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Smile! Your Boss Is Tracking Your Happiness

Employers are turning to sentiment-tracking software, daily surveys and apps to monitor workers’ mental states. Does this pose a new threat to employee privacy? Smile! Your Boss Is Tracking Your Happiness

Your company wants to know what type of mood you are in today.

At some workplaces, software trawls email and Slack messages for words that may be associated with depression and fatigue. At others, workers are asked to regularly log their frame of mind with a smiley or frowning face, or track their moods on apps.

Anxious to retain and energize staffers, more companies say they are making employee happiness a priority. The shift has fueled a cottage industry devoted to monitoring, analyzing and improving workers’ moods. It has also raised new questions about whether employee privacy is at risk as companies monitor more of their workers’ behavior.

At Inc., many workers receive a daily survey with questions like whether they have had too many meetings lately or if their manager has thanked them in the past week. At Workday Inc., the human-resources and finance software maker sends out employee surveys at the end of every week on what the company calls “Feedback Fridays.” At PepsiCo Inc., the beverage giant invites employees to identify systems that prevent them from getting work done quickly via a tool known as the “process shredder.”

The corporate world’s increasing focus on happiness reflects a reality, employers say: With the U.S. unemployment rate near a 50-year low, it can be difficult and expensive to replace workers. In a tougher economy, workers might just be happy to have a job, but retention will always be a challenge for top talent. Happy workers tend to be more productive, according to University of Oxford research published last year, and a strong corporate culture can make workplaces more attractive to potential job seekers.

“We’ve moved beyond just, ‘I want you to get 10,000 steps every day,’” says Cindy Bjorkquist, director of health and well being for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “I want you to have an improved mental state.”
Slide Right for Frowning

A Blue Cross Blue Shield app for employers that subscribe to the company’s insurance programs lets employees drag a slider from a smiling face on the left to a frowning face on the right to record their mood. They can graph their emotional fluctuations over time, and employers don’t see that individual data, said Angela Jenkins, a Blue Cross Blue Shield coordinator who helps companies set up wellness programs.

“It just feels really good to put that smiley face on there,” she said. Even if you’ve had a bad day, recording the emotion can be cathartic, she added, or prompt you to analyze the reason for your unhappiness.

One service offered by Toronto-based software firm Receptiviti plugs into email and messaging systems like Slack to search for signals that employees are depressed or burned out.

‘We worry about the perception of Big Brother.’
— Receptiviti Chief Executive Jonathan Kreindler

“These intangibles can be measured,” says Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Kreindler. When workers are down, they turn inward with their language, he says, using “I” and “me” more frequently than “we” or “us.”

The approach is based on research from James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-founder and minority owner of Receptiviti. He found that poets who eventually died by suicide used “I” more frequently in their work than writers who were presumably in better mental health. In a separate experiment where participants wrote stories detailing past experiences, he discovered the happy stories used “we” more often.

“The words we use in everyday life reflect our psychological state,” Dr. Pennebaker says.

The software is used by three companies in Canada and the U.S. to delve into the emotional health of their workers. Customers pay Receptiviti a fee that ranges from about $250,000 to $1 million a year to monitor their employees’ messages.

“We worry about the perception of Big Brother,” Mr. Kreindler says of his software. He says he prefers to think of the service as “corporate mindfulness,” adding that it is good for managers to know how their people feel.

Another happiness monitoring device is being developed by Cornerstone OnDemand Inc., a 2,000-employee company that provides software for recruiting and talent management to companies like Visa Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. It is in the early stages of experimenting with heart-rate data gleaned from wearable devices such as watches. It hopes to tie that information, with an employee’s permission, to entries from a person’s calendar or project-management software.

Doing so could shed light on whether certain meetings, projects or even people in an office cause elevated stress levels, says Greg Haga, director of architecture at Cornerstone, who cautions that the company is still evaluating such a tool.

“Your stress data really does change from moment to moment,” he says.

Scoring Happiness

Some companies are making a prominent display of their attention to happiness. A door inside the Manhattan office of software company Sprinklr is emblazoned with the words, “happy Sprinklrite, happy client.”

The company, which makes software for social media and customer management, in 2018 rolled out something it calls the Employee Delight Assurance Program. Every two months, all 1,900 workers meet with their bosses and report how happy they are, on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the happiest, and they list three improvements they or the company can do to make them more satisfied.

