Employee Engagement

How to Get More Out of Employee Pulse Surveys

December 23, 2023
January 2, 2024
Manasi Patel
Lattice Team

If you’re in HR, almost everything you do is about improving and maintaining the health of your company and its people. But how can you ensure employees are supported with the resources they need to succeed if you don’t ask them what their pain points are?

To create a mindful and healthy workplace, your team needs to have its finger on the heartbeat of your organization. That’s where pulse surveys come in.


What are pulse surveys?

Pulse surveys are short, recurring mini-surveys that HR teams can use to get an idea of what's going on in real-time at the organization.

There are several ways HR teams can tap into their employees’ feedback, from onboarding surveys to DEIB surveys. But in recent years, pulse surveys have started to appear as a prominent new option for checking in with employees more regularly.

As the term “pulse” suggests, these more frequent surveys allow businesses to stay attuned to the collective heartbeat of the workforce and gauge changes in employee sentiment on issues like morale, benefits, job satisfaction, work-life balance, well-being, company culture, communication, and more.

Pulse Surveys vs. Engagement Surveys

At most organizations, semi-annual or annual engagement surveys are conventional methods for uncovering employee pain points and needs. While engagement surveys generally yield valuable information on how employees feel about the company overall, businesses still need a way to monitor employee satisfaction in real-time.

Pulse surveys allow HR teams to fine-tune their engagement survey action plan so businesses can stay on track and accountable for HR-driven initiatives. Some pulse survey strengths include:

  • Relevance: Pulse surveys tend to be focused on specific topics and can be turned around quickly in response to relevant issues. Having access to engagement levels earlier gives HR teams and leaders the ability to follow up before issues snowball into retention challenges.
  • Length: At 3-5 questions each, pulse surveys are generally much shorter than engagement surveys and may have higher response rates as a result. Integrating your pulse survey software with a communication tool like Slack makes it easier to answer these short surveys within the flow of daily work.
  • Continuity: Pulse surveys can be administered weekly, monthly, or at another cadence to bridge the gap between more extensive surveys and provide a continuous picture of progress. At fast-paced organizations, pulse survey results may serve as an early warning system for shifts in morale and engagement.

So, why can’t companies just use pulse surveys year-round? While pulse surveys provide valuable insights throughout the year, they aren’t meant to replace engagement surveys. Engagement surveys and pulse surveys are symbiotic, meaning that they boost each other’s effectiveness when used in conjunction.

Engagement surveys allow HR teams to develop action plans based on comprehensive employee insights, and pulse surveys support these action plans by allowing HR teams to keep tabs on new initiatives designed to address engagement problem areas. Simply put, if engagement surveys are implemented to kick off the feedback cycle, pulse surveys are there to close the loop.

Creating Effective Pulse Surveys

Pulse surveys are concise, meaning that every question included should add value. There are two reasons why you'd want to ask a question in a pulse survey: the first is to track progress on a specific initiative, which helps keep businesses accountable for their goals, and the second is to dig deeper into data from engagement survey(s) that may require further analysis.

Before determining which questions to ask in a pulse survey, HR teams and admins should consider the following:

  • What does leadership want to learn about employees?
  • Are there specific initiatives that need to be tracked?
  • What metrics are historically crucial for different teams?
  • Did any new topics surface in the last engagement survey?

After you’ve answered these questions, you can begin to narrow down the variables needed to capture a reasonably representative sample of your organization.

1. Survey Cadence

Pulse surveys are meant to be used more frequently than engagement surveys, but they shouldn’t be conducted so often that employees get survey fatigue. Survey frequency should always be a consideration when rolling out “pulses.”

One thing you should consider when choosing the cadence for your pulse surveys is historical participation rates. For example, if past surveys have yielded lower than 50% response rates, spacing out your pulse surveys might help boost participation. At the same time, you want to ensure your pulse survey data is still relevant before it becomes stale.

While the right cadence varies by company, it’s often recommended that companies roll out weekly pulse surveys to establish a solid baseline. Based on Lattice customer data, 41% of customers run their pulse surveys weekly, 35% use biweekly, and 24% use monthly cadences.

2. Margin of Error

In a best-case scenario, your pulse surveys will have a 100% response rate, and you can be 100% certain that your results are accurate. But what happens when less than 100% respond to a survey? How can you be sure that the results are accurate? With surveys, the question becomes, “What margin of error are you willing to accept in your results?”

A line graph showing how employee population and number of survey responses impacts survey margin of error.
When calculating your margin of error, consider both employee headcount and survey participation rates.

