How Often Firms Should Send Employee Surveys Comes Down to Asking 3 Questions

When administered correctly, employee surveys can uncover valuable pieces of information. Here’s how executives can decide how frequently to send them.
employee surveys

Do you think annual surveys are the best way to gauge and tweak everything from engagement to culture, employee morale to widespread confusion? Not everyone is convinced. In fact, only 38 percent of CEOs think annual surveys are sufficient, according to a 2016 survey from Waggl, a technology firm.

Yet, even though most execs understand that once a year isn’t enough, it’s hard to break that traditional cadence: 98 percent of business leaders glance at employee surveys just once a year.

The latest wave of HR tech tools aims to change that by making employee surveys super-quick (think one or two questions, rather than an hour of queries), convenient (mobile and tablet responses) and hypertargeted (by department, tenure, etc.). But does being able to survey employees daily mean that you should? Or that what you find will actually benefit the business?

It depends. “How often you survey comes down to your action plan,” said J.D. Peterson, chief growth officer at Culture Amp, a global employee feedback and analytics platform, which has surveyed more than 1.8 million employees for its customers, including Yelp and Deliveroo. “What we’ve seen from the data is that companies should only survey when they can take action on the feedback received.”

Employees may grumble about feeling ignored if you’re only asking them questions once a year, but that doesn’t mean a daily survey will be met with a warm embrace. Instead, employees may feel pestered or begin to tune out (and opt out of responding). And if the company isn’t acting on the survey responses, it may seem like the surveys are just for show — and morale can nosedive. “You have to understand the survey data and demonstrate a response, or employees will stop responding in turn,” Peterson said.

Here are three questions to consider as you set the company survey cadence:

What Am I Going to Do With This Data?

Before you crank the dial on a survey cadence, look at your current employee response rate. When British company Deliveroo approached Culture Amp about deploying frequent pulse surveys, Peterson’s team pointed out that employee participation was already declining. Instead of focusing on frequency, Deliveroo executives were encouraged to focus on taking actions between each survey round and broadcasting those actions throughout the company. Engagement has since seen a bump, even as the company has increased headcount from 800 to 1,600 employees.

Also, think of actions and feedback as a virtuous loop: The company launches an initiative; you then ask how employees feel about it. They respond with suggestions, some of which are implemented. You check in to see whether those changes paid off. “Pulses are like the check-in to make sure the actions you’ve taken have really made a difference,” said Justin Zawaly, COO at survey startup Talmetrix, which counts the city of Atlanta, Liberty Bank and Michelman Inc. among its clients.

What’s the Plan to Capture the Big Picture?

Increased employee feedback can’t simply mean sending out the usual 30– or 40-question survey more frequently. That would be a time suck for both the HR team and managers implementing that data grab, and the employees asked to set aside 30 minutes to respond. But trying to get adequate data for a macro-level view of the company from a five-question mobile survey can be equally impossible. In fact, HR professionals and tech execs alike agree that pulse surveys are best used as a complement — not a replacement — for the annual survey.

Instead, finding the sweet spot of employee engagement surveys often means implementing an intense, scientifically rigorous survey once a year, then folding in quarterly or monthly pulse surveys to capture more immediate feedback around unfolding initiatives. If, say, work-life balance is a persistent complaint in the annual survey, it makes sense to monitor that issue with monthly or weekly mini-surveys as the company rolls out work-from-home options.

“By capturing feedback four to six times a year, we’ve seen customers really moving the needle with culture — and moving the bottom line,” Zawaly said.

Are We Ready to Experiment?

Onboarding employees with a new technology tool often means telling them what to expect. But the best companies are those that highlight how flexible these tools are, including how that applies to survey cadence, Peterson said. While the HR team might expect a quarterly schedule to suffice, there’s no need to broadcast to the team upfront. Instead, set internal check-ins to scrutinize participation. Are some departments more responsive? Do certain times of day work best? Will a three-question survey yield twice as many answers as one with four questions?

“We initially were worried that a higher frequency of surveys might lead to feedback fatigue,” said Alastair Douglass, CEO of credit comparison site TotallyMoney. So at first, the team sent out quarterly surveys, using employee engagement firm Peakon. Participation was strong, but Douglass noticed that his team seemed almost too hesitant to hit send on the surveys. Knowing they were only going to get four chances each year “meant there was more pressure for official conclusions after each round,” he said.

To fix that, TotallyMoney moved to monthly surveys with fewer questions, and “the process is a lot steadier,” Douglass said.

At Improbable, a cloud simulation company and Peakon customer, Head of People Ian Whiteford tried a handful of different survey schedules before locking into the weekly cadence. “It gives our employees a chance to give regular real-time feedback and gives our management team a chance to respond to issues before they escalate,” Whiteford said.

Weekly works for Improbable, but the team might not have known that if it hadn’t approached pulse surveys with a sense of experimentation. Unlike annual check-ins — where once a year is pretty much assumed — there is no one-size-fits-all approach for modern employee surveys.

Kate Rockwood is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.