Main content

Workday Rising 2022 - is continuous listening disruptive to HR managers? Peakon's GM takes the interview hot seat

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 22, 2022
Intelligent listening - what organization couldn't use more of that? But can Peakon do that for HR teams at enterprise scale? At Workday Rising, I put Workday's GM for Peakon Phil Chambers on the interview hot seat - and got a few surprises of my own.

Phil Chambers - GM Peakon at Workday
(Phil Cambers at Workday Rising, Orlando)

Before last week's big HR tech shows, Brian Sommer penned a scorcher. His challenge to managers? Why aren't you listening to your employees?

In the past, HR leaders could fall back on this: you can't "listen" to employees at meaningful scale - particularly in a remote work world. But a new wave of "employee experience" tools are proving that false.

Now, there are no more excuses. If you don't have a "continuous listening" framework inside your organization, that's on you.

With its 2021 acquisition of Peakon, Workday took a huge step towards making that possible for its customers - inside the Workday platform. At last week's Workday Rising, I got an update on Peakon - now called Workday Peakon Employee Voice - via a sit down with Phil Chambers, the company's co-founder and now Workday's General Manager for Peakon.

But what about survey fatigue?

But hold up: employee "listening" tools are driven mainly by surveys - and you probably know how I feel about surveys. So I had some cranky questions ready for Chambers:

  • How do we overcome survey fatigue?
  • How do we handle the problem of bad managers - a major reason employees quit?
  • What about protecting employees who want to leave anonymous feedback?

So what say you, Mr. Chambers - is survey fatigue a real thing, or am I just a survey grouch? His response:

We definitely think survey fatigue is a problem in enterprises. Every man, woman and their dog wants to send surveys about everything. What we realized with Peakon: we need to have one survey experience, and we need to be the guardians of the employee in that, because otherwise it gets out of control.

Crucial distinction: Peakon does not relinquish full control over their survey tooling to customers. Chambers explains:

What we do with Intelligent Listening: you decide on a configuration you like, so you can take engagement questions like diversity, inclusion, health and well being, COVID-19 transmission and change management factors - all of these different things. We say,  'Okay, which of these do you want to actually run? And how frequently?' You choose a cadence, and click "go" - we work out the rest.

From legacy surveys to continuous feedback

Chambers says proper survey design reduces overwhelm. He asked me: would I rather fill out a lengthy survey once a year, or a few quick questions a week? A few questions a week - that's a no-brainer. Early on, Peakon's team had a breakthrough: they needed to take the burden of survey administration off the hands of HR managers:

We rapidly realized people aren't going to ask the same questions each week... The system needs to figure out who to ask, what, and when. The other benefit is you take away all the administration. All these HR teams have been spending months figuring out: which populations should we survey? Which questions do we run? Should we write our own questions?

Compiling the results? Another time and resource drain. Then the reports get stuck in review. Companies would say:

'We need to vet the results first, because there might be some findings people don't like.'

That needed to change:

We rid of all of that stuff. And we said, 'No, this is gonna be fully automatic; you're not going to choose the questions; we're going to automate everything.' So you can focus on the value add, and we're going to distribute all these insights to managers immediately.

To go further, we need to understand Peakon's main components. My colleague Phil Wainewright laid it out well in his 2021 interview with Chambers. The short version:

  • 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."
  • Total activation - sharing VoE [Voice of Employee] 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.

Peakon's goal? As Wainewright put it:

The combined effect of these features is that data is pushed to managers immediately, along with suggested priorities for action. Chambers says: 'You can dynamically react and adjust your management style and your priorities based on your Peakon data.'

The vexing problem of bad managers - can Peakon help?

Now you're listening at scale - much closer to real-time. Don't you have to educate/guide managers on how to best apply that data? I'd argue yes. But first: what if the manager in question is a so-called "bad manager"? Or, being diplomatic: some managers are in the wrong roles, with the wrong team. Worst case: they have biases that hinder some employees from advancing.

A 2018 Udemy study found almost half of employees surveyed had quit because of a bad manager; almost two-thirds believe their manager "lacked proper managerial training." With Peakon's "intelligent listening," can we intervene sooner - and put a dent in these stats? Chambers:

You get really good comparability in Peakon. So as a manager of managers, I can go on the heatmap. I can put all my managers side by side. I can see the NPS score for those managers, as rated by their teams. I can also see how that is different to the benchmark, not only at the company, but where we would expect them to be, based on the team composition.

Now that Peakon is a mature solution, they have benchmarking data to support these comparisons. That data revealed something interesting:

This is another example of not accepting the status quo... As the dataset grew, we found that actually, industry wasn't the biggest driver of difference to benchmark -  it was team composition.

Example: you could be managing a team of seasoned employees, whose satisfaction levels tend to be lower than new employees. Or, maybe a manager with a low score is in charge of a facility that is being phased out. Chambers:

The question is: to what level should we adjust the benchmarks? We do that automatically, on a team and an organizational level. 

