[Guide] Employee Pulse Suvey: the What, How and Why

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

If you became aware of something that could have a huge positive impact on the engagement, retention, and productivity of your company’s workforce, you’d want to know more about it wouldn’t you? Pulse surveys have the potential to do exactly that, and this article explains why and how.

HR professionals like you are under more stress right now than you probably care to admit. After all, with the labor market being so tight thanks to historically low unemployment, there’s a constant scramble to find and hire the talent your company needs.

“In September, the unemployment rate declined by 0.2 percentage point to 3.5%.

The last time the rate was this low was in December 1969…”

~ Bureau of Labor Statistics Press Release, October 4, 2019 ~

“83% of HR professionals say they have had difficulty recruiting

suitable job candidates in the past 12 months.”

~ Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) ~

But hiring is only half the battle, right? Once you hire great people, hanging onto them is more important than ever. This is why retention and engagement are in the spotlight like never before. Here’s how one writer put it in a Forbes article about HR leadership in a tight labor market:

“You have open positions to fill, and it’s a tight labor market. Employees quit, but it’s hard to hire. You need to get started recruiting to fill those empty positions, but wait – hiring should not be your top priority. First you need to break the cycle of employee turnover.”

Engaging and retaining your existing employees for peak performance is no easy task. How do you get a snapshot of where they’re at on engagement? Pulse surveys may be the tool you’re missing.

Have you seen those health kiosks in drugstores that help you measure a few quick stats that give you a snapshot of your overall health? They typically measure weight, blood pressure, and your pulse.

Keeping your finger on the pulse of your workforce is what pulse surveys are all about, and they could play a key role in boosting employee engagement, retention, and productivity.

A Renewed Focus on Employee Engagement

The tight labor market has put employee engagement back in the spotlight in recent years. But there is a lot more to engagement than its usefulness as a tactic for reducing your company’s employee churn.

Most HR professionals understand there is a strong relationship between employee engagement, retention, and productivity. Because employee pulse surveys are a way to more effectively study engagement in your company’s workforce, it’s worth reviewing just how important engagement is to business success, and how elusive engagement remains for so many.

According to the most recent Gallup survey about employee engagement in the US, it recently hit an all-time high – of only 34%. While the slight uptick in engagement is welcome, it still means fully two-thirds of workers are less-than-engaged in their jobs. There is a real cost to this lack of engagement. The Engagement Institute estimates that unengaged employees are costing companies somewhere in the range of $450-$550 billion every year. Boosting employee engagement can help reduce the costs of disengagement through the following positive effects:

6 Reasons Why Monitoring Employee Engagement Matters

  1. Engaged employees are more productive: While statistics on this relationship vary, an article in Forbes noted one of the best ways to find out about employee engagement is to ask them “By regularly checking in with employees – whether that be a company-wide meeting or a simple survey…” which is exactly what pulse surveys do.
  2. Engaged employees take less time off: Employees who are more engaged in the workplace do tend to take less time off, especially sick days but also vacation, than disengaged employees.
  3. Engaged employees make customers happier: When employees are more engaged in their jobs, customers benefit. Engaged employees are more likely to go the extra mile to improve the customer experience. A compelling example of how this works is the way Parkland Health improved the patient experience by optimizing employee engagement.
  4. Engaged employees are more innovative: There’s a reason why companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft spend so much on employee engagement efforts – they understand this relationship, and their continued success depends on it.
  5. Employee engagement boosts retention (reduces turnover): More engaged employees are more likely to stay put. In today’s tight labor market, can you really afford to ignore this relationship? Trying to pinpoint a generic cost of turnover is a fool’s errand because it’s unique to each company. See our Step-by-Step Guide to Calculate the Exact Cost of Turnover at your company.
  6. Employee engagement leads to greater profitability: Because rising engagement can boost productivity, retention, innovation, and customer satisfaction, it should come as no surprise that companies with a more engaged workforce are more profitable than those with less engaged employees.

