By Alexia Elejade-Ruiz
Organizations often boast that their employees are their best asset, but keeping that asset happy — and productive, and around — has been an enduring, costly struggle.
As the improving economy gives workers more job options, employers are turning to a growing crop of tech tools that aim to improve employee engagement through more frequent recognition for good work, stronger peer relationships and regular mood checks to pinpoint when people are a flight risk.
Ferrara Candy, headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, last year started using an app called Bonfyre to foster a unified culture and sense of community after the 2012 merger of longtime Chicago confectioner Ferrara Pan with Round Lake, Minn.-based Farley's & Sathers Candy.
With employees in 10 locations across the continent, the traditional ways of communicating — through quarterly town hall meetings, monthly newsletters and companywide email blasts — took a lot of effort and weren't always inclusive, said Ahmet Hepdogan, vice president of procurement and global supplier quality. Many workers on production lines don't have company email accounts.
But everyone has smartphones. Bonfyre, a social platform meant to help employees build relationships with one another, lets people invite colleagues to virtual communities where they can post comments and photos and respond to survey questions, kind of like an internal Facebook news feed.
Ferrara Candy used it for the first time at its annual employee appreciation event so that workers who weren't there in person could participate, and again to celebrate National Candy Month by encouraging employees to submit new product ideas, Hepdogan said.
But the "real success" of the app came through this July Fourth weekend, Hepdogan said, when the company launched the "Sweet Snap Challenge" encouraging employees to print out enlarged pictures of gummy bear characters from a marketing campaign, and to post photos of the bears joining them at the beach, barbecues and wherever else they spent the holiday weekend.
More than 100 people participated, including vice presidents, line workers, managers and directors, Hepdogan said. It not only broke down barriers by melding workers' personal and professional lives, but "it was a very cool way to get our employees to not just look at product as product, but really get to know our brand," he said.
About a third of Ferarra Candy's 1,400 U.S. employees are registered on the app, and 70 percent of those registered are actively posting on a regular basis, Hepdogan said. Those who have refrained aren't penalized, but it's a value-add for employees who enjoy the social interaction.
"Engaged employees are scientifically proven to be more proactive, more business-dedicated," Hepdogan said. "If we can give them that option we know that it will come back with a return on investment."
Disengagement among workers is something of a perennial epidemic.
Gallup, which has been tracking the question for many years, in a June survey found that more than half of U.S. employees said they were not engaged, suggesting they lack motivation and do the bare minimum, and another 17 percent described themselves as "actively disengaged," suggesting they are unhappy and unproductive and liable to spread negativity to co-workers.
Improving engagement has become a top concern for many employers as their workers gain the upper hand in a tightening job market.
Turnover costs a company 10 to 30 percent of a person's salary, and for highly skilled positions it can cost more than double their pay, given the time and effort it takes to find a replacement, according to a review of studies by the Center for American Progress.
Modern shifts in how people work present particular engagement challenges. Globalized offices have employees spread out around the world; remote working arrangements can leave people feeling disconnected; email overload drowns out company communication; and relentless technological change can leave people numb to new initiatives.
Many of the new tools encourage employees to interact, so people feel they have a voice and that their concerns are addressed in real-time.
"When employees don't get the information they want and need, they start to make up their own, which isn't always correct, and that can be damaging," said Meg Wheaton, creative lead at Chicago-based Gagen McDonald, a consulting firm that specializes in employee engagement and culture change.
To Mark Sawyier, founder of Bonfyre, improving engagement boils down to one thing: relationships. That's especially important in environments where the work itself isn't all that motivating.
"The only reason a call center employee will be excited to go to work is because of relationships with other co-workers," he said. Research has shown people are seven times more likely to stay at a company if they have work friends.
Unlike popular productivity tools, like Slack and Yammer, that aim to make communication and collaboration more efficient, Bonfyre's goal is to "build relatedness" on a more personal level. Photos comprise more than 50 percent of material posted to the app, Sawyier said.
"If the CEO uploads photos when he is at a baseball game or his kid is graduating from high school, the gap (between bosses and employees) starts to shrink," he said.
It can seem that engaging disengaged employees in engagement software would itself be a challenge. But Sawyier said on average 70 percent of a company's employees join the app and 45 percent post content.
