A Mobile App as an Employee Benefit?

April 18, 2013 Michael George

Mobile app as employee benefitOne of the tried and true ways companies entice new employees is with a generous benefit package. Often things like employee stock options, 401(k) matching, or time off for philanthropy can sway a job candidate to accept a position over a competing suitor only offering the basics like medical and dental insurance. Some organizations promote more creative perks like “free massage Thursdays,” or “bagel bite Wednesdays” to curry favor with potential recruits.

As a tool to attract talent, employee benefit packages play a key role. However, in the employee engagement and retention game – not so much. Employee separation data consistently shows workers quit their jobs over things like poor communication with their manager, limited career opportunities, feeling disrespected, or lack of leadership well ahead of things like pay and benefits.

The irony is that one of the main parts of the job offer that tips the candidate to accept is rarely a factor in retaining that same employee. This may be due in part to employee benefits not being all that visible on a day-to-day basis, but also important to understand is that these perks are just not that valuable in forming the employee experience. In short, things like open communication, visibility into company strategy and goals, access to career opportunities and having the right tools to collaborate and get work done have a far greater impact on the employee experience than do benefits, or even the size of one’s paycheck.

When I was considering coming aboard with Appirio, I naturally checked out the benefits package (it is very generous, Appirio is a company that really takes care of its employees). Along with things like flexible work location and paid time off to do volunteer work, one of the items listed under employee perks was “biweekly all hands team meeting.” This isn’t my first job and like most of you, I can tell you I’ve never once thought of the company meeting as a “perk.” But here, it is. The meetings religiously start and stop on time, are crisp, well run and give every one of Appirio’s nearly 700 global employees the kind of key information and open dialog needed to understand where we are, where we are going, and what we need to do to get there. In one hour, every two weeks, the entire organization comes together, creating a pretty cool employee experience (at least for me anyway) that has real value.

But what if your organization isn’t able to do that, then what? Do you just hope the workforce is getting the kind of regular feedback, open dialog, and access to company resources and each other that is needed to ensure a rich and rewarding employee experience? Perhaps you rely on your managers to generate that experience.

Today, employees come to the job with new expectations around things like accessing organizational data, collaborating with colleagues, or managing their career. These expectations are brought from their personal lives where they use mobile and social applications to carefully craft their experience by controlling every aspect of when and how they do business and interact socially with everyone from their bank to their best friend.

One example of a company that really understands this is Virgin America, an airline with about 2,700 employees serving more than 20 domestic locations. In a recent article that appeared in The Financial Times, Charles Batchelor quotes Ben Eye, manager of teammate engagement and communication for Virgin America as saying, “We had had an intranet platform for several years but we knew we had to revamp the way we communicated. We had to deal with the 90 per cent of teammates (pilots, flight attendants, etc.) who are remote, so we designed something to foster involvement.”

What they designed was a mobile app that addressed the problems of their previous intranet platform which contained a lot of company information, but was nearly impossible to maintain, lacked two-way communication, and definitely did not reflect Sir Richard Branson’s style.

Working with Appirio, Virgin America customized their Salesforce “Chatter” platform to merge their social media experience with their business processes. The result was something they call VXConnect. On VXConnect, Virgin America employees are able to do things like enroll in the company’s pension plan, apply for leave and more. More importantly, they are able to interact in near real-time with Virgin’s HR team.

Because HR is able to monitor questions as they come in from employees in real time they are able to respond quickly. In his Financial Times article, Charles Batchelor goes on to quote Ben Eye as saying, “This is broader than just benefits: it stimulates the level of engagement. We have a very open environment and we see that as our differentiator in the airline industry.”

As Matt Weinberger points out in his article, “Virgin America used Salesforce Chatter to revamp its ancient intranet, and employees love it,” appearing on CiteWorld.com:

“Above all, this new employee portal makes what’s in essence a huge corporation that mainly consists of many small branch offices across the country feel like a cohesive whole in a way it never had before.
The new, Chatter-powered portal has already supplanted (the old CMS) as the touch point of choice. Even the older segment of Virgin America’s workforce was “shocked” at how easy they found VXConnect to use.
And while mobility may have been the driver for this project, Cisneroz (Amy Cisneroz, Program Manager at Virgin America) says that the social features have been a huge hit with unanticipated benefits. What would be long e-mail threads are supplanted by a short @reply conversation to the right person.”

For Virgin America employees who rarely spend time at a corporate office, they now have a mobile app that delivers a personalized experience, keeps them connected to the company and each other in ways they couldn’t before, and is a constant reminder of just how much the company cares about them. Because when it comes to employee engagement, out of sight can’t mean out of mind.

And if you don’t think offering your employees a mobile app can be a real “benefit” just ask 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s Maureen Paradine her thoughts. Paradine is the company’s SVP of HR who was recently quoted by Michael Hickins in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “People are thinking about the technology philosophy of the company before they join it.” Ms. Paradine goes on to say that whereas in the past, job applicants were asking about issues like flexible work arrangements or benefits for spouses, today they are asking whether the company allows employees to bring their own devices to the office, and whether it offers stipends to pay for data plans.

For Appirio, working with 1-800-FLOWERS.com was not only a great opportunity for us to help a client operationalize an exciting new way of collaborating, but to work closely with their team to ensure the excitement of the initial launch carried over to organization-wide adoption. By developing training for Google+ Profiles, Circles, Posting and Hangouts and establishing key the roles of Community Managers and Google Guides (internal champions, active on social media), Appirio was able to help ensure Ms. Paradine’s strategy of creating a more connected workforce became a reality.

Using Google+, 1-800-FLOWERS.com’s 23 Community Managers were able to train 110 Google Guides who in turn were able to ready over 1,400 employees for go-live, all in about 30 days. Appirio helped the team drive early adoption and engagement by setting up contests with rewards for the most +1s, best team name, or content with them most comments. When the switch was made from the legacy intranet, Google Guides had already become well versed in using Google+ to build circles, create, and curate content, meaning the new collaboration platform was filled with interesting content and ready-made connections on day one.

1-800-FLOWERS.com even goes so far as to use a prospective job candidate’s ability to use Google+ as a pre-employment screening tool. The company encourages employees to use Hangouts (video chat) to collaborate and Paradine figures if an applicant can’t figure out how to utilize the technology for an interview, it’s probably a good indicator they won’t fit into the company’s culture.

And what is that culture? It is the culture of connection. “Meatball Mondays” and ping-pong tournaments in the warehouse can be great additions to your culture. This kind of organic, fun, cool stuff is what makes work less like work and more like family and team, and it is important. But it is not your culture, and it isn’t a substitute for an employee experience built on an enduring foundation of open communication, trust and connection.

Can a mobile app really do all that? Considering that today, access to global talent is a reality for every sized business, and as the workforce becomes more dispersed over time and distance, the importance of staying connected with employees becomes paramount, we think so.

If you’re an HR leader, now is the time to reimagine ways social, mobile and cloud technologies can deliver a world-class employee experience for your people. You can begin by watching the video below.

If your organization has created a great mobile app or built an awesome employee portal that delivers a “connected” experience for your people, share your experience in the comment section below.

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