Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer. My guest today is Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks, the founder and CEO of KeepWOL or Keep Wondering Out Loud. It’s a learning and development platform that helps teams connect, become engaged and stay that way. We’re going to talk about how it works and the theory behind it, plus the impact it can have on performance and retention all on this edition of People Tech. Hey Lauren, it’s great to have you here. Tell me about KeepWOL. I mean, what does it do? What do you do?
Yeah, so KeepWOL is a fun learning platform for teams that enables employee engagement and retention insights using games. So we work with enterprise organizations to improve and we’re proactively improving not only engagement by 49%, but also job satisfaction, which is an employee’s likelihood of retention by up to 30% in as little as 12 weeks.
How does it work?
Yes. So we have combined three different things that typically are pretty disjointed, so team building, data and analytics, as well as upskilling. We’ve combined it into this process that we call play, reflect and grow. We’re utilizing psychology based conversation games to get people to disclose how they think, to get people to not only disclose it but get a greater understanding amongst teams, understanding of how folks within the team thinks and what really motivates them to be the best at what they’re doing inside and outside of work.
So specifically with how our gameplay works, employees start by taking a survey to really establish a baseline on team dynamics and sentiments. So we collect metrics in five key areas, engagement, innovation, cultural intelligence, team dynamics and then job satisfaction. So before starting to play at all, you first take this baseline assessment, which we call our heartbeat survey. Then using a video conferencing platform or in-person, teams get together to play. So they play our games.
In our games, we have five different theme areas for our games. So we have engagement and morale. Then we also have diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. So that’s one of the themes. We have a theme that’s team development, professional development. The last one is personal development. So we have games that fall underneath all of those. Or it’s leadership development. So there’s professional development and leadership development. We have a number of games that fall underneath all of those areas. Currently we have 17 games in our library total. So they get on this video conferencing platform or they get in person and they play.
Players basically receive questions that they answer openly and transparently and they focus, KeepWOL stands for Keep Wondering Out Loud, and so the wondering out loud is really what we’re focused on. So as they get these questions, their teammates are then able to ask follow-up questions to really uncover the uniqueness of each person and illuminate how they think. Often during this, people feel more of that sense of belonging and they’re able to see more similarities that aren’t necessarily on the surface level. So they’re really able to resonate and have empathy for the folks that they work with.
Players then vote and are assigned points based on the depth of their answers. So you get points based on how open, honest and transparent you are. Then the more open and transparent you are, the more points you get. So that encourages that deeper learning and trust building. Then afterwards, KeepWOL surveys to see how employees thoughts have changed about their teammates as well as the work environment. After each game, we collect metrics on impact and we do impact from a personal, professional and group perspective. Then based on group and team goals that you enter in that reflection assessment, we provide right fit educational content in each of the users preferred learning styles to help them in reaching those goals they’re trying to achieve.
Now, can you sort of paint a picture for me of what these games look like and feel like? I mean are they chess, are they…
There’s two questions that have two different point values which question you’d like to answer. So once you click on that, it then reveals on the screen of every other participant that’s playing. Then you go about answering that question verbally. As you’re answering it verbally and reacting, people are able to hear your tone of voice, they’re able to see your facial expressions and how you’re reacting with your hand gestures and maneuvers. Then they’re able to start thinking about, “Okay, I’m listening, I’m understanding. How do I want to vote on this? Do I feel like I’ve gotten all the information? Do I have more follow-up questions? Do I feel like this person didn’t answer the question at all?”
So each participant has these voting card options in front of them of awesome answer, need more info or try again. Then they also have the option to provide these bonus points. So it’s basically a question-answer game that’s really focused on diving beneath the surface layer to really surface what makes or breaks a company organization, which is the things that fall under, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the organizational cultural iceberg, but it’s the things that fall underneath the iceberg.
So like people’s perceptions, their values, their stories and feelings, the unwritten rules, we surface all of that information, but we’re getting it through this gameplay where there’s specific rules and boundary conditions that folks have to adhere to otherwise you’d be cheating against the game. So people come in with their barriers down because they’re coming in on equal playing level of, okay, everyone’s about to play this game, follow these game rules and answer these questions so that we’re able to know and understand each other better.
It seems like there’s a lot of applications out there who are using games as sort of the primary interface. I know there’s some companies that do it with assessments. There’s a number of them that do it with learning. Where else do you think games might crop up in the organization?