If boosting employee engagement has so many potential benefits for a company, why hasn’t more progress been made? Maybe most companies don’t really know what the level of engagement is among their own employees. Or maybe they don’t really have any idea how engagement is changing over time or why. Employee pulse surveys can be used to reveal what’s really happening with your workforce, and it’s why more companies are starting to use them.

3 Defining Features of Pulse Surveys

Let’s start by pinpointing exactly what pulse surveys are. Pulse surveys can be used for a variety of different purposes, but this article is specifically about employee pulse surveys. Below are their defining characteristics briefly summarized:

Pulse Surveys: Fast, Frequent, Focused

  1. Fast: Checking your own pulse (as in your heart rate) literally takes only 15 seconds, which means you can do it quickly whenever you feel like. Pulse surveys will take people a little longer than that to fill out, but the idea is to keep them very short. How this pans out will vary from survey to survey depending on what the specific topic is, but generally speaking a good rule of thumb is no more than 5-15 easy-to-answer questions.
  2. Frequent: If you really want to keep your finger on the pulse of your people in order to respond quickly to changing conditions, you have to use them frequently. This is part of why you keep them short. How frequent? Opinions vary widely, but weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly are all timeframes different companies use when conducting pulse surveys. It’s a way of bringing the “agile” concept into HR for employee retention, engagement, and productivity. The more frequent your timeframe, the closer you can come to real-time measurement of and responding to employee feedback. After all, an annual employee survey at the end of the year is useless in identifying an engagement problem that comes up in the middle of the year, or earlier.
  3. Focused: The idea with pulse surveys is to focus on a single important topic. In the case of HR, you’d want to develop a set of questions that measure employee engagement because of the critical role it plays in both retention and productivity.

Can pulse surveys actually generate actionable insights? An increasing number of companies are convinced it’s worth finding out. According to a survey conducted by Microsoft in partnership with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 50% of responding companies have or are in the process of implementing employee pulse surveys.

You might be concerned that employee pulse surveys are merely the latest HR fad that will quickly run its course. But think of it this way: The whole concept of “agile” isn’t a fad. Being data-driven isn’t a fad. Knowing the engagement level of your employees is not a fad. Pulse surveys are how you can bring all these pieces together in a more effective way. They are simply the newest tool you can employ to generate actionable insights about employee engagement for data-driven, agile HR decision-making.

Why Employee Pulse Surveys Work

You likely already have a decent picture forming in your mind about how beneficial pulse surveys can be just from what you’ve read so far, but let’s spell it out a little more clearly:

6 Benefits of Pulse Surveys

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

If you decide to implement employee pulse surveys, this doesn’t mean you have to give up on the annual employee survey. There will still be any number of reasons to do a longer, more detailed annual engagement survey.

Does Your Organization Need Pulse Surveys?

Starting a whole new survey effort may feel like a daunting task to you. But the more important point to make is this: Can you really afford not to bring a new level of agility to the HR function of your company? If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should start using pulse surveys, just ask yourself how many of the following apply to your company:

5 Signs You Need Pulse Surveys

  1. Your last annual engagement survey indicated issues: If you most recent annual engagement survey revealed issues that need to be addressed, you can use pulse surveys in two different ways. First, if you launched any initiatives to address the issues identified in the annual survey, you can use pulse surveys to track progress on them. Secondly, you could use pulse surveys to drill down deeper into the issues revealed for a fuller understanding of what’s going on so any initiatives you develop will be more effective.
  2. Productivity is declining: When you notice a decline in worker productivity and it’s not immediately obvious why it’s happening, it may be worth exploring any potential link to employee engagement. Gartner argues persuasively that engagement surveys are more useful when they focus on key performance drivers.
  3. Sick days are on the rise: Although there obvious and expected increases in sick days during cold and flu season, a sustained or chronic increase in sick days could be an indication that something is going awry in the workplace that is having a negative impact on employee engagement.
  4. Customer satisfaction metrics are off: One of the clearest links people talk about from experience is the relationship between employee engagement and the customer experience. If your company is unable to meet your customer satisfaction goals, it might be because you’re not doing enough around employee engagement, and you’ve got to measure to improve it.
  5. You’re struggling with turnover: The tight labor market has you looking at turnover more closely than ever before. If you don’t like what you see, paying more attention to employee engagement is a natural way find out if there are issues that need to be addressed.

