  • Straightlining occurs when respondents answer every question the same way, such as selecting "Strongly Agree" for every question.

With a short survey, your respondents are more inclined to provide honest answers, because they won’t be forced to exert mental effort for too long.

Quick completion time

Finally, pulse surveys are quick. They don’t require a lot of cajoling to complete because they can be done from a mobile phone while waiting for the elevator or in line for lunch.

They also limit survey fatigue, which is when respondents get tired of going through a survey and either start satisficing or straightlining or quit the survey altogether.

What about survey fatigue?

Some organizations are concerned that more frequent surveys will result in survey fatigue.

We have found that lack of feedback has a greater impact on survey fatigue than survey frequency.

If employees don’t hear back from your organization, your frequent surveys will feel like a checkbox exercise. They’ll be less inclined to invest time in them.

However, if people see that the time they spend responding to pulse surveys translates to real results, they’ll be more inclined to participate.

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.

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

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

How Sparkbay pulse surveys can help you improve employee engagement

Employee engagement isn't something that you build and then stop working on.

You have to be in constant communication with your employees to make sure their expectations are met and they're currently happy at your organization.

This is especially true during times of change.

Here's how we can help you improve employee engagement:

Our platform automatically collects employee feedback through pulse surveys (70% of our clients opt for monthly surveys).

Sparkbay then gathers the responses and gives team managers and HR leaders a clear report with a score out of 10.

With the help of these reports, you’re able to track employee engagement in real-time, and understand your top improvement opportunities.

You can also segment your data based on manager, department, tenure and more, or benchmark yourself against companies in the same industry as yours using our proprietary dataset.

We also created a library of easy-to-implement actions from the most successful organizations to help you and your team managers learn and improve.

It’s a great way to build a culture of constant improvement, and give employees a voice that gets heard and acted on.

If you're interested in learning how Sparkbay can help you increase employee engagement, you can click here for a demo .

How often should pulse surveys be used?

Pulse surveys are nice, short, and sweet, so it’s hard to figure out how often you should use them.

On the one hand, you want to use them often enough to capture trend data.

On the other hand, you don’t want to overwhelm your teams with so many pulse surveys that they stop doing them.

Take the following factors into consideration when deciding how often to distribute your pulse surveys.

How frequently the metrics you are measuring are likely to fluctuate

It’s a good idea to distribute pulse surveys based on how often your employees’ opinions might fluctuate.

For instance, employee satisfaction can vary significantly from month to month or quarter to quarter depending on a number of factors, but satisfaction with pay or benefits might fluctuate on an annual basis.

If you’re unsure, pick a cadence and keep an eye on how different the responses are from survey to survey.

If there’s very little change, it may be a sign that you’re distributing the survey too often.

How fast you can absorb and analyze results

Each time you distribute a pulse survey, it’s important to book off enough time to analyze, interpret, and operationalize the results.

Without proper follow-up, your employees will view your surveys as a checkbox exercise and fail to take them seriously.

So be realistic about how much time you have to engage with your survey results.

Does it take you several hours to turn survey results into action items?

Does it take you several days?

Each time you create a pulse survey, block off time to review the results.

How fast you can implement action plans

One of the most important parts of your pulse survey analysis will be creating an implementation plan. Once you’ve turned your data into insights, it’s important to take action.

For instance, do your pulse survey results express dissatisfaction with the employee benefits plan?

It’s time to put together a plan that includes a) a deeper dive into what employees actually want from their benefits, b) an exercise to compare what competitors are offering their employees (since this may be a reason employees switch roles), and c) an understanding of what benefits employees barely use, and more.

How often are other organizational metrics reported?

When are other organizational metrics, such as profitability or sales, reported?

It’s important for the people function to offer hard data to demonstrate its progress or support its proposed initiatives, and the best time to present this is when other departments are presenting their information.

If it makes sense, align your pulse surveys to these timelines so you can gather your metrics in time.

How many questions should a pulse survey have?

If a pulse survey is short and sweet and can be distributed several times per year, how long should each pulse survey be?

This depends on the cadence (how often you’re distributing it.

