Employee surveys completed on different devices

Employee research: Annual census, pulse surveys or always-on surveys?

Constant organisational evolution coupled with political, social and economic changes are having a significant impact on employees and workplaces.

At the same time, there’s been a proliferation of research tools enabling pulse surveys and ‘real-time’ employee feedback. This is prompting companies to review their employee listening strategy and ask “should we invite feedback from employees more regularly?”

So, how has this come about? We’ve observed a few contributing factors. First, there’s huge demand from an increasingly millennial-dominated workforce for better, open channels of communication and more information, faster. This is shaped by social media and other tech that enables instant feedback and gratification. And second, companies – particularly retailers – are being influenced by tools and methods they use to gather customer feedback in store and thinking, “could this also work for our employees?”

First, define the role of your survey

Before jumping straight on the next employee listening fad or the shiniest real-time feedback app though, whatever the methodology or frequency of your planned employee research, it must have a clearly-defined purpose. This should ideally align with a broader business objective providing a clarity over the drivers for the survey, what needs to be measured, and what the data will be used for.

Having a clearly defined purpose for a survey is essential for gaining proper buy-in from stakeholder groups. Securing this buy-in should include planning, and agreeing, who’ll do with what with the data – before you run any surveys. Inviting employees’ views and then doing nothing with them can be far more damaging than not running a survey at all.

Shift perceptions of engagement

In fact, what happens – or rather doesn’t happen – after feedback has been gathered is a common reason that employee research initiatives fail. All too often, engagement-focused actions or activities are treated by managers as something new or, worse still, something on top of their day job.

What’s needed is a fundamental mind-set shift in how we think about engagement and our role in increasing it. It’s not what you do day to day, it’s consciously thinking about how you do it. This must start at the top with leaders seeing it as their responsibility to foster engagement in their teams.

You need to help leaders and managers understand the power of engagement to create the requisite buy-in for real cultural and behavioural shifts.

What type of survey do you need?

Annual ‘full census’ employee surveys

An annual ‘full census’ employee survey, aimed primarily at measuring employee engagement, remains most widely-used. And we believe it should remain the cornerstone of employee research, certainly for the vast majority of organisations. This is because it represents your best opportunity to gain the whole employee population’s feedback on a wide variety of initiatives that your organisation may be working on at any one time. Your survey will likely include questions relating to:

  • Organisational strategy
  • Culture and values
  • Leadership
  • Thoughts – what they think about their work, colleagues and management
  • Feelings – emotive aspects such as pride in the organisation
  • Behaviour – intention to stay and advocacy.

Naturally this will provide you with a wealth of data enabling deeper and wider analysis. This can unearth genuinely invaluable insights but analyses aren’t quick pieces of work. And any resulting actions taken will take time to implement.

You may find that you already struggle to analyse and implement actions from an annual survey – this is another really common challenge. Where this is the case, adding even more frequent pulse surveys is ill advised.

The one exception to this rule, we believe, is for huge really large organisations – those with perhaps 300,000+ employees. For these organisations, pulse checks with greater local ownership and control over survey timings and methodology, may be advantageous.

Employee ‘pulse’ surveys

Pulse surveys are useful in providing more timely insights. There’s no recommended frequency but the two approaches we’ve seen work most effectively with our clients are:

1. Running business-led pulse surveys on a quarterly basis alongside a more comprehensive annual survey. The pulses focus on specific areas for the whole business from the annual survey

2. Running local pulse surveys at a country, business unit or team level on a no-more-than monthly basis. These are used to gain insights on specific topics and to steer actions, locally.

Before introducing pulses, you must ensure that there’s a firm commitment and available resource for analysing results, communicating back to the business and taking action. The reality for many organisations is that this isn’t something that happens well or consistently enough with annual employee survey cycles, and with pulse surveys there will be more data and even less time to take action.

Real-time or ‘always-on’ employee listening

Interest has increased in daily polls or real-time employee listening devices. These include one to five questions and are intended to give a snapshot view of employees’ mood, engagement or opinions.

But, while quick and easy to complete, you must consider what the results will be used for, by whom and what value it will add to either the employees or the business. You should also think about where ownership would sit for analysing and responding to the data.

Real-time feedback is likely to be more useful at a team or department-level since the motivations and drivers tend to be different for different groups. However, this isn’t the only way to elicit frequent employee views. You could create other manager-led channels or forums to encourage more open communication, increasing trust in the process; you’ll just need to make sure that leaders listen!

There are cases where always-on surveys may be well suited for organisation-wide research. One such example is a joiners and leavers’ feedback survey, where it’ll be valuable to provide a constant stream of insights to managers into why people join, leave and stay.

Risks & rewards of more regular feedback

First, the rewards:

  • Employee voice – people want to be heard and have more of an opportunity to contribute their views
  • Greater opportunity to monitor engagement levels during times of unanticipated change.

And the risks:

  • Having sufficient time and resources to properly review and, where necessary, act on the data
  • Linked to the above, you could even end up alienating your employees if you can’t respond to a more regular stream of feedback – we’ve seen this first hand
  • Danger of these mechanisms replacing a conversation/relationship between manager and employee.


It’s indisputable that businesses today are faster-moving, and are facing new and different challenges. However, each organisation is unique and we remained convinced that the best approach to employee research should depend entirely on an organisation’s context and objectives.

Whether this means conducting a full census survey, interim pulse checks, ‘always-on’ employee listening or a combination of these methods, is a question of finding the best fit for your organisation.

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