Questions can have a magical ability to create change within organizations and individuals—but you have to ask the right ones at the right time. What if you could increase employee engagement simply by asking for feedback more frequently and measuring the responses? By understanding what employees want, leaders can respond to their needs, thus increasing retention and engagement. Research by Gallup shows that while employees’ degree of engagement in their work varies widely, as much as 70 percent of that variance is due to differences among managers.

In the last five years, the number of companies offering employee engagement and happiness surveys, feedback tools, pulse checks, and culture assessments has exploded. While the clients listed on these companies’ websites are mainly big corporations, a growing number of social sector organizations are also using them. I recently spoke with three companies offering engagement software—15Five, Officevibe, and Culture Amp—as well as some of their social sector clients. Each company reported that around 10 percent of its customers are social enterprises or nonprofits, and that this percentage is increasing each year.

How Does Engagement Software Work?

One of the software companies, 15Five, combines qualitative employee feedback with task management, pulse surveys, and peer recognition to integrate performance management with tracking of how people feel about their work. The platform launched in 2012, and about 1,100 organizations—including Warby Parker, Etsy, Red Cross, Bucketfeet, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—currently use it.

The software facilitates weekly check-ins between employees and their managers by automatically sending a survey (with either custom questions or ones from 15Five’s database) to all employees. The survey takes about 15 minutes to answer and five minutes per employee for managers to review (hence the name 15Five). Each organization uses the tool slightly differently, depending on its values and needs. “We will never replace a human system, and we don’t want to,” says Shane Metcalf, vice president of customer success. “It’s still up to the manager to carry that conversation forward.” One of the most popular survey questions is, “Who do you want to get to know better in the organization?” Employees can tag other employees to set up a virtual or in-person coffee date.

An example report from 15Five’s dashboard.

Officevibe works similarly. Every week, the platform sends an email to all employees with five questions asking for feedback about their work, and their relationships with co-workers and managers. Though its five-question surveys are not customizable, the company’s bank of 350 questions includes both quantitative and qualitative queries, each with a basis in organizational psychology. Organizations can also dig deeper based on feedback using follow-up surveys and polls.

Officevibe was founded in 2014, and now has more than 500 customers; social sector clients include B Lab, Feeding America, ONE DROP, and San Diego’s Workforce Partnership. Alicia Agnew, B Lab’s manager of people and culture, used the program to help determine whether the company’s investment in its annual staff retreat improved employee engagement. Officevibe gave Agnew a report that showed employees’ engagement level over time, and whether it had gone up or down.

This Officevibe dashboard (not based on a real organization) is measuring 10 different metrics of engagement, including happiness. The score on the y-axis is average rating—with 10 as the highest—across those metrics. The x-axis is time.

Agnew found out that employees did respond more favorably after the retreat. Overall engagement and relationships between colleagues and managers—a component of the engagement score—both improved. 

She has also found the platform useful for new managers. Beyond surveys, Officevibe has a library of resources, including templates and guides to help managers make changes based on employee feedback. For example, if an organization’s engagement scores are low, and employees have given qualitative feedback about how their meetings with managers could improve, Officevibe displays a guide on how to have better one-on-one meetings. If feedback shows that employees on a team don't feel like they have growth opportunities, Officevibe advises managers on how to help create a competency development plan with action steps and mentorship. 

After measuring engagement, Officevibe’s Improve section offers managers tailored resources and tips.

Another software provider is Culture Amp, which describes itself as “a people analytics platform that enables companies to truly understand what their people are thinking and feeling throughout the employee life cycle.” Founded in 2011, its philosophy is that leadership teams have to measure employee engagement and effectiveness before they can understand what it takes to improve it. Culture Amp currently has more than 600 clients, including the Wikimedia Foundation, Warby Parker (also a 15Five client), Cancer Council, Save the Children, Make a Wish, and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Depending on what they want to measure, organizations can decide which questions to ask and how often to ask them. What makes Culture Amp different from Officevibe (and more similar to 15Five) is that it offers a template of scientifically developed surveys, but every question is customizable. Since social sector organizations aren’t primarily focused on making a profit in the way most companies are, many develop questions based on their mission or values. Most organizations start out with an all-employee engagement survey and then take action based on the results. They can then send out a follow up “pulse” survey to measure the impact of the resulting organizational changes.

