Technology for Employee Engagement on the Rise

But can it replace an appreciative boss?

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Feb 9, 2016
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To counter a corporate talent shortage and multitudes of detached workers, the marketplace of employee engagement technology goods and services is expanding, with roughly 70 to 100 vendors offering products ranging from rewards programs and surveys to sophisticated software that identifies the disaffected.

The degree to which employee engagement technology translates into a happier, more productive workforce, however, may depend on company culture and management’s willingness to examine and act on its own shortcomings.

Employee disengagement—a lack of motivation or willingness to put in extra effort for the company—appears to be a significant problem for employers globally. A Gallup survey released in October shows that only 13 percent of workers across 142 countries are engaged at work. “In other words, about one in eight workers … are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations,” analyst Steve Crabtree stated in an article for Gallup.

The highest proportion of engaged workers—29 percent—are in the United States and Canada, Gallup found. That figure nonetheless leaves more than 70 percent of U.S. and Canadian workers either unengaged or actively disengaged.

In times of talent surplus, “companies don’t talk about engagement, they don’t talk about wellness,” said William Tincup, principal analyst at HR tech consulting firm KeyInterval Research. When the pendulum swings back to talent scarcity, “now we care more about engagement.”

According to the ManpowerGroup, the number of global employers reporting talent shortages peaked at a seven-year high in 2015, at 38 percent. “Right now, it’s the hottest thing in the market,” Tincup told SHRM Onlineof employee engagement software.

“What you’re really looking for is, ‘Where does engagement lead to performance?’ ” Tincup said. If an employee is engaged and producing, he added, “we want to know where the levers are.”

Metrics Matter

“Generally, our clients want to measure two broad things: one is the engagement level of the organization, i.e., are people energized, focused and committed? Is the culture and climate aligned to the company’s strategy?” said Justin Black, Glint’s director of organizational science. “The second is what’s driving engagement levels for the company overall, and for key segments of the population?”


Glint, which offers cloud-based employee engagement software that gathers data through frequent pulse queries, has developed 18 questions that meet those objectives across companies, industries and countries, Black said.

Measurement areas include recognition, career growth, feedback, purpose, role fit, confidence in senior leadership, management effectiveness and empowerment.

Stewart Liff, who runs an eponymous performance management consulting firm, told SHRM Online that a happier, more productive workforce is a function of a comprehensive strategy involving effective management systems.

“Note that technology will not change a bad culture, although it might make things a bit more tolerable. However, it can certainly reinforce a good one and make it even better,” said Liff, author and co-author of several books, most recently A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results (AMACOM, 2014).

Different People Respond Differently

Brian Sommer, founder of TechVentive Inc. and president of its Vital Analysis research unit, said he is cautious about employee engagement technology, although he sees some noteworthy players, including Syndio of Chicago, which he said can look at a company’s “social road map” to see who’s plugged in, active and involved.

Industry products, he noted, range from simple “electronic attaboys”—social media badges or kudos—to high-end social science technology that monitors employee activity, such as when an employee takes company-owned contact lists to use outside the office. That may indicate an employee is unhappy at work and planning to leave.

“Engagement is a personal matter and as a result, a one-size-fits-all approach … a single solution for all employees, is never going to work,” Sommer said. Employees in different demographic groups and regions and at different management levels may respond to different motivators, he explained.

While younger employees may appreciate reward badges or small retail gift certificates, Sommer said, Baby Boomers and members of Generation X will likely find such gestures insulting.

Personalization is the harder part, and no one has tackled it yet, Tincup said. “What engages you, it’s different from what engages me,” he said. “On Tuesday I’m engaged by this, on Wednesday I’m engaged by another thing.” Combining speed and personalization should give employers great insight into what’s happening in their organizations, he said.

The moment an employer figures out its workforce, individually and as a group, however, it’s going to change, Tincup said.

Employers need to be willing to consider that lousy bosses may be fueling employee disaffection, Sommer suggested.

“I still think vendors are dancing around the real issues and they just don’t want to deal with bad bosses. They just don’t want to go there,” Sommer told SHRM Online.

At an HR tech conference last year, vendors seemed focused on fixing employees, while this year they emphasized building well-matched teams; it’s too early to tell whether that approach is working, Sommer said.

People and Machines

Long-standing employee survey companies and tech startups alike offer a broad array of engagement products. One solution is The Marcus Buckingham Company’s (TMBC’s) new StandOut enterprise platform, which includes real-time data that allow managers to compare engagement across teams and against a country average. TMBC unveiled StandOut nearly a year after receiving a $5 million investment from SurveyMonkey. Customers of the platform include Disney, Coca-Cola, Marriott, General Electric and Amazon.​

TMBC CEO Jason Averbook said people can work with technology to address a troubled corporate culture.

“Technology is a powerful vehicle—but to be truly effective, it requires the human touch working with the machine, not against the machine. That’s why StandOut takes an integrated approach to revolutionizing engagement and performance,” he said. TMBC says StandOut combines technology, coaching and data to unlock team leader potential and accelerate team engagement and performance.

“In companies with serious culture problems, the real-time and statistically reliable engagement scores will let team leaders know quickly and regularly which teams show the lowest levels of engagement, and specifically how each team leader can increase the engagement of their team,” Averbook said.

Technology platforms may do only so much, however, if management won’t acknowledge problematic bosses.

“If you’ve got a psychopath for a boss, or how about … an egocentric boss, the correct answer isn’t necessarily to surround that individual with a bunch of yes-men and sycophants,” Sommer said. A great boss’s role is to retain people longer than they otherwise would have stayed with the employer, he said. When people leave, “the boss is the problem most of the time,” he added.

Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, in a 2013 State of the American Workforce report, said that “managers from hell are creating active disengagement, costing the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually.”

Sommer said he’s never seen serious management studies or HR vendors address toxic bosses, “and if you’ve got a whole org chart full of them, you’ve got a real problem.”

Companies, however, don’t want to know about a jerky boss until he or she affects productivity, Tincup said. “The worst-case scenario is when you have [a jerk] who’s a wonderful performer,” he said, adding that the company won’t get rid of the person in that situation.

“Sadly, technology is never going to replace the power of a great face-to-face compliment from a boss to an employee,” Sommer said. “That can make all the difference in the world, when somebody goes out of the way to thank somebody for a great effort.”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer in Philadelphia. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press and Dow Jones newswires.

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