Employee surveys: To pulse or not to pulse?

Survey technology has evolved to enable companies to design and deploy simple online surveys and receive reports quickly, and because of this, there has been growing desire to conduct pulse surveys.

If you believe mainstream media, the traditional annual employee survey is dead. So, to keep gauging employee opinion, it seems the answer to our question ‘to pulse or not to pulse’ is resounding. Yes, we should.

Or should we?

Let’s review key considerations about pulsing and describe three kinds of pulse surveys based on definitions of the term pulse – which I describe as the medical pulse, the burst pulse and the rhythm pulse. Each pulse approach has implications for the population surveyed, the kind of questions asked, the frequency of measurement and the level of reporting.

What is a pulse survey?

A pulse survey is a simple measure taken periodically, based on a well understood relationship of the measure to overall organisation health

The term pulse survey is being applied pretty indiscriminately to an incredibly diverse range of surveys, which vary in length, focus, frequency, question type and reporting depth. So when you say pulse what do you really mean?

Medical “pulse”?

Let’s look at the medical definition of the term,

Pulse (noun) – A rhythmical throbbing of the arteries as blood is propelled through them, typically as felt in the wrists or neck.

Pulse measurement has evolved from something taken periodically by a doctor in a check-up, to something monitored by a coach during training by an athlete, to something we track ourselves continuously, using a smart device on our own wrist. But we need to ask ourselves: what is done with the information, and who acts on it?

As the measurement has changed so has what is done with the information, and who acts on it.

The pulse is an indicator of a person’s wellbeing, based on a clear understanding of how it relates to heart health, behaves in the presence of infection, dehydration, and so on. Medical experts glean a level of insight from not just the number of the pulse, but the other data they collect at the same time, while non-experts have a much more superficial understanding based on the number alone or the trend of the number.

If a pulse survey was aligned to the medical definition of a pulse, we would see a simple measure taken periodically, based on a well understood relationship of what it means to overall organization health.

This reflects what I think of as a ‘tracking pulse’- a short survey based on key drivers of engagement, or critical questions that have demonstrated links to organization performance in:

  • safety (Total Recordable Injury Frequency)
  • customer (e.g., loyalty, satisfaction)
  • financial (e.g., revenue, share of wallet)
  • or other business metrics

This kind of pulse tracks performance or progress (elsewhere we have called these progress checks) at the business unit or organization level and could be based on a sample of employees rather than a census.

Other definitions of “pulse”?

“Issue” and “sentiment” pulses can be targeted at varying levels in the organisation from overall to team

Other kinds of surveys can also be termed ‘pulse’ surveys, and perhaps align more closely with different definitions of pulse:

A single vibration or short burst of sound, electric current, light, or other wave


A musical beat or other regular rhythm

These kinds of pulse surveys get feedback on a single organizational issue –a burst of sound; or may try to trend the ongoing rhythm of the organization the beat or rhythm. I describe these types as “initiative” and “sentiment” pulses and they can be targeted at varying levels in the organization, from overall to team specific.

A final note on the kinds of pulses, each kind will have associated with it an ideal frequency of surveying, related to the time it takes for the underlying experience to change. Organizational change takes time so a Progress Check should be periodic – 6 monthly; an Initiative check could be once off, or perhaps repeatedly quarterly as in the case of an Integration pulse during a merger; a sentiment check tracks a highly variable experience so could be undertaken monthly or quarterly.

What do you want to achieve?

I have identified just three kinds of pulses here, but there are potentially many more. When I work with clients looking to implement pulse surveys, I always start with getting a clear answer to one question – what is the purpose of the measurement? Or, more simply, what will it do for your organization?

That answer will enable us to decide what to measure, how to measure, when, who and what will happen with the results, and expectations of follow on actions. This clarity is exceptionally important, but sadly often lacking, in thinking about pulse surveys.

If we come back to our medical analogy:

  • Is your pulse survey designed to provide information to the organization “doctor” – human resources, or the executive team?
  • Is it informing the “coach” about performance – the business leaders?
  • Or is it providing feedback to the captain on how a team is doing– the supervisor or manager?

So, ‘to pulse or not to pulse’? We recommend ‘to pulse’, but make sure that your pulse approach delivers the right information to the right people to support your improvement actions. If it’s only about collecting measurement and doesn’t inform action, your pulse survey will soon lose its credibility with your people.


Guest blogger Adam Hall is a Director in Willis Towers Watson’s Talent & Reward business, based in Melbourne Australia. He has 17  years’ experience in management and human capital consulting, helping clients define and develop the culture that will support their business strategy.

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