Ask your employees to describe their day in just an emoji, and you might receive some enlightening information.

In light of labor shortages and the Great Resignation, more companies have been adopting employee engagement software to regularly take the temperature of the workplace--and some employee retainment experts consider them a new essential.

There is no shortage of software options to choose from--companies like Officevibe, Culture Amp, and TinyPulse all offer similar services. Essentially, they allow companies to send their employees short "pulse surveys" that ask them questions pertaining to their work experience and satisfaction with their jobs. Workers might answer questions by using sliding scales, emoji, or multiple-choice options, though some surveys allow for more detailed follow-up explanations.

Typically, surveys are completed anonymously, though some give employees the option of revealing their identities. The platforms survey frequently--anywhere from weekly to monthly.

Checking in regularly

Quarterly and annual performance reviews are common ways for businesses to check in with employees, and more companies are embracing stay interviews--one-on-one sessions that aim to measure employee satisfaction. Pulse surveys are one more tactic in this toolkit, albeit more bite-size, and they can shed light on more time-sensitive matters and concerns that might be left out of a more formal review process. "The more avenues you give people to provide input, the more you get a chance to address those things while they're still at your company," says Pam Holmberg, vice president of people at the analytics cloud company ThoughtSpot, which has been using Officevibe on a monthly cadence since 2018.

Pulse surveys are also helpful in work environments where shift employees may not have frequent face time with their managers. The senior living community Belmont Village, which has several locations across the U.S., uses monthly pulse surveys from OnShift, an employee engagement software designed specifically for senior care centers, and sends more frequent check-ins to new employees. Because 40 percent of employee turnover happens within the first 90 days of new employment, OnShift CEO Mark Woodka says these surveys help managers provide additional training or address any issues that might otherwise lead a worker to leave. In 2021, Belmont Village averaged 70 percent new-hire retention--well above the industry average, which vice president of training Troy Yates attributes to the use of these surveys.

Analyzing hard-to-pin-down metrics

The types of questions asked on pulse surveys aren't limited to those with one- or two-word or emoji answers. Many platforms devise questions that allow for elaboration. In an Officevibe pulse survey, for example, an employee may be asked to rank how involved they feel in the decisions around their work, or if they feel a sense of accomplishment around their work. "It's deeper than, 'Do you like what you do?'" says Officevibe HR expert and researcher Juliette Jeannotte. "These questions are driven by research, because employee engagement is a science. It's something that we regularly study, and it's not static in time." Officevibe and most other software options also offer the ability to customize surveys.

To help management make sense of the data, some employee engagement software uses artificial intelligence. TinyPulse and Culture Amp use machine learning to detect themes in survey responses, giving leaders a bigger picture of employee satisfaction and an idea of the most recurring issues. Officevibe uses A.I. to prompt survey respondents to elaborate on negatively answered questions, and provides managers with A.I.-driven analyses of their survey results so they can more easily take action. 

Creating a culture of transparency

After a pulse survey is completed, management of course sees the data--but it may be just as important for employees to have a look at their collective responses. Charlotte Kackley, HR manager at the financial services company Merchant Maverick (which operates remotely across the U.S.), sends pulse surveys through the software platform Gusto and inputs responses to a company dashboard. "That way, team members can see that their feedback was heard, and they can understand our objectives going forward," she says.

Then, those objectives should be addressed in a timely manner, says Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of the talent recruitment company TalenTrust--ideally, within 30 to 90 days. "It's the kiss of death if you're conducting surveys like this and you don't make any changes based on what you've learned," she says. In addition to clearly telling employees how you're going to make positive changes, she says that business leaders need to practice accountability: admit where you may have fallen short, and thank employees for their feedback. "A little bit of humility goes a long way," she says.