‘Give them a nudge’ – could the answer to employee productivity lie in a text?

Productive employees are the holy grail of a successful organization. Could the answer to getting more out of our staff be as simple as sending an SMS?

We may be physically present for eight hours of work a day, but most of the time, we’re mentally checked out. In fact, research shows the average American is productive for just under 3 hours a day. For any member of management, that’s a scary – and pretty depressing – thought.

Many ideas have been tried and tested in the bid to unlock greater productivity in our staff. We’ve introduced new tools, platforms, technological gimmicks promising to unlock hours of lost time. We’ve banned social media and let it back in again; increased flexibility for staff and then roped in back in again. The more ‘out there’ companies have even gone as far as slashing the working day to 5 hours, banning all internal meetings, eliminating the curse of email, or introducing nap rooms.

Admittedly, some of these have seen results. However, we’re continuing to see the global economy lose an estimated $550 billion every year due to lost productivity. Clearly, we’ve not found the answer yet.

Improving performance with a text: the idea

The Behavioural Insights Team, a UK-based social purpose company, is dedicated to the application of behavioral economics: applying psychological insights into human behavior to drive and explain economic decision-making.

One of its flagship products, Promptable, evolved from field-based research into the idea that small prompts of support or interest from an elected individual can have a significant impact on student key performance indicators – such as attendance and pass rates. Simply put, getting a ‘checking in’ text message from a friend, relative, or elected supporter can be a simple yet powerful tool for driving motivation, focus, and improving productivity in the workplace.

The results are surprisingly significant. BI Ventures, the team behind the Promptable program, has used one-off alerts to reduce missed appointments by 25%, and used a year-long program of texts to increase maths and English pass rates by 27%.

If such a simple practice can have results on well we do in exams or how often we miss a doctor’s appointment, could it translate into business productivity as well?

Checking in: the power of a nudge in business

According to a report by OfficeVibe, 31% of employees wish their manager communicated more frequently with them. 70% say their managers don’t provide clear goals or directions and agile performance management, which focuses on frequent feedback, regular conversations and check-ins, and coaching conversations that focus on growth and development, is on the rise.

The message is clear: staff want – and need – to be having more regular conversations with their managers.

However, the importance of peer support or in-work friendships and collaborative working is also proven to drive employee engagement in the workplace and improve productivity. When staff can connect with others who have similar experiences or interests, they can share ideas, become more innovative, and gain much-needed support.

With globalization, remote working, and dispersed workforces on the rise, the issue of internal communication is more prominent than ever. For regionally dispersed teams – such as those operating in retail with dispersed front-line stores, or healthcare individuals out on the road or in different wards within hospitals – this form of contact with both their individual manager and the organization as a whole can be challenging, if not impossible on a regular basis.

It will come as no surprise, then, that these types of organizations face the biggest risk to employee productivity, engagement, higher levels of absenteeism and turnover, and higher incidences of low morale or feelings of isolation.

Simply ‘checking in’ on a regular basis could make a significant difference to how those individuals connect to their organization and its purpose – and, ultimately, make them more productive.

How could we apply this to business and employee productivity?

This form of behavioral economics and ‘point in time’ messaging to individuals in business can be applied in a multitude of ways, depending on the organization in question and its needs. Let’s bring it to life with a few metaphorical use cases.

The ‘on the road’ worker:

Whether a salesperson attending meetings or a nurse undertaking home visits to patients, there are a number of employees out and about as a large portion of their role.

A simple ‘good luck’ before that big meeting, or a ‘check in’ after a visit to see if they need additional support or follow-up actions, can make a huge difference to morale and motivation.

The front-line shop worker:

For individuals charged with being the face of the business on the front line, a lack of connection to the rest of the business can feel isolating. There are suggestions these individuals can feel like ‘second-class’ employees; in comparison to those working in a centralized head office.

Text notifications that are tailored and relevant to select groups and individuals can help them feel a part of the wider business and its culture. These could be in the form of important business updates or collective recognition and messages for a group; perhaps a ‘nudge’ from a regional manager about an upcoming incentive, or to wish members of a shop good luck before an event.

The remote worker or telecommuter:

Named as ‘one of the biggest drivers of transformation in the workplace’, remote working is continuing to grow in popularity.

43 percent of Americans spent at least some time working remotely last year, up from 39 percent in 2012.