Designing for anonymity - and open text input

Turns out identifying bad managers is trickier than I thought. Chambers is right: if you're going to intervene, you better have the right benchmarks. But you're not getting good data unless employees are comfortable giving it. Peakon is designed to protect anonymity. Employees can provide anonymous feedback, which can be seen by those up the reporting tree from the manager in question. Employees can have the opportunity to engage with that supervisor's supervisor anonymously.

Another huge underrated key to Peakon? The use of open text fields. Too many survey tools miss crucial data by clinging to multiple choice formats. But if your AI/text recognition is good enough, shouldn't you be able to pull sentiment from open text fields? Chambers:

Sometimes customers say, 'Can we turn off the text comments for this question?' And we say, 'No, that's not an option.' Because we know that if you want to get actionable insights, you need to tie the comments back to the questions.

Bingo. Chambers adds:

Then you've got the sentiment; you've got what you're asking about... Because our NLP technology is so good, we can analyze all of that and generate meaning from it. So actually, more comments are better.

And because we're trying to push this down in the organization, we're not asking the HR leader to read all the comments. You read the summary we provide you, and your line managers read their comments. It's everybody's job.

My take - customer proof points are everything

I'm always on the hunt for customer proof points: who has adopted your solution? Has it been used at enterprise scale? Has ROI been established? (Here's one promising study on Peakon ROI).

As Wainewright reported, Workday adopted Peakon across the organization - "intelligent listening" has already led to policy changes. Accenture is in the midst of a major Peakon pilot (about 100,000 are using it now, with plans to roll it out to 1,000,000 employees in the works). When I asked a Workday partner panel about Peakon, Gloria Samuels, Global Workday Practice Lead at Accenture, responded:

I'm using it. I was a little bit of a skeptic. We were talking about this before, in terms of how we did employee sentiment.

Samuels said real-time feedback is disruptive, in the best way possible:

This real-time monitoring and listening, I really think is a step change... As a Peakon user, the real-time feedback you get - I have some leaders who are starting their leadership team meetings with real-time sentiment, where we used to have, 'Here's the result of last quarter's survey.' I don't know about you, but the world's changing so darn quickly. Knowing what's on people's minds is really important.

Continuous listening is a welcome push:

As a user, I'm personally loving it... An employee can make a comment; I can send a reply. My first reaction was, 'Wait a minute, that feels creepy, right? That's not the world I grew up in.' But it's anonymized, and employees are really appreciating that someone's actually reacting to their comments.

Readers know I'm pretty grouchy about new "innovations." Creative ideas are everywhere, but it's rare to see a potent new innovation operating at enterprise scale. Usually, by the end of an interview, I've poked enough holes to keep my skepticism partially intact. But this was the best product interview I've had on HR tech in years. Chambers was ready for everything I threw at him; his team had an action in place for all of my objections.

Example: doesn't Peakon have an obligation to help companies learn how to use such a powerful tool effectively and responsibly? What about a maturity model to help customers understand how to adapt? Chambers responded:

I completely agree with you. We've basically got a readiness assessment, which looks at how successful you're likely to be on this transition to a continuous listening model, based on about ten different factors.

I tried to catch Chambers by surprise with a curve ball: shouldn't Workday be using Peakon on all of its software implementations? Making informed course corrections on projects is the main thing that's been lacking from systems integrators' tool kits.

For too many years - make that decades - in the enterprise software industry, customers paid the price for those inadequate feedback loops. Yes, Chambers' team is looking hard at that too. They've already developed a set of transformation and change questions, intended for large-scale projects:

I do believe that by more regularly examining what people on the ground who are actually doing the implementation are saying and thinking, you're likely to massively de-risk large-scale projects.

Preach. Accenture is definitely open to it. As Samuels told me during our analyst Q/A with Workday partners: "I think it's a really great idea. I'd like to think about how we might incorporate Peakon into an upcoming large engagement."

As for the integration roadmap, Peakon is already integrated into Workday from a user experience standpoint. Chambers acknowledges the complete integration of VoE across Workday is a "multi-year project," but some of that is already done: Workday Peakon Employee Voice is already tied into Prism (and Workday People Analytics) via a native connector. Tying Peakon into learning recommendations is one of many useful integrations ahead.

There is more: I want to get Chambers' views on moving beyond surveys by measuring employee sentiment in other ways - and how you could do that while preserving privacy. I also plan to dig into a customer use case, and document how customers make a culture and process change to continuous listening.

I agree with Chambers: employee morale is the biggest reason transformations stall or fail. No matter how well designed a tool is - and Peakon seems very well designed indeed - you still have to act. The tools are there; now we can emphatically say: why aren't we acting?

A grey colored placeholder image