David Ostberg, head of insights at Culture Amp, recommends that the “Frequency of measurement should not exceed the frequency of action.” In other words, organizations should not waste employees’ time by over-surveying if they don’t have the time or resources to take action on the feedback. Sending out a survey raises people’s hopes that things will change based on their responses. If nothing changes, employees will be disheartened and less willing to share their perspectives.

Putting the Tools to Work

The main benefit to using this kind of software, of course, is that organizations can gain increased visibility into what employees care about and how they are feeling—particularly in times of transition. In the BLab example above, Agnew elected to use Officevibe because her team was growing rapidly. “In an 18 month period, staff grew by 30 percent,” she says. “Things became more complex. We needed to make sure our employees had the resources and trainings they needed.”  

Brian Christman from Etsy (a B Corporation) explains that Culture Amp helps the company measure collective successes and challenges by surfacing what he describes as “important, anonymous feedback from our employees about their experience and sentiment at work.” Christman’s favorite tool within Culture Amp is the Heatmap report, which lets him visualize results filtered by any demographic. This report gives him a way to identify hot spots or problem areas so that he can focus his efforts.

Culture Amp’s Heatmap report can show survey scores by country (great for multi-national organizations), department, team, gender, age, and tenure. Here we see the scores displayed by Delta (difference) from the aggregated scores.

Once they’re set up, the tools are also easy and fast to use. Raaja Nemani—CEO of Bucketfeet, a shoe company that aims to connect people through art by selling shoes designed by different artists—elected to use 15Five, because it takes relatively little time to manage (less than half an hour per week) while providing outsized results. “In a fast-moving, nimble organization where you aren’t able to interact with everyone on a daily basis, it’s a way to gain insight into what’s happening on all levels—not only about what work is getting done, but also about how are people feeling and what they want,” Nemani says. “15Five forces you to do it every single week. ... Some of the things that don’t directly move the needle at a startup are the ones that don’t get done, but they do have an impact on [culture].”

Christman emphasizes Culture Amp’s flexibility, saying, “It's not a heavy lift—you can do it on your phone, you can do it at your desk, you can complete it in about 10 minutes.”

The tools also give organizations a way to be more inclusive and transparent with employees. Etsy gives every employee access to the collected Culture Amp data so that they can engage with the high-level results on their own time. Christman says this part of the process is especially valuable because it “helps close the loop for employees to say, ‘I really want to participate in this, because I'm really interested in the results and I know I'm going to get them.’” Etsy walks its managers through the results, and then encourages them to share the results with their teams. Christman says this allows “employees to know they're being heard, which I think re-engages them to participate in the survey the next time.”

All told, these tools seem to be living up to their promise of helping employees thrive and feel appreciated at work. That’s important, because social sector employees usually aren’t making as much money as their colleagues in for-profit companies. Many aren’t primarily motivated by money, but at the same time, social sector work can be grueling. With so much emphasis on serving a social mission, people can get burned out. Agnew says that Officevibe allows her measure mission-alignment and engagement throughout the year, and then helps her make changes to keep her colleagues inspired and motivated. For example, she can ask, “What would make you happier at work?” or “What would motivate you to work better?” or even “Did you receive enough feedback last week?” She calls the platform a “valuable retention tool.”

In a sector that is often resource-strapped, the potential impact of these engagement tools is significant: greater employee efficiency and retention with relatively minimal effort. Many leaders know that culture and engagement is important, but can empathize with Nemani when he says, “I don’t want to spend my entire day analyzing it.”

Employing these new tools comes with a cost and requires commitment from organization leaders. They may not be necessary or worth investing in for smaller organizations (especially those with fewer than 20 people). But especially for growing organizations, they can help motivate leaders to actively improve workplace culture and ultimately lead to a virtuous cycle of feedback. Engagement software makes it easier to continuously learn, act, and repeat.