In today’s disrupted business environment, there are many reasons to conduct pulse surveys. When well designed, they can generate valuable insights. But without a clearly defined research strategy, frequent pulsing can overwhelm managers and decrease employee engagement. If your organization is currently conducting pulses—or you are about to embark on a pulse survey campaign—it is critical you have a robust research strategy in place. We’ve found that reflecting on five critical questions can help.
1. What are your strategic priorities? If you want to design a powerful employee research program, start by focusing on your business priorities. What are the biggest challenges your organization is facing? What are your main strategic objectives? How efficiently is your organization operating? How effectively is your organization evolving? What are your main people priorities?
By exploring these questions before considering what items to include on a survey, you can ensure your research efforts align with organizational priorities. This information is the critical foundation for any successful employee research program, providing the basis for technical decisions about instrument design, sample selection, administration methods, and report planning.
2. Given your strategic priorities, what should your research agenda focus on? Many organizations assume the best approach to pulsing is to conduct a series of brief quarterly engagement surveys. We’ve found this approach often lulls leaders and managers into a false sense of security, mainly because engagement levels are high and stable in many organizations.
To help our clients clarify and define their research agenda, we ask them to focus on one single question: What do your leaders, managers, and employees need to learn right now to drive organizational performance? When our clients reflect on this question, they develop a clearer line of sight about what their most pressing organizational learning priorities are. Rather than chasing the latest construct, management fad, or survey solution, they focus their research efforts on the critical strategic, operational, people, and performance questions their organization needs to explore.
3. What research methods are best suited to answer your most critical questions? “How many questions should we ask? When should we ask them?” These are two common concerns that HR leaders have when designed pulse surveys. While both are critical, these shouldn’t be the first questions to consider.
Before determining survey length and cadence, it’s important to determine what type of assessment will generate the deepest insights. To produce high-quality research, there must be a fit between the method you use and the type of knowledge you’re seeking to generate. If you are exploring a new topic like employee experience, one that is just emerging and not well understood or well defined yet, qualitative methods (e.g., virtual focus groups, open ended surveys with natural language processing) may yield the best insights. But if you are trying to identify predictive relationships (e.g., what predicts employee turnover), careful measurement using validated scales is necessary.
When it comes to research, form must follow function. Different strategic questions require different research strategies; one assessment approach or survey instrument will not fit all topics. By evaluating your current level of knowledge about your topic of interest and thinking about the potential implications of your findings, you will be more likely to select a methodology that will best serve your research and your organization.
4. Who should you survey and when? Determining who should participate in your research—and when—is critical to any successful research campaign. Asking the right questions to the wrong people at the wrong time usually produces little more than low-quality data and a frustrated workforce. For example, asking new employees about their work experience too early (e.g., the end of their first day) or too late (e.g., the end of their first year) can greatly limit what your organization learns about the onboarding process.
The best employee pulse programs strike a balance between scientific rigor and real world practicalities. By envisioning the ideal research sample and cadence, and then considering the impact that your research program is going to have on participants and decision makers, you will be able to determine the most viable option for survey sampling and administration.
5. How will you turn data into insight and action? Surveys create expectations for change; employees expect something to happen as a result of providing feedback. If surveys don’t lead to insight and action, employees can quickly become disenchanted and disengaged. This means that if employees are asked for their feedback on a regular basis, leaders and managers must be prepared to respond in a timely fashion. Otherwise, your pulse program may backfire, ultimately eroding engagement by heightening expectations for action.
Many organizations spend too little time developing a pulse reporting strategy, assuming their traditional census survey reporting practices (e.g., deliver a standard report to all immediate managers who had five or more respondents) will work for their pulse survey program. That’s not always the case. For example, if you are trying to understand what makes new managers effective during their first year in role, a series of brief quarterly upward feedback pulse surveys could be deployed. But should you provide a report out to these new managers each quarter? That depends on your research goals. By thinking through the implications of who gets feedback when, you can ensure that your pulse reports are delivered to the right people at the right time.
If you are about to launch a pulse program, you are in a unique position to help your organization explore its most pressing people problems, performance challenges, and strategic priorities. But pulses are not a panacea. Without a clear plan in place, they can backfire, producing more noise than signal. Before conducting your next pulse, be sure you can answer each of the questions above. If you can’t, you may not be ready to launch a successful survey.