Pulse surveys, engagement surveys, employee surveys, oh my!

Over the last couple weeks, we have been posting non-stop about our new fave: employee pulse surveys.

We’ve given you the run-down on why they’re awesome, how to use them, the kinds of questions you should be asking, and how to use them to measure employee advocacy.

Download our Quickstart Guide to Pulse Surveys here.

But they aren’t the only employee survey in the game. You’re probably wondering how they’re different from the annual employee survey and which of the survey types you should be using.

Don’t worry, we’re going to show you how pulse surveys and annual employee surveys compare, their strengths, their weaknesses, and how they can work together to gather a ton of juicy data and foster higher employee engagement.

Which is better: annual employee surveys or pulse surveys?


Annual Employee Surveys Overview

What’s an Annual Employee Survey?

An annual employee survey is used by leadership to gain feedback and measure employee engagement, morale and performance.

Traditionally, these surveys are pretty long, and despite how many internal comms and human resources professionals tear them apart, annual employee surveys are the most widely used employee surveys.

One of the most popular annual employee surveys is the annual engagement survey.

A general baseline engagement survey is at least 50 questions. These surveys are usually not too difficult to answer for employees because the questions are mostly about how they feel, and the responses are usually collected through binary questions or on a scale.

How do Annual Employee Surveys work?

Annual employee surveys aim to provide a comprehensive report on a number of different organizational topics..

Primarily they aim to measure:

  • Employees’ feelings on working conditions, management, and motivation.

  • Job satisfaction, perceptions of compensation and benefits, perceptions of company policies, diversity, and causes of turnover or retention.

Annual employee engagement surveys measure employees emotional commitment to an organization, and measures those things most important to employee performance. They are often used to promote organizational change and support employee performance.

They do this by finding out:

  • If employees have the resources they need to do their jobs well
  • Whether they feel supported in their roles
  • How well they fit with their particular roles
  • How they feel about their workloads
  • Whether they find meaning and purpose in their work
  • If they feel recognized or feel like they are making an impact
  • If they feel empowered in their positions
  • If they feel they have opportunities to grow
  • How well they cooperate with others in their department, with their managers, and with other employees in the organization as a whole

Why are Annual Employee Surveys Great?

Well, they’re not.

Just kidding! Sort of…

In theory, they are fantastic because they:

  • Collect a lot of data from the entire population of an organization
  • Provide lots of feedback on many initiatives at once
  • Gather a wealth of data for deeper and wider analysis
  • Can unearth incredibly valuable data
  • Are great for creating baselines and goals while finding ways to make improvements

When they’re designed well, employee surveys are great because they have statistical validity, can gather critical data about the company’s employees, and can be used to back large-scale changes and improvements within the company.

Why They’re Not Always Awesome…

Annual employment surveys are easy to do poorly. For starters, most people don’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday, so accurately tracking and summing up their sentiments for the entire year in just one survey is just not going to happen.

Besides that obvious flaw, annual surveys tend to fall short in a number of ways:

  • They only use one data point to measure sentiment and stats for the entire year.

  • Because they aim to gather data on a large number of topics, they tend to be quite long, which discourages respondents from filling out the survey, or at least filling it out honestly.

  • They fail to keep up with how quickly organizations change, and therefore can fail to collect relevant or accurate data.

  • They are not done often enough to track flux, trends or proper correlations.

  • They don’t present a clear picture on pressing issues, are likely to miss issues that pop-up seasonally, and make it easy for topical or current issues to slip by.

  • Because they can be so long, it often takes time to analyze the data and draw significant insights.

  • And the longer it takes to analyze the data and get insights, the longer it will take to take action on the responses received from employees.

  • If there isn’t a plan in place to take action on the results, you risk making employees feel like they are not being heard or risk sending the message that you just don’t care about making their lives better. (Good luck getting them engaged in the future!)
  • And of course, if you are bad at incorporating feedback or making change, employees won’t see the point of the surveys and you may see a low response rate, inaccurate data, and worse engagement outcomes.



Employee Pulse Surveys Overview


What is an Employee Pulse Survey?

We covered the ins and outs of employee pulse surveys in this post, but here’s a quick refresher:

  • Pulse surveys are super short, super specific, super fun-to-do surveys focused on a single specific area for improvement.

  • They can be anywhere from 1-10 questions, so long as the survey takes less than 4 minutes to complete in its entirety.

  • We’re biased towards the ever-powerful one-question pulse survey because they are quick and effective.

Employee Net Promoter Score (or ENPS) Surveys are a good example of a one-question pulse engagement survey.

That’s right, a pulse survey can also be an engagement survey! Oh, the possibilities!

How do Pulse Surveys work?

  • They use 1-10 questions to pull relevant and timely data on employee sentiment, understanding and engagement.

  • They allow data-collectors to get insight on how employees are feeling in the moment about organizational changes, topical company news, and the effectiveness of training.

  • They also allow you to see engagement and sentiment throughout the year if you do them regularly enough.

Why are Pulse Surveys Great?

Pulse surveys are awesome because:

  • They provide timely info, accurate data, and generally elicit a high-response rate.
  • They are great listening tools that will help employees feel heard, cultivate a culture of growth and communication, and remind employees that management values their input.

  • They can be used as tools to aid, complement and measure large initiatives.

  • They provide feedback quickly, so that companies can react and respond to issues and take action immediately.

  • They are perfect for monitoring people metrics and can help create momentum in discussions and relevant topics for meetings.
  • They are wonderfully complementary to annual baseline surveys and provide data for trend-tracking and seasonal flux.

Why They’re Not Always Awesome...

  • You clearly cannot cover all the topics that an organization needs to cover to make critical decisions with just one question.

  • Like most surveys, pulse surveys are still susceptible to human error. If the questions are too leading, poorly written, or trying to jam too much into one question (making it too complex to answer well) you won’t be gathering good data.

  • For pulse surveys to do what they are supposed to do, they absolutely have to be paired with action. Asking questions that you have no intention of acting on once you gather feedback will undermine any engagement you were trying to cultivate with these surveys.

  • If the questions are random, not relevant, or not goal-focused, they will just annoy people rather than engage them or provide valuable insight.

  • And finally, if you have not explained to employees how these surveys work or how they will be used, people will be confused about their relevance and may not think to answer.

What kind of employee survey should I be using?



Good question.

We’re not going to tell you that you should chuck out annual surveys and only use pulse surveys in your organization. Annual employee surveys do have a time and a place. Instead, we recommend a combination of annual surveys and pulse surveys, with an emphasis on frequent pulse survey because:

  • Basing policy, focus or communication on one survey per year is just a bad idea (You wouldn’t just ask your spouse just once per year if things were going okay, or just check your finances once per year, would you?)

  • Without mechanisms for regular feedback, you risk disengaging employees, ignoring big problems that have just come up.

  • Your employees will not feel heard if you don’t make a habit of asking them for feedback.
  • The formality and length of the annual survey doesn’t lead to immediate results.

Whatever survey style or combination thereof you choose to use in your organization, your success or failure will ride on your survey design, including: how good the questions you ask are, how good your data are, how quickly you are able to interpret the data, and how well you are able to follow-up with employees.

If you can manage to balance all of these survey elements, and pair them with data-driven action, you’ve got a recipe for employee satisfaction, better employee outcomes, and success.