Exclusive - Peakon's Phil Chambers on bringing voice of the employee to Workday

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 8, 2021
An exclusive diginomica interview with Peakon co-founder Phil Chambers on the day of its relaunch as Workday Peakon Employee Voice.

Phil Chambers, Workday GM for Peakon - screenshot from Zoom call
Phil Chambers, Workday (screenshot from Zoom call)

Workday employees got an unexpected benefit from the internal roll-out of its recently acquired employee engagement app, which today relaunches as Workday Peakon Employee Voice. Within a couple of weeks of Workday's 13,400 employees having access to Peakon, the most commented topic became Thank You Fridays — an extra day off that Workday had given employees every other week throughout July and August to disconnect from work and recharge after the tension of the pandemic. The feedback made it clear that the initiative had not only been successful but needed to continue. As a result, Workday reinstituted Thank You Fridays for one day each month from the end of September.

The episode illustrates the value of a Voice of the Employee (VoE) tool like Peakon, says Phil Chambers, the company's co-founder and now Workday's General Manager for Peakon, who spoke to diginomica in an exclusive interview ahead of today's relaunch. It's an example of how sentiment data can support a decision that may seem counter-intuitive to top management — such as the notion that engagement can be improved by giving staff more time off. He explains:

It basically gave the evidence that you needed, to see leadership to make the change.

I think that's often what mid-management are lacking. This thing is obvious to them, but without this rich set of verbatims, can you really affect change in a big company? It's hard, right?

I think you're now equipped with the tools you need. You say, 'Well, look, our score's been trending down, attrition is trending up, Peakon is saying this. And guess what? We've got 1,000 comments to back it up. Now, Mr CEO, do you want to change your opinion on policy X?' I think, now, that is how change gets effected in big companies.

The broader message is that any company's leadership often misreads or fails to realize how employees actually feel, and the old methods of tracking engagement such as employee surveys or annual or half-yearly reviews can't overcome that gap in perception. Below, we'll dig into the particular way that Peakon goes about this, but as a summary, Chambers says:

I think there's this gap between companies' perceptions of what employees want, and what employees actually want. I think what we're trying to do with Peakon is close that gap — make it more effective for companies and a better experience for employees.

He gives an example from his own experience in the early days at Peakon, when at an all-hands meeting at the end of one week he had reflected on a poor set of results and urged everyone to put in more effort. By Monday morning, it was obvious from the torrent of comments in the app how badly employees had taken his remarks. He found it an invaluable learning moment about the importance of tone — he now admits that, "Whilst the spirit of what I wanted to say had been directionally correct, the method of delivery was terrible." But he points out that, without a continuous listening approach, he might never have discovered that issue in his leadership style.

Other examples from customers show the impact of data on decision-making. One organization measured the impact of pay changes on employee engagement, by raising pay in one set of locations while leaving it at the old rate in a control set of locations. The results showed that raising pay not only increased engagement, it also improved customer satisfaction and profitability. The raise was rolled out across the organization. In another example, increased engagement in an industrial setting led to a reduction in safety incidents.

Core proposition unchanged

Today sees the launch of a newly integrated and rebranded Peakon, following on from its acquisition by Workday, which closed in March. Workday employees had early access through an eight-week roll-out and the app has achieved 95% aggregate participation, a big improvement on the company's previous survey tool. Workday employees left more than 81,000 comments and 72% of people leaders acknowledged or replied to comments — in contrast to the old system, where there was no mechanism for getting a response or even knowing whether anyone had read your comments.

In addition to the name change, the look-and-feel of the app is being updated to bring it into line with the Workday user experience, and there are improved integrations into Prism and the Workday platform. The expanded name — Workday Peakon Employee Voice — is intended to capitalize on name recognition where Peakon is known, while adding an explanation of what it does for those unfamiliar with the product. There's much more to come, says Chambers, with potential for closer integration into VIBE, Workday's inclusion, belonging and equity initiative, and other tools such as learning and development.

