Why a Pulse Survey Isn’t an Employee Engagement Program

Why a Pulse Survey Isn’t an Employee Engagement Program

February 28, 2014

There’s a trend afoot… A number of companies are now offering software to take the “pulse” of employee mood each day. Either on a keypad or a smartphone, employees are asked to choose a smiley face to represent their frame of mind or to indicate “yes, I’m happy at work today” or “no… not so much.”

These pulse surveys are being marketed as a great way to keep an eye on employee engagement in an organization, so that trends can be observed and managers can respond immediately.

Trouble is… there’s no backstory.

Happiness – as I wrote in an earlier blog article, Does It Matter If You’re Happy? – is not necessarily an indicator of employee engagement. In fact, often it’s the least productive employees who are the most happy at work… Happy employees may not even be working on the things that matter to the organization. Sometimes  they are spinning their wheels – what Blessing White calls the “hamsters” in their article, Align Your Hamsters and Honeymooners. They write, “Hamsters (the animal) love to do two things: Enthusiastically run on the wheel in their cage, going nowhere and snooze under the cedar shavings in the corner. In your organization Hamster employees may be working enthusiastically — but on the wrong things so that they don’t deliver the results you need. They might also have a ‘happy to be at work but not happy working’ attitude, where they’ve managed to enjoy a comfortable niche but, again, aren’t necessarily doing what you need them to do.”

What’s more, happiness has to do with many things inside and outside the workplace. I feel great today and came to work with a positive outlook. Why? Because I had a lovely breakfast with my family and had almost no traffic on my commute. The sun is even shining! I’m going to have a good day at work in part because of the qualities I bring to the office today. People are about much more than a momentary thumbs up or thumbs down. And their emotions are much more nuanced.

We must also question if everyone is reporting honestly. While these systems are anonymous, they often roll up to a manager. If a manager has 10 reports and one is unhappy, my money is on a good manager to know who it is already. And from an employee point of view, I may even find it risky to be the one employee who said I’m not happy…

Don’t misunderstand me, employee happiness is a good thing. Morale at work absolutely matters. It is an important part of company culture and makes everything go more smoothly.

But it’s critical to remember the things that keep people truly engaged. To name just a few: interesting work, opportunities for more responsibility, autonomy, and a sense of purpose. Engagement is a two-way street where employees know what is expected of them, can get behind the brand, and have a strong sense of ownership for their work. Employers carefully manage the brand message internally and provide a roadmap for success to employees, which also is beneficial to the organization. If we’re just asking about happiness, we aren’t finding out much about how these important components are coming together.

The subtleties of getting this right are very important. It’s about balancing the needs of individuals and the needs of the organization. And then, it’s about designing a framework that allows for brand values, feedback, incentives, and recognition to be cohesive and coherent.

The communication required to succeed is far beyond a smiley face or a thumbs-up. Ultimately, pulse survey software is a tool and not a solution. There has to be sound program design and responsiveness to back it up, or it’s just another statistic without a strategy.