An hourly worker forgets to complete his time card but then receives an automated "nudge" via text to remind him to do so. A few days before running payroll, a manager receives a similar nudge to remind her to collect pay data from a department with a history of missing deadlines. A leader focused on rolling out a new product receives a nudge in a Slack channel to encourage him to thank team members who've gone above and beyond to make the project a success.
These new "pre-emptive assistance" tools promise to reduce HR's growing workload by automatically pushing reminders and recommendations to employees via text, e-mail, Microsoft Teams, Slack or other channels. Originally created to help managers build better work habits, these nudges now are used to help resolve employee issues or answer questions before they ever reach an HR service desk.
Value of Proactive Nudges
Several HR technology vendors have developed new products that use machine learning and predictive analytics with the goal of alleviating HR practitioners' workloads and delivering improved service. One such product is ADP's Intelligent Self-Service tool, which draws on data from across the vendor's ecosystem to send nudges and deliver advice to address common HR challenges.
One feature of the ADP product is an "action card" that sends proactive nudges to employees to resolve problems before they require help desk assistance, such as incomplete time cards or onboarding forms that new hires forget to fill out. The tool also features a chatbot that provides conversational assistance to help employees resolve issues.
Joe Kleinwaechter, ADP's vice president of global user experience, said the self-service tool is designed to resolve HR issues in the flow of employees' daily work. "It pushes content and guidance to employees so they don't have to go out to find answers and solves problems at the moment of need," Kleinwaechter said. "The goal is to anticipate more employee needs in advance and solve issues before they have to move to an HR service desk."
Trevor White, vice president of advisory and consulting for Nucleus Research in Boston, said nudge-based technologies and user-friendly self-service tools also help address another common challenge with HR technologies: low system adoption.
"These tools can help get employees more engaged with and using the HR software solutions you've paid for," White said. "The initial value of the nudge is solving issues in real time for managers or employees. But the more you can get things like self-service tools in front of people and they have success using them, the greater the chances of adoption over the long haul."
Kleinwaechter said ADP's new tool also can proactively push advice to employees about things like managing a 401(k) or send timely reminders to take important actions.
He said ADP's chatbot has evolved from just being able to answer employees' frequently asked questions to aiding in resolving more-complex issues.
"An employee might be in the middle of a search for HR information and the bot can come in and ask, 'It looks like you are searching for X, let me ask you a few questions' to help narrow the search," he said. "Based on the employee's responses it then sends them directly to the right source. We don't just want to answer basic questions with chatbots, we want to help people complete more-complex actions."
Using Nudges to Improve Manager Effectiveness
Nudges also are being used to help managers become better leaders and build improved work habits—objectives that are a growing focus of many HR leaders. A Gartner study found the No. 1 priority for HR leaders in 2023 will be improving leader and manager effectiveness. "Today's work environment requires leaders to be more authentic, empathetic and adaptive," the Gartner study authors wrote in a blog. "These three imperatives represent a new call for more 'human' leadership."
The vendor Humu is a pioneer in using nudge-based technology to improve manager effectiveness. "A nudge is a just-in-time, behavioral science-based recommendation or reminder that makes being a great manager or teammate a little easier and removes some of the manual work from people's plates," said Stefanie Tigor, head of data science and insights for Mountain View, Calif.-based Humu.
Nudges are often used with managers for things like reminding them to recognize employees for good work; to ensure they provide employees with clear, achievable goals; and to encourage them to have conversations with direct reports about career development and building critical new skills.
Tigor said Humu's studies have found a 40 percent improvement in manager performance ratings directly attributable to nudges over a 12-month period. Humu research found the top two behaviors where nudges are most effective with managers in improving employee retention or boosting productivity and efficiency are recognizing staff and optimizing structure and processes.
"When managers become overburdened with tasks it's often the interpersonal things and social connections that tend to suffer most," Tigor said. "It's the person-to-person connections with their teams, showing gratitude and having development conversations with their people that are often the first things to go."
Experts say if timed right and used judiciously, nudges can elevate manager performance. "The best nudge technologies are those that help recreate your most successful managers," White said.
But there are risks in making employees so reliant on nudges that they begin to lose some of their own initiative, he said. "There can be an over-automation where people are only doing what nudges tell them to do and lose some independent forethought and drive in their work," White explained. "You also risk annoying managers if you send too many nudges, because after a while they'll begin to treat them as spam and stop looking at them. It's a fine line."
Benefits of 'Guided Task Execution'
The nudge philosophy also comes into play for "guided task execution," a process that uses technology to help alleviate the workload of time-strapped managers by automatically detailing tasks employees need to accomplish and then tracking their completion.
One vendor with such a solution is Axonify in Ontario, Canada, which recently purchased Nudge, an employee communications and execution platform. When using the system, employees can see specific tasks assigned to them and their teams, access resources to help them get their jobs done, and mark tasks as complete once finished.
Experts say the benefit of guided task execution for busy managers is they don't have to do as much manual monitoring of employee tasks, giving them more time to focus on things like strategy, coaching and motivating workers.
"These systems can help manage tasks in a more efficient manner and bring things to the forefront that have greater priority," White said. "From a leadership perspective you can use these tools to deploy mandatory or suggested tasks and then communicate them to front-line workers in a way that is very clear to them. That provides more direction without having to overly involve line managers or shift leaders in task management."
Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.