Yeah. So I think you said it like with learning, they do it with assessments. I actually recently was just talking to a group that’s in manufacturing and they’re utilizing gamification in the manufacturing floor to get employees to be more incentivized with regards to their work. So you really can apply games and gamification to just about anything because games are universal and bring people together from all different types of backgrounds and areas. It’s because we all started with playing that it’s familiar to us. When we first started our educational learning journey in preschool, it was through play. So it’s something that’s familiar to us and it allows us to retain the information better.
So from an application standpoint of where its usages are, with KeepWOL, people utilize KeepWOL for brainstorming. So to get more innovative ideas and get through a brain block and fog for folks. You can utilize it for onboarding people, and so getting to know where people’s career paths land, where do they foresee themselves going in their career paths and what do they want to accomplish. You could do it even for talent acquisition when you’re doing interview processes or those initial interviews because right now we know folks are coming in. We typically know what the caged answers are going to be to the generic kind of sourcing questions that you get from folks.
So just to take it a level deeper to get deeper understanding of if this person would be a right culture add for the organization, you could use gameplay that really, really disarms someone and brings them into being a little bit more of themselves than what your buttoned up typical interview setting might look like. So there’s a lot of different applications of where you could utilize games. You could utilize them just for pure team building too.
Now the communications angle or the communications component, it sounds like it’s integral to what the program’s supposed to do. Can you talk about why it’s so important to have this going on between the people using it, the players?
Yes. That’s a great question, Mark. Communication is huge. I we think about it, when we’re getting into the workforce or even in college, unless you’re taking a communications class, you’re taking a speaking class, we aren’t trained on this with regards to our interpersonal skills and how to deal with the ins and outs of dealing with humans from all different type of backgrounds and perspectives when we get into a work environment and have to work as a team. A lot of instances, folks will come from doing things in a siloed respective to now having to be a part of this integrated team and how are they going to function.
So really with KeepWOL, some of what we’re really focused on is not only building up that team dynamics and going beyond what your typical team building is, which is a happy hour, and hey, we had fun together and could laugh with one another, but actually how do I work best with this person? What’s their best learning style? How do they best like to be communicated with? How do I adapt my leadership style or approaches when I’m dealing with these individuals and really catering our styles to what others need?
So that is something that we’re really focused on within KeepWOL is not only the team dynamics but the interpersonal skills. So how do I listen well? How do I ask good questions that are going to enable me to get to the root of what I’m trying to figure out and have deep understanding? How do I gather that contextualized and nuanced information that helps me to make better decisions for the team and for the project ahead? How do I empathize and sympathize with what other folks are saying and have some type of correlation and relationship with them? Then how do I ensure that I create this sense of belonging with the folks and connection between the folks?
So with KeepWOL, we’re really about that relationship building and that’s going to build that foundation of trust and understanding so that when hard times come about in an organization or so that when things get a bit rocky, that the core of that team and the understanding and the ability to really know where each other is coming from is solid there. So they’re able to get through anything and it makes them want to remain at an organization because they’re happy not only with the job that they’re doing because the team understands what they’re doing and the value that it brings, but they also love the people that they’re working with as well and fully understand them and have good relationships with them.
Let’s shift gears a little bit. I’d like to talk a little bit more about the company and your experience with it. First, when did you start the company?
Yeah, so we started KeepWOL as a methodology in something that’s utilized for gameplay in January of 2018. So we started with actually having physical card games to test out the process and is this going to help people open up and be able to share more and really dive deeper into their understandings of folks. So we sold thousands of games across 27 countries, three different continents and really test it out, hey, this works well. People like playing it, people feel like they’re able to open up and really gain quick and deep understanding with folks in just an hour’s worth of gameplay time.
So we started that in 2018, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit and it was summer of 2020 that we were saying, “Hey, we need to do some type of digital version of this.” So my background is in engineering. I’m actually a aerospace engineer. So with some background in software development, program management. So went about saying, “How do we turn this physical game into a digital game?” Once we did that, we started having these game nights because it was really just focused on that relationship building and getting to know folks. So it didn’t necessarily have to be with your team, it could be with anyone. But we started those game nights and as folks were coming to our game nights, they started saying, “Hey, I could really use this for my team, for the organization that I work within.”
So I didn’t really think much of it because it was a game and it’s a game where we have laughs and you’re getting a bit deeper. I’ve worked at five different Fortune 500 companies and this was unlike anything we were doing in the workplace at all. People were very reluctant to be vulnerable, very reluctant to share more about themselves and really give that deep understanding. But now we were entering this phase where folks were really wanting to be their authentic selves and with being in the midst of a pandemic and being remote or hybrid, you had to somehow build connections that you just weren’t getting in the office anymore because you couldn’t, you didn’t have the water cooler, you didn’t have lunch hours and things like that.
