What is a pulse survey? 

A pulse survey is a short, immediate feedback survey that happens regularly. Hence ‘pulse’, as in the constant rhythm of a heartbeat. And like a heartbeat, each one should be brief, frequently occurring and acknowledged as valuable.

Pulse surveys allow organizations to ‘check-in’ with employees to garner feedback on a range of issues. They typically incorporate a shorter set of questions than other kinds of employee surveys. This can make them the most engaging kinds of employee surveys with the highest response rates.

How do pulse surveys differ from normal employee surveys?

Different kinds of employee surveys achieve different objectives. Pulse surveys are all about checking in with employee views, both at a high level and individually. 

Annual employee questionnaires

Many organizations use annual surveys to collect general employee feedback data. These are typically in the form of long questionnaires. The feedback collected will have a wide range of applications.

Objective: Allow the highest volume of subject matters to be explored in detail.  

Difference: Longer, more time consuming and far less frequent than pulse surveys. 

Employee lifecycle surveys

These surveys gather feedback from employees at various stages during their employment (e.g. appointment, onboarding, post-training, performance appraisal, exit). The feedback is directly relevant to the organization’s corporate HR function and the employee’s personal development. The timing of these surveys is specific to each individual employee and their stage at the company. 

Objective: Directly engage individual employees in the context of their employment lifecycle.  

Difference: Significantly more specific to the employee’s personal circumstances than pulse surveys.

Employee engagement surveys

Employee engagement is a measure of how much an employee feels connected to and motivated by their company’s goals. High employee engagement reflects a team that fully subscribes to the company mission, is positive about making a difference, and willing to invest significant effort and creativity. Organizations with high employee engagement are proven to outperform peers by almost 150% in earnings per share. These surveys are part of measuring the extent to which employees are engaged.

Objective: Measure how engaged employees are so that engagement can be increased when and where necessary.

Difference: More likely to focus on high-level themes that impact engagement (feeling included, understanding own role in company success) than more specific detail (e.g. about an aspect of the work environment) that might get covered in pulse surveys.

Event-driven / ad hoc employee surveys

From time to time it may be necessary to poll employees in relation to a change event. A good example is when many organizations surveyed employees amid the emergence of Covid-19. Other examples could be in the aftermath of a distressing incident, or in anticipation of a forthcoming IPO, major product launch or store opening. Such surveys may be planned at short notice with very narrow objectives.

Objective: Collect actionable feedback in relation to a change event.

Difference: Far more random and sporadic than the predictable and frequent cadence of pulse surveys.

What makes a pulse survey so effective?

Simple, flexible and inexpensive

Pulse surveys are typically very short – potentially just a single question, though often it’s more like 5–10. Their lightweight nature makes them easy to administer, and – because they don’t take much time to complete – more likely to be responded to.

Both representative and specific

Pulse surveys tend to enjoy high response rates: a consequence of their brevity and predictability. This is very important to ensuring that findings are representative of your staff as a whole, or selected cohorts thereof.

As well as being representative, pulse surveys also allow you to get specific feedback at the individual level, assuming you do not anonymize the data. Asking employees to provide pulse survey feedback anonymously is possible, and can lead to richer and ‘more honest’ feedback in some instances. 

Listening to employees improves their wellbeing

Employees appreciate being listened to even more than customers do. Think about it – most full-time employees work upwards of 40 hours a week, reporting for duty on 5 days in every 7, during the best years of their lives. They deserve to feel looked after, cared about and respected. And it’s great for business when they do.

Early identification of emerging issues

Pulse surveys are the most frequent kind of employee survey. This makes them ideal for spotting warning signs and emerging problems among the workforce. Annual surveys could never pick this up unless your timing was particularly fortunate. Pulse surveys mean you don’t have to think about timing, let alone be lucky with it. But all feedback data must be acted on. You need systems in place to ensure the right people can see and interpret what feedback data is telling you needs to change.

Fast feedback on operational effectiveness and strategic initiatives

This is another benefit to the regular, high frequency of pulse surveys. Launched a new work-from-home policy or pay-by-results incentive? Worst case, your pulse survey will pick up responses on the next go-around within 29 days or less. It’s the same with general operational processes as with new strategic initiatives. Each regular check-in gives you fresh insight. But your system has to be set up to allow you to interpret and act on feedback data or there’s no point collecting it!

Trending metrics indicate direction of travel and allow goal-setting

Each pulse survey gives you a hot take on employee sentiment about a range of issues and factors. But just as importantly is the cumulative accrual of data that allows you to track trending metrics over time. A pulse survey that uniformly repeats the same framework of key questions tells internal stakeholders a lot about company culture and HR policies. This is especially true when correlated against other employee data such as staff retention/churn and absenteeism.

Complementary to other employee survey activities

Another great benefit of pulse surveys is how they slot right in alongside other employee engagement and feedback activities. They are not onerous or disruptive to the employee or the organization. 

What should you be measuring with pulse surveys?