The fact that some people are more gung-ho than others can be a good thing. Employers might discover "cheerleaders" they didn't know they had and call on them to be culture ambassadors during periods of change, Sawyier said.
Horizon Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company based in Lake Forest, recently started using an engagement tool called HighGround that lets employees send each other kudos via virtual badges.
The company has been growing quickly — from 250 employees and $18 million in revenue in 2012 to 900 employees and expected revenue of $1 billion this year — and the goal is to maintain the entrepreneurial energy it has enjoyed since its startup days, said Sherri Stewart, vice president of talent strategy at Horizon Pharma.
"One thing you tend to lose (when you grow) is that feeling of connectedness to your colleagues and peers," Stewart said.
Using HighGround, bosses and employees can send badges, which post on the app or the company's intranet site for all to see, when they see someone act in a way that aligns with the company's values. Among Horizon Pharma's five badges are "passion for patients" and "GSD" (get stuff done). An average of 26 badges are sent daily.
A potential downside of frequent and public recognition is that people who aren't getting praised might feel stung, which could have a counterproductive effect on morale.
But Vip Sandhir, CEO of Chicago-based HighGround, said managers can see how often employees have received badges and send a recognition if someone's been neglected for a few months. External customers also can send a badge by following a link embedded in the employee's email signature.
Another tool in the HighGround platform allows employers to take employees' mood temperature regularly — on a scale of happy face to pained face — to identify problems.
The key, Sandhir said, it not to overreact to a single instance but to look for patterns, such mood dropping for several surveys in a row or big disparities between different departments. Employee responses are anonymous, he added.
Brian Sommer, an IT industry analyst and founder of Aurora-based TechVentive, said some of the engagement tech tools are valuable. But the emphasis on peer-to-peer programs misses the core source of employee dissatisfaction: the boss.
"Roughly two-thirds of the time someone chooses to leave, they're not leaving the company; they're leaving their boss," Sommer said. "The boss could be terrible at performance reviews, stingy with raises, giving no flexibility."
The science is thin on what improves employee engagement, but Sommer doubts people will change their decision to leave a company because someone sent an "electronic attaboy" when they showed up on time to nine consecutive meetings.
Some high-achievers might find it insulting, he said. And a lot of people care less about their internal resume than raising their profile externally, such as with bigger responsibility, so they can move up in the marketplace.
In addition, "what I really want is to hear the actual words come out of an employer's mouth," Sommer said.
Adam Waytz, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said virtual communities and badges don't give people as much fulfillment as in-person interaction.
But they are better than nothing, he said, and some have surprised him in their effectiveness.
Waytz pointed to an intranet tool at online retailer Alibaba that rewards employees for offering feedback about the company, including criticism, which boosts engagement because it gives employees a sense of community and voice. The safety of the screen lets
people share information they might feel awkward discussing in real life, similar to the appeal of online dating.
Waytz studies the role of empathy at work, which is critical for effective teamwork as well as for motivation. When people understand that their work fulfills someone's needs or prevents them from suffering, they work harder, he said.
Supplementing real-life relationships with tech tools can enhance empathy among colleagues, he said. But if tech substitutes a visit to someone' cubicle, it is dehumanizing and inhibits the ability to see others' perspective.
Sommer said relationship-building tools can be helpful for bringing new workers onboard.
Some software uses algorithms to connect new hires with colleagues who would serve best as mentors or coaches, which helps them become productive more quickly.
But he is skeptical of mood surveys to pinpoint problems, as pre-coffee grouchiness could influence a negative score, and a sunny demeanor can flip when a load of paperwork is dumped on a desk.
Rather than surveys, which rarely get truthful responses, better for companies to run analytics to see where they have retention problems and identify the common factors, Sommer said. It could reveal that people start to leave the firm after too many location reassignments, or that highly productive employees become less so after being assigned to a new boss.
Whatever the tools they use, top executives need to talk to people many layers below them to find out what's really going on so they can swoop in before top employees are out the door, Sommer said. In the process execs may learn they promoted someone who doesn't know how to manage and develop talent.
"The investigation into the root cause is critical," he said. Disengagement, in the end, is not the problem that needs fixing, but a symptom.