Like many in the manufacturing sector, the majority of workers employed by dairy giant Parmalat Canada receive hourly wages – not the greatest recipe for an engaged workforce, Scott Goodman, the company’s vice-president of human resources, admits.
Since incorporating SoapBox, which invites employees to suggest workplace improvements to company managers, into its toolbox, Parmalat Canada has taken advantage of worker-driven suggestions to divert a new stream of revenue to charity, and helped employees automatically build a more secure retirement fund, Goodman says.
“Someone suggested that instead of waiting for this time of year, when we start raising money for the Kids Help Phone walk [the 2016 Walk So Kids Can Talk], why don’t you give some employees the chance to make regular deductions from their paycheques to contribute?” he says.
Another suggested inviting employees to deposit a portion of their bonus directly into an RRSP, so they could receive a special group rate, and around 100 people signed up.
Bridging the gap between workers and management
It’s common for new SoapBox customers to report that type of increased engagement, says CEO Brennan McEachran, who founded SoapBox on the premise that a key way to increase employee engagement – especially among the millennials who now represent some 35 per cent of the workforce – is to help workers feel like they have an impact on their company’s direction or strategy in a way that affects their day-to-day jobs.
“In a business context, frontline workers have never had a connection to the head office before,” McEachran says. “They’ve never had a connection to the executives. They’ve just kind of had their tasks and gone about their day.”
Modern smartphones have changed that, he says, with each worker now carrying a mobile device capable of connecting them with the people who make decisions that affect their day-to-day lives – and with SoapBox, they even have a platform.
SoapBox provides companies with a clean, mobile- and web browser-friendly interface which they can incorporate into their existing portals, adding a social media-like component that first invites employees across the organization to submit ideas for how they can improve the organization, then encourages colleagues to vote, comment, and expand on them, before finally sharing the most popular suggestions with both peers and the powers that be.
“We’ve found through our own research and experience that 80 per cent of an organization’s potential for improvement actually lies in frontline ideas,” McEachran says. “So it’s the small tweaks, the continuous improvements, the small changes in process that you can make as a business that actually help you do things faster, smarter, cheaper, stronger.”
How it began
McEachran developed the idea for SoapBox while attending Toronto’s Ryerson University.
“I had a couple of ideas for the school and no idea what to do with them,” he explains.
One night he sent what he calls a “really strange” email to former Ryerson president Sheldon Levy – and to his shock, Levy wrote back and invited him to his office for a meeting.
“I was like, ‘oh crap, what have I done?!” McEachran recalls. “So I went back to my friends and was like, ‘guys, come on. I have this amazing opportunity. Give me everything you’ve got.'”
By the time McEachran arrived in Levy’s office, he had more than a couple of suggestions – and to his shock, Levy began sending emails to the officials who could do something about them during the meeting.
“The majority of stuff that he got at that time was filtered through student groups, or managers asking for budgets,” McEachran says. “It was rare for him to get raw, authentic feedback from the student body.”
Realizing the meeting was going better than anticipated, McEachran decided to produce a mock-up of what became SoapBox.
“I pushed it across the table, and I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could get every student at Ryerson University the same opportunity you gave me?” he says.
Levy introduced McEachran to the Ryerson DMZ, where he had the opportunity to meet several CEOs, including Chapters/Indigo’s Heather Reisman, who asked if she could use McEachran’s new application for her own employees and ultimately became SoapBox’s first customer.
Selling to managers
McEachran says he’s used to hearing a very familiar story from company leaders, whether middle managers, vice-presidents, or CEOs.
“When they start in the role, almost the very first thing all of these people do is go and tour all of the different facilities – talk to the people on the ground and learn about the issues that the people who are actually doing the work are facing – and that’s it,” he says. “They try to help out the people with anecdotal stories, and CEOs will go on yearly tours or whatever and talk to everyone in the facilities, but then they get bogged down by the stuff they have to do.”
For these employers, implementing SoapBox is a no-brainer, McEachran says.
“They get it almost immediately and there’s usually built-up excitement because they’ve been waiting for something like this for quite a while,” he says.
For those who are more reluctant, SoapBox staff are happy to illustrate why they should take advantage, and how, giving advice on setup, rollout strategies, company announcements, how to measure feedback, and how to align suggestions with a company’s strategic objectives – free of charge.
“So if your objective is to cut costs, great. Let’s get all of your employees working together to help you cut costs… rather than sitting beside a water cooler talking about random stuff that’s irrelevant to the business,” McEachran says.
SoapBox also includes such management-friendly features as Challenges, which allow leaders to seek feedback on specific topics, or can be used to launch a time-limited challenge.
“I like to think that we’re flattening the organization without actually flattening it,” McEachran says. “We’re giving people access to insight and to each other… and we think that businesses that use it are more agile and can adapt to change faster, because when change does come down, everyone welcomes it with open arms.”
Parmalat Canada’s Goodman says that so far, the employee feedback regarding SoapBox has been “really good,” noting that at best the company was hoping for a 15 per cent adoption rate, and has seen usage rates much higher than that.
“I don’t know if it’s because we underestimated the digital capacity of some employees, or because there was a lot pent-up desire to start expressing opinions on how to do things differently, but so far, so good,” he says.
Thus far, the company has only delivered SoapBox to the handful of plants at its main office, though eventually Goodman hopes to spread it to all 16 manufacturing facilities across the country.
“Sometimes employees don’t bother saying anything because they don’t think their manager will do something about it,” Goodman says. “Now if you have that idea, you can say it publicly and be sure that somebody’s going to consider it.”
SoapBox charges for its software as a service (SaaS) on a per user, per month basis. It doesn’t offer public pricing, but determines a custom price for each customer.