Pulsing with a purpose: 5 considerations for effective employee engagement surveys

June 30, 2021

Organizations are increasingly using pulse surveys to complement or replace their annual employee engagement survey.

While an annual employee engagement survey is of value, modern organizations need to be listening to employees more than once a year. An employee pulse survey can fill that gap by generating real-time insights on a quarterly, monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.

Leaders, managers, and HR professionals can use these short assessments to better understand employee engagement, core concerns, performance barriers, and emerging organizational problems.

But many organizations are pulsing without a plan, assuming that more employee feedback will lead to better insights, management, and performance.

This is problematic, as frequent pulsing that's not guided by a well-designed research strategy can actually overwhelm leaders and managers and decrease employee engagement due to survey fatigue.

If your organization is currently conducting pulses - or you are about to embark on a pulse survey campaign - it's important to utilize pulse survey best practices as part of a well-thought-out plan.

Let's take a look at five critical questions to consider before launching your next survey.

1. What are your strategic priorities?

The work world has become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous over the past two decades.

Recent Mercer data shows:

  • Thirty percent of employees said they don’t have a clear sense of where their organization is headed.
  • Thirty-two percent reported feeling a lack of confidence in their organization’s ability to adapt to external changes.
  • Forty-four percent said they don’t have a solid understanding of their future career path.

Because of this, many leaders are attempting to gather feedback on an ongoing basis with the hope of gaining actionable insight into employee sentiment.

Before diving in with pulse surveys, though, it's important that leaders focus on organizational priorities.

Consider the following questions:

  • What are the biggest internal and external challenges your organization is facing?
  • What are your main strategic priorities and challenges?
  • How effectively is your organization changing and evolving?
  • What are your main people priorities?

By exploring these questions - before even considering what items to include on a pulse survey - you can narrow the focus to what feedback you need to learn from your employees.

2. What should your research agenda focus on?

Once you’ve identified your priorities, the next step is to develop a research agenda that will shed light on your most important strategic questions.

To develop a clear research agenda, explore the following topics.

What are your organization’s most critical knowledge gaps?

What do your leaders, managers, and employees need to understand in order to perform better?

A data-based SWOT analysis can allow you to identify your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Organizations often feel inclined to focus on weaknesses and threats, but it’s equally important to recognize strengths and opportunities.

Knowledge of your strong points helps to provide a more complete picture of your organization and can also be valuable for driving progress.

For example, gaining a better understanding of what sets top-performing salespeople apart from their peers can drive future best practices for hiring, training, and management.

How much does your organization already know about the topics you want to investigate?

If your objective, for example, is to determine whether employees feel empowered to take creative risks, you likely already have some idea of the company culture.

What have you already learned from previous engagement surveys, archival data, and in-house research?

Ask yourself questions, such as:

  • Who feels empowered to take risks, and who doesn’t?
  • Which teams are particularly effective at innovating?
  • What are the causes and consequences of feeling empowered?
  • What actions have helped foster employee satisfaction?

What can be learned from the latest scientific and practitioner literature and field studies?

Take the time to look to the most recent studies available to better understand the current state of workplace dynamics, organizational performance, and the overall employee experience.

Armed with the data that’s available, you’ll have a better understanding of questions like:

  • What style of leadership do today’s employees prefer?
  • What factors contribute to employee turnover?
  • How do you promote a growth-mindset culture?

By considering the three topics listed above, you can further refine what your research agenda should focus on.

3. Which research methods will help answer your most critical questions?

Many organizations get caught up on trivial matters when designing their pulse surveys, such as how many questions to ask.

Starting off with the wrong design principles can result in research that ultimately misses the mark and generates little employee insight.

Instead, it’s important to determine which type of assessment will generate the deepest insights.

A company culture survey might be most effective in answering some questions. In other cases, perhaps a team-effectiveness diagnostic is more appropriate.

To select the right research method for your topic of interest, organizations should:

  • Evaluate the size of your knowledge gap.
  • Consider the complexity of the topic you plan to explore.
  • Anticipate the potential implications of your findings.

When it comes to good research, form must follow function — not the other way around.

By evaluating your current knowledge gap, considering the complexity of the topic you plan to explore and thinking about the potential implications of your findings, you’ll be more likely to select a methodology that will best serve your research and your organization.

4. Who should you survey, and how often?

Once you’ve selected your research method, the next step is to consider your survey sample and cadence.

To do so, focus on "the ideal.”

From a purely scientific perspective, how would the perfect research population and cadence look?

Some experts claim there is an ideal number of surveys that employees are willing to participate in over the course of a year.

However, context is critical.

When pulses and research studies are well-designed and easy to complete, most people are eager to participate. They welcome the opportunity to share their original insights to improve the employee experience.

But when employees see the same set of questions each quarter - and no positive changes or new learnings - most of them are likely to conclude that their feedback is falling on deaf ears and that completing pulse surveys is a waste of time.

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?

When it comes to designing an effective employee research program, it's imperative to keep your intended final result in mind. Surveys are useful only if they lead to strategic insight and action.

If they don’t, employees can quickly become disenchanted and disengaged.

The best way to ensure your pulse surveys lead to strategic insight and action is to think through the three following post-survey questions.

  • What reporting strategy makes sense — who should receive a report and what type of information should it contain?
  • What analytical techniques should be used to explore and interrogate the data?
  • What type of organizational action are your pulses intended to produce?

As you design your study, you should think through the post-study implications of your inquiry.

If you are conducting an exploratory investigation of a new concept (for example, what it means to bring "your whole self" to work), your research may be intended to generate new knowledge for your organization.

But if you are conducting a series of pulses to improve team effectiveness incrementally, you need to have best practices, training, and information in place in order to make improvements based on results.

Survey results by themselves rarely produce meaningful action. That's why thinking through what you need to turn your data into action is a critical consideration before you start your research.


Developing effective employee engagement surveys is imperative for every modern organization.

Without them, leaders, managers, and decision makers are likely flying blind.

If you are about to launch a pulse program, you’re in a unique position to help your organization explore its most pressing problems, performance challenges, and strategic priorities.

Consider these five questions before your next pulse, and you’ll be better prepared to conduct a successful study.

The Allegro platform from Mercer is the comprehensive solution you need to design and deploy your own unique employee listening program. Learn more about Allegro today.