The great thing about pulse surveys is that you can measure whatever you like. Organizations commonly use pulse surveys to check-in regularly with staff about:

  • How engaged with the organization they are in general
  • Their alignment with company objectives
  • Opinions on the direction of the company, how it treats customers and its community
  • What they think about their working environment and resources
  • The health and strength of relationships with co-workers and managers
  • How stressed, bored or overworked they are
  • Their outlook on career progression opportunities and whether the business is matching their personal aspirations
  • How well informed they are about changes in the business
  • Their training needs and how these are being met formally and informally

Measuring such topics can be extremely enlightening, but is a pointless exercise unless the organization/employer is prepared to act upon the data uncovered. 

Pulse surveys are also used to collect recognized, industry-standard metrics for employee satisfaction and engagement. These are first benchmarked and then tracked over time (typically monthly if using pulse surveys). Two of the most popular are:

  • NPS or Net Promoter Score®. Also known in employee or eNPS (‘e’ standing for ‘employee’)
  • ESI or Employee Satisfaction Index.

NPS/eNPS

NPS is perhaps the common business metric of all. It is used almost universally as a means of measuring customer loyalty or retention. However, it can easily be applied to an employee retention context.

NPS/eNPS is extremely flexible because of its utter simplicity. It is based around a single question that encourages respondents to score, on a scale of 0–10, their propensity to recommend. For example, in an employee context:

“On a scale of 0–10, how likely are you to recommend our organization to a friend or colleague?”

Depending on what response is given, the employee can be placed into one of 3 groups:

  • Promoters (scoring 9 or 10)
  • Passives (scoring 7 or 8)
  • Detractors (scoring 6 or lower)

The proportions of these groups found at the end of the exercise is used to calculate the organization’s NPS score on a spectrum between -100 (very bad) and +100 (very good). Check out this guide to calculating NPS scores for more detail.

There are variations to how the question can be worded to elicit different insights. For example, in the question above, the score reflects how positive the employee feels about the organization. Here, committed and engaged employees will give higher scores. Higher scores may also result from the organization being very good at what it does (and this being recognized by the employee).

A variation could be made to focus on the recommendation for working at the company rather than using its products and services. For example:

“On a scale of 0–10, how likely are you to recommend working at our organization to a friend or colleague?”

In the two NPS questions above, the word ‘colleague’ is used in a loose sense. It may not be wholly appropriate and can be deleted or replaced with an alternative word.

ESI

ESI is based around 3 questions which are always the same. These are:

  1. How satisfied are you with your current workplace?
  2. Does your current workplace meet your expectations?
  3. How close is your current workplace to the ideal one?

The questions are based on a 1–10 scale. This gives each respondent an initial aggregate value out of 30. Using a sample set of employees, you can calculate a mean value, for example: 21.

The index is calculated using the following equation:

So, in our example, the ESI is 67:

21 / 3 = 7

7 – 1 = 6

6 / 9 = 0.67

0.67 x 100 = 67

All organizations will rate between 0–100 on the ESI depending on the responses employees provide.

What questions should you ask in a pulse survey?

Before we get into pulse survey question examples, let’s establish the core question components of the survey as a whole. These are:

Quantitative employee questions

  • Questions that elicit meaningful responses you can easily measure (e.g. NPS)
  • Questions that delve deeper into the drivers behind those responses

Qualitative employee qeustions

  • Questions that encourage richer, qualitative responses

This trifecta of questions should be supported by standard templates within your chosen pulse survey platform. Like so:

  1. First, the employee receives an email survey containing a simple, quantitative scoring-based question or questions. 
  2. Clicking on the survey directs to a relevant follow-up question where the employee can select from a list of choices.
  3. An open question can be posed with a comment box to collect qualitative free-text responses.

Pulse survey question examples

Here are some examples of opening questions for pulse surveys. These can be delivered as yes/no or sliding scale questions, accordingly.

The Net Promoter Score® pulse survey question

How likely are you to recommend the company to a colleague or friend?

Mission and culture pulse survey question

Do you feel included in the company mission?

Enablement pulse survey question

Are you supported in your role?

Leadership pulse survey question

Are you confident in bringing ideas to your manager?

Progression pulse survey question

Can you see clear advancement opportunities for yourself here?”

Safety pulse survey question

Do you feel safe at work?

Inclusivity pulse survey question

Do you think the company is inclusive?

Wellbeing pulse survey question

Are your mental health needs being supported at work?

Internal communications pulse survey question

How often should you use pulse surveys?

Pulse surveys can be used more frequently than any other kind of employee survey. Also unlike other surveys, they are applied to a regular cadence. So, rather than annually or sporadically, pulse surveys are likely to happen quarterly/monthly to a predictable schedule. Pulse surveys aren’t really pulse surveys without a strong element of repeatability. Employees steadily grow used to receiving them and understanding what they have to do.

There are no hard and fast rules about intervals between pulse surveys. However, inundating employees with pulse surveys too frequently can be counterproductive, leading to survey fatigue. The ‘Goldilocks zone’ between not too often and not too rarely is commonly accepted as 1–3 months. 

There are exceptions to this. For example, a newly launched company, or a newly launched place of work such as a retail store. In this instance, a more regular (weekly, bi-weekly) cadence may initially be more appropriate before reverting to a monthly cycle.  

