Workplace happiness? There’s an app for that
Plasticity Labs aims to help companies discover the keys to a more positive culture.
In September 2009, Canadian professional lacrosse player Jim Moss was training for the new season by running up a mountain.
Just 48 hours later, he couldn’t walk.
Moss and his wife Jennifer, who was seven and a half months pregnant, were told that Jim had contracted a rare auto-immune disease and would lose all use of his legs.
“I was losing my profession. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk again. We were just about to have a baby. I had lost 85 per cent of my salary, and we lived in the most expensive zip code in the United States,” he recalls.
In other words, happiness was in short supply.
And yet, Moss’s hospital bed became the unlikely incubator for an ambitious project to create happier, healthier workplaces.
As his recovery process began, Jim realized his mood was having a significant impact on his physical rehabilitation. He began taking notes on the small things that brought him joy during his convalescence. Although he had not yet realized it, he was tapping into the theory of neuroplasticity. Its premise: that positive behaviour can rewire the brain and body for the better.
A month later, Jim Moss walked out of hospital.
It was almost certainly not the sole reason for his rapid recovery, but Moss was sufficiently convinced by the science of gratitude to begin studying it in earnest. The couple returned to Canada, settling in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. And four years after Jim’s collapse, their company, Plasticity Labs, launched a product whose understated goal is “helping a billion people find what makes them happier.”
The office was a natural starting point.
“I’ve been in a workplace that was negative,” says Jennifer. “I had to constantly fight and battle being in a negative environment, and then try and bring positivity into the home. And it was very, very difficult to do.”
Enter the Plasticity app, which celebrates its one year anniversary this month. It’s described by Jim as a “mash-up of Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, with a shot of Survey Monkey.” It’s the first attempt in the world, Jim says, to combine a social platform with research-based analytics in a single technology
Here’s how it works: employees log-in to the phone app daily by rating their happiness on a scale of 1 to 100 and explaining the reason for their score.
Once inside, the app works like “a really positively focused Facebook stream.” Employees socialize online and share their successes — an exercise guided by the principles of neuroplasticity.
“When you’re actually asking people to think about (gratitude) every single day, that is where, whether people realize it or not, the behaviour is actually changing in the brain,” Jim explains.
But the app goes further. It provides a range of surveys designed by Plasticity’s seven doctoral candidates to gauge traits such as inspiration and resilience — deemed by researchers to be the “parent traits to happiness.”
The data generated from the surveys is then analyzed and passed on in aggregate to employers, along with recommendations on what interventions might improve workplace culture.
For instance: “We have learned that there have been women in a group that aren’t happy. And we’ve been able to identify that and shift management or shift thinking around it, and prepare programming that is suited just to create a culture that is more inclusive,” says Jennifer.
“This is the mission-critical data about culture that allows you to justify really major spending on people and culture that will pay off,” Jim adds.
For Fibernetics, one of their clients, it has.
When growth began stagnating at the telecommunications firm, president John Stix noted some unhappy truths at his headquarters in Waterloo: employees seemed de-motivated, and customers were complaining about service. He realized that change was needed, in short order.
So in June, he initiated a wide-ranging program to transform his workplace — including introducing the Plasticity app. The office was redesigned. Employees were offered personal trainers, yoga classes, and encouraged to “chill out, go for a walk, go sit by our lake, hang out, meditate.”
Efficiency-sapping, new-age gobbledygook? Maybe. But in the four months since Fibernetic’s relaunch, Stix says growth has increased by about 20 per cent. The number of customer trouble tickets are down by a quarter. Employee complaints to HR have been halved.
Yet for Stix, these figures are no longer what matters. They are simply byproducts of a broader mission to reinvent a workplace that has “got away from what’s important,” he says.
This speaks to a broader point made by economist John F. Helliwell: When it comes to workplace happiness, intentions matter. The UBC professor has studied the link between wellbeing and economic development extensively. But he believes that in the wrong hands, the theory becomes just another management strategy to boost the bottom line.
“You don’t want to think of doing it for a narrow corporate purpose, for which the employees are simply people you buy and sell,” he says.
“You’re converting the ‘I’ into the ‘we.’ You’re making the venture one where everybody feels engaged.”
It’s easy to see how that goal could quickly become obscured. Skeptics of similar technological ventures have criticized them, at one end of the spectrum, for being superficial, and at the other, annoyingly intrusive. One Oregon-based mobile technology company, for example, has started tracking how much its employees eat, sleep, and exercise — a project pithily described by Wired Magazine as “kinda creepy.”
Concerns about intention and privacy are shared by Jennifer and Jim Moss. The couple screens prospective clients carefully, mindful of why they’re interested in the product and what they intend to do with it.
“We’ve turned down customers before who’ve said, ‘No, really — if I want to get somebody’s data, I can get it, right?’ And we said no,” Jim says. “And then we actually decided to not work with them, because that was an underlying intention. Part of the qualification process is: What are you trying to accomplish?”
Ultimately, the couple argues, their app is not about maximizing profit.
“The ultimate goal is to be able to make legitimate policy guidance for regions, cities, companies, and countries,” says Jim. “How do you build wealth and resources, and understand that health is wealth?”
To that end, Plasticity Labs is already working with the City of Kitchener and local schools to introduce its technology there. A recent partnership with the Catholic school board in Halton Hills ended with classroom improvements in “every single metric of success that they were tracking,” according to Jim.
The couple provides their technology to schools for free, but the app’s resonance in the workplace is reflected by Plasticity’s sales figures. Next year, the Mosses expect sell up to $2.5 million worth of product; the year after that, up to $7 million. John Stix, of Fibernetics, has been sufficiently impressed with Plasticity’s role in his company’s transformation to invest almost $2 million in Jim and Jennifer’s dream.
But to those looking for a silver bullet, Jennifer is quick to warn that happiness is hard work — the result of constant mindfulness and serious intent. Technology, she says, might be a tool — but achieving workplace results require tough, tangible, real-world interventions from business leaders.
And there’s no app for that.