November 26, 2018
Startups and Entrepreneurs

Want to gauge employee morale? Hartford startup aims to help

Richard Pummell, CEO & Founder, Workonnex
Matt Pilon

While some bosses may be unconcerned with exactly how their workers are feeling week to week, a longtime tech and human resources executive is betting many managers would like to have better intel.

Richard Pummell, of Hartford, has developed a mobile app called Workonnex to help employers regularly track — through brief sets of daily questions with mostly one-click answers — employee sentiment.

Some questions are general while others could be related to specific happenings, like product launches or new projects.

The idea is to give managers more real-time and enhanced feedback, compared to what emerges from the typical annual performance review. Workonnex is meant to help employers catch and address problems they might have otherwise missed or taken too long to notice, in the hopes of both retaining employees and keeping them on top of key work tasks.

"It doesn't supplant direct interaction between people," said Pummell, who was formerly an operations manager at Hartford-based Foley Carrier Services. "It enhances it."

The app, which Pummell said is currently in beta testing with six Connecticut employers, including a fast-food franchise and a sports team, gauges employee sentiment with some of the following prompts:

• Overall, I am able to stay on top of my workload.

• I have not felt the need to take a mental health day in the last 30 days.

• If I were to receive a job offer from another company, I would not accept it.

The app also asks about and helps track progress on work tasks. Over time, data collected might reveal correlations between, for example, employees' moods and the time it takes to complete their work.

But how comfortable will employees be with a potentially deeper sharing of their opinions with managers? Wouldn't some think it risky, or simply prefer to keep their heads down?

Pummell acknowledges that's a hurdle, and one that has informed the design of the Workonnex app.

The app's library of questions, he said, leans toward a positive or neutral tone, even if questions present the possibility of a tougher conversation. Identifying longer-term trends in the data is the most valuable function, he said. Employers can also choose to make answers anonymous to put workers at ease.

Regardless, there's a learning curve. Introducing it in a workplace requires an up-front discussion, and some level of trust.

"[As a manager] … are you ready for the type of data you're going to receive, and how are you going to respond to it?" he said. "You kind of just have to check your ego a little bit."

Pummell is targeting companies that have between 50 and 500 employees. There are competing employee engagement software products already on the market, but Pummell thinks they tend to focus on big employers.

One of the biggest hurdles ahead for Workonnex is funding. Pummell said he has bootstrapped the startup for the past 18 months. He and his small team meet in coffee shops in the Hartford area or interact remotely.

One way he hopes to connect with investors and further develop Workonnex's strategy is through the relatively new Hartford Insurtech Hub program.

Pummell has applied to be accepted into the program's 2019 cohort of 10 companies. Besides hoping that insurers might be interested in using his app in their workplaces, there's another connection, Pummell said.

If insurers had access to real-time data showing how stressed out or tired employees are feeling on a given day, it may be a predictor of workplace accidents. Pummell hopes insurers might eventually encourage policyholders to use his app.

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