However, with this new way of working we’re also seeing a new set of challenges: particularly in terms of lack of inclusion, communication silos, accountability and more. Using communication tools to connect remote workers with peers, managers and the overall business will ensure those individuals know they are valued, that someone is interested in their role and well-being and that their contributions count. A text message can play a vital role in keeping remote workers connected, alerting them to key messages that may otherwise be missed.

Two-way messaging

The beauty of the concept initiated by BI Ventures is that it isn’t one-way; messages are actively sent to supporters, alerting them to the fact that their peer, friend, or relative is undertaking a particular task or benchmark, and therefore may need some encouragement.

To translate this to a business environment, let’s imagine the same philosophy applied to remind managers when a member of their team is about to undertake a significant milestone, event, or task. Depending on the size, location, and workload of any given team – that’s a lot of stuff to remember!

Creating an automated platform that could integrate with staff calendars, for example, or task and project management tools, could have huge potential and drive significant improvements in employee productivity.

Is a text message the answer?

The fail-safe text message has lost its popularity in the past decade, particularly in the shadow of platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Slack and more. Arguably, the SMS is yesterday’s news.

Couple this with the fact that many organizations now utilize social tools as part of their technology stack as standard, and the good ol’ email continues to play a central role in corporate communications. Why, then, would we revert to a text message? Surely there are other tools better suited to the job?

There are few reasons for the subtle power and potential of a text in a business environment:

  • Reaching the unreachable – due to the nature of some organizations, many individual employees don’t have – or even need – access to corporate systems. The idea of giving every single front-line worker on the production line in your 10,000-strong manufacturing business a corporate email and access to a desktop is, frankly, unrealistic. However, 95% of Americans (and 94% of UK citizens) own a cellphone of some kind. The ownership of a smartphone – which can accept different forms of social messaging – continues to lag behind at 77% (US) and 76% (UK). A text message is more universal and doesn’t require the end user to download anything, accept an invite to connect, or install anything.
  • Digital noise – the modern-day consumer battles a constant, incessant volume of digital noise. In fact, we are increasingly ‘desensitized’ to marketing messaging, dismissing or deleting many forms of contact before even digesting them. Unlike many apps – which can be silenced or uninstalled – the text message continues to hold a special status on the cellphone and is rarely silenced. A message will appear even on a locked screen and research shows that 90% of text messages are read within 3 minutes.
  • Cost – the majority of corporate communications tools and systems can be a sizeable price tag, with typical models based on a price per-employee, per-year. If that’s a subscription for an employee who may only receive periodic messages, it’s unlikely to be worth the investment. The text continues to be priced per message and is comparatively cheap.
  • Succinct messaging – admittedly, in an age of iMessage and all-inclusive cellphone deals that come with bundles of free texts, it’s easy to forget that there is a limit to the traditional text. However, the 160-character limit of a text does still exist – and can help ensure messages created are concise, simple, and get the point across. Too often, messages can get lost in an email, a letter, or even within an IM conversation. The character limit of a text makes sure the receiver has a clear idea of what the message or call to action is.

The text as part of a multi-faceted communications approach

Although we’ve argued the case for the text, there’s also a case for including it as part of a broader multi-channel approach to internal communication. Part of the beauty of the text is its brevity; but naturally, there are times when our staff need more information. A text may serve as the trigger point or ‘nudge’, but point staff to where they can find further information.

We also know from experience that no ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to effective communication. The more touchpoints and channels you can implement, the greater your chance of hitting the mark. This is particularly important in times of crisis, or when it’s essential that your employees read a message in a timely manner.

Interact’s newly introduced Broadcasts feature sets out to do just that. Managers or elected individuals can create and push out important updates, information, or alerts, directly from within the intranet. Messages are then distributed through a choice of text message, a Push Notification from the intranet app on a smartphone, email, using a screen lock-out feature, or using a banner of the homepage of the intranet. It’s an efficient approach to multi-channel publication of one-to-many communications that will reach even the most dispersed or disconnected of employees.

Interact broadcasts

Introducing text messaging to your corporate communication stack may seem outdated practice for the advocate of the ‘next big thing’ operating in a highly advanced technical environment.

However, as the cases above show, the text is a powerful go-to solution to reach employees quickly and efficiently; to cater to hard-to-reach or offline employees; and ultimately, to provide that virtual ‘nudge’ of encouragement or support that could drive greater productivity and engagement in our employees.