Employee Engagement

5 Misconceptions About Employee Pulse Survey Tools

February 21, 2023
March 8, 2024
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

Facing tight budgets and lean economic times, HR teams are having to do more with less to ensure engaged, high-performing teams and employees, winning cultures, and strong retention rates. Yet, in 2021, employee engagement rates dropped for the first time in a decade, and Gallup’s recently released 2022 employee engagement numbers reveal just one in three employees are engaged at work. Tools like pulse surveys can help you monitor employee engagement in real time.

Key Takeaways

  • Engagement and pulse surveys are fundamentally different.
  • Pulse surveys are short and track engagement in real time.
  • Most pulse surveys are conducted weekly or biweekly.
  • HR teams can automate pulse surveys.
  • Pulse questions don’t have to be evergreen.
  • Include comment boxes for additional insight.

Understanding Pulse Surveys and Debunking 5 Myths About Them

Pulse surveys are a critical tool for gauging employee sentiment and surfacing key areas of opportunity to boost engagement levels, yet misconceptions about them abound. At some organizations, HR teams use the term pulse survey to refer to any survey that takes place at the midpoint between employee engagement surveys. But in this article we’ll use the term pulse survey to describe a short survey of 1-5 questions that is sent to a random sampling of the company based on your cadence. Below we use real-life applications and examples to dispel five commonly held misconceptions about pulse surveys.

Myth 1: Pulse surveys are mini engagement surveys. 

While employee engagement surveys and pulse surveys are both effective tools for gathering feedback, they differ fundamentally in their format, cadence, and what they’re trying to achieve. 

Much like the practice of continuous feedback bridges the communication gap between performance reviews, pulse surveys fill in the space between long-form engagement surveys to collect feedback and provide an ongoing read of employee sentiment. 

Engagement surveys are the chance to dive deeper into topics and unearth more comprehensive feedback from respondents, while pulse surveys provide a more timely snapshot of employee satisfaction and engagement in the moment. Even so, pulse surveys are meant to give people teams a gradual read on employee sentiment by measuring it regularly, not a real-time take at the moment of your choosing.

There will be times when it’s necessary for people teams to get an in-the-moment read of what’s happening across the company. In these cases, it’s preferable to send out a traditional survey to the entire workforce rather than launch a pulse survey. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main differences between the two survey types. 

Engagement Surveys: 

  • Engagement surveys are data-rich surveys that uncover actionable insights to identify areas of opportunity to improve performance or the employee experience. HR teams use engagement surveys to create action plans based on the data surfaced by the survey.
  • Engagement surveys require buy-in and strategy from across the organization. Their formal nature makes them less nimble in this way.

Pulse Surveys:

  • Pulse surveys are short, recurring mini-surveys that help HR track real-time employee sentiment at the organization in between engagement surveys. 
  • They tend to have much higher participation rates because of their concise and digestible nature, and the fact that they can be tailored to be hyper-relevant. The more a survey reflects the changes or shifts happening in an organization, the more likely employees will be to participate in it. 

Myth 2: Pulse surveys and engagement surveys need to run on similar cadences. 

Engagement surveys and pulse surveys differ greatly when it comes to survey cadence, the combination of survey frequency, and the number of questions each contains.

Engagement surveys are long-form surveys that are usually held on a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis — though we recommend using them more frequently than once a year. Pulse surveys are short, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly surveys that provide insight on the real-time status of employee engagement. 

The majority of Lattice users choose to send pulse surveys out on a weekly basis. Here’s the breakdown, per our internal data

  • Weekly: 41%
  • Bi-Weekly: 35%
  • Monthly: 24%

Determining the right cadence for your pulse surveys is more of an art than a science. As you decide on the right cadence for your organization, consider:

  1. Response rates. Response rates matter because they affect margin of error. You’ll need to decide what margin of error you’re comfortable with in order to determine your target response rate. If you’re not hitting your target response rate, consider pulsing less frequently as survey fatigue may be affecting results. 
  2. Number of survey questions. Including more questions increases the risk of survey fatigue. If you’re sending pulse surveys on a weekly basis, people teams can benefit from keeping pulse surveys short and to the point. 
  3. Speed at which you want to collect feedback and gather data. Especially during shifts or periods of change, HR may want to get a quick read on how employees are handling the situation as compared to baseline employee engagement. In this case, conducting more frequent pulse surveys lets HR gauge how things are going for employees. 
  4. Tolerance for margin of error. The lower the response rate, the higher the margin of error, especially when your headcount is lower. To boost participation rates and therefore accuracy, try a less frequent cadence. 

Myth 3: Sending bi-weekly pulse surveys is a lot of work. 

Engagement surveys are infrequent deep dives to unearth areas for opportunity and involve an “all hands on deck” approach across HR and leadership. Even with employee engagement software, launching an engagement survey is a big undertaking that usually involves a communication strategy to increase buy-in from employees, manager involvement to boost participation rates, and a post-survey communication plan for sharing survey results and incorporating insights, among other initiatives. 

On the other hand, HR can launch pulse surveys independently and easily automate them. Designed as a nimble tool for HR, pulse surveys are a way to track employee sentiment over time in a hands-off way. People professionals may be surprised to learn that pulsing on a regular basis is more of a set-it-and-forget-it action than anything else. After HR teams add questions to the pulse pool, the software automatically sends the survey out to a random sampling of employees at the right time. 

