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What are Pulse Surveys, and How They Can Help Your Company?

If you ask team members the right questions, you'll get back responses that truly help you create happier employees and a brighter business outlook.

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Employee pulse surveys have become more and more popular in recent years. Companies large and small, domestic and international, and across a wide range of industries use pulse surveys to measure and their attitudes about company culture. Putting thought into pulse survey questions can make them effective tools in helping steer your organization in the direction you want to go.

What a pulse survey is

An employee pulse survey differs from the traditional employee engagement survey in that it's a quick survey given weekly or monthly. The purpose of a pulse survey is to gain quick insight into a company’s vital signs by gathering employee feedback.

The primary purpose of a pulse survey is to quantify employee engagement. Employee engagement is the measure of enthusiasm and connection employees have with their organization, and it's been historically difficult to assess. Attempting to measure employee engagement can be frustrating, because the results can either be inaccurate or outdated (by the time survey responses are compiled, the data is too old to be relevant). A properly designed pulse survey is meant to address these issues.

Related: Nervous About Meeting Employees in Person for the First Time? Try These 5 Tips

Another purpose of a pulse survey is measuring a company’s culture. Companies gather all kinds of data on how they are serving their customers. Gathering data on how a company serves its employees is as important to an organization’s overall health.

The benefits of pulse surveys

Actionable data

Because of their frequency, employee pulse surveys give near real-time measurements of employee engagement. Because of their brevity (a typical pulse survey is between five and 15 questions), the data can be compiled quickly enough for the employer to take action based on employee feedback.

Engaged employees

It makes perfect sense that pulse surveys can help to improve the very employee engagement they are designed to measure. Asking employees for regular, relevant feedback is itself positive employee engagement. Research has clearly shown that engaged employees are more productive, take less time off, lower the of turnover and interface positively with customers.

Positive culture

One of the main reasons employees cite for leaving their job is a negative company culture, so anything that could help improve company culture should be taken seriously. Employers who regularly encourage employee feedback and who follow-up on that feedback are encouraging a positive company culture.

Related: These Simple Changes to Your Performance Reviews Will Make More Effective Employees

Analysis over time

Because of their frequency, pulse surveys can not only be used as a reading of a company at a specific moment, but also as a measure of employee engagement over time. For example, let’s say in one of your surveys, employees listed the ability to work out during lunch as something that would boost morale, and the company rolls out a plan to give employees a discount membership to a nearby fitness club. You can use a pulse survey to see what the effect of this change is during and after its execution.

Higher response rate

Employee pulse surveys often have higher response rates than traditional annual surveys or employee engagement surveys, because they take less time to complete and can be acted on more quickly by employers. Employees are more likely to complete surveys when they feel like their time isn’t wasted.

Building an effective pulse survey

Building an effective employee pulse survey requires questions that are both meaningful and easy to answer quickly for the employees, and answers that are both quantifiable and actionable to the employer. The next few paragraphs will give some guidance on how to achieve just that.

Related: How to Become a Better Leader Through a Crisis

The purpose

Every pulse survey has a purpose to it, and that purpose should be clearly stated before the first question is asked. A brief statement at the beginning of the survey can set a positive tone before the employee moves forward with giving responses. A sample purpose statement could look something like this:

“One of the reasons we exist as an organization is to benefit the individuals who work here. Our core purpose at _______ is to help our customers ______________. We need to have ways to measure whether or not we're doing a good job meeting our employees’ needs as well as our customers’ needs.”

Keeping the survey’s purpose in mind will help you formulate questions that will allow you to accurately take the temperature of your organization.

Related: 4 Key Steps to Motivate Employees to Finish Work Projects

The questions

As the person who’ll be reading and interpreting the data, you want that data to be both quantifiable and meaningful. Asking not just questions, but the right questions, and giving your employees a way to answer that gives you the information you need as well as the ability to get the survey done and get back to work is important.

Questions for a pulse survey should be action-oriented and allow the employee to express their agreement or disagreement with the question’s premise. Besides being basic benchmarks of overall employee satisfaction, pulse survey questions should address the main drivers of employee engagement:  leadership, enablement, alignment and development. Below are some examples of pulse survey questions:

  • “I am proud to work for ______.” — This is sometimes referred to as the “backyard barbecue test.” In other words, would you be comfortable answering this question if someone asked you at a barbecue? It's a good indicator of overall job satisfaction.

  • “I rarely think about looking for a job at another company.” — A question like this can give insights into possible retention issues.

  • “The leaders here keep me informed about what's happening.” — Leadership’s behavior toward employees is a major driver of employee engagement.

  • “I have access to the training I need to do my job well.” — This question addresses if an employee feels enabled at their job.

  • “I know what I need to do to be successful.” — This addresses if an employee is aligned with what is expected of them at their job.

  • “I believe there are good career opportunities for me here.” — An employee answering favorably here indicates their career can develop beyond their current job.

Related: Make Sure to Ask Yourself These 3 Business Questions for 2021

Employees can use a simple five-point Likert scale to give their responses. Likert scales are easy to answer for the employee taking the survey and give enough of a statistical variation to be meaningful, yet easy to compile and analyze. A useful Likert scale could consist of the following responses:

    Strongly agree

    Somewhat agree

    Neither agree nor disagree

    Somewhat disagree

    Strongly disagree

The survey cadence

Cadences for employee pulse surveys can vary based on the type of organization and subject matter. The important thing to remember about sending repeated pulse surveys to your employees is that their enthusiasm to continue filling out ongoing surveys depends greatly on the action you take between each survey. 

When the enthusiasm of employee opinions dips on a regular basis from one survey to the next, it’s not because of survey fatigue. It’s because employees feel the survey responses they are giving are pointless. A declining participation rate is the key indicator of this. To avoid this, only survey as frequently as you can act. When actions are taken based on employee survey responses, be sure to give regular feedback.

Practice vulnerability

One of the overlooked benefits of a well-constructed employee pulse survey is that it displays that leadership does not fear honest feedback from its employees. If management has a question for their employees, and it’s a question in which you’re not sure you want to hear the answer, that's probably the exact question that needs to be asked.

Related: Hire Your Next Remote Team Member from One of These 20 U.S. Tech Hubs

John Boitnott

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.