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The HR Director’s Complete Guide to Employee Pulse Surveys

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 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.

That’s why each day a small sample of Microsoft employees receive what’s known as Daily Pulse.

It’s a short survey that consists of a few questions questions that take the pulse of the employees on topics related to the organization, specific initiatives, and their overall feeling about the company.

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.

Are pulse surveys meant to replace annual employee engagement surveys?

Not at all.

In fact, pulse surveys work hand in hand with annual employee engagement surveys to support the overall goal of cultivating a positive company culture and enhancing employee satisfaction.

Annual surveys gauge organizational health at a specific point in time while pulse surveys help you identify and measure trends. This is incredibly important for HR departments who want to continually improve and refine their employee engagement initiatives.

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

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. In addition, employees tend to procrastinate completing them.

Understandably, employees trying to get work done don’t prioritize 20-minute long annual surveys.

Pulse surveys are more helpful when it comes to measuring attrition risk thanks to their ability to capture trends.

Some companies are turning to high-tech solutions to measure attrition risk (e.g. length of time it takes employees to answer emails, number of times employees update their resume/LinkedIn profile).

Alternatively, pulse surveys are a straightforward way to chart how different company changes affect employee engagement.

For instance, getting rid of a fruit basket or free snacks may seem like an easy cost-saving measure, but to some employees these small perks represent thoughtfulness from their employer. They don’t feel like a number.

Pulse surveys that measure what matters to employees and can help employers identify trends related to what makes employees feel appreciated.

As a result, employers avoid making changes that will have a huge negative impact.

How should HR leaders approach the creation of pulse surveys?

Funny enough, an annual survey is often the right starting point.

Remember when we said that pulse surveys and annual engagement surveys work hand in hand? This is what we were referring to.

Annual engagement surveys give you a snapshot of your organization’s health. Your HR department is sitting on a treasure trove of data.

Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to turn it into business value, namely programs and initiatives that matter to your employees.

Of course, doing this is easier said than done. For example, let’s say you go all-in on a data point in your annual survey that says employees want more training options.

After the fact, you realize you’ve offered in-class training when what employees really wanted was a resource-rich learning management system.

Your pulse surveys are an opportunity to test the insights generated by your annual survey before investing significant resources.

Consider this step one. Create potential ideas of categories you would like to explore further from your annual survey.

If you haven’t conducted an annual employee survey, use educated guesses based on conversations with your employees.

You can also organize an executive roadshow or listening tour where business leaders hear directly from employees.

If you do have survey data to look at, and you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, consider prioritizing your analysis. Start by looking at:

  • Questions that received the lowest score
  • Questions where the score significantly declined compared to previous years

Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a list of thoughts like:

  • Almost three-quarters of employees feel like our company doesn’t provide them with professional development opportunities
  • Half of the employees don’t see a clear career progression for themselves within our company
  • A third of employees don’t think senior leadership listens to what employees on the front lines (e.g. customer service representatives) have to say
  • A quarter of employees say they don’t believe the company’s work contributes significant value to their community or the world at large
  • Over half of employees say they don’t see themselves with the company in the next five years

Once you’ve extracted the high priority items, it’s time to dive deeper.

For instance, one pulse survey could focus on questions that find out what would make the company an attractive place for employees over the long term.

Based on those responses, your company can design pilot projects around professional development, training opportunities, health and wellness, and more.

How can HR leaders use pulse surveys to support employee engagement programs and initiatives?

Now, let’s suppose you already have a specific employee engagement program in the works.

Perhaps your previous survey results showed that employees don’t feel recognized and appreciated for their efforts.

This is no small matter. Employees that don’t feel appreciated limit the amount of discretionary work they do.

In other words, they do the bare minimum because putting in the effort to deliver outsized value to a company that does not value them isn’t a fair trade-off.

Lack of appreciation also has an insidious effect on retention rates.

According to one survey, nearly 80% of employees cited lack of recognition as one of the major reasons they quit their job.

And in 2018, 65% of American workers said they weren’t recognized even once during the year.

Let’s consider the fictional case of an HR Director named Angie, responsible for the satisfaction of 1,300 employees at a financial services company.

Angie sees how low the employee recognition scores on the annual survey are, and she knows that they present a threat to the business’ company culture and productivity.

So she decides that this year, her team will design and roll out an employee appreciation program called “Kudos To You”.

Kudos To You is a digital platform where managers and employees can offer shoutouts and award points to different employees.

Each quarter, employees with the top scores or the most shoutouts are recognized by the company.

In a traditional survey environment, Angie would only be able to check in on the impact of her program once a year. Even then, her questions about Kudos To You would be lost in a sea of other questions.

