Manager 101

How to Write Better Employee Pulse Surveys [Manager Templates]

April 13, 2021

Employee pulse surveys aren't just for HR. The best remote managers use them for iterating on team culture and blockers. We share a few templates for writing better pulse surveys.

Corine Tan & Annie Yan
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4 min
Employee pulse surveys aren't just for HR. The best remote managers use them for iterating on team culture and blockers. We share a few templates for writing better pulse surveys.

Get your questions answered.

If you’re a remote manager that’s new to employee pulse surveys, there’s a high chance you feel like you’re flying blind when it comes to managing your team. It’s easy to check-in with teammates during 1:1s once a week, but the stretches in-between become a blur of Zoom meetings and Slack pings. Things are bound to slip under the radar. By the time frustrations and issues reach you, you can’t help but feel they’ve been simmering for a while. 


Contrary to what many remote articles claim, this is not just a communication issue. It’s about visibility.


For managers looking for a sixth sense, look no further. Meet the employee pulse survey.

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What is an employee pulse survey?

An employee pulse survey is a short set of questions sent out to teammates on a regular basis (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.) to assess morale and employee happiness. These surveys provide essential feedback for managers with actionable data for improving wellness, relationships, and processes.



The best way to keep track of employee wellbeing

A good employee check-in illuminates key blockers and quantifies “squishier” topics like employee wellbeing and culture. It’s also lightweight, usually only a few questions, making it easy to send more frequently. For data-based management decisions, pulse surveys are a must-have.


Unfortunately, many managers still believe pulse surveys are limited to HR or People Ops. As a result, leaders wait for culture surveys sent once a quarter or year to iterate on company needs. Exhaustive questions and inherent distrust in anonymous reporting bring in low response rates and lagging metrics. By the time the People Ops team gathers a macro snapshot of the company’s culture, things have shifted and individual sentiments are glossed over. Managers continue flying blind.


Tracking and uplifting employee happiness is the job of every leader at the company, not just HR. Managers have a direct impact on their teammates’ moods, making it their responsibility to get visibility on team needs and act accordingly. Employee pulse surveys are the best way to gather feedback fast and iterate on employee needs.



Templates for ICs


There are a few kind of pulse surveys you can send. Some surveys take tabs on team moods, while others track more serious issues like burnout. Depending on your team's needs, you can send questions at different cadences (daily or weekly.) Here are our favorite examples:


An infographic with examples for writing better employee pulse surveys.


Tools for creating pulse surveys


There are plenty of tools to automate employee pulse surveys. Some of them like 15Five get quite robust. However, we like to use tools that are already built into Slack and that automate a lot of repeating questions (to create less work for survey senders!) 


Here are a few of our favorites:

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Try it at polly.ai


For short polls, try Polly


Polly integrates with Slack to make short surveys a breeze. Make versatile polls and view response data without leaving Slack You can use commands to use templates for stand-ups, trivia games, and hot takes.

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Try it at Standup.ly


For blockers and sprints, try Standup.ly


Standup.ly is a popular option for engineering teams. As the name suggests, the app is great for sprint cycle stand-ups and gathering feedback on tasks. The little bot integrates with Jira, Trello, Asana, and more to help you get stuff done.


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Try Kona for free!

For bonding and mood checks, try Kona


Kona asks “How are you feeling?” and gives teammates the option to add a colored heart, emoji, and line of context. Moods are available for the team to see, allowing for water cooler chats and emotional visibility. Build trust and track daily check-ins, so you can make data-backed decisions for team morale.

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Why so many pulse surveys are ineffective


In an ideal world, employee pulse surveys would have 100% response rates with thoughtful questions every single time they’re sent out. They’d give a completely accurate snapshot of team needs and even highlight those at risk of burnout and attrition.


However, we know that’s rarely the case. Asking teammates to fill out surveys leads to groans. Surveys have a reputation for being clunky, inaccurate, yet another task for teammates to do. For a fast-moving team, it’s easy for a pulse survey to fall to the bottom of the priority list. Even with great questions and tools, employee pulse surveys can still end up as a waste of time. 


Here’s where most surveys go wrong:

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Photo by Laika Notebooks on Unsplash



Your pulse survey is too long


We’re all suffering from survey fatigue. According to a study by SurveyMonkey, 60% of people say they don’t want to take a survey that takes longer than 10-minutes. Even a manager with excellent team culture and collaboration can only get away with a few lengthy surveys before teammates protest or skip the task entirely.


That’s why we recommend sticking to 1-5 questions. Make the questions multiple choice and avoid long responses to cut down your team’s lift. Even better, keep the answers optional. That same study by SurveyMonkey reports that folks answer quite poorly to an abundance of required questions. 25% will put a random answer to get the survey over with and 27% will quit the survey completely.


Your pulse survey focuses on the wrong variables


Often, low quality answers have less to do with the respondent and more to do with how the questions are asked. Poorly written questions lead to confusion. With a small question limit, it’s more important than ever to ask the right thing.


Keep your questions direct, specific, and objective. This ensures you don’t lead teammates and collect the most accurate responses possible.


Also, try to have a North Star metric when it comes to employee engagement. For example, a quarterly culture goal that centers around psychological safety should have a question measuring how safe someone feels to take a risk or ask a question. It’s important to keep that North Star question consistent over the quarter. This allows you to track changes and measure it against a “culture OKR.” 


Some of your questions should not be anonymous


Making an employee pulse survey anonymous or non-anonymous is highly debated. With anonymous surveys as the norm, it would seem safer to default to this camp. However, this the biggest pitfall pulse surveys run into when their primary goal is to share moods or bond.


We’ve written extensively about trust and the way vulnerability  encourages a trust-based culture. Non-anonymous surveys, especially about personal aspects like mood or life outside work, creates vulnerability on a team. It gives teammates the chance to associate a personality to a face and sparks closer relationships.


By making a survey about moods and bonding anonymous, you’re eliminating opportunities for bonding and support networks. The days of associating “professionalism” with a work-only mindset are over. To truly support team needs, we have to support their holistic selves.


Your team culture needs to work on psychological safety


Low engagement and honesty in surveys may have little to do with the software or questions asked. At the end of the day, it all comes back to your team’s foundation of psychological safety. This means creating a space where it’s okay to disagree and make mistakes. 


Without this culture, surveys can be viewed as deceitful or even dangerous. We’ve talked to a few remote teammates who admitted concern about filling out “anonymous” surveys. For them, past companies had used this label as a guise to get more responses. That company’s leadership could actually view their names and created concern about effects on raises and performance reviews.



Get your questions answered.

Conclusion

Employee pulse surveys are a fantastic way to increase team visibility, eliminate blockers, and spark thoughtful conversations. The best remote managers use these quick 1-3 question surveys to iterate on culture needs and stay connected with their teams.

To create a feedback culture, you have to work on building trust and vulnerability. We’ve written a few articles to help out:


- What Psychological Safety Looks Like for Remote Teams

- 4 Characteristics of a Successful Remote Manager

- 8 Traits of Fantastic Remote Cultures

Meet the Author(s)

Corine Tan

Get in touch!

Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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