Nudging your way to the top?
Sweetgreen, among other companies, is leveraging nudge theory to engage their workforce.
We’ve all seen the sight: it’s 12 pm on a weekday and the Sweetgreen in Harvard Square is bumping. While the line to order might be long and people are passing you on the right and left to pick up their pre-order salads, a Sweetgreen team member will always greet you with a smile. Despite the chaos, how is that possible? The answer is quite simple: a nudge.
Sweetgreen has adopted the use of Humu, a nudge based people analytics software. According to a New York Times article, “[Humu] digs through employee surveys using artificial intelligence to identify one or two behavioral changes that are likely to make the biggest impact on elevating a work force’s happiness. Then it uses emails and text messages to ‘nudge’ individual employees into small actions that advance the larger goal.” 
I find this strategy extremely intriguing — a nudge, when deployed effectively, can improve the chances an employee will perform in-line with the goals of the larger organization. For example, if it is discovered that an organization’s workforce doesn’t feel that management is transparent, a manager could receive a ‘nudge’ before one-on-one meetings with their direct reports to share passdowns from upper management. These critical moments, often overlooked, provide an interesting opportunity to change how the workforce behaves.
However, in order to achieve these positive outcomes, I believe that there are three “criteria” that must be met. First, whatever the company identifies as a critical problem, the solution to the problem must provide benefits to both the organization and individuals. It is in my opinion, that if the solution only helps the organization and not the respective individuals, the solution is likely to fail. Second, there must be clear metrics and measurement instruments to ensure that goals are being achieved. This is a critical step to ensure that the organization can understand if real and tangible progress is being made. Finally, I believe that privacy should be very clearly understood. It is important for individuals to understand what degree of anonymity they have when entering information into the system. I believe that the higher degree of privacy and security assurances, the higher degree of transparency and honesty that a user will provide.
As the war for talent continues to wage on, I see a really bright future for nudge based, people analytics software. More than ever, it is critical that employers take whatever edge or competitive advantage they can get to keep their employees engaged and efficient.
In addition, I think this analytics platform poses an interesting opportunity for companies as they manage through the COVID-19 crisis. Tools like Humu can help connect top management and frontline employees quickly. For essential workers, having a tool they can use on their mobile phone to report safety concerns (or highlights!) is valuable and critical information. Managers of essential employees can be reminded to check-in daily with their direct reports on their personal health and wellness. For non-essential workers, who have now found themselves working from home (sometimes for the first time ever), nudges are also critically important. Small reminders can go a long way to keep team morale and connectivity up — from checking-in with teammates to posting on their team’s #random Slack channel, this jolt of engagement can carry a person through the day.
 NYT Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/31/technology/human-resources-artificial-intelligence-humu.html
Student comments on Nudging your way to the top?
This is a very interesting article and concept. I was aware of nudging as a way to promote employee engagement and morale, but had no clue that there were official software making them possible.
While I think it is a great idea in general, there are 2 issues I foresee that make think twice about implementing such a system.
First, i believe there is a genuine concern that companies might overindex on ‘nudging’ and use it as a way to get their employees to perform tasks outside of their purview. While you did mention that one of the critical components for this to work is mutual benefit to both parties, this should really be highlighted as a potential issue. I can easily see big corporations with a large employee base nudging their staff to go the extra mile for customers. An example might be Walmart sending a grocery store clerk the right emails and messages from their managers to uplift his/her and then asking him/her to also help load out inventory in the deliveries bay, a task usually performed by a dedicated employee.
Another more general concern relates to data. We have seen in the course so far at least 4 different ventures that rely on collecting and analyzing employee data, interactions and communications to increase efficiency. However, each of these ventures targets a very different aspect of employee engagement and efficiency. At what point will employees say that there is too much going on and start pushing back at all these AI’s, software, algorithms and platforms.
Mimi, thank you for this post! I was in SF last year and heard a lot about Humu from my friends so it was very cool to know how their product is used.
I love Humu’s integrative approach (e.g. data science, behavioral science, and human intelligence) and how they are providing solutions to employee’s normal business flow in less intrusive way. Two questions came to my mind.
First, related with your point about measurement of success, I wonder how the employees are motivated to actually do the actions that they are nudged to do. For instance, I have heard the power of small actions every day, but I tend to forget it because it is hard to see its impact.
Second, I wonder how much they are tailoring their algorithm to each industry or work situation. I think this solution has potential not just to the service industry like sweetgreen, but I assume that nudges they recommend and the measurement of success might be different.
Thanks Mimi – this is a super interesting idea and a great read!
I completely agree that in order for this to be effective, it needs to matter to both the organization and the employee. Personalization will be key to ensure that employees respond and engage with the suggested nudge. If companies start sending out generic suggestions for performance improvement, it is likely that employees will stop paying attention, particularly if they don’t feel the content is relevant to their own behavior or areas for improvement.
To that end, I think it would be great to be able to tie these nudges to suggestions made during annual performance reviews. Often performance reviews surface areas of improvement, but fail to provide actionable ways to work on weaknesses. Even when reviews do provide critical skill enhancing steps, it is incumbent on managers to check in with employees on a regular basis to track progress and keep the suggestions fresh and relevant. Humu or similar software, could serve as this crucial link between review and improvement, by providing employees with the behaviors that will lead to better performance and nudging them to perform those actions at a regular cadence.
Great article! Thanks.
I like the idea of nudging because many companies try to change employees’ behavior by forcing. Nudging in this sense sounds acceptable and effective. I would definitely try out if the service can tell me how I can be a better person.
I wonder, though, how much “machine learning” is involved. It sounds all great but there might be some people behind the desk and writing random things. (sorry for the skepticism) If the message is not tailored and customized for individuals, Humu might not have a competitive advantage against other survey tools. I also agree that the measurement of success is very important. Because the service requires extra tasks for employees (lots of surveys, checking emails, etc), if not successful, cost-effectiveness might not good enough to sustain the service.
Really interesting – I can imagine this being a really useful tool. It feels like an extension of an app on your phone that reminds you to stand up or drink water every hour, but more personalized to your own goals.
But I also wonder what Humu replaces – are front-line staff not getting coaching from mangers, but just automated pushes? How does this change how we think about people development? I can imagine Humu eventually undermining an organization’s ability to promote from within if lower-level employees are just pushed to perform certain tasks versus developing broad-based competencies.
As someone who has played around with nudges in my own product, it is very difficult to do well. From a software / data perspective, it is tough to surface increasingly valuable insights that can form the rationale behind a new nudge. This leads to employees getting tired of the same nudges over and over again. If Humu can figure out a way to add serendipity or fun into the nudging (i.e. gamification), this could be huge!