“I want everyone to be happier every day, more than they were before,” says CEO Ragy Thomas.

The initiative was meant to turn around sinking morale during what Mr. Thomas calls the “dark year.” In 2017, after a few years of fast head count growth, worker retention dropped. Employees became negative, work grew chaotic and infighting blossomed.

‘People aren’t going to be willing to tolerate an employer, regardless of how good the pay is, or how stable the job is, if they’re not happy.’
— Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Ford Motor Co.’s chief talent officer

The happiness scores get rolled up and aggregated, culminating in a companywide happiness index—7.87 now, compared with 7.2 when the initiative started. Artificial intelligence combs the results, scanning for common complaints. As a result of employee requests, Sprinklr has added more plants to the workplace, adjusted air conditioning in its conference rooms (some workers were cold), and implemented a monthly town hall so employees can give candid feedback to management.

Emily Sparks, a 25-year-old who works in marketing and sales at the company’s Austin office, requested a footstool— she’s 5’ 3” and said she felt less professional when her feet didn’t touch the ground—and more fresh fruits and vegetables in the office. A few days later, she received a black footstool with a roller massage feature on the top; the next week, produce like strawberries, carrots and snap peas started showing up in the kitchen.

“The little things make a big difference,” she says.

Gleaning insights from information already generated by employees, or what some call “data exhaust,” has become an increasing focus for many companies, although some HR experts say they have some apprehension.

“The obvious concern,” says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “is that scooping up this info means listening in on individual employees.”

Though sophisticated methods exist to anonymize information, Mr. Cappelli says, “all it takes is one executive to ask the IT people to dive in and look at individual employees, and privacy is gone.”
Putting on a Happy Face

A number of employers insist, though, that more advanced technology could help employees, and in turn, businesses. Grant Thornton executive Nichole Jordan says she is a proponent of laptop cameras that could regularly scan the faces of her workers to detect even subtle changes in their moods.

Should an employee at the accounting and consulting company appear stressed, distracted or even bored, facial-recognition and emotion-sensing software could intervene, suggesting someone take a brief walk or get a cup of coffee.

Employees would need to opt-in to such a system to allay privacy concerns, she said, but in a tight job market where companies want to keep workers satisfied and productive, she sees the potential benefits of making workers aware of their emotions. The firm isn’t currently using such technology, she said, but has discussed it with clients.

“Companies are going to have to figure out ways to better engage and drive up the performance of the employees that they have,” says Ms. Jordan, who is a managing partner for the central region at Grant Thornton. “If it were up to me, we would be moving down this path.”

Matthew Schuyler, chief human resources officer at the hotel giant Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., which has 420,000 employees, says the company has considered using tools that claim to analyze employees’ social media use to pick up on signals outside of work that they may be unwell. But Mr. Schuyler says such software raises clear privacy concerns and may go too far for the company’s comfort. Instead of technology, Hilton is training hotel general managers to look for signs that workers may need help, coaching them to pick up on unusual statements or increased absenteeism, for example.

“We want them to be the wellness watchdogs,” Mr. Schuyler says.

Automotive giant Ford Motor Co. adapted a novel approach to surface employee feedback: HappyOrNot terminals, similar to the ones used in airport restrooms, with smiling and frowning icons on a tablet that employees can press in response to questions like “How optimistic are you feeling about your day today?” The machines also allow people to provide more detailed comments.

The company started using the machines in 2018, placing them inside some manufacturing plants, at the entrances of its corporate headquarters in Michigan and outside of meeting rooms, says Julie Lodge-Jarrett, chief talent officer at Ford.

“When you’ve got a company of 200,000 employees,” Ms. Lodge-Jarrett says, “it’s hard to sometimes get your arms around how employees are feeling on any given day.”

Ford has also started analyzing the sentiment of comments that employees post below articles and videos on the company’s corporate intranet using natural language processing tools.

It can parse them by region or demographics like age to show, for instance, whether worker sentiment of early career professionals is different than people who have been with Ford for years, Ms. Lodge-Jarrett says. The company’s HR team can take the trends it spots to an internal committee made up of Ford employees and ask them to elaborate on issues.

“People aren’t going to be willing to tolerate an employer, regardless of how good the pay is, or how stable the job is, if they’re not happy,” Ms. Lodge-Jarrett says. “They’re going to vote with their feet.”

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