There's no change to the core proposition of Peakon and its employee-centric approach to engagement. There are two aspects of its approach that I find very distinctive. First of all, there's a really strong ethos of consent, and building employee trust in the app. Any data in Peakon is voluntarily submitted by employees — there's no 'harvesting' of sentiment data from other sources. Employees are in control of who sees their data, even to the extent that they can engage in dialog with a manager or an executive on the app without being personally identified to that person. This in turn means the data can be trusted, as Chambers explains:

One of the reasons why I think you can trust the Peakon results is because we build up this incredible amount of trust in employees, that they are genuinely confidential ... I think the whole edifice of VoE comes crashing down if trust is broken.

The second aspect is that, right from the start, Peakon has been architected so that it can aggregate anonymized data across its entire customer base. As a result, it now has a rich dataset that it uses for benchmarking. The results can be seen publicly in the form of Heartbeat reports based on trends in the data. But its impact is also felt within the app, debunking some of the traditional ideas around benchmarking, where firms typically compared themselves against other companies in the same industry. Chambers comments:

What we found when we looked at the data was that the composition of employees in your company makes a much, much bigger effect than the industry you work in. Because basically, people all want the same thing, they're all human.

For example, the data showed that engagement falls the longer someone is in the same job. So a team whose make-up changes little over time will inevitably have lower overall engagement than a team with a lot of recent recruits. Other factors have an impact too. The Peakon app is able to take those factors into account when calculating a realistic engagement target for each manager.

Priorities for action

Chambers himself cites three core differentiators, which he believes are strengthened by now being part of an HCM vendor's offering:

  • Intelligent listening — to minimize the frequency of surveys and questions, Peakon uses automation to "ask the right question to the right person at the right time." Integration with Workday will further improve the timeliness of questions around events such as a change of manager, a pay rise, or whether people are working remotely or in the office.
  • Total activation — sharing VoE data in real-time and giving everyone an engagement dashboard along with suggested actions, empowering line managers and employees to act on that data.
  • Execution analytics — connecting engagement data to business KPIs, with the connection into Prism and other Workday tools opening up much richer ways to analyze the relationship between engagement and business metrics such as CSAT, profitability and performance goals.

The combined effect of these features is that data is pushed to managers immediately, along with suggested priorities for action. Chambers says:

You can actually dynamically react and adjust your management style and your priorities based on your Peakon data.

Peakon's data shows that suggested actions are twice as effective as just leaving the manager to work out what to do by themselves, he adds. This transparency and speed is a much better fit for today's fast-changing work environment than the secretive, batch processes of old. Chambers portrays the contrast:

Historically, you'd do an annual engagement survey, and the results would come back three months later, and they'd go to the CEO and the head of HR, and then they would decide which bits of it they wanted to share. Or, importantly, which bits of it they didn't want to share. We've really turned this on its head, and we said, 'No, there should be real-time data sharing, at the coalface as well with the line manager.' That is ultimately the person who can effect the most change in the organization.

Everyone readily agrees that employees are a key stakeholder in employee engagement. Why not empower them with the data they need to effect change? He argues:

Why has no software in the past ever been designed to share any information back with employees? You submit your stuff, and it goes into a black hole, and then some people make some decisions.

No, actually, you should be able to log in, you should be able to see what your own scores are, see how that's trending, see how that compares to that of your team. You should be able to make suggestions on how to improve the company, because at the end of the day, you're at the coalface.

My take

Bringing Peakon into the Workday fold brings an invaluable extra dose of transparency and two-way communication into its HCM offering. Today's employees want to be much more in control of their destiny than was ever possible before, and Peakon's experience shows that can be good for their employers too. Empowering people to take charge of their own engagement, and that of their work colleagues, is truly in tune with today's zeitgeist. But it does require a culture change for organizations that have traditionally taken more of a top-down approach. It will be interesting to see how the product evolves as it integrates more closely into other elements of the Workday platform such as Skills Cloud and Learning. It will also be interesting to watch the evolution of organizations that adopt Workday Peakon and how they'll adapt to this cultural change.

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