We had a few people, participants who had came to the game nights who brought us then into their organization. When we got into the organization and we got the results, so saw the impact that was happening and they’re like, “Hey, is there any way that we could turn this into objective quantifiable data and that’s utilizable and that we could see what’s the insights and changes we’re seeing over time.” We then were asked, “Do you have a subscription product for this? Is there a training aspect to it from a facilitator approach because we do have folks that facilitate the session?” So it still feels like that third party feeling of having a team building experience.
It just kind of had a ripple effect from there. So we actually launched the product for sales and began doing paid pilots in January of 2022, so this year, earlier this year, and have quite a few Fortune 500 companies that we’ve worked with. We’ve worked with a couple of universities as well. So it’s been a whirlwind, but lots of listening to the customers as well as the end users and what they’re looking for within the culture and environment that they want in their workplace.
Now, the digital product that you launched this year, it’s perfect timing. I think you launched it like 12 and a half months ago.
So how did that year play out in terms of your expectations? Did the market sort of stay essentially where it was when you launched or have things been changing more rapidly than you thought? How’s the product holding up with any change that’s going on?
So I would say the market has, it’s interesting to say has it changed more rapidly or this, I think we were coming to steady state that hybrid was going to be the thing. So how are we going to create this culture that we want to live, that we want to work in if most people are not going to see their coworkers on a daily basis, or if they’re only going to deal with them via video conferencing platforms? In a lot of the organizations that we were working in, one of their main enjoyable things about KeepWOL was the fact that they wanted to use cameras for it.
They’re like, “Hey, we’re learning a lot about these folks and we want to actually turn on our cameras so I could see each other’s faces and see their reactions and have these personal conversations with one another that also impact the work that we’re doing.” So with regards to the market, we saw the uptick in turnover and people voluntarily leaving, but now we’re seeing this shift where we have layoffs. When someone leaves the organization, whether it’s voluntary or it’s not voluntary, it shakes the whole team and the organization for those remaining people.
There’s that question, we’re wondering about our future, our security, our colleagues, where we’re going to go in our career paths and they need this outlet to have the discussions about, “Okay, now that we’ve had this great shift, whether it was someone voluntarily leaving or someone leaving because it was forced like downsizing, how are we going to shift to make sure the team and what the team needs and what each individual remaining on this team is understood and supported in the way that they best need to be supported? How are we going to fill these gaps of development that are needed?”
So with respect to that, we are an engagement and a retention platform. So we’re focused on not only engaging people but re-engaging folks that have been there for a while and there might have been some type of occurrence, so like layoffs or people leaving that’s happening, that’s making them say, “Okay, let’s reset. How do we reset and make sure we’re on this equal playing field?” So in helping employees to not only do their jobs but do their jobs better.
So what we’ve seen with regards to the market and the space that we’re in is that everybody’s worried about engagement. Everyone’s worried about job satisfaction. Everyone wants to know what are employees thinking right now, what might be the next move that’s going to happen and how can we be proactive in this approach instead of reactive. So beyond looking at just those static employee engagement surveys that we typically have maybe on an annual, biannual basis, something that’s giving us real-time insights fast and that we can act upon immediately is really what our customer and marketplace is looking for.
Okay. Now my last question is about the future. How do you see the company expanding? Do you think you’ll go into new verticals or you’re just trying to grow geographically or what are your thoughts about that?
Yes, that’s really great question. So currently we are agnostic, but we do focus on… We’re industry agnostic, but we do focus on enterprise organizations. However, we do foresee expanding to more mid-market sized companies. We currently had a conversation today about the expansion into the European market because we’re also seeing with the generation shifts turnover happening and retention over there in Europe. So we foresee expansion within Europe.
But overall, our whole focus is to be that solution in the intersection of a hybrid workforce, next generation collaboration and human connectivity. So we really foresee ourselves being that relationship building type of solution that’s going to work whether you have hybrid, remotes or in-person teams by creating those bonds as quickly as possible so you’re seeing those results and output improvements as quickly as possible as well.
Lauren, thanks so much. It’s been great to talk to you.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a good time. I appreciate it, Mark.
My guest today has been Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks, the founder and CEO of KeepWOL. This has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of RecruitingDaily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs, visit www.evergreenpodcasts.com. To keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.