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Pulse surveys versus employee check-ins: Who wins?

Feedback is one of your most powerful tools as a manager. Employers are starting to realise that polling their people once or twice a year won't cut it. This need for ongoing feedback is what inspired the creation of our employee check-in. But, in recent years, we've also seen pulse surveys rise in popularity.

So, pulse surveys versus employee check-ins. What are the differences, what do they have in common, and which one wins out?

Check-ins and pulse surveys have a lot in common. As we've established, they were both developed to tackle similar issues. They're regular and typically lightweight. But even though they share a lot of the same qualities, they're actually distinct.

What is a pulse survey?

Before we get into the whole "pulse surveys versus employee check-ins" thing, let's hammer out the basics.

"Pulse survey" is a term that keeps getting misused. Some people use it to describe anything outside of your typical annual or biannual engagement survey. But that's not quite right. Other forms of regular workplace surveys exist. For example, you can use ad-hoc feedback tools any time, whereas pulse surveys still adhere to a schedule.

Pulse surveys are a one-way feedback tool used by employers to gauge staff sentiment. They use small sets of questions, rather than burying you in them like traditional engagement surveys. Recurring pulse surveys typically track the same issues over time. That means the question sets don't usually change between surveys. So, a common example of what they're used for would be eNPS. By asking employees questions like, "Would you recommend this business to others?" you can get a rough idea of how many promotors you have on your team.

What is an employee check-in?

Employee check-ins are a two-way, asynchronous feedback tool. They're designed to only take a few minutes, whether you're submitting an update or reviewing one. Managers can set the frequency. So, although a weekly check-in is usually best, it's still up to you.

Employee check-ins come in two parts. The first is a small questionnaire that varies on the employee level. These questions need to cover engagement and wellbeing while giving staff the freedom to raise issues in their own words. So, a good check-in needs plenty of room for additional comments.

The second part of an employee check-in is goal-tracking. Managers choose from either SMART Goals or OKRs, which their team members update each week or month. Goal-setting is one of the most effective things you can do to motivate your people. And knowing you've got an update coming each week can help you resist the urge to micromanage.

What do pulse surveys and employee check-ins have in common?

So, in Round 1 of pulse surveys versus employee check-ins, let's take a look at their shared qualities. For starters, as we mentioned, both were created to address similar shortcomings:

They're both solutions to a lack of timeliness

Gartner has predicted the decline of annual engagement surveys since 2018. These surveys are expensive to develop and time-consuming to run. The sheer volume of questions mean many staff won't bother to complete them. And those that do are liable to just tick boxes until it's done. That's where pulse surveys come in, as a way to get a quicker turnaround on sentiment analysis.

And annual performance reviews aren't faring any better, which is why we need check-ins. 95% of managers aren't satisfied with how their company runs performance reviews. And 90% of HR leaders don't even believe they're accurate.

Pulse surveys and check-ins are both lightweight

When it comes to the outdated annual reviews and surveys these tools are replacing, upfront cost isn't the only concern. They're major distractions that bring productivity grinding to a halt. And that sort of thing gets expensive quickly.

Check-ins and pulse surveys are both designed to be light-weight. They use small question sets to make sure they're not off-putting. That way, you get a decent response rate that actually reflects how your people feel. It's all about quality over quantity.

So, because they're compact by design, they hardly take any time at all. You can slot them into the work-day without causing any disruption.

Both tools let you hear what employees think

And, finally, both approaches help to give your people a voice. Pulse surveys poll your people on specific issues. And if you think employee sentiment might have changed, it's easy to revisit key topics in the future.

Check-ins also give your people a voice by allowing them to offer feedback to their manager. Too many meetings clogging your schedule? Office equipment not up to snuff? Whatever your problem, it's easy to flag it using employee check-ins. They also enable peer recognition, which is one of the best motivators you could ask for.

What are the differences between pulse surveys and employee check-ins?

Alright. The kid gloves are coming off in the battle of pulse surveys versus employee check-ins. We've talked about their similarities. Now, it's time to look at their differences, and figure out which one makes the difference!

