Pulse surveys are a powerful listening tool but only when done correctly.
One positive to come out of the pandemic is a renewed interest in checking in with employees. Ensuring a positive employee experience has come to the forefront for many leaders, and it has been interesting to see how HR and leaders alike have been growing their feedback muscles.
A common way employers do this is through pulse surveys.
Asking staff a few questions about their experience sounds simple enough, but according to Fiona Scullion, lead people scientist, APAC customer division, at employee analytics company Culture Amp, it’s not quite that easy.
What is a pulse survey?
Scullion says a common mistake HR professionals make is not understanding the difference between a pulse survey and polling. Conducting short weekly surveys is polling, she says.
“Examples where human resources or organisations more broadly might use polling is around asking employees how they feel about immediate news or changes in the moment,” says Scullion.
‘Pulsing’ is more in-depth and commonly related to a particular topic. “Pulse surveys usually have between five to 15 questions and ideally take less than five minutes. They’re usually used to get a sense of employee sentiment around something. It could be engagement or wellbeing, or it might be following up on a full employee survey.”
There’s also a difference between how the data is collected. With polling, organisations might use more social platforms, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. The information is collected immediately and generally requires little interpretation.
Pulse survey data collection takes longer, depending on your organisation’s size and type.
“You might leave your pulse open for only a week if it’s a corporate environment and everyone is on their emails all the time,” says Scullion. “If it’s a more casual workforce or shift workers, you might leave it open for one or two weeks to capture everyone. It really depends on your audience.”
Commonly, pulse surveys are repeated over time to track sentiment, although that’s not always the case. Scullion says it’s a more powerful way to understand how employees are actually feeling.
“Some pulses may be a moment in time. But ideally, you want to track over time because one point is not enough. You need to see how things ebb and flow in an organisation, or in employee sentiment and wellbeing.”
What should you ask?
Before you decide what to ask your employees, you need to ask yourself a few questions, says Scullion.
“Why are you conducting a pulse? What is the purpose? How does that align with other things going on in your business?”
Then you need to consider what kind of questions you plan to ask and the type of data you want to collect. Data can usually be split into two types: quantitative and qualitative.
You can find a sample pulse survey template on the AHRI COVID-19 Resources website.
Quantitative questions are used to measure specific areas of employee experience. These can be in the form of a rating scale or multi-select. Though this can sound dry, quantitative questions can cover a range of topics from basic employment information to in-depth psychological data – all that matters is that answers can be numerically measured. An example of a quantitative question, she says, could be, “How often do you feel stressed at work? Often, sometimes or never?”
“Quantitative questions are really powerful because they give you the sentiment and are easier to digest,” says Scullion.
On the other hand, qualitative questions are open-ended and often centre on opinions or feelings. An example of this type of question might be, “What causes you to feel stressed in the workplace?”
Due to their open-ended nature, answers can range from a single word to full paragraphs. This makes them more difficult to measure when interpreting your data.
“Comments can be really powerful, but they do take twice as long to process. They typically skew to being about an area for improvement, so they can be sightly negative, but can generate awesome data if used correctly.”
For this reason, Scullion suggests leaning more towards quantitative questions.
“If you’re going to do a 15 to 20-question pulse, I would say probably 80 per cent of the survey should be quantitative. Then you could have the option for open-ended questions at the end to get some rich data.
“If you’re going to go out with more than 50 per cent open-ended questions, you really should be doing a focus group or something more consultative.”
How should you use the data?
You should approach a pulse survey with the intent to act on the information you collect, says Scullion.
“Just because you pulse four times a year, that doesn’t mean you’re going to move the dial on employee sentiment,” she says.
“[That will] depend on actually closing the loop and acting on the feedback.”
Scullion calls it “continuing listening” when employers pulse responsibly and use the data to improve systems or make changes. Pulse surveys are a two-way conversation, to keep that conversation going you need to respond.
“Pulsing too often, or just pulsing with no intention of acting on the information, is something that can lead to the opposite, to continuous ignoring.”
Scullion says acting quickly is even more important in the current business climate as employee wellbeing is much more volatile. However, it shouldn’t just be the HR team that reacts to the data.
“To empower managers and their employees to work on owning the feedback is really important. That’s what really helps grow your feedback muscle.”
HR professionals need to consider who should see the data they collect. Scullion advises transparency, but says you may need to tailor reports to different audiences.
“For an executive team, you might decide to show them all the results and your analysis.”
“If you’re going down to middle management, you might decide we want to set them up for success and avoid analysis paralysis, so you might just give them the key insights. You want to guide them to action and not get lost in the analysis.”
Ultimately, pulse surveys are a powerful tool, says Scullion and when done correctly, they can be of great benefit to your organisation.
This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of HRM magazine.