Any one of the above signs can be enough reason for you to start using employee pulse surveys to get an accurate, timely snapshot of engagement in your company. If you find several or all of them apply, then you owe it to yourself to give pulse surveys a try. But you also need to make sure you do them right.

Effective Employee Pulse Surveys

Now that you know how you could be using employee pulse surveys to measure engagement in order to generate actionable insights for improving retention and productivity, it’s important to take note a few major caveats. Implementing an employee pulse survey isn’t enough – it needs to be an effective pulse survey. Success hinges on carefully articulating what it is you want to find out, determine what questions will get you there, and think through how you’re going to use the data – all before creating and administering your pulse survey. Keep the following in mind:

5 Potential Pitfalls of Employee Pulse Surveys

  1. Survey Fatigue: The whole point of pulse surveys is to get regular feedback more frequently so your HR efforts can be more agile. But there is also a risk of doing them too often, which can result in survey fatigue. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to pulse surveys, which is why testing the waters here is a good idea. Track response rates as you experiment with the timeframe of the survey to find an optimal frequency.
  2. Lacking Clarity of Purpose: What is it that you want to find out through an employee pulse survey? The more clearly you articulate the purpose, the greater the chance you will get the data and actionable insights you need. And you also need to clearly communicate the purpose of the survey to those you’re asking to fill it out.
  3. Bad Questions: The data you get from a pulse survey effort is only as good as the questions you ask. If you want to get good insights, you have to ask good questions. This can be trickier to achieve than you might think. Yes, you can buy an engagement questionnaire, but it’s simply not going to be as tailored to your company as you need it to be. You can collect example questions from any number of sources, but each needs to be evaluated and modified to fit the unique context of your company.
  4. Poor Analysis: Make sure you’ve got a way to apply advanced analytics to the data you collect. This might involve finding the right third-party app or platform where you can create the survey, administer it, and then analyze the data it generates.
  5. Failing to Act on Results: Soliciting feedback from your employees makes them feel valued, but these good feelings will quickly dissipate if they don’t see follow-through from your company. It’s useless to seek actionable insights if you never act on them. This also relates to the frequency of pulse surveys and avoiding survey fatigue. A rule of thumb to consider here is only surveying as fast as you can take real action on the results. This will you’re your employees their feedback isn’t only received but is also acted upon.
  6. Employee Mistrust: Many employees mistrust engagement surveys in general. For some, this is because they worry about providing negative feedback. Employees want this type of survey to be more than just confidential – they want them to be totally anonymous. If the surveys are created and administered in-house, some employees simply won’t believe it’s anonymous or even confidential. One way around this is by using a third party to collect the data, providing only aggregated results to the company and not the raw data.

Remember that employee pulse surveys are not necessarily meant to replace your company’s larger annual engagement survey. You’ll come across articles out there that make it sound like you have to choose between the two – pulse surveys versus annual surveys. Forcing it to be an either/or choice is too simplistic. Instead, try taking a both/and approach.

As it turns out, many companies have found the greatest success by framing their pulse surveys as a complementary strategic effort to their annual survey. One way to do this is by using pulse surveys to monitor progress on the engagement initiatives that came out of an annual survey.

With the tight labor market bringing new attention to employee engagement, pulse surveys are a way to get the regular feedback your company needs in the search for actionable insights. When done well, they offer the clearest pathway to boosting engagement, retention, productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, and even profitability. This is why pulse surveys are rising in popularity across the corporate landscape. And with all the latest digital and mobile technologies at your fingertips, implementing them has never been easier.

Interested in learning how technology can help you increase employee engagement? Learn more about our people analytics and employee engagement software.