One-way versus two-way feedback

The biggest difference in terms of pulse surveys versus employee check-ins is their approach to feedback. Pulse surveys are strictly a method of gauging employee sentiment on specific issues. They're not actually a performance management tool, even though they can help you engage your people more effectively.

But check-ins are specifically designed to encourage mutual discussion. Using our own as an example, managers can respond to every answer on an employee check-in. So, it's easy for them to offer advice when their team member is struggling. This is a key consideration, because it means you don't have to wait until review season to manage performance.

One just collects insight, while one is also a progress update

When it comes to pulse surveys versus employee check-ins, the latter has one major advantage in particular. Pulse surveys are great for polling your people on the fly. But that's really their only application.

But, as we've mentioned, check-ins also allow you to set and track goals for individual employees. Goal-setting has a handful of really useful benefits that can boost your team's performance:

  • Goals trigger actionable behaviour.
  • They help to guide focus.
  • Tracking goals sustains your momentum.
  • They help align your actions with what you're trying to achieve.
  • Goals promote self-mastery and motivation.

Snapshots in time versus continuous insight

It's true that both pulse surveys and employee check-ins are more regular than annual reviews and surveys. But there isn't as much incentive to run pulse surveys every single week. If you're tracking something general, like eNPS, it doesn't make too much difference whether it's weekly or monthly.

But check-ins focus on the individual. They're basically a form of jouraling. And with stuff like that, it's better to get the insight down while it's fresh in your mind. When there are gaps between surveys and something happens, you end up having to make assumptions about what caused it. But, with check-ins every week, you can track those changes in real-time.

Shared questions versus individual customisation

Pulse surveys usually give everyone the same sets of questions. You're gauging the general consensus on whatever the given issue is. They're meant to be distributed and completed quickly, so that makes sense.

But check-ins take a more granular approach. Managers can customise questions for each employee. That means there's nothing to stop you from digging into the issues affecting your people. And with that level of customisability, you can pick up on nuances that might get overlooked by a general pulse survey. Personalisation also means check-ins are less likely to be seen as a meaningless box-ticking exercise.

Anonymity versus a 1:1 dialogue

One of the benefits of mass surveys is that it's easy to make them anonymous. Employees can be reluctant to say what they really think for fear of it reflecting poorly on them. Using the eNPS example from earlier, employees might not promote the business or recommend its products. But, if the survey isn't anonymous, they'll probably lie to be on the safe side.

Anonymity can be a great tool for encouraging candidness. But it prevents you from building a truly open and honest dialogue. Check-ins, on the other hand, can't be anonymous. They have confidentiality, being between a manager and their employee. But, because they're so personalised, it's impossible to separate them from the individual.

In that sense, building a dialogue through check-ins can be more challenging. Employees may be relucant about sharing. But, over time, you can break down those walls. It's about listening to their insight non-judgementally, and then following through in a meaningful way.

Why employee check-ins are the way forward

So, we've looked at the differences. We've gone over the similarities. So, who wins the battle of pulse surveys versus employee check-ins?

Well, after due consideration, we're giving employee check-ins the win. Shocker, we know. So, what tipped the scales in their favour?

It's true that they both accomplish a lot of the same things. But, at the end of the day, check-ins bring a lot more to the table. They're an insight gathering tool and a performance management technique all in one.

Pulse surveys are good at what they do. But, when it's a case of one-way feedback versus two-way feedback, it's really no comparison. We know annual reviews don't cut it. So, if you plan on sticking to pulse surveys, you'll still need some other mechanism for ongoing, critical feedback.

The main advantage of pulse surveys is being able to quickly gauge what your people think about a given issue. But there's no reason you can't do the exact same thing with your check-in questions. Sure, individualisation is a big selling point. But there's nothing stopping you from including your general pulse survey questions in a personalised weekly check-in.

So, when you think about it, anything pulse surveys can do, check-ins can do better. They're basically just pulse surveys with two-way feedback and much more flexibility.