Myth 4: Pulse survey questions need to be evergreen.

After HR teams decide on a cadence by selecting the frequency and number of questions, and add a range of questions across the topics they want to cover to a centralized pool, the employee engagement platform sends pulses out regularly to a random sliver of the workforce to keep pulses running in the background. 

But just because automation is at play doesn’t mean all questions must be evergreen. System administrators can and should add topical questions into the mix, especially if there’s a big shift going on, like recent restructuring or a merger. Pulse survey software like Lattice makes it easy to add, remove, or temporarily pause certain questions to reflect what’s happening in the organization or the world around us. 

With Lattice, questions are fully customizable, but HR doesn’t need to be too worried about asking the “right questions.” Pulse surveys are limited to 1-5 questions, so the software will cycle through all questions in the pool over time. 

Timeless questions are important, but not the only category of question to include. Let’s look more closely at the three categories of questions you should ask on a pulse survey.

1. Timeless Topics

These are the most telling measures of employee engagement and are usually well-represented on engagement surveys. Because these topics are such strong indicators of employee engagement, it’s important to pulse on them regularly to ensure you’re not missing any downward trends. That being said, the more regularly you’re sending out engagement surveys — like quarterly in place of annually — the less you need to pulse on these topics. Timeless questions can be broken down into two buckets: tactical and non-tactical. 

Tactical questions help you understand roadblocks to employee engagement. Questions revolve around tools and resources, manager effectiveness, and a feedback culture

Non-tactical questions help you prioritize elements of company culture or the employee experience to invest in, like fit and belonging or psychological safety.

2. Initiatives and Projects

These questions measure employee sentiment on initiatives, projects, and organizational priorities to help you observe how changes impact the employee experience in real time. Pulsing on them provides data on how people are responding to such actions, and it communicates that the organization values employee input on these matters. These questions are a way of telling employees, “This is something you’ve told us we need to fix, and it’s important enough to us to follow up on it,” or “We know there are big changes happening, and we value your employee feedback.” Questions on initiatives and projects can reflect organizational priorities or engagement survey action plans.

Organizational priorities questions collect data on employee sentiment related to topics or initiatives that affect employees, like a new diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) program, adjustments to healthcare offerings, or a shift in strategy to support expansion into new markets.

Engagement survey action plan questions gather intel on initiatives the organization launched to address employee feedback that surfaced during an engagement survey. Questions may ask about a new initiative to increase belonging or improve corporate communications, as examples. 

3. Timely Topics 

These are topics that arise from unforeseen changes or challenges in the organization or the world around you. It’s imperative to measure the impact of these timely events to ensure employees have what they need to remain productive and keep performing at a high level despite turbulence. Questions on timely topics are internal or external. 

Internal timely topics would be recent restructuring, a merger, or the transition to hybrid work, for example. 

External timely topics could include social justice movements, the global pandemic, or economic uncertainty. 

Myth 5: Your pulse strategy can't be changed mid-flight. 

If the pulse survey strategy you’ve implemented isn’t yielding the participation and response results you’re after, don’t be afraid to pivot. Some people think they can’t adjust their pulse strategy once surveys are up and running, but adding, removing, or pausing questions and adjusting the cadence of surveys is a smart way to move closer to the results you’re after. But while changing your survey strategy to improve accuracy and participation is recommended, doing so to alter the narrative of results isn’t. If pulse survey results are conveying unfavorable employee sentiment, be sure to investigate further and act on the information, not simply change pulse survey questions. 

Because response rate, margin of error, and survey accuracy are all intrinsically linked, fine-tuning your pulse survey strategy can help you elicit more responses to stay within Lattice’s recommended margin of error of about 5%. Based on your headcount, HR teams can use this suggested margin of error to calculate the response rate they need to hit. While you can’t force people to respond, you can tinker with the number of questions, frequency, or format to hit your target response rate while maintaining accuracy.

Graph showing statistical accuracy of a survey. Statistical accuracy increases alongside response rate, though is less affected by response rate once headcount swells beyond 500.
We recommend aiming for a margin of error that’s 5% or less. The number of response rates needed to meet that margin of error gets proportionally smaller as the size of your headcount increases.

If you have an acceptable participation rate (the percentage of employees who begin the survey) but a poor response rate (the number of responses you get in proportion to the number of questions) you may want to reduce the number of questions on the pulse survey. In this case, employees are willing to start the survey but many fail to finish it, indicating that it could be too long. 

The format of your questions will determine whether you collect quantitative or qualitative data. Yes/no questions provide clear, straightforward answers from employees, while Likert scales and rating systems offer more nuanced responses. For example, use the Likert scale when pulsing on employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), as this question is designed to divide employees into one of three categories: promoters, passives, and detractors. 

Consider providing comment boxes that encourage respondents to express themselves in their own words, which can surface hyper-specific insight. Lattice Pulse integrates with Slack and makes it easy for HR teams to set up this feature to hear directly from employees themselves. 

Employee feedback and insight support organizations in performing at a higher level. But engagement surveys alone don’t cut it when it comes to keeping tabs on employee engagement and sentiment. Pulse surveys provide a consistent, real-time read to measure impact and identify areas for opportunity to keep organizations and their workforces at their best. 

Lattice’s pulse surveys are easy to create, launch, and measure, so HR teams can drive action and measure impact across the employee experience. Schedule a demo to learn more about Lattice Engagement today.