As a rule of thumb, you can use the numbers below and adjust based on your organization’s needs:

  • Bi-weekly pulse survey: 5 questions per survey
  • Monthly pulse survey: 10 questions per survey
  • Quarterly pulse survey: 15 questions per survey
  • Bi-annual pulse survey: 30 questions per survey

What participation rate can I expect from pulse surveys?

A 100% participation rate is not desirable, since it often indicates coercion (e.g. including survey participation in a performance review).

This can lead to satisficing or straightlining which compromises the integrity of your data.

You should aim for 75-85% participation in small companies (under 100 employees). At Sparkbay, we usually recommend an 80% rate as a good minimum target.

In larger companies we can scale our expectations down – with 500 employees you can see where you stand with a 70% participation rate, so 70-80% is a good target.

Companies of 1,000+ can probably aim for a survey participation rate of around 65%.

What are some pulse survey best practices you can follow?

Use a validated question set

Many organizations use whichever questions they can think of without ensuring that the questions measure what the organization really wants to measure.

Pulse surveys take time to make, distribute, interpret, and turn into action plans, so make sure you’re starting off on the right foot by choosing validated questions.

Your goal is to collect meaningful data with as few questions as possible.

This is why it is necessary to use a validated question set (or use a pulse survey vendor such as Sparkbay).

Sell the business case to senior leadership

How seriously people take your pulse survey depends on how seriously their leaders take it.

If your senior leadership is not invested in the success of your pulse survey, it’ll be easy for managers to de-prioritize it.

On the other hand, if leaders are actively supporting the survey, individual managers will be more likely to encourage their teams to take five minutes to answer the questions.

Emphasize the ROI of pulse surveys

Pulse surveys help you focus your organization’s people efforts and improve the employee experience. Instead of investing money into vanity exercises and appreciation days that don’t give employees what they want, pulse surveys can help companies understand what really matters to their people, and invest their money and efforts there instead.

Pulse surveys also help organizations tackle one of the most expensive people problems: turnover.

Understanding employee engagement, satisfaction, goals, and issues can help companies reduce the cost of turnover.

Be honest about the time investment cost

Conducting pulse surveys comes with a cost.

A pulse survey can take 20 seconds per closed question and 2 minutes per open question.

It also takes about 5 minutes for employees to return to full productivity.

This means that a pulse survey with 6 closed questions and 1 open question will require a time investment of 8 minutes per employee.

Market the survey internally

Whenever you introduce something new, you’re going to have to sell it.

The first time people hear about a pulse survey, they’ll wonder whether it’ll make any real difference, if their responses are actually anonymous, or if someone will actually review the results and take action.

So it’s important to market the survey by emphasizing the importance of hearing from employees and creating an organization they want to stay and thrive in.

You can:

  • Distribute an email explaining the upcoming pulse survey and the reasons it’s being distributed
  • Hold information sessions with employees to answer their questions and ease any fears they may have
  • Hold a sessions with managers so they can understand why their teams are being asked to respond to pulse surveys, why they matter, how to manage the incoming data, and to understand that these pulse surveys are there to help them, not evaluate their performance

Create a follow-up plan

Follow up with managers

While your HR team may create high-level plans based on the survey data, the success of your itiative will depend on individual managers acting on it through personalized actions.

Link initiatives to pulse survey results

Whenever you act on one of your insights (e.g., by updating your benefits plan, offering more professional development opportunities) link these initiatives back to your pulse survey results so employees can see the real impact the time they spend on those surveys has.

Demonstrate the ROI to senior leadership

Once you start gathering actionable data proving that your pulse surveys have helped you increase retention, improve turnover, boost employee engagement, and more, present these findings to your management team in order to keep their support.

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.

Survey customization

You will want to find a pulse survey vendor that provides a science-based question library. However there may be times when you want to ask a specific, custom question to fit your organization’s culture. This should be available at no extra cost.

Real-time results

The faster you receive 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.


While the survey itself may be easy to complete, what are the reports like? If they are hard to understand, you will waste precious time trying to get valuable insights from them.

Your pulse survey software should help managers take an active role. Intuitive reports and automated coaching should help managers understand feedback from their teams and act on data.

Dedicated support

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

Automated coaching

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

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 employee 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.

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 teams 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.

If you're interested in learning how Sparkbay can help you improve employee engagement, you can click here for a demo.