Pulse Survey Best Practices

Philip Cleave
December 14, 2022
Using a survey to get the pulse of staff sentiment

While the use of employee surveys in the workplace continues to grow, there are times when you just want to check in quickly with your staff on one or two issues.

In the fast-paced world of work, where things can change quickly and where we’ve also witnessed growth in the variety of locations that employees can now work from, a more flexible way of reaching out to staff for their feedback is needed.

It’s why the use of employee pulse surveys, has started to gain momentum.

What is a pulse survey?

You'll find a fuller explanation in our blog, What Is A Pulse Survey?, but to summarize in brief, a pulse survey is a quick and more frequent approach to gathering employee feedback on a range of workplace issues that can impact staff satisfaction and engagement levels.

It’s also an effective way of following up on key findings from an annual satisfaction or engagement survey, or any workplace initiatives you may have implemented.

There are some distinctive aspects to a pulse survey that include:

Shorter length

As they are designed to provide a quick check in with your employees on an issue or initiative, they’re considerably shorter than other survey types.

By keeping your survey to just a few precise and targeted questions, these surveys also tend to have better completion rates than other types of surveys.

They’re easier to build and complete

Their shortness and simplicity make pulse surveys relatively easy to build, launch and complete.

However, while the framework of a pulse survey is simple, the data collected can be complex. Therefore, your pulse survey should be focused enough to answer a specific question and simple enough to capture the information you’re looking for.

They’re flexible

No matter what you need feedback on, pulse surveys offer the flexibility to suit your needs.

While surveys such as the annual engagement survey will be typically focused on understanding the drivers of engagement within an organization, pulse surveys are a lot more flexible in terms of the topics, frequency, length and audience criteria they can cater for.

They can be easily targeted

Typically, other types of employee surveys such as the annual engagement survey are used to gather feedback from across an entire organization. And they usually cover a broad range of topics and demographic data, which can take a lot of time and effort to sift through to uncover any valuable insights.

By contrast, pulse surveys allow you to collect feedback from a specific group of employees, so you can assess the needs of different groups. For example, you might decide to target a pulse survey campaign towards team leaders throughout your business, so you can gain a better idea about their hiring needs for the upcoming year.

Pulse surveys can be a valuable research tool

The workplace environment can be complex and understanding the ins and outs of your employee experience can be challenging.

Pulse surveys can be a valuable research tool in enabling you to effectively evaluate any people success programs and initiatives you have in place. For example, you can pulse about your onboarding program or pulse to evaluate the effectiveness of any training initiatives.

They can form a strategic part of your staff listening strategy

From the annual engagement survey to lifecycle surveys issued at various stages of an employee’s employment journey with you. Compared to these more formal types of survey, pulse surveys are seen as a lighter, more informal way of gaining staff feedback that can cover fun things, as well as addressing more serious issues.

However, they can form an effective part of your strategic employee listening strategy, helping you to quickly check in on staff sentiment to any changes or initiatives you’ve brought in.

Why pulse surveys matter

Given the uniqueness of pulse surveys, in terms of their structure and the flexibility they offer, this survey type can make a real difference to strengthening staff relationships and boosting the performance of your business.

Here’s some more contributory factors of why pulse surveys matter.

They can help you build trust

Knowing that their voices have been heard is one of the most important things for employees. So, it’s essential that you check in with how staff are feeling and act on their feedback following any initiatives you may have launched.

Pulse surveys are great for this, as they encourage employees to share their opinions and ultimately help you to build trust with them.

They improve your culture

Culture can be a challenging thing to measure, and when employees are disengaged, they aren’t always open to sharing their opinion publicly.

A pulse survey, particularly if you’re running it anonymously will enable you to uncover and act on any underlying tensions, so you can build a stronger and happier culture.

You can gather more timely feedback

Compared with annual employee surveys, where you must wait until a specific time to gather staff feedback, with a pulse survey you can capture thoughts and feelings as they arise.

This makes pulse surveys especially effective in helping you to pick up and resolve any issues as they’re developing before, they become potentially more harmful to your business.

