What’s the point of a pulse survey?

by
May 6, 2020

Pulse surveys are quick ways to capture frequent feedback from your employees. Unlike the more traditional annual employee survey, which is often long and covers a wide range of topics, a pulse survey is short, and normally focuses on a very specific issue or question.

You can send out pulse surveys regularly throughout the year, with minimal fuss. This helps you get frequent feedback on very specific topics, and is often compared to doing a quick and simple health check of your company – hence the name ‘pulse’.

Not everybody advocates pulse surveys, and we will look at some advantages and disadvantages in a moment. But it’s worth noting that you don’t need to choose “one or the other” when deciding how to get feedback from your employees. A pulse survey is not designed as a replacement for the more traditional employee survey you might roll out every year or so. Rather, it is more of a complementary survey that can work hand in hand with any other surveys you run, to support continuous feedback and improvements for your workforce.

Pulse surveys often only include a single question, and can help you gather real-time feedback about a specific initiative or event.

The key benefits of using pulse surveys

There are plenty of reasons for sending out these quick, short questions to your workforce. So I’d like to start by showing you some of the most common reasons why business leaders use pulse surveys.

  • Fast turnaround. With a pulse survey, you don’t need to spend hours compiling the survey, and you don’t need to wait days for everybody to muster the strength to battle through it. Pulse surveys often only include a single question, and because of this, you can pretty much send it out as soon as you like. And because there is only one question, employees can easily respond much more quickly.
  • Good response rate. Many organisations using pulse surveys report a very good response rate from their workforce. This is probably because of how quickly and easily they can respond to what is often a single question. As with anything data-driven, you want the highest response rate possible whenever you’re collecting feedback.
  • Improved engagement. It’s easy for employees to lose a sense of connection with their employer, and this often leads to the formation of organisational silos. While a pulse survey on its own is not going to prevent this, it is still a step towards more regular engagement. By asking your employees frequent questions, about things they care about, and about how they feel about their employment, you are keeping a gentle stream of communication alive. This can contribute towards better engagement.
  • Supports continuous improvement. While your annual survey might give you a detailed look at some of the ways you might want to improve your business, a pulse survey will help you to tweak and adjust this throughout the year. You can measure how well you’re meeting the goals you set off the back of your annual survey, and you’ll be able to see over time how the picture begins to shift. Without waiting for your next annual survey!
  • Real-time status updates. With a pulse survey, you can assess the mood of your organisation right now. You don’t get more real-time than thinking of a question at 10am, and analysing the results by 3pm. And while that’s not necessarily how it’s always going to work, a pulse survey certainly makes it possible if you want that sort of real-time feedback with the fastest possible turnaround.

Pulse surveys are good for showing you how well interventions are working

I mentioned that continuous improvement is one of the main benefits of using pulse surveys. This is especially true when it comes to tracking, and potentially tweaking, initiatives you have undertaken as a result of an issue or an opportunity you’ve identified.

This is something that Dr Martin R. Edwards and Kirsten Edwards touch on, in their book “Predictive HR Analytics: Mastering the HR Metric”. They say that the pulse method, when combined with other methods, can help to provide information about change over time.

One excerpt reads:

“If we surveyed a random selection of 850 employees a month before the introduction of an HR intervention, and then another random selection of 850 employees again six months afterwards, we could potentially obtain a picture of how ‘the organisation’ may have changed over time, because each pulse should theoretically represent the organisation.”

The sample size of 850 in this example, was for an organisation of around 10,000 employees.

High response rates are not always the reality of a pulse survey

I mentioned that a high response rate was one of the benefits of a pulse survey. And this is the case for many organisations. But according to Culture Amp’s Chief Scientist, Dr Jason McPherson, weekly or monthly surveys struggle to get more than a 50% response rate.

Quoted on the Culture Amp blog, he says: “Based on what we’ve seen, 90% of companies using continuous surveys can’t keep their response rate above 50% when the same people are being surveyed weekly or monthly.”

Two obvious solutions to this, would be to firstly, send the survey to a representative sample, instead of to your entire workforce. This makes sure you’re not tiring out the same employees week in week out with questions.

Or secondly, to simply send the surveys out less frequently.

But if continuous improvement and frequent feedback is your aim, and if you only have a modest workforce, then neither of these are really an option. Which is why a great piece of advice I’ve always found helpful with pulse surveys, is to only survey as fast as you can act.

If you’re spitting out questions left right and Chelsea, but you never actually take action off the back of them, then there’s no wonder employees get tired of answering. What’s the point in them answering your silly questions if you never do anything with their answers?

Ask. Act. Repeat.

Less is more

There’s no formal distinction between what you might class as a ‘pulse’ survey, and what you might class as a ‘regular’ employee survey. This is often where some of the disagreements come from in terms of how effective pulse surveys actually are.

But according to Louise Berry, Editor of Interact Software, the key to a good pulse survey is to keep it short.

“Try and steer clear of putting too many questions in your pulse survey” she writes on Medium. “It’s important to maintain a light touch, so lengthier questionnaires should be left for the annual survey.”

Keeping your finger on the pulse with People HR

I don’t often mention product features on this blog, but it would feel weird not to mention the People HR system while talking about pulse surveys. That’s because pulse surveys are included with the People HR system.

If you’re already a customer, then you’ll probably already know that you and your employees have free access to the mobile app for Android or Apple. And that means you can send out quick pulse surveys that instantly hit the pockets of your workforce.

If you’re not yet using the People HR system, then you can start your free trial now.

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