When was the last time you participated in a pulse check survey?
Between bites of lunch, you dash off multiple-choice answers to “Does your work feel meaningful?” and “How heavy was your workload this week?”
Possibly the answers are shown at the next team standup. Possibly they disappear into the void of HR, never to be seen again.
Initial completion rates are over 90%, a number that was proudly announced by leadership. Eventually completion drops, leaving only the voices of the most enthusiastic or disillusioned employees.
No ideas have been incorporated by management. You begin to recognize the same voices each week, making the same comments. You and your teammate make side bets: “Will Fred complain about the coffee machine again?”
There is a $10 gift card given to a randomly drawn participant. You have never won the $10 gift card.
The question at hand: Do pulse check surveys have a place in the modern workplace?
It is easy to understand why Brennan McEachran felt moved to write an article called Startups: Pulse Surveys are dumb. Yet I will outline several important roles I believe pulse check surveys can play. Please share your thoughts with me in the comments!
Fix #1: Use for confirmation, not information.
The results of a pulse-check survey should feel obvious to a strong and highly engaged leadership team. In fact, a workplace with strong norms around two-way feedback and psychological safety might never experience a single surprise on their survey. This makes it useful for confirmation, but not for gathering new information. More direct channels of employee feedback will always outperform pulse check surveys because they are less prone to time delay and interpretation error.
In light of this, pulse check surveys can also function as an early warning system. When uncomfortable truths are revealed for the first time through the survey, it is a sign that employees lack the security or channels to raise issues directly.
Fix #2: Use to give, not to get.
Management often uses pulse check surveys to collect ideas from employees. Although employees may be the authority on their own state of mind, there is often much more that could be accomplished by subject matter experts. Communication issues? Hire a process management consultant. Structure issues? Have executives revisit the team org chart. Morale issues? HR surely knows some best practices.
While employees might proactively raise excellent ideas, expecting them to be the sole source of solutions to their complaints will lead to frustration and disengagement.
Fix #3: Use for individuals, not averages.
Consider the two organizations shown below. Which are you more concerned about? Your answer might be “it depends”. Is the unhappy team in Scenario 1 mission-critical? Is the senior leader in Scenario 2 going to eventually diminish the happiness of her entire org structure?
Source: Hacker News
While averages are tempting, they have no place in pulse check surveys. Distributions and individual dynamics are the proper application, allowing employees to see the broader organization sentiment and situate themselves within it.
Unlike Brennan McEachran, I’m not willing to throw out the concept of pulse check surveys entirely. But a responsible management team will insist on clarity on the goals and limitations of this format before deciding it is worthy of precious employee time.