And quite frankly, a year’s a really long time to wait to determine how well a program is doing. If Angie and her team are going to invest money into an expensive, digital platform they want it to have a positive impact.

And if it isn’t working, it’s better they know sooner rather than later, so they can make the necessary tweaks.

This is another instance in which pulse surveys deliver enormous business value. In this case, a pulse survey would focus not on how employees feel in general, but how they feel about a specific initiative.

To start, Angie and her team would need to revisit the goals of Kudos To You, which are to:

  • Create an atmosphere where employees throughout the company feel recognized and appreciated
  • Make it easy for managers and employees to share feedback about their direct reports, colleagues, and leaders
  • Gamify the act of going above and beyond by providing an opportunity for employees to receive points, badges, and more

Two weeks after Kudos To You goes live, Angie decides she wants to test its impact.

With the above goals in mind, she creates a pulse survey that includes statements with a sliding likert scale that ranges from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree.

  • Kudos To You makes me feel like it’s worth going above and beyond, because there’s an opportunity for my efforts to be recognized
  • I find it easy to share feedback about my colleagues and direct reports using the Kudos To You platform
  • I understand what kind of work will elicit recognition on Kudos To You, and I feel motivated to increase my performance

To Angie and her team’s surprise, the results are lukewarm.

About 60% of respondents disagree that Kudos To You makes them feel like their efforts will be recognized.

And three-quarters of respondents say they don’t understand what kind of work will lead to recognition on the platform.

When the team looks at the free-text responses, they find enlightening comments. While employees think the platform is a good idea, they’re not exactly sure how to use it and whether their managers will even use it on a regular basis.

And interestingly enough, some say there isn’t a tangible benefit in the form of a prize, raise, or promotion that makes the entire platform worthwhile.

While it’s disappointing to hear at first, this feedback offers Angie a sense of relief.

At its core, the platform is a good idea, but its execution is the issue.

Why would employees take a recognition platform seriously if they’re uncertain the people they typically seek recognition from – their managers – won’t use it.

And for highly motivated employees who are driven by things like commissions, raises, or promotions, appreciation without a tangible benefit seems flimsy.

This gives an opportunity for Angie’s team to dig deeper. And they can do so with additional pulse surveys sent over the next few weeks that help them learn more about:

  • How they can tie Kudos To You into managers’ existing methods for tracking employee achievements
  • Assess employees’ and managers’ interest level in incorporating Kudos For You into their annual performance reviews
  • Find out what incentives would motivate employees (e.g. gift cards, days off, public recognition events)

After learning why employees are lukewarm about the platform, it’s tempting to dive into making improvements based on assumptions.

For instance, Angie and her team may decide to announce that points and praise on Kudos To You will make up 5 to 10% of an employee’s annual performance review, only to learn after the fact that both managers and employees fiercely oppose this idea.

Pulse surveys are a great way to test assumptions about a project. And since they are short, simple, and quick to complete, Angie’s team can gather these insights on a more frequent basis and update their insights into employee sentiment in real time.

So rather than making such a dramatic change to the composition of pulse surveys based on assumptions, Angie’s team can use a pulse survey to see if employees even like the idea.

After a few iterations of pulse surveys on the topic of Kudos To You, Angie and her team finalize a platform that:

  • Outlines the kinds of behaviors, attitudes, and tasks that are worthy of praise and are aligned with the company’s larger business goals
  • Benefits from the support of an internal marketing campaign that educates both managers and employees on the platform to ensure that all teams use it
  • Experiences the support of senior management, so employees know that this platform is not just a gimmick and their highlighted accomplishments will be taken seriously
  • Offers tangible incentives employees have identified as motivational (e.g. paid time off, spa packages, trips) tied to clear achievement levels (e.g. 10,000 points accumulated within 2 quarters leads to a trip), and that includes public recognition (e.g. a ceremony attended by senior leaders with awards handed out to the top scorers in different categories)

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

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

While a pulse survey can technically be created on any topic, they are most useful to HR teams when it comes to the onboarding, development, and retention phases of the employee lifecycle.

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 day. 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. Basic administrative things like receiving log-in credentials, a parking spot, an ID card, enrolling in healthcare benefits and more were challenging to complete. Their manager either didn’t have the information to help them or was too busy to support the process.
  • Employees did not know what was expected of them within the first three months. New starters found it challenging to navigate learning the ropes and delivering value immediately. Many reported that they did not receive clear instructions or regular touchpoints, creating a lot of disorganization, insecurity, and anxiety within the first few months.
  • Employees on cross-functional teams did not have time to meet the people from other teams that they would be working with frequently. They also didn’t have an opportunity to be introduced to the other people on their team. Not only did this make it difficult to complete tasks, but it also created a feeling of isolation.

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.

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.

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.

How can you know your organization is 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.

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.