Taking a more thoughtful, strategic approach to the ways employees interact with their work environment can go a long way to keeping employees productive, happy, healthy and engaged at work.
But this approach doesn’t have to be hugely complex or daunting to implement – it’s often the case that small acts can make a big difference.
When we think about the purpose of Human Resources in a company, administration is probably the main duty that springs to mind. But in truth, it’s much more than just personnel reviews and admin. In today’s largely disengaged workplace, HR professionals are having to take on a much broader role that often includes boosting employee engagement, wellness and performance – not to mention helping individuals learn, develop and perform at their best, and providing useful feedback while also serving the company’s organisational mission.
All in all, a pretty wide-reaching job brief that has the potential to affect the very core of an organisation… No pressure there then.
In order to reach their organisational goals, companies are increasingly incorporating behavioural economic principles when designing their employee engagement programs, corporate-social responsibility policies, communications, change management and training. This is where the nattily-named Nudge Theory takes centre stage.
WHAT IS A NUDGE?
The nudge theory, coined by authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is about creating an environment that makes the right decisions easy to make. “Only 10 percent of human decision making is based on rational evaluation,” says Sille Krukow, founder of Krukow, a company that provides consultancy and development within behavioural design, nudge and behavioural optimisation.
“Translating what we know is the right thing to do into true behavioural change requires an extraordinary amount of energy, which is why 90 percent of decision making is driven by a subconscious or automatic system.”
For example, take the humble seatbelt in your car. We’ve all been taught, through road safety campaigns or lectures from our parents, that buckling up keeps us safe — yet, there are some who choose not to or simply forget from time to time. That blinking light on the car’s dashboard or warning chime however is a perfect example of a subtle reminder that pushes us towards safer behaviour. A small, but highly effective example of a behavioural nudge!
Whilst these types of nudges have existed for quite some time, the nudge theory is now being operationalised and purposefully implemented in the modern workplace. Nudges are now a widely-accepted tactic employed to reduce absenteeism, boost productivity, prioritise wellness, communicate more effectively and encourage health and wellbeing in the workplace.
In short, nudges are being used for creating environments that are conducive to success - for individuals as well as their organisations.
SETTING COURSE FOR TRUE BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE
“Often companies hold annual meetings to boost motivation, communicate the company vision and how employees should behave accordingly. They then expect that people will translate that into behavioural changes,” says Krukow. “While it may happen for the first week, in the long term we need to approach behavioural change in a different way.” Researchers Philip Ebert and Wolfgang Freibichler suggest well designed nudges that align employees’ unconscious behaviour with a company’s objectives are the answer to this problem.
Incorporating these nudges successfully into the workplace requires a few key elements. First, companies must identify specific behavioural and business targets. Secondly, in order to set up purposeful “choice architecture,” or an environment that influences employees’ decision making, HR professionals need to be in-tune with the daily experiences of their staff and how they make decisions. And lastly, companies need to identify and eliminate the barriers -- which can be physical, social or psychological -- standing in the way of behavioural change.
“Changing behaviour is not about using knowledge, but rather super simple interventions that engage our basic human instincts,” she says. After placing bottles of water on every desk each morning, Krukow quickly saw the returns of the subtle nudge: employees drank more water and walked to the bathroom more frequently — keeping them hydrated and helping them reach basic exercise targets.
REAPING THE BENEFITS OF NUDGING
Today, organisations are increasingly connecting the dots between healthy, happy employees and higher productivity, higher engagement and lower absenteeism. And whilst informing employees of the benefits of healthy behaviour is still crucial, studies show that simple nudges to steer behaviours can be more effective when it comes to creating real and lasting change.
For example, Google reported reducing employees’ collective calorie count by three million simply by placing healthy foods in more visible and accessible locations in the employee dining room. Other companies saw a rise in fruit consumption after they changed from a central help-yourself fruit bowl to a traveling fruit cart that served as a constant reminder to snack healthy. Influencing financial wellbeing is no different. Employers can offer auto-enrolment benefit options or send emails or messages to remind employees to set aside savings with each pay slip.
When it comes to boosting productivity, creating an “employee of the month” program is also another example of a little nudge that goes a long way. When it comes to successful engagement, not forgetting the small stuff is really important.
Celebrating individual successes – no matter how small - can boost morale and engagement and also encourage other co-workers to consider how they can boost their own performance.
Likewise, when global retailer Inditex set its sights on boosting sales targets in its stores, the company put up posters and publicly tracked the sales performance of individual employees. Used as a social driver, the initiative made everyone’s performance visible, nudging the entire team to perform better. As a result, employee engagement rose by as much as 100 percent. This strategy can be used to encourage employees to get on board with other company initiatives as well, such as surveys and various other programs.
Nudges can also be used to get employees onboard with initiatives that benefit the company as well. For example, when Virgin Atlantic wanted to cut its fuel consumption, the company told pilots that they would be part of a fuel use study - a nudge tactic that reduced carbon emissions by roughly 20,000 tons.
Similarly, with the organisational goal of reducing tardiness and absenteeism, Nimble Software Systems sent employees simple reminders prior to their shifts. Over a two-year period, the shift-scheduling platform cut tardiness by 21 percent and absenteeism by 16 percent. Nudges can also replace or reinforce annual performance reviews. Case studies show that regular nudges year-round motivate employees and keep key performance targets top of mind.
There are now also apps that are integrating the use of nudges into their platforms and using gamification successfully to incite a little friendly competition among employees. With a points system using badges and a running scoreboard, companies can create challenges between individual employees or even across regions and countries. Rewarding individuals for achieving short term goals or for participating in surveys or simply reading content drives performance towards achieving the company’s objectives.
Similarly, when Express Scripts, an American benefit manager, set the objective of creating a more united workforce, the company turned to nudges to strengthen the sense of community in the workplace. With a social network-style online platform, company leaders can nudge employees to share articles, books, photos and activities within digital communities - developed around similar areas of interest - encouraging a feeling of camaraderie. This can be particularly important in sprawling companies where employees from different departments don’t often have the occasion to engage with each other.
NUDGING IS JUST THE BEGINNING...
So, whether the goal is healthier employees, reducing absenteeism, boosting engagement or increasing productivity, HR professionals can foster real change within their organisations by focusing attention and resources on these types of subtle nudges that push employees in the right direction.