How to Make Better Employee Pulse Surveys | Bonfyre

How to Make Better Pulse Surveys (And Employee Pulse Survey Questions Too)

5 min

An employee pulse survey is a great way to quickly take the temperature of your employees and track your progress towards strategic goals.

When deployed to the right people at the right time, a well-designed pulse survey can help identify employees’ mobilization around key areas in the company, common pain points at work, employees’ feelings of satisfaction, and more.

But not all pulse surveys are created equally. In my experience, there are a handful of rules and best practices that separate good surveys from bad ones. By working through the following questions ahead of time, you’ll make better pulse surveys (and employee pulse survey questions) and maximize the impact of your feedback efforts.

When should I make an employee pulse survey?

One of the biggest issues with pulse surveys is leaders often don’t know the right reasons for making one. Every employee pulse survey should have a clear purpose. If you can’t explain what the survey is for or how it’s relevant to participants’ jobs, chances are you’re making a frivolous and confusing poll. You’ll also end up with a data set of responses that reflects this confusion.

It’s a good idea to communicate your expectation for the survey to employees up front, too. Letting participants know the survey’s purpose, what you plan on doing with the data, as well  things like the estimated time it takes to fill out, helps them give you better answers.

Related: Creating a Company Culture Where Everyone Has A Voice Matters

How specific should my employee pulse survey questions be?

Set your employees (and yourself) up for success by asking questions that will give you the exact data you want. There’s a big difference between a question like “What did you think of the event?” and “Did you enjoy the keynote speaker, yes or no?” The first option can potentially invite any number of opinions both wanted and unwanted about the event experience. The second option solicits an explicit type of feedback for highly-specific element of the event.

Vague, ambiguous, and open-ended employee pulse survey questions present numerous problems. The vaguer the question, the harder it is for employees to give direct feedback. Employees often won’t want to take the time to decipher what you’re asking (and if they don’t know what you’re asking, they won’t be inclined to answer you).

If you do get a high-volume of well-worded responses, the significant time it takes to digest and synthesize useful insights from them may be more trouble than it’s worth. Open-ended employee pulse survey questions are fine if you’re explicitly looking for anecdotal quotes, but it’s much harder to get a consensus from them that will guide business decisions.

How frequently should I send out a pulse survey?

Not as frequently as you’d think. It may sound like this one’s going against the benefits of “continuous feedback.” After all, don’t you want as much data on your employees as you can possibly collect? Well, if you bring your partner flowers home every day, they might be delighted by the attention at first. But over time, they’re not going to have the same impact as that first time. Worse, if they do like them, then you’re going to need a plan to take care of all the flowers piling up in the house.

Likewise, at first you might find employees are eager to participate in a weekly survey, but after a while the pulse check will become regularly-scheduled noise many will tune out. And if they do participate at high levels, you’ll need a plan to manage and interpret the high level of data you’re constantly receiving.

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To keep your survey participation rates high (and keep from getting overwhelmed), deploy them at appropriate moments. If you’re trying to improve your all-employee meetings, get a pulse check just before or after your gatherings. If you want to a sense for how departments are delivering on key quarterly priorities, survey at key intervals that allow time for agile adjustment if necessary.

Should someone review the pulse survey before I send it?

If you make your survey in a vacuum it is going to suck like a vacuum. It is always wise to get a second set of eyes on your survey questions.

It doesn’t matter who you are–you could have a Phd. in survey design–we all fall prey to our own blind spots and shortcomings from time to time. A question that sounds clear and direct to you may come across as anything but to someone else.

Review your questions with a handful of people before you distribute the survey. Yes, this will be a little more work. But if you skip this step and the audience does not give you the feedback you wanted because the survey design was confusing, you wasted everyone’s time, including your own.

How much should I communicate about the employee pulse survey?

Just because you’ve sent a pulse survey out into the world, doesn’t mean it will be successful. While there will always be those go-getters who participate the second they get the notification, you’ll need to nurture those less enthusiastic employees.

Leverage communication around the survey to give employees the tiny pushes and nudges they need to use the tool. Emails, social platforms, verbal reminders–every little bit helps get your participation rates up.

Reminders and reinforcement especially needs to come from leaders. Communication from leaders and managers (anyone you could consider your “boss” really) will help drive home the value and importance of providing that feedback, and make employees much more likely to participate.

Can I confront employees over their responses?

This one might sound obvious and yet companies still struggle with it. There will be times when you receive results from an employee pulse survey that will surprise, and maybe even upset you. But retaliating against employees for answers you don’t like is never the solution.

Abusing the data and information employees give you–especially when given in confidence–is the surest way to erode organizational trust and never get another honest response in your surveys again.

How do I know when I have bad data?

The goal with any survey is to get the highest amount of participation possible. But while 100% participation is a survey admin’s dream, those dreams rarely become a reality. And because pulse surveys are not run scientifically, it can be hard to tell when you received enough responses that are representative of your participant base.

Conventional wisdom suggests that “some data is better than no data.” But be careful not to let the voices of the few speak over a silent many. If you have only ten responses on a survey distributed to hundreds of employees, that information might not be useless but it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. There’s no shame in throwing out bad or under-representative data. In fact, it’s encouraged.

What do I do with the response data?

Survey data will only be useful if you actually do something with it. You’d think that every good survey would lead to employee-informed decisions, but many lead to a dead end with leaders. Even when your data isn’t as useful as you hoped, there are still ways to keep your survey efforts from becoming a sunk cost.

When appropriate, share your results with employees. Too many times, the results from a survey are read behind closed doors. This lack of follow through is bad because it winds up stifling future survey efforts. Employees will get frustrated because they won’t understand why they participated or why their data was useful.

Whether your data is actionable or not, let participants know what you did. That transparency helps employees understand why certain decisions are being made and why their participation is valuable. If your survey isn’t already anonymous (and it should be because that’s how you’ll get honest answers), make sure you take employee names off the results you make public to keep participants comfortable. 

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