They inform and help you make smarter decisions

Whatever issues you may be worried about, a pulse survey can enable you to check in quickly with your staff, to assess the real facts and depth of a problem, so you can choose the best way to resolve it.

Define your pulse survey strategy

Any survey activity requires effective planning, so if you’re to get your pulse survey off to the best start you need to develop an effective survey strategy for it.

Here’s five steps you need to be thinking about.

Define your purpose

Before you even begin thinking about your survey design and your question selection, it’s important to clearly define your purpose. When you have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish, you’re better able to select the right scope for topics, questions, your target audience and timelines.

Questions you should be asking yourself include.

  • What purpose does the survey serve?
  • What information do we need?
  • Can this information be collected without a survey?

Answering these questions helps you to become really specific about the outcomes of your survey and helps drive your design strategy.

Set your objectives

Having a survey objective is really important too, because if you launch a pulse survey without having a clear purpose, it’s likely that your results won’t really answer your questions.

So, before you design your pulse survey, it’s important to understand what you want from the process including.

  • What do you want to measure?
  • How will you use your results?
  • What do you need to ask, so you can take the most appropriate action afterwards?

Build your objective with your key results in mind. These outcomes are what will fuel your survey initiatives and also help you to evaluate the results once the survey has closed.

Choose the right audience

Having defined your purpose, you’ll then need to determine who to survey. This will depend on your topic. For example, if that topic was generic, you might want to survey your entire company, or just a smaller group of staff for something more specific.

When selecting your audience, it can help you to think about the following questions:

Should your survey be anonymous or attributed?

Some pulse survey topics require anonymity, while others require more transparency. Putting a name to critical feedback may increase staff anxiety and decrease the volume of honest feedback offered. However, as culture improves, employees will more readily offer authentic feedback and be happy to attach their name to this.

Should you survey the entire population?

Generally, pulse surveys are ideal for collecting quick feedback from small groups of people, and you should only survey your entire company if your topic is relevant to everyone.

To help you decide on this, you could start with a focus group, to gain a better insight about what questions you need to ask, before rolling it out to your entire organization.

Will your survey impact a specific department or team?

Feedback is often only needed from a distinct group, whether that’s a particular department, location, or team.

Pulse surveys are ideal for this, as they’re intended to create a better understanding of a topic that is more localized or relevant to a specific group.

Do I need to consider the demographics of my audience?

From their gender and the generation that they were born and grew up within, to their length of service and location they work from. There’s lots of demographic and other factors that might influence how different staff may answer your questions. So, it’s best to check in with your workforce and try to understand how their different perspectives might impact your questions before you launch your survey.

Establish a frequency

A key thing to remember when conducting a pulse survey is to only gather feedback as often as you’re able to act on it.

Employee response rates increase when action is taken based on the survey results but decline when no change takes place. And while pulse surveys are quick and simple to deploy, it doesn’t mean you should survey your employees as often as you want.

The frequency of your pulse survey needs to take into consideration any other methods of listening to your customers that your organization is using. Set a rule that makes sense for your workforce and stick to it, as too many surveys can become distracting and fatigue employees.

While there are no hard rules when it comes to pulse survey timing, there are a few guidelines you can follow to help determine the right frequency for your organization:

Only pulse on issues that will have a significant impact on staff

It can be difficult to capture real-time feedback when new situations arise. Therefore, you might want to consider only sending a pulse survey when there are major changes in your organization that impact every employee, such as the rolling out of a new benefits plan.

Only survey when you have the capacity to act of that feedback

If you’ve just completed an engagement survey and are still working through that data, you might not have the capacity to collect and action any more information from a pulse survey.

Always check in with your managers, senior leaders and HR team to determine if you have the capacity to respond to another survey before you launch it.

Issue surveys according to your organization’s culture

Every company tends to operate a bit differently from the next one. Subsequently, your pulse surveys should feel familiar and authentic when your employees receive them, just like a natural part of their workflow.

