You might find it difficult to believe, but the annual employee survey is almost a hundred years old! In the 1920s, big industrial companies began the practice of asking employees, once a year, about their job satisfaction to search for ways to improve productivity. One time a year was how frequent employee surveys were sent.
The so-called “attitude survey” was developed further during World War II, as a tool for measuring morale among the troops.
Needless to say, working environments have changed dramatically since. In the twenty-first century, every aspect of business moves at lightning speed. Besides, voluntary job changes are widespread. Thus, employee engagement becomes mission-critical.
Until a few years ago, the annual survey remained the only tool used by most businesses to measure the level of engagement amongst their employees.
Now business owners want to seek actionable information in near-real time rather than relics left over from months ago. They aim to open new lines of team communication, improve retention, and boost productivity. With these increasing needs and new usage, the time has come to take a fresh look at employee engagement survey and its frequency.
Communication - The Key to Employee Engagement
There isn’t much debate anymore about the importance of employee engagement. As noted in an ADP Research Institute white paper on employee engagement, the 2011 Corporate Leadership Council HR Engagement Research Survey found that performance against revenue expectations was 23% greater for companies with high employee engagement than those with a lower level. Since then, there have been similar findings from other sources.
At the most basic level, engaged employees are less likely to leave the company and often contribute more. A culture of engagement saves money, thanks to a lower turnover, and makes money from increased more productivity. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report for 2017, more than 30% of American workers are significantly engaged. That's not a small number, but it's still less than a third of the workforce. There is plenty to be done!
One important driver of engagement is the extent to which employees feel their input is valued. Another factor is the nature and frequency of communication.
According to the Gallup report, just 17% of employees agree that their businesses have open communication. Think about it. If you are sending out a long survey once a year to ask about your employee engagement, will that action not convince them otherwise?
In fact, Deloitte’s 2017 report on Global Human Capital Trends emphasises the importance of regular pulse surveys in expanding the engagement toolkit and improving lines of communication.
Employee Survey Frequency: Annual vs. Periodically
Here's an idea:
An annual employee survey is a lot like an annual physical exam.
Once a year, it's helpful and necessary to get a thorough check-up on a broad range of health factors.
Is that, though the only time you need to pay attention to your health? Or should you give the most valuable possession of yours (i.e., your health) some thoughts throughout the year?
Pulse surveys, on the other hand, check in with employees on a regular basis. It gathers information about attitudes, ideas, and concerns soon as they arise. You can do this in many different ways, but the overall goal of the increased frequency is to “take the pulse” of an organisation.
The pulse surveys complement, yet do not replace, the annual survey. Instead, their findings provide actionable information more quickly. Such value is becoming more apparent over the time. Companies can carry out pulse surveys for a wide variety of purposes. Engagement experts Annamarie Mann and Jim Harter, for example, identify four key uses for pulse surveys: recalibration, diagnosis, monitoring, and creating momentum.
That is to say that there is no single approach to how pulse survey works successfully in an organisation. How frequent you "take the pulse" depends on the conditions of your business.
Before making the choice of frequency, let's have a closer look at both ends of the scale.
The Difference Between Annual and Pulse Surveys
The most obvious answer is that pulse surveys are shorter and more frequent. “Shorter” can, however, mean anywhere from one question to twenty or more. By the same token, being “frequent” vary from weekly to quarterly and anything in-between.
Pulse surveys are narrowly targeted—focusing on a particular issue, or a subset of employees—while the annual versions are typically intended to poll all or most employees across a broad range of subjects.
As the latter is usually long, full of questions that may not seem immediately relevant, it often results in a relatively low level of participation.
An annual survey typically gives business owner essentially a one-time snapshot of how employees felt at some point in time. That information has some values in long-term organisational strategy. Can it help to discover problems as they emerge, or track trends as they shift? Unlikely!
Short and targeted pulse surveys take less time to complete and stay relevant.
Thus, participation is likely to be higher. It’s also more feasible to conduct pulse surveys amongst a smaller group.
As Ryan Fuller explains in the Harvard Business Review, annual reviews tend to measure how engaged employees perceive themselves to be, while pulse surveys have a better chance of finding out how engaged they really are.
Finally, it takes longer to analyse the results of an annual survey. Then the information is usually put into a big document that few people have the time or motivation to read. By contrast, HR can collect the results of a pulse survey quickly, and share it compactly. In some cases, it’s the difference between a fifty-page report and a half-dozen bullet points!
Do You Need Both?
