Employee Pulse Surveys, What You Need to Know

Are you thinking about employee pulse surveys for your organization? Few would debate the notion that keeping fingers on the pulse of employees is critical to business success. At DecisionWise, we’ve been focused on employee engagement surveys for over 20 years, and never has it been clearer that business results can be directly tied to the employee experience. In fact, we go as far as to say the Customer Experience (CX) is a direct result of the Employee Experience (EX). In other words, CX = EX. Understanding that experience, then, becomes an important priority in business success.

We recently completed our annual survey of Human Resources executives, in which we asked about their employee engagement feedback practices. This DecisionWise research of over 200 global companies found that two-thirds of organizations claim to formally measure employee engagement on a regular basis via an organization-wide survey, and have specific initiatives to address their findings. This research also found that 85% of organizations indicate that they are either currently measuring employee engagement or have plans to do so in the near future. The question is not one of if an organization should gather feedback, but how the organization gathers feedback.

How Are We Measuring the Employee Experience?

With the advancement of technology, gathering feedback is easier today than it has ever been. But, with this advantage comes concerns. First, are we really measuring what is going on in the organization? Or are we, as one HR Executive commented in our annual review of HR practices, “just measuring for the sake of measuring, because we know we’re supposed to, with no real intended results?”

According to our study, traditional employee surveys, despite what some survey firms may claim, don’t seem to be going away anytime soon—at least according to Human Resources professionals. Yet, at the same time, many indicate that gathering feedback more frequently would allow them to address current concerns. In addition to (or in place of) the annual survey, a number of the organizations in our yearly review indicate that they have considered either replacing or supplementing the annual employee engagement survey with what has become known as a pulse survey or spot survey. However, according to the study, many of these HR professionals had not considered the implications.

You can find the results of the study’s HR survey practices in this whitepaper, titled Best Practice Guide: From Always-on to Annual Employee Engagement Surveys. However, let’s do a brief review of the concept of pulse surveys below.

What is an Employee Pulse Survey?

We refer to these instruments as “pulse surveys,” because they measure employee engagement levels on a frequent basis, or “take the pulse” of an organization or group. Employee pulse surveys are helpful tools in gauging progress, warning of potential dangers, understanding trends in the employee experience, and promoting action.

In the quest to provide more frequent and valuable employee feedback, pulse surveys often ride the coattails of an annual employee survey (we refer to these annual surveys as “anchor surveys”), in that they serve as a great way to drill down for more specific information. Pulse surveys occur at regular or planned intervals, with planned groups, and generally involve large segments of the organization’s population.

For example, if an employee engagement survey occurs each year, and results clearly show managers aren’t taking the time to give employees feedback about their performance, the organization may implement processes that encourage (or demand) managers to provide feedback more often. Rather than waiting for the next annual or semi-annual employee survey to understand whether these actions have been effective, an employee pulse survey can be administered more frequently to address a specific question, as well as other critical items identified by the annual employee survey.

Many organizations that focus on understanding their Employee Experience (EX) use the results from annual employee surveys to identify three to five specific actions that need to be undertaken to improve the overall employee experience. They create and execute action plans, and follow up with an employee pulse survey to gauge progress. Pulse surveys take the value obtained from the annual employee engagement survey and break it into smaller, actionable chunks. However, due to their limited length, employee pulse surveys may not provide the comprehensive, complete insight that an organization desires.

Are Employee Pulse Surveys Right for Your Organization?

Employee pulse surveys are effective tools for determining progress on specific initiatives undertaken as a result of a larger survey. By comparing the results of one employee survey to a previous survey, an organization can effectively measure whether change has occurred and whether the actions taken are getting results. Employee pulse surveys are designed to get specific about items identified by the annual employee engagement survey. Because they are assessing the same general population (or sub-sets of that population), an organization can identify changes or trends for specific manager groups, teams, functions, or divisions.

Employee pulse surveys can be tremendously effective in your feedback arsenal. However, before implementing pulse surveys, there are 2 questions to ask:

  1. Are we prepared to act on the employee feedback?
  2. Is the employee pulse survey positioned as a supplement or a replacement for our annual survey?

Are We Prepared to Act on the Employee Feedback?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of pulse surveys is also its greatest disadvantage—frequency. Through pulsing, an organization is asking for employee feedback, while telling its employees, “We heard what you said and care enough to see how we’re doing.” Employees hear, “The company intends to act on the feedback we provide, so we can expect to see some changes.”

While this is all very positive for an organization inclined to act on the feedback, a company that continues to survey on issues, but does little to create change, might be doing more harm than good. Surveying too frequently, particularly with little or no action, is more detrimental than not surveying at all. The key? Employee pulse surveys should not be administered any more frequently than you have the ability to implement action plans.

What is the Purpose of Your Pulse Survey?

Some organizations, often survey providers, propose replacing the annual employee engagement survey with a more frequent employee pulse survey. Can this strategy work? Sure, and for some companies, this might be the right answer. But, while pulse surveys have gained increasing popularity, due largely to the availability of technology, there are limitations. Remember, employee pulse surveys are not comprehensive, in that they are limited in the number of questions/items addressed, or the groups being surveyed. The response data should be considered as additional insight into understanding the overall employee experience.

We recommend that a pulse survey “supplement” the annual employee engagement survey in order to gauge progress on engagement initiatives. Although regular employee pulse surveys address the need for more frequent feedback, organizations that replace the annual employee engagement survey with more frequent employee pulse surveys generally sacrifice data quality and lack the ability to completely understand the employee experience.

Getting the Right Survey Balance

When implementing your employee engagement strategy, remember that balance is key. Your employees want to be heard, and employee pulse surveys provide necessary frequency while the annual employee engagement survey provides the depth. Be strategic in your strategy, keeping in mind not to survey any more frequently than you can take action. Remember, your employee experience will drive your customer experience. That makes understanding the employee experience all the more important.

Employee Pulse Survey

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