Tie in the timing of your pulse survey to your annual engagement survey

To help establish a firm frequency to your pulse surveys, you might want to pair your pulse with your annual engagement survey, running your pulse survey six months after it has been launched. This will help give staff time to reflect on any changes you’ve made and provide you with more honest feedback to your initiatives.

Develop a follow up plan

When you take action, staff feel that their opinions have been recognized and valued.

Here are five steps to take following your pulse survey.

Act on pulse survey results

If you don’t act on employee opinions, your survey may fall flat and leave staff feeling disengaged.

Every survey should include an employee communications plan for sharing results, offering conclusions and providing next step actions.

Select areas to improve and areas to celebrate

Identify where you need to improve and obtain employee feedback on this.

Involving your staff in the decision-making process empowers them, as they now have a voice in contributing to your success.

Make and implement decisions

Once all your teams agree about what areas you need to improve, it’s time to act.

Break bigger initiatives up into small steps, split the ownership of tasks and conduct small experiments as you begin to implement new changes.

Evaluate and keep moving forward

Ensure your teams have a plan to check in and evaluate progress as you’re implementing your changes.

If any of the changes aren’t working, adjust them or discuss alternatives. While doing this, you could also move on with making improvements in other areas.

Make pulse surveys part of your employee engagement strategy

If you’ve been surveying employees annually, pulse surveys are a great next step. They allow you to collect meaningful information related to specific organizational changes or simply keep up with staff sentiment within your organization.

Launching your pulse survey

Having defined your pulse survey strategy, you’re now ready to look at the final bits before launching your survey.

Choose the right pulse survey questions

With a small window of opportunity, it’s important to select pulse survey questions that help you collect the data you’re looking for. Consider these tips when deciding what to ask:

Narrow the focus of your survey questions

Pulse surveys need to center around one or two key topics of interest at most, as addressing too many in one survey can overwhelm respondents.

Limit pulse surveys to 5-15 questions

As a rule of thumb, don’t use any more than between 5-15 questions that can be completed in just a few minutes. Remember, less effort to complete converts to a better response rate.

Create pulse survey questions that will help you to collect meaningful data

If you’re to gather data that is more informative and insightful, your questions need to be specific, timely and actionable.

Check that all your response options make sense

Response options are what respondents interact with when filling out surveys. So, it’s important to ensure that all the options you offer will make sense to your respondents when they’re completing your survey.

Create a simple pulse survey design

Pulse surveys are important for gathering insightful and reliable data. So, the simpler your survey is to take, the more valuable your responses will be.

Avoid long and complex words

Try to avoid long words when you’re writing your survey questions including any technical jargon that your staff might not understand. Shorter words are easier to read and are less mentally taxing on survey takers.

Shorten your survey question length

To further simplify your survey, make sure your survey questions are relatively short. It shouldn’t feel like you’re having to read a novel or write an essay to answer a survey question.

Adjust your tone

The tone of your survey questions can also have an impact on your responses.

To avoid confusion, avoid exaggerative or negatively worded questions. Instead, try rephrasing negative questions as positive statements and reverse your score.

Find time to reflect and refocus

Finally, rather than rushing to issue it, set your survey aside for a day or two before having a final read-through. Taking a break and coming back to it in this way will make it easier to catch any spelling or punctuation errors you may have overlooked, or a question that now sounds confusing.

This step is critical to identify smaller errors that are easy to miss, enabling you to send a survey that’s as polished as you can make it.

You might also consider reviewing your survey with a few other stakeholders, before rolling it out to all your staff.

Concluding thoughts

Having provided you with an overview of pulse surveys, why they matter, tips on strategy and some pre-launch considerations, we hope you’ll feel be better informed about when to use them and maximizing their effectiveness.

While pulse surveys may not be a popular as some of the more better-known employee surveys, they certainly have just as much value when it comes to determining the happiness and engagement of your employees and the health of your wider business. So, for that reason, if they’re not already, they need to form a part of your overall staff feedback strategy moving forward.

Improve the quality of your workplace feedback

If you’re to become more closely aligned with staff sentiment within your organization, you need to introduce pulse surveys into your program of employee feedback activities. However, you’ll only achieve the best results if you’re using the right survey tools.

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