Employee suggestion boxes move into the digital age

At BGT Partners in Hallandale Beach, founder David Clarke wanted to give his staff a say in how to make the company better. So, Clarke took the classic suggestion box into the 21st century, creating a dedicated website where employees anonymously give him input on everything from perks to problems they want addressed. “It exposes things I otherwise wouldn’t have known about,” Clarke says.

The physical suggestion box has gone digital, creating new opportunity for workplace communication. From phone apps to websites to intranet portals and blogs, businesses are replacing paper communication with an online format where employee can manifest their visions and ideas.

“Companies have discovered that the ability to let their employees give ideas and share information is critical,” said Leslie Caccamese, director of strategic marketing and research with Great Place to Work. With employees often dispersed in multiple locations, leaders are turning to technology to encourage innovative ideas and help transmit them to the key decision-makers within the company. The companies that land on the Best Places to Work lists are those that have a foundation of communication, and increasingly electronic suggestion boxes are part of their program, she said.

Research shows employees want to have their say on issues or problems that arise in the workplace. On an informal basis, some 54 percent of employees make suggestions to their bosses at least 20 times a year, according to a recent survey by Right Management, an international career and outplacement consultancy firm. But without a formal system to submit ideas and respond, only a small number of those suggestions turn into results. “At a time when many employees feel stifled in their job, it is even more important that employers show that they are listening,” said Monika Morrow, senior vice president of career management for Right Management, in a statement.

At BGT, Clarke says he gains valuable insight from employee suggestions and has made it clear nothing is off limits. Through its interactive website, BGT Damn, employees anonymously have shared opinions on work-life issues, suggestions for perks and concerns about some managers’ lack of communication and leadership skills.

“We were able to provide coaching for leaders and prevent bigger internal issues that may have come from that down the road,” said Clarke, who sold his 150-employee interactive marketing company to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ advisory strategy and consulting services arm last month. Clarke says for his company, the complete anonymity of it allows people to be brutally honest; “it’s an important feature because we really learn more from the bad than the good.”

In other workplaces, employers are using collaborative suggestion boxes with a sharing component. Last year, hotel company Kimpton — which counts the Epic in downtown Miami and Surfcomber on Miami Beach among its 50 boutique hotels nationwide — launched a “Great Ideas Board” website where employees can upload suggestions and brainstorms at any time, from anywhere. Co-workers are able to log on and build on those suggestions. Steve Pinetti, Kimpton’s SVP of Inspiration & Creativity, started the concept to get employees brainstorming together. Either he or the appropriate division head provides a response to every post within 48 hours.

Suggestions have ranged from improving check-in practices to what cool new dessert to serve at the hotels’ restaurants. “About half the submissions come in during off hours, so it shows our employees are fully engaged with our culture,” Pinetti says.

Michael Shrivathsan, whose California firm sells idea management software called IdeaGlow, says giving employees an interactive way to be heard pays off. One of his customers saved more than $500,000 a year when an employee on the production line went online and suggested a way to eliminate the waste of raw materials. Another reduced turnover when a suggestion led to a flexible work policy. The larger the company and the more disbursed, the more valuable these programs become, Shrivathsan says.

Companies are experimenting with myriad formats. While some employers want ideas unsolicited from the bottom-up, others choose a top-down approach, where a senior employee requests suggestions on a specified topic. That might happen through a dedicated link on the company intranet or a leader’s blog, where employees can post comments.

At Miami’s New World Symphony, CEO Howard Herring has been communicating with trustees, donors, staff and friends and through a weekly email since 2010. A few weeks ago, the organization launched an internal blog where Herring and his 65 staff members can all post updates and share suggestions. “It’s our attempt to get ideas out in the open, share them and let the sharing do its work,” Herring says. “What I’m hoping for is that one staff member can say something they are thinking about trying and another could say ‘yeah, good idea,’ and could take it another step.”

South Florida human resources consultant Sharyln Lauby says even electronic suggestion boxes work best when they serve a purpose within the company such to reduce costs or improve revenue. A good suggestion program takes someone dedicated to evaluating submissions and following up.

Lauby cautions against keeping boxes active indefinitely: “You have to breathe new life into them every once in a while to keep employees excited. Having a start and end goal helps.”

As it turns out, some employees need a little coaxing to think big and share ideas. When the financial investment firm Edward Jones launched it suggestion program, it tied in rewards. The firm uses a web page to post challenges by topics. Employees give their ideas and reviewers determine which have the most merit through a “thumbs up” feature.

Then, a cross-divisional group of subject matter experts reviews all submissions and awards points based on the scope of the solution, financial impact and ingenuity. They also consider the numbers of “thumbs ups” collected. The points can earn submitters prizes.

The success is hard to dispute: The interactive suggestion box has pulled in close to 9,000 ideas since its inception.

Shrivathsan of IdeaGlow says rewards work. Much like online games, his software has the ability to reward submitters with badges, coins and social status for participation.

Still, he feels employees are more motivated by intrinsic rewards: “If you want to motivate an employee, implement his idea.”

Workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.

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