Protocol | Workplace

These services give free coaching — and tell companies how workers are feeling

Companies like Bravely and BetterUp provide anonymous, third-party mentoring and professional coaching to company managers. They also get a pulse on worker environments with their coaching data.

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Third-party coaching companies are helping companies get a pulse on their workplace culture.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

With increasing worker burnout, pandemic-induced stress and no free snacks in sight, companies have been scrambling for creative benefits that workers can actually use at home. Over the last year, free, on-demand coaching services that can provide a confidential outlet have become an increasingly popular solution.

And for the most part, these apps — including Bravely, BetterUp, Marlow and others — do exactly that, providing high-quality management coaches as a benefit that would otherwise cost workers a whole pile of money to hire on their own.

The caveat, of course, is that these companies also offer an additional service to employers: While individual sessions are confidential, companies will always get some kind of aggregated report on the issues workers are expressing in general, the topics they are discussing, what's going well for them at work and what's not.

Employers don't really see that as a downside. As Twilio's VP of talent management Andrew Wilhelms described his company's partnership with BetterUp, it was as if the company's internal twice-yearly employee survey has been transformed into a real-time, constantly evolving, physical conversation with workers. He said the aggregated data provides useful information about stress levels, concerns and areas of improvement. If every worker decided to use BetterUp, he probably wouldn't need the survey at all.

Wilhelms can also provide a set of Twilio-specific priorities to every coach who might be used by a Twilio worker, and update those priorities and goals based on what kind of culture change the company needs to see. If managers are struggling with focus, he can ask coaches to emphasize focus skills. The same goes for stress, or work-life balance.

"I can go right on the platform and say, 'What are people focusing on in their coaching sessions?' Stress, burnout, communication — what is this spike we had in October around DEI or inclusion-related issues? I can see the data around what's going on around the platform," Wilhelms said. "Let's say the strategic focus is down low. We're seeing data in our experience survey, that focus is low for the company, we need you to dial up the managers' attention. The coaches can actually be more proactive working with their people. There's a lot of levers that I can pull, based on what we're seeing."

BetterUp's real-time reports let the company paying for the service see participation levels (on average, about 60% of the people who participate in the sessions attend at least five), trending topics from coaching sessions, leadership and well-being related behaviors compared to industry benchmarks, as well as worker perceptions of the team and the company, according to information provided by a spokesperson. BetterUp's "Employee Experience Index" also tries to measure other worker feelings: belonging, authenticity, optimism, engagement, purpose and meaning, and social connection, and then also benchmarks those compared to companies in the same industry.

Bravely (which offers services similar to BetterUp) CEO and co-founder Toby Hervey kept emphasizing that worker confidentiality is the cornerstone of the service. No matter how many details and insights Bravely reports to the company, he insisted that nothing would reveal any information about one person's coaching session topics or points of concern. The company also said it informs clients about the data reporting in its initial overview of the service and its contractual terms. "We've said no to customers who wouldn't agree to that level of protection. The confidentiality promise is too fundamental to Bravely," he said. All of the employers interviewed for this story told Protocol that they inform their workers this aggregate data will be shared with the company, and BetterUp's policies mirror Bravely's in terms of confidentiality rules.

While most of Bravely's coaching services focus on the basics around performance or productive conversations or growth, the company does occasionally have workers approach them with very sensitive issues around culture, harassment or discrimination. Some of Bravely's coaches have expertise in these areas (or in ombuds services) for just these situations — and Hervey said that everything remains anonymous unless the worker wants Bravely to escalate a complaint to the company. "It's happened just a few times where someone wants to escalate something. The employee has to actively sign off on the language — we never want to communicate something that is identifiable about that employee," he said. But, somewhat like professional therapists, the coaches will escalate to reporting in situations that involve physical harm to the person being coached or anyone else.

"We launched Bravely at the start of the pandemic, launched to our HR team globally and to managers on a global basis, as an additional tool to help support and navigate the new world," said Terry VanQuickenborne, Autodesk's head of learning and organizational development, who, like Wilhelms, is a big fan of her company's service.

After receiving positive feedback from those teams, Autodesk expanded its Bravely offering from just certain managers to all employees in June, around the same time the company announced its plan for a mix of hybrid, remote and fully in-person jobs. "It enables us to stay on top of trends that we might be seeing within Autodesk, and it aligns really well with what we're seeing more broadly in the world," VanQuickenborne said.

Burnout and stress are some of the most common themes for coaching sessions at Bravely. "Burnout is about your workplace, not your people," Hervey said. Though a big advocate for mental health services, Hervey worries that companies turning to benefits like meditation and yoga miss the structural problems that create burnout in the first place. "If companies really want to get at good culture, mitigating burnout, they have got to think about the structure of the company, the practice of the company, supporting people, and not just think that meditation is going to solve it all," he said. He's hoping that as Bravely continues to grow, it will be able to provide insights and potential interventions that push companies toward thinking in that direction.

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