There have been quite a few headline articles about the demise of the annual employee survey, and some organisations have completely abandoned it in favour of other tools. Most companies, with Google offering a great example, understand the benefits of combining a comprehensive, strategic annual survey with targeted and tactical pulse surveys. The once-a-year assessments offer the opportunity to ask big questions while pulse surveys can quickly reveal trends during the year, and provide actionable information in real time.
Besides, the two formats can complement each other if being used correctly. For example, issues that emerge while you "take the pulse" can be investigated in-depth with the year-end survey. On the other hand, pulse surveys can be used to follow up on information derived from the annual report of the previous year.
By linking the two, employers signal to employees that the organisation is taking their contributions seriously. People who spent time giving their opinion will appreciate seeing their input used. That may lead to an increase in participation. After all, who wants to spend time on something that just disappears into a black hole?
Getting Employee Survey Frequency Right
Pulse surveys have its merits, right?
However, they only work if they are used in the right way.
Is there’s no magic formula for determining how often to conduct pulse surveys, or what kind of questions to ask?
Unfortunately, there isn't.
Here are some factors you need to consider:
The most obvious one is probably the company culture. A nimble and active culture might benefit from weekly surveys. On the other hand, a culture that emphasises stability and continuity would be better off if surveying quarterly.
You need to avoid survey fatigue: more is not necessarily better!
Employees will start to tune out or even resent answering questionnaires that seem to come along as often as city buses.
Many organisations have a rhythm of work that needs to be considered in scheduling surveys.
For example, some companies are very busy at the end of a month. Therefore, sending out polls weekly or fortnightly would not work very well, since you might catch your staff when they are already overloaded. If you, however, time a monthly survey in the middle of a month, it could work. Employees have more bandwidth available, and they are more willing to giving their opinions.
Companies with well-established engagement practices might need fewer surveys than ones just starting to work on the matter.
On the other hand, if some employees are resistant to the introduction of pulse survey, jumping right into it weekly or even monthly might be the wrong approach. Take a gradual approach and do it every quarter before moving on to monthly, and so on.
The Right Questions for Employee Surveys
Here's what you should know:
Employee survey frequency is just one aspect of the success equation.
It’s not only how often you ask, but also what is being asked.
Though no guidelines fit all organisations, following are a few best practices (and one pitfall):
Once a year, you carry out an assessment to look at broad issues. Therefore, the questions may be quite general. On a regular basis, you should ask about specific matters.
As mentioned above, a pulse survey can be used for a variety of purposes. Don't try to find a set of questions that fit all. Instead, make sure they align with a particular purpose.
A follow-up survey is usually designed to discover whether a project has been successful or a problem has been solved, so questions should be closely related to a central topic. By contrast, a survey designed to discover developing problems might ask about a range of different issues.
For this purpose, you can ask different versions of the same question in several surveys. If you circle back every month to the previously used questions, you can confirm a trend or find out how quickly it develops.
Are You Ready for Pulse Surveys?
It's a great tool, but it might not be right for every organisation at every stage. Needless to say, introducing pulse surveys at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, could have an adverse impact.
Like so many things in business, deciding when to start pulse surveys depends on intuition as much as analysis. That may be one reason why the 2017 Deloitte report found that only about 22% of companies check in with their employees quarterly or more often.
As long as employee engagement provides a competitive advantage, there’s certainly some room for growth in this area. The answers to these question might reveal whether your organisation is ready to take the plunge or not.
The practice of annual surveys
If your company is already conducting annual surveys, how well are they working?
Pulse surveys could be the way ahead if you answer with
- a high level of participation
- usage of findings
On the other hand, if the annual review is not very successful, it’s important to know what the problems are before adding the other format to the mix.
Is there a plan for information gathered through pulse surveys?
If you don't, your employees might think that you are wasting their time to follow the popular idea.
It’s significant to have a complete strategy in place before you start rolling out pulse surveys.
Other engagement practices
Are there other engagement practices already in place?
If there hasn’t been much communication going on in the organisation, suddenly introducing periodic surveys may come across as odd or even threatening.
In some cases, it might be best to pave the way with other outreach activities and add pulse surveys later on. However, other companies have seen success in using pulse surveys to jumpstart an engagement campaign.
Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts involved with tuning employee survey frequency to the perfect pitch. It will take some time and effort to get the most out of your survey strategy, and maybe some trial and error! But more and more companies are finding that a weekly, biweekly, monthly or quarterly survey approach can benefit employee engagement and improve organisational effectiveness.
If you are ready for pulse surveys, check out EngageRocket tool to set up and send them quickly and effortlessly.