We recommend shooting for a margin of error around 5%. If your organization has 100 people, you would need a response rate of 80% to achieve a 5% margin of error rate. It’s also worth noting that as your organization’s headcount increases, you don't need as high of a response rate to maintain high accuracy.

3. Survey Scope

After a few rounds of pulse surveys, you should have targeted and timely data on a specific topic. But the more questions you try to cover in a series of surveys, the less effective your pulse will be. You don’t necessarily have control over the response rate, so the easiest way to ensure accuracy is to keep the number of overall questions in your question bank low. Consider starting with 10-15 questions and flexing up or down depending on response rates. This will keep you from getting into trouble with stale data.

Remember that this list only serves as a bank of questions to cycle through — employees shouldn’t be asked to weigh in on all of these survey questions with every pulse (more on this later).

Also, remember that pulse survey questions should apply to all your employees. For example, avoid including questions that might only apply to new hires or members of a particular team. Questions like those are better left to more targeted surveys, like an employee onboarding survey.

Sample Pulse Survey Questions

  • At [company name], my performance is evaluated fairly.
  • I am able to bring up a differing opinion or tough issue to my team.
  • I believe in the direction that our senior leadership is taking us.
  • I find my work to be a positive challenge.
  • I receive the necessary constructive feedback for my growth and development.
  • My manager helps me navigate barriers and roadblocks (e.g., insufficient resources, conflicting priorities) that prevent me from working effectively.
  • Senior leadership demonstrates a commitment to building diverse teams.
  • I am able to prioritize my most important and impactful work.
  • I can see myself growing and developing my career in this company.
  • I feel like I belong in this company.
  • I feel like I can be my authentic self at work.
  • I am able to effectively partner with cross-functional teams and colleagues.

4. Question Limit

You can also look at historical data to determine how many individual questions you should ask in each pulse survey check-in. If your past engagement surveys have high response rates for the first few questions but show a drop-off in later questions, that might be a strong case for shorter pulse surveys.

We recommend starting with a question limit of three, but this only works if you align your number of questions to your question limit. If you're pulling from a bank of 70 questions, it will take a long time to cycle through all of them with a question limit of three. As mentioned earlier, we suggest sticking to 10-15 possible questions. Sticking to the lower side will encourage people to respond to more questions overall.


5. Rating Scale

Depending on what types of questions you choose to include in your pulse surveys, data can be collected quantitatively or qualitatively.

The Likert scale sets guardrails that make employee surveys easier to complete and analyze. This scale asks survey-takers to respond to a prompt with one of five possible answers:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral 
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

Using the Likert scale makes collecting, analyzing, and subsequently acting on employee feedback easier. But consider using the Likert scale in conjunction with open-ended text responses for the best results. That will give you the quantitative data and allow employees to provide additional context for those responses. For instance, maybe a quarter of your employees feel anxious about the company’s future — written comments might shed light on exactly why that is.

In other words, while Likert-scale questions identify what your key problem areas are, open-ended questions help clarify the why behind them.

6. Anonymity Threshold

Giving your HR team, managers, and department leaders access to pulse results is important for action planning. However, protecting respondents’ anonymity is just as critical. Carefully consider the minimum number of direct reports a manager must have before accessing their anonymized pulse check or employee engagement survey results.

While setting a lower anonymity threshold (three or four direct reports) may help leaders on smaller teams gain actionable insights, doing so comes at a cost: Respondents may feel vulnerable or avoid answering your questionnaire honestly, fearing retaliation. Pulse survey software typically allows you to customize managers’ access to results. For instance, surveys in Lattice default the anonymity threshold to five direct reports — and won’t go any lower than three direct reports to protect employee anonymity.

Balancing all of these variables can be challenging, but these tips will set you up for success in using pulse surveys to gather actionable data about your organization. While engagement and midpoint surveys are a great starting point in building a robust engagement strategy, pulse surveys’ real-time data empowers HR teams to stay on track with ongoing initiatives.

Schedule a Lattice demo to see how pulse surveys can bridge the gap between employees and business decision-makers.

Key Takeaways

  • Employee pulse surveys allow businesses to keep a “pulse” on employee engagement in between larger surveys.
  • Pulse surveys complement, but don’t replace engagement surveys.
  • Most pulse surveys are three to five questions in length, pulling from a bank of 10-15 questions.
  • Questions can cover morale, belonging, psychological safety, and other elements of the employee experience.
  • Integrating your pulse survey tool with communication platforms like Slack may help boost survey responses.

“Lattice has become our early warning system. Because of our pulse and engagement surveys, we've been able to spot problems early and understand what's happening in the business before they become significant issues.”

Read the full story: How Lattice Helped Sensat Build People Processes at Scale