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To Pulse Or Not To Pulse

Pulse surveys are super cool, and the annual survey is a thing of the past: Well that's what everyone seems to say these days. Should you really ditch the annual survey in favour of pulse?

Or, in defence of the annual employee survey

Pulse surveys are super cool, and the annual survey is a thing of the past – well that is what everyone is saying these days.

You cannot dip your toe in the employee feedback market without hearing about why we need to “ditch the annual survey” and move to pulse surveys.

If you ask people to describe the annual survey to you then you get a number of consistent responses:

  1. Big and clumsy
  2. Lots of effort to deploy
  3. Difficult to analyse the results
  4. Boring – lots of questions
  5. Questions don’t always fit our culture or the problem we think we may have
  6. Really difficult to resolve all the problems because businesses are big

So the answer is to run Pulse surveys, yeah?

The arguments for pulse and against annual surveys make sense – ask a few people, a few questions, quickly and more often, with questions that you write and are easier to analyse!

Well, no actually and also yes… ...and really the question shouldn''t be whether to use pulse or annual surveys, but what the rationale is for using each.

Taking another look at Annual Employee Surveys

So, when people are asked about annual surveys, they are maybe not answering the right question, let’s look at what people mean when they describe an annual survey:

What people think of annual surveys

The question being answered isn’t “do annual surveys add value?” but more around how the individual feels about their ability to deploy and run an annual survey and, perhaps more importantly, to make sense of the results and turn them into real changes. This is probably based on some old school survey thinking and poor experiences!

Changes in technology have meant that the heavy lifting is no longer the burden of the individual and analytical prowess is not needed to understand the results.

Why annual big surveys are great!

A big survey (they do not need to be annual) gives you two key areas that typical pulse surveys do not:

  1. A large data set
  2. A broad set of baselines

Both are important , for both data analysis and change Llet’s look though at baselines.

Baseline data

What is a baseline?

Here are a few quotes from the internet:

  1. baseline data. a set of data collected at the beginning of a study or before intervention has occurred.
  2. The purpose of a baseline study is to provide an information base against which to monitor and assess an activity’s progress and effectiveness during implementation and after the activity is completed.

So, a baseline is your starting point, the initial results that you can track positive or negative results against. It''s a stake in the ground.

Without a baseline, it is really difficult to understand results from smaller narrow pulse surveys, not impossible but certainly open to error and bias.

The annual survey sets the baseline, or baselines, this could be an overall employee engagement score or more detailed ''drivers'' like Employee Wellbeing, Leadership or Reward.

And this is where the annlual survey is strong.

What about breadth of data?

The breadth of data that you get from an annual survey is also important. Taking a snapshot of your entire organisation means that you can see what''s going well or what the issues are, and where, from a whole-organisation perspective. That doesn''t mean that it provides all of the answers, all of the time. You might need to look a bit closer at a particular issue or employee group, and that''s one reason for using pulse surveys.

But pulse surveys are great too!

Pulse surveys are great for measuring employee experience, in two main ways:

1. When used in conjunction with a larger survey to track how you are doing against that survey

This allows you to pulse different departments appropriate questions that are relevant to their survey results, or to montor key questions that are good indicators of the overal employee experience.

Common complaints about annual surveys versus pulse surveys

2. Stand alone, to check in, monitor or gather ad hoc data

Pulse surveys are highly versatile and have many potential uses. You might just want to check in with people, for example on how they are feeling, you might monitor trends or progress (say, on an initiative) over time or just ask them a quick opinion question.

“How can we improve the meeting rooms here?” – Free Text

“Did you like the new Internal Comms magazine issued last month?” – Yes/No

As this suggests, you can choose to schedule regular pulse surveys or treat them as one-offs.

But.. ..beware Survey Fatigue

One of the problems that come hand in hand with continual or always-on employee feedback is survey fatigue - or cynicism. This is where the respondents stop seeing the survey as a way of contributing to organisational improvements, don''t feel that it''s valuable use of their time or indeed and see it as burden – often caused by too many surveys and not enough action. When nothing seems to happen as a result of feedback (it doesn''t have to be what the individual employee wanted to see) then they lose interest in taking them.

So there''s an implied equation here. The more you want to measure, the more action people will expect to see.

Are employee surveys solving a problem or selling a product?

Lots of tech companies now seem to have developed pulse sruvey ''solutions'' – which is fab as it drives choice into the market, but is it useful?

Providers of HR systems, employee benefits, payroll systems, learning solutions and more all of a sudden have developed a pulse survey module built into their offering, but unless they are used in the right way, for the right reason, and ask the right questions they are potentially not well placed to actually help you with:

  1. Understanding what is the problem you are trying to solve; how should you approach this?
  2. Helping with the results, so what now, how do I analyse this beyond the dashboard data?
  3. Seeing the commercial picture, what are the other data points we need to consider, how do these results impact our people and our business?

This is because providers of tech are tech people, salespeople, account managers but often they are not data specialists, employee experience experts, engagement experts etc.

Now that may be irrelevant because you are these things and in which case great!

“Tech based businesses were so preoccupied with whether they could build a pulse survey, they didn’t stop to think if they should” Dr Ian Malcolm (paraphrased)

Think first about the problem you are trying to solve

We are advocates of using both pulse and annual surveys, for different reasons, and often as part of a mix. And, of course, we can be objective because we provide both! But seriously, before you leap in with a prescriptive ''solution'' first take a step back and think about what you want to achieve; what problem you''re trying to solve?

Talk to us

If you''re still not sure, or want to find out more, get in touch at to see how we can help you understand your people and improve the people experience at work.

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