Then there’s the possibility of using much shorter, single-question pulse surveys far more frequently. Single-question surveys typically net the highest response rates and deliver a stream of up-to-date insights. And being just one question, there really isn’t any survey fatigue at all. The downside is having fewer topics to cover, unless you used the frequency (e.g. weekly) to ‘rotate’ a subset of topics. 

How can you start using pulse surveys in your company?

The key ingredients in establishing a pulse survey are respondent data, a survey platform and a plan.

Respondent data for pulse surveys

Organizations naturally have access to up-to-date contact information about their employees, such as email address. However, it’s wise to validate the accuracy of data you’re working from before using it. This is especially important if segmenting types of employee for specific questions; ensuring the appropriate survey reaches the intended recipient.

Survey platform for pulse surveys

The simplest platform for email-based pulse surveys is your office email system e.g. Outlook. However, for complete survey functionality consider a system like Customer Thermometer. CT integrates out of the box with the major email platforms, CRM systems, help desk platforms, PSAs, etc. 

Plan for pulse surveys

Planning a pulse survey is crucial to maximizing benefit. At a basic level, this should incorporate:

  • Knowing what you want to achieve and how this is aligned to business objectives
  • Involving the appropriate stakeholders and budget holders
  • Setting evaluation criteria for what success should look like
  • Testing
  • Announcing the launch of the survey and setting expectations of employees 
  • Execution (sending surveys out)
  • Reporting, analysis and dissemination of data
  • Taking action
  • Repeating to a regular cadence
  • Continuous improvement  

Pulse survey best practices

Follow these pulse survey best practice tips for maximum long-term success.

The shorter the better if you want a sustainable data asset

Some pulse surveys can be too long. When that happens, employees become less likely to give their all to the exercise and may not participate. A short survey gives you fewer insights and less data in the short term, but is a better long-term bet for sustaining your pulse survey strategy.

Consider faster cadence with single-question surveys

The consensus seems to be that monthly is about right for pulse surveys. Or at least quarterly as a minimum. Any slower and it isn’t a pulse survey. Go too fast and you might overload and fatigue employees. One idea we recommend is doing pulse surveys much more frequently than monthly by stripping them down to a single question. That way no-one is ever fatigued. One-question, one-click surveys have the highest response rates of all, and the data you gain is always bang up to date. 

Mobile friendly surveys

Emails that don’t display correctly on mobile email clients are usually deleted within 3 seconds. It’s a simple thing to fix, but one that ensures you are sensitive to employees completing the survey when it’s convenient to them. This is especially important if you’re going for a bespoke and engaging survey template.

Communicate what the survey is for

Employees, like all survey respondents, should be told the purpose of the survey, how it works and how you’ll use their data. Pulse surveys deliver mutual benefit so employees should feel positive and confident toward them. But it’s down to you to communicate that effectively. They also need to know that you’ll be sending pulse surveys regularly, and that you plan to actively listen to and act on their feedback. Set out whether or not you’ll be anonymizing their data. Also, be sure to comply with data protection guidelines and reflect this to your audience. 

Keep questions simple

There’s a science to constructing questions in order to derive the best insights about what people really think. At a more fundamental level, you also need to consider formulating questions that avoid bias. For example, but not posing ‘leading’ questions that steer the respondent toward a skewed response. In the most basic terms, don’t ask confusing questions that don’t make sense. Some informal testing among your team will help, or seek expert guidance. We have some more tips on this here.

Be creative in maximizing response rates

It’s really important to maximize participation and response rates. Sure, you can force employees to complete the survey but that’s not a good look for any organization. Employees who don’t want to complete the survey because it’s complicated, time consuming or uninviting risk contributing the minimum or even giving random answers. You can counter this in various ways. For example, using icons such as smiley faces as response options. You could even customize your own icons to fit your brand (check out these for inspiration). Or something even simpler like using emojis in the pulse survey email subject line, which could increase open rates by over 50%.

Build a plan of action, and act on it!

It doesn’t take a lot of effort or resources to build a pulse survey plan. All you need before starting is to get your respondent data together and choose the best survey tool. For the plan itself, here are the main points:

  1. Set out the purpose and parameters of the pulse survey. How it aligns with business objectives, budgets, etc. What metrics you intend to track. What success will look like. How often pulse surveys will go out and what general form they’ll take.
  2. Create an engaging survey template and craft the questions you’ll be repeating in every pulse survey. Make it on-brand, secure and mobile friendly. Do some testing.
  3. Communicate the survey with employees and other stakeholders, before you send the first one out. Set expectations. Create a response plan for how you’ll react to certain types of feedback (i.e. the most negative, the most positive).
  4. Launch the survey. Activate the response plan where appropriate. Feed into reporting dashboards you can share internally and with management.
  5. Act on the data in meaningful ways. Reflect any changes made as a result of the pulse survey back to employees. 
  6. Commit to continuous improvement both in the mechanics of the survey (template design, response rate, question formulation) and the metrics you’re tracking. 

Start Sending Pulse Surveys Today

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