Pulse surveys and survey fatigue

Can too many surveys be a bad thing?

In the past few years, many organisations have been making significant changes to the way they survey their staff, especially by introducing pulse surveys.  These are very short surveys, usually of ten questions or fewer, that are designed to give a quick snapshot of employee experience at an organisation.  Their shorter length means that they can be run more often than a full-length employee survey, and this gives organisations a powerful tool which they can use to track employee feeling over time at more resolution than a full-length survey.  Some organisations choose to run a pulse survey in between longer annual engagement surveys, whilst others have abandoned the full-length format altogether, and run a pulse survey each quarter, for example.

Disenfranchise people

A great idea in theory, but as always, it all depends on the execution.  There’s a lot of discussion in the field of employee research these days about ‘survey fatigue’.  The concern is that running surveys too often can actually disenfranchise people in the survey process, because they are irritated by constant reminders to complete them, are unconvinced that the surveys are actually being used to drive change, or that, when yet another survey is announced, it just fades into the background and is forgotten about. 

Therefore, although it may provide an organisation with useful information showing change in perception over time, they may find that response rates decrease over time, meaning that the data they collect is less representative and hence less useful.  It can also be hard sometimes for organisations to take meaningful action based on the results of pulse surveys: if only a few months have elapsed since the last survey, the results of the next pulse survey may show little change in score, and thus there may be no obvious areas for improvement, especially at a team or department level. 

Equally, if managers are presented with new areas for improvement every few months, they may find it harder to put these into action due to constraints on their time and resources.  Either way, the risk is that the surveys will not lead to meaningful change, and that this will damage employees’ faith in the survey process.  It’s important to avoid a situation like this, as employee voice is an important part of engagement, and studies have shown that where employees don’t feel their views are being used to drive change, they are less engaged on average.

Why are you running a survey?

It’s a perennial question that all our clients face – how can an organisation balance the benefits of collecting frequent survey data with the drawbacks of over-surveying the workforce?  There is no easy answer, but before deciding on their survey strategy, organisations should ask themselves an important question: why are they running a survey in the first place?  A common problem is that a survey is run simply as a box-ticking exercise. 

Most organisations rightly see an employee survey as the sort of thing that they should be doing, but many don’t fully consider what they plan to do about the results.  In the age of big data, pulse surveys are especially tempting for organisations, as they allow detailed tracking of employee sentiment over long periods of time, but unless they are part of a well-thought-out survey process, where the results will actually be used to shape the organisation’s development, over-frequent surveys can end up being just a data-collection exercise, with many employees considering them unnecessary and not taking part.

Clarity around how and why

Before embarking on the survey process, the organisation should have a clear idea of what data they want to collect and how then plan to use it.  In the case of more frequent pulse surveys, it’s especially important that employees understand why the organisation has introduced the new survey format, and what it will mean for them in terms of their voice being heard.  Including free-text options alongside more traditional survey questions is a good way to ensure that the survey is providing employees with a voice, and that they are being invited to give their views openly rather than just filling in a questionnaire. 

However, perhaps the most important aspect to consider when running a pulse survey is the most obvious one: keep it short!  Often, pulse surveys that start off short as a first draft gradually become longer as more people see the questionnaire and suggest more items to add in.  Before you know it, the survey is fifteen or twenty questions long – too long for a survey that’s supposed to be run every few months, and that employees will have to find time in their busy schedules to complete.  Keeping the survey genuinely short – perhaps five to ten questions – will drive up the response rate and help to head off survey fatigue.

Questions about running regular pulse surveys? Worried about survey fatigue. Contact us at info@surveyinitiative.co.uk or phone us on +44 (0)1255 870735, we’ll happily chat through how we have helped clients balance the need to gather data regularly but also reliably without survey fatigue.