Designing Effective Workplace Nudges

Nudges have become a hot topic among HR folk as they promise powerful new ways to drive organizational change. In spite of this, many organizations have been slow to implement them at scale, due to the perceived complexities involved and concerns over whether they will be accepted by employees. As the number of experiments and real-world projects grow, so does our understanding of how to design effective systems for implementing nudges at scale. This article covers some key issues to consider when implementing nudges.

What Are Workplace Nudges?

In the workplace context, nudges are typically automated notifications or reminders sent to individual contributors, managers or other leaders with the goal of either reinforcing existing behaviors or triggering some action. They are being applied to a variety of uses in the workplace, including improving employee experience, employee moral, manager effectiveness and organizational efficiency.

For example, if you’re a manager and a new hire joins your team, a nudge could be sent to you over email on the individuals’ 6-month anniversary, with a prompt to schedule a check-in meeting. A seemingly minor reminder like this could have a significant impact when applied across thousands of similar cases in an organization. It would for instance:

  • Increase the number of managers running 6-month check-ins with new hires 
  • Boost the odds of detecting issues early on when actions are easier to take 
  • Drive up the number of employees successfully onboarded. 

All of this at little to no cost! It’s clear why many HR leaders are so excited by nudges.

Example of a nudge prompting managers to schedule regular 1-on-1s with their reports

Nudges Have Been Around for a While

Nudges are not a new idea but were recently popularized by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their best selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. HR's interest in nudges has really bloomed over the past couple of years, spurred by the demand for finding new ways to improve employee engagement and drive efficiency. Josh Bersin has written numerous times on the value of nudges and how they are fundamental to helping HR teams go from mere feedback to real action. Newer technologies in data mining and AI have also meant that deploying more intelligent nudges at scale, for hundreds or thousands of employees, is now within reach. Vendors including Lazlo Bock’s Humu and my company, Worklytics, are actively working on this challenge.

Effective Nudges Are Hard to Design

In spite of this growing momentum, intelligent nudges are still a nascent technology. Only a relatively small number of organizations have been able to put them to good use at scale. This is because building an effective system of nudges is a hard problem to solve. Nudges implemented in the wrong way can be destructive and perceived by employees as annoying, condescending or even creepy. As more testing is done and successful examples of implementations are shared, much is being learned about how to effectively implement this powerful technology. 

Designing Effective Nudges

To help you get started and to avoid some of the missteps we’ve seen, here are a few of the key lessons we've learned while implementing nudges:

1. Timing is Everything

Sending a nudge at the right time can be the difference between a useful insight and an annoying intrusion. The closer a nudge is to the event or behavior you are trying to change or reinforce the more likely the lesson is to be accepted, understood and incorporated. This is trickier than it seems, as it requires having reliable timely insight into potential issues occurring within your organization. When organizations use surveys to determine how their managers can improve, by the time they actually identify the nudge they want to suggest, the issue is already dated and out of context. An issue detected in a survey 6-months ago should not be used to trigger a nudge today. You need to know what happened last week! This is why real-time employee listening techniques like active ONA and pulse surveys are particularly useful for triggering nudges.

2. Frame as a Learning Opportunity

We’ve found that some of the most effective nudges are simple recommendations of articles or useful 3rd party content prompting individuals to learn more about a relevant topic. For instance, right when a manager joins a new team, sending them a nudge with content on how to ramp up and get to know their reports can have a significant impact on their success. Nudges are a fantastic way to target this type of micro-training material at the right people and in the appropriate context. Google has deployed these types of microlearning nudges to great effect. This informative type of nudge tends to be far more readily accepted as it allows people to take ownership of a problem and come to their own conclusions, as opposed to being told what to do.

Example of a microlearning email-based nudge taken from Google/re:Work

3. Positive Reinforcement

Many people first consider implementing nudges focused on changing or preventing negative behaviors. The truth is that reinforcing a positive behavior can be far more effective. Sending too many negative nudges will also make people feel nitpicked and far less likely to accept future recommendations. It’s critical to balance out your strategy by spending more time thinking about behavioral patterns that work well and reinforcing them.

4. Less is More

A smaller number of high quality nudges sent at the right time will always be more effective. One of the easiest ways to ensure that people reject your nudges is by sending them too often. Think about how you feel when apps like Facebook or Instagram send you hundreds of notifications on your phone. One begins to ignore them. We recommend sending a maximum of 1 nudge per week to any specific individual. Some organizations even do better with biweekly or monthly nudges. We’ve also had success aggregating multiple nudges into a single group email to keep the volume of messages low while still addressing multiple factors. We recommend you prioritize and focus on the small set of nudges that are high impact or have proven to work in other parts of the organization.

A weekly aggregate nudge email including a number for recommendations on actions a manager could take to improve the experience on their team.

5. Collect Feedback & Track Results

Getting nudges right is an iterative process. To effectively manage this you need a good feedback loop with end users and a way to track results. You need to know whether flagging a particular issue or sending a recommendation is helpful or not. That’s why we always recommend building a feedback channel to encourage this communication. We include a feedback link (“Was this useful”) with every nudge sent and a prompt for additional information. This provides HR teams with a wealth of information from end users they can apply to continually perfecting the system. Tracking the results of nudges is often trickier but equally important. In the first onboarding example I gave, one could for instance track the percent of new hires having a 6 month check-in meetings with their manager over time. In the absence of clear outcomes one can also track simple engagement metrics on whether nudges are being opened/read and links to 3rd party content are clicked. 

Link we include at the end of every nudge email to gather user feedback

Nudges are a transformational technology that can boost employee satisfaction, and ultimately improve company performance. If designed mindfully, they can guide managers to take actions which help foster better team relationships, and enhance overall employee experience. We hope that these ideas help you create meaningful nudges and pave the road to a happier workforce!

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