Intelligent technologies can allow companies with limited resources to more closely listen to their employees’ emotional concerns, says UNLEASH America speaker Maddie Nichols, chief human resources officer for the behavioral healthcare nonprofit Community Bridges.
Community Bridges provides comprehensive, medically integrated behavioral health programs, including prevention, education and treatment services. The Arizona-based organization employs 1,500 people, many of whom have overcome their own addiction problems — which Nichols says can hinder their willingness to share workplace issues when they arise.
Nichols says the company has found success breaking through that barrier, with help from Ultimate Software’s Perception solution, which processes text-based survey responses and offers insights into employees’ emotional wellbeing based on that language.
We caught up with Nichols just after she stepped off the UNLEASH America stage, along with Armen Berjikly, senior director of strategy at Ultimate and former founder and CEO of Kanjoya. (Kanjoya was acquired by Ultimate Software in 2016.)
What types of services does Community Bridges provide?
Nichols: We provide human services for substance abuse and detox. We help the mentally ill population. We help our homeless to get off the streets. We get our veterans back into society and into homes. We save lives every day.
Why is the employee experience so important in your business?
Nichols: They were once the vulnerable population coming to our doors. It’s really important to make sure that our employees feel successful and feel empowered, so that they can turn around and take care of our clients in the same ways. Who better to understand that than those who have walked that dark journey of addiction?
We do our best to make sure that they all have the tools that they need, and that there’s an open-door policy. But this is a population that has been given a second chance, so they’re not necessarily forthcoming when something is wrong — because they don’t want to tamper with the second chance they’ve been provided. They’ve been provided work, they’re out of prison, or out of recovery, and, all of a sudden, something happens in the workplace. Maybe they’re not happy and they don’t necessarily have the tools to express that because they don’t want to lose all the hard work they’ve already put into their recovery.
How have you addressed this issue?
Nichols: We’ve been doing classic surveys since 2007. Then last year, we saw a demo of a product that allowed us to measure emotion. We are dealing with a very emotional work environment, and it becomes even more emotional when employees encounter interruptions or stress in the workplace and in their home lives. Even though we try it minimize that, it’s still there.
One of the things we wanted to do was find a system that was able to help us with that. If our survey results continue to look the same year over year, then to me, that’s a red flag. They should be progressing over time. With Perception, our managers can collect feedback, they can analyze emotion, and they can read between the lines, which has never been done before. That has really allowed us to look deeper into our employees’ experiences in their work environment and really see what’s happening. They can take helpful actions to address responses like, “I’m really stressed out,” or “My manager doesn’t praise me,” or “I don’t feel like there are opportunities.” All of those results are measured by employees’ emotions, so it’s not just your regular “Are you satisfied with your job?” questions or “Not satisfied” responses.
What did you learn that surprised you?
Nichols: With individuals who are going through recovery, they talk a lot about not feeling as confident as they should about themselves. Knowing they have support from their leaders to help them get to the next level is important; it is sometimes the productive boost they need.
What was unique about this particular project, from Ultimate’s perspective?
Berjikly: When you look at this kind of challenge — a very human-oriented one — you have to remind yourself that you can’t fix what you can’t measure. So what Perception brings to the table is this ability to measure what a group feels, how people feel. It’s not just a feel-good thing to measure that; it’s the feedback leaders need to make the right decisions for their teams. Whether someone engages or stays or grows at a company is driven by how we feel. Later on, logic is filled in on top of that, but the ability of Perception to kind of go to the origin story is really powerful.
This is a good example of how people’s feelings influence their work. At Ultimate, we’ve found that to be relatively universal, even in large companies or factories. In the end, how people feel about themselves, their companies, and their work drives a lot. Maddie doesn’t run an organization the size of IBM with 100,000 employees, that can bring in Deloitte or McKinsey. It’s a relatively compact company. It’s focused on Arizona right now. With Perception, we wanted to offer a powerful solution that could help companies of all sizes and across industries better understand their people and act upon that emotional feedback. Our hope is that even a smaller organization, a nonprofit that oftentimes is dependent on government funding, is able to get this level of insight that previously was in the elite world, where you were gigantic or you had millions of dollars to spend on consultants. Now, we’re saying that technology can do a significant portion of what used to require hordes of people and money. In my experience, any time you’re over 10 employees, you already have too much data and you need tools. I think the democratization of these capabilities and these insights is really well-demonstrated by Community Bridges. It’s insightful technology and experienced leaders working together to best serve the people keeping an organization successful.