Whether they're operating in a period of talent surplus or talent scarcity, HR leaders understand the importance of keeping their finger on the pulse of employee engagement. The value of having employees psychologically invested in a company transcends the ebb and flow of talent cycles and is a driving force behind the growth of technology vendors in the engagement space.
Engagement vendors now offer a breadth of easy-to-complete, "always on" pulse or annual surveys and sentiment analysis tools that can sift through open-ended feedback to quickly identify themes or trends. Some are adding performance management and assessment capabilities to get closer to being full-service providers.
Vendors increasingly cater to specific segments of the "feedback market," said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics for Sierra-Cedar, the organization that administers the industry's annual HR Systems Survey, and it pays to understand their areas of focus and strength.
"There are two flavors of vendors now," said Harris. "There are the traditional employee engagement platforms that have added new capabilities and layers, and there are platforms built around performance management that have an engagement and feedback component to them."
Mollie Lombardi, co-founder and CEO of Aptitude Research Partners, a research-based analyst and advisory firm specializing in HR technology, said that more engagement vendors are striving to be the central hub or underlying platform for other talent management systems. "They want to be the iPhone to all of the apps, so to speak, the platform that other HR systems run through to create a holistic, sticky experience for employees," she said.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]
Many Faces of Engagement
Keeping employees invested in and committed to an organization is an ongoing challenge. According to data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey, most U.S. employees are only "moderately engaged" and many are seeking a new kind of relationship with their employers. For the third consecutive year, the largest percentage of respondents in the SHRM study indicated that respectful treatment of employees was a "very important" contributor to their job satisfaction.
HR leaders use engagement platforms to measure whether employees are receiving constructive feedback from their managers; whether they are satisfied with pay, development and advancement opportunities; whether the organizational culture is aligned to the company's values; and more. Results from pulse or annual surveys allow companies to identify sentiments of specific employee populations and make the necessary adjustments to improve the workplace environment.
"The survey tools in today's platforms allow you to instantly know if there is dissatisfaction or flight risks brewing," said Lisa Sterling, chief people officer at vendor Ceridian. "Many issues can be addressed in real time rather than waiting another three months or a year for the next survey, when it may be too late to make adjustments" to retain employees or address problems with morale or productivity.
In one recent study, 75 percent of employees said they were more likely to stay with a company longer if their concerns were heard and addressed. The study, conducted in 2016 by The Center for Generational Kinetics in conjunction with Ultimate Software, surveyed over 1,000 U.S. workers across industries and generations, with a mix of salaried and hourly workers.
Vendors continue to add survey questions that are tied to the manager-employee relationship, with a focus on issues like trust and delivering effective feedback.
"One of the factors that correlates most highly with engagement is feedback from direct managers," Lombardi said. "Lack of feedback leads to disengagement, but more engagement platforms now have tools that help managers improve their ability to give good feedback, as well as to better understand their own communication styles and the styles of team members."
One such platform is Ceridian's TeamRelate, which, in addition to offering pulse surveys, has tools that assess the "relatability" of a team.
"The platform helps teammates understand their unique qualities so they can be more effective working together," Sterling said. "That includes having a better understanding of how team members prefer to communicate, what's important to them and what motivates them. That allows leaders to be more thoughtful in the way they interact with, develop and motivate people, which drives commitment and loyalty."
Lombardi said some vendors strive to create an improved cultural user experience, where their platforms help engender an employee experience with more meaning and a greater sense of connection, and don't just seek to improve efficiency or productivity.
"It's the evolution from efficiency to engagement to the full employee experience," she said. "Engagement is more about 'I alone am engaged and committed to my work,' whereas employee experience is about 'How do we work together to create meaningful experiences for each other, for the company and for our customers?' "
But cutting-edge technology is no cure-all for an organization's engagement ills, experts warn, and the extent to which investments in engagement platforms pay off is related to how effectively organizations use employee feedback to drive substantive change.
"We're seeing a growing focus on outcomes in the market, or on what employees are getting out of providing feedback to engagement surveys," Harris said. "Whether that is [the organization's] increased awareness of employees' challenges, improved rewards and recognition, or a chance to be mentored or develop new skills, what end-users might receive from providing feedback should be well-defined."
AI and Machine Learning
Engagement vendors also have introduced artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools to make it easier for clients to identify themes and trends in survey results. Glint, for example, has its AI-for-HR technology that uses predictive analytics to generate alerts about potential employee attrition. Vendor TINYpulse uses sentiment analysis technology and machine learning to help companies identify their top engagement survey trends, while UltiPro Perception uses natural language processing and machine learning to uncover the feelings behind what employees report in open-ended comments.
Sierra-Cedar's 2016-2017 HR Systems Survey found that while only 4 percent of respondents were using some form of sentiment analysis to analyze employee feedback, 10 percent were currently evaluating using sentiment analysis. "That's a fairly high percentage to be evaluating in our survey," Harris said, suggesting growing interest in the technology.
The Next Frontier
Sterling believes that engagement vendors will soon feature the consolidation of internal and external sentiments on their platforms. Feedback from employees, customers and even potential job candidates—some of it gleaned from websites like Glassdoor—will be merged and correlated.
"Companies are starting to expect vendors to be able to bring together and correlate internal and external sentiment data and provide executive-level reports," Sterling said. "Organizations might have internal strategies and practices they think are working well with employees, for example, but if the external perception about the company among key audiences doesn't match up, it can be a problem."
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.
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