A finger on the pulse

Is
a simple online system which gives an instant snapshot of staff motivation the
way forward for HR? Keith Rodgers reports on General Motors’ method for gauging
its workforce’s mood

The thought of asking staff to define how ‘energised’ they feel every week
is likely to raise a few eyebrows among HR traditionalists. More accustomed to
distributing employee satisfaction surveys that take weeks to analyse, few
organisations have an up-to-date understanding of motivation levels within
their workforce. It’s one thing to ask the question "how are you?"
when you greet a colleague – it’s quite another to actually do a scientific
analysis of the response.

That, however, is precisely what technology company eePulse has persuaded
clients like General Motors to do. Founded by Dr Theresa Welbourne, associate
professor of Organization Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the
University of Michigan Business School, eePulse has developed a simple-to-use,
online system for measuring motivation levels. Essentially built around one
straightforward question, the system is designed to provide an analytical
framework that alerts companies to morale and workload problems, and ultimately
becomes a tool for two-way communications and change management.

The problem with most traditional methods of measuring how employees ‘feel’
is that they’re cumbersome and slow. While formal appraisals theoretically
provide employees with the opportunity to discuss soft issues with HR and line
managers, they are far from perfect. For one thing, they tend to span a lengthy
period of time, during which motivation levels will have peaked and troughed –
so in many cases, the review will come too late to tackle serious issues. For
another, it’s often hard for individuals to express themselves openly with their
line managers, particularly when the appraisal is directly or indirectly linked
to their salary review.

Employee satisfaction surveys fare little better – while the anonymity they offer
is likely to encourage franker answers, the process of collecting and analysing
data can take weeks or months, meaning the results are often out-of-date as
soon as they’re published. More to the point, as many HR gurus argue,
‘satisfaction’ is not necessarily the right metric because it implies employees
are comfortable with the status quo – high-growth organisations require
individuals that are prepared to drive change, and for them, motivation may be
a more appropriate quality.

Online measurement systems provide some of the solutions to these problems.
By automating data collation, for example, the survey process can be
significantly speeded up, providing a ready-made data set for analysis. In
practice, that means an HR manager can design a survey on a Tuesday, have it
carried out Thursday and see the results early the following week. This in turn
means that surveys can be carried out more regularly, providing comparative
data that quickly highlights shifts in employee attitude. And like offline surveys,
anonymity is guaranteed.

But it’s not just the process that matters – it’s also about the question
posed. Rather than focusing on satisfaction, the eePulse system is built around
one or more questions that ask employees to rate how ‘energised’ they are – and
where relevant, how energised their co-workers are. Respondents rank themselves
on a scale of one to 10. The lower end of the scale indicates that employees
are not being challenged and are under-utilised, the top end suggests that
they’re close to burn-out. Either way, if the metrics come in at one extreme
then alarm bells need to start ringing.

According to Dr Welbourne, different roles have different optimum energy
levels – a computer programmer may work most effectively at six, for example,
while a salesperson’s optimum rating may be eight. Department heads receive
aggregate statistics that allow them to analyse how closely their teams are to
optimum performance, and to observe how those motivation levels change
week-on-week.

These ongoing comparative statistics serve several different purposes. To
begin with, managers can see patterns that may point to retention problems –
both where measures are consistently low or high, and where they fluctuate.
They can also assess the impact of individual initiatives on employee energy
levels, allowing them to test the effectiveness of their own actions.

In addition to these repeated base questions, organisations typically ask
different questions each week on any HR or corporate subjects. Employees are
encouraged to submit free text in their responses, which can range from
complaints about the frequency of unproductive meetings to anonymous tips about
breaches of company discipline. Sheryl Owens, former HR director at eGM, the
‘clicks and mortar’ operation set up by General Motors to improve customer
service in the dotcom boom, says that managers were particularly keen on this
feedback mechanism when the eePulse system was implemented. It allows managers
to e-mail individual participants – who remain anonymous – to find out more
information about specific issues they’ve raised.

Clearly, as Owens points out, this kind of one-to-one dialogue only works
where employees have complete trust in the system. "We found people were
not being open in their comments at first," she says. "Even though it
was stated to be anonymous, it took people a while to trust it." Once that
barrier had been overcome, however, the results were encouraging. Instead of
relying on HR surveys that took three to four months to deliver purely
numerical data, eGM started receiving up-to-date information, fleshed out with
a rich vein of individual comments.

GM’s experience with the eePulse system provides some pointers to how this
kind of employee communications mechanism can be expanded over time. In the
wake of the dotcom bust, for example, General Motors took the decision to fold
eGM back into the main organisation, redeploying staff to regional offices. The
system allowed HR to get feedback about the change management process and also
became a mechanism for employees to vent their frustrations. Since the eGM
pilot, the system has now been deployed in several other divisions of GM,
including engineering plants where kiosks have been installed to give hourly
workers access to the system.

The key to this kind of measurement is the combination of delivery mechanism
and content. While some HR managers will argue that ‘satisfaction’ is a valid
metric – there is evidence linking satisfied employees to satisfied customers –
the notion of motivation is widely relevant. But whatever quality is selected,
these kinds of online systems deliver aggregate data rapidly, allowing
organisations both to respond to urgent problems – such as sudden dips in
morale – and also to analyse long-term patterns.

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