How Plasticity is hacking happiness to help companies work harder

Can monitoring your employees’ mood boost workplace productivity—and the bottom line? Plasticity Labs thinks so

Plasticity Labs founders Jim Moss, Lance Mohring and Jennifer Moss.

From left: Plasticity Labs founders Jim Moss, Lance Mohring and Jennifer Moss. (Portrait by Raina + Wilson; Wardrobe styling by Nadia Pizzimenti/; Makeup and hair by Shawna Lee/; Prop styling by Caroline Pandeli/Plutino Group)

Jim Moss is an upbeat guy, but right now he looks a titch troubled by the pie charts and bar graphs he’s peering at. The pages upon pages of bright graphics represent the results of a survey conducted by Moss’s company, Plasticity Labs, to tap the collective mood of the Canadian Business editorial team. His Waterloo, Ont., startup aims to measure—and boost—workplace happiness. On its scale of one to seven, we averaged 4.8: A score Moss says is typical of employees in the troubled manufacturing industry. “Your averages are definitely lower than we usually see,” he says, assuming the sort of offhandedly neutral tone doctors use to deliver unpleasant biopsy results.

Knowledge-based offices like ours typically start with a baseline score of low to mid-fives, Moss says. And they rarely have employees assigning scores as low as two—which happened with us. A different chart shows that many of my co-workers expect to feel even less satisfied six months down the road. “You’ve got people forecasting that things are looking even worse in the future,” he says, crinkling his brow.

Then Moss rallies. Gesturing at the data, he starts talking about “dialing up optimism” and “doing some work on resilience.” His pep talk sounds one part mad scientist—Frankenstein grafting a funny bone onto his melancholy monster—and two parts utopian dream. “The good news is that people are typically terrible at guessing what their future will be like,” Moss says. “And the bad news is that people often wear their expectations: If they feel that things ahead look bad, they’re going to seem grumpy at the office. But there’s an opportunity here to get people thinking, If I think things are going to get worse, what can I do now to change that?”

Changing how people feel about their work is the point of Plasticity Labs, which Moss founded two years ago with his wife, Jennifer, the company’s chief marketing officer, and chief technical officer Lance Mohring. With the help of a digital platform that monitors employees’ moods each day—at its most basic, it simply asks workers to rank their attitude from one to 100—Moss and his merry crew hope to perk up workplaces around the world, including yours. Their platform also aims to hike happiness by offering online exercises and resources that emphasize positive thinking. They may not be able to make you feel as if you’ve just hitched a ride on a unicorn for a jaunt through a lollipop forest, but they hope to at least nudge the edges of your office face into a bit more of a smile.

Five or 10 years ago, a happiness-inducing app that uses big data to bolster workplace satisfaction might have sounded like a plot from a dystopian office comedy. But with the rise of apps that track fitness, nutrition, mindfulness and practically every other aspect of well-being, a service that quantifies good vibes at the office is right on trend. And with a growing body of research that suggests employee happiness yields a promising return on investment, many employers are interested in perking up their workers with more than just K-Cup coffee. A host of startups now aims to take the pulse of workplaces, including Know Your Company, TinyPulse, Waggl and Montreal-based Officevibe. American department store chain Nordstrom recently experimented with an online “moodometer” that let employees register their feelings by clicking on the emoji face that reflected how they felt that day.

A happy outlook brings surprising benefits to the workplace, such as higher energy levels, fewer sick days, greater productivity and better capacity to deal with stress. The following statistic alone should make all employers more interested in boosting bliss: Truly cheerful employees spend about 80% of their time at work doing what they’re there to do (even happy people need an Instagram break); the least content spend only 40% of their day on job-related activities, according to a survey by workplace happiness consultant and author Jessica Pryce-Jones. Another study recently cited in the Harvard Business Review found that happy, thriving employees “demonstrated 16% better overall performance (as reported by their managers) and 125% less burnout (self-reported) than their peers. They were 32% more committed to the organization and 46% more satisfied with their jobs.” All those happy feels led to fewer doctor visits too. “An increase of one [happiness] point on the survey equates to a savings of $2,552 in medical costs per year per employee,” concluded the study, conducted by U.S. health insurance company Humana and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “With those kinds of savings, even a company with 100 employees might find such a strategy worth deploying.”

It’s the combination of boosted productivity and reduced costs that Moss and his co-founders believe will convince employers to care about workplace happiness. More than 40 Canadian companies and organizations have already signed on with Plasticity, including TD Bank, Questrade, the Public Health Agency of Canada and a major domestic clothing retailer. “There can be a lot of cynicism about this stuff, and we want to extinguish it with charts and graphs,” says Moss. “At the end of the day, this is business intelligence for companies. Even if you don’t care about your employees’ happiness, if you decide to do something about it, you’ll see results.”

Technically, Plasticity Labs launched in July 2013. But the roots of the company date back to a day in September 2009, when Moss tried to get up from the couch after watching an episode of Law & Order. He worked as a sales and marketing executive at the time, while also playing professional lacrosse with the Colorado Mammoth. Taking a break one day after a tough training session that had included running up a mountain, he tried to rise from the couch and discovered he couldn’t feel his legs below the knees. Within a few hours, he was lying in a hospital bed, unable to walk.

Moss had contracted an autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome that attacks part of the body’s peripheral nervous system. The prognosis wasn’t good: Doctors told him he was unlikely to be able to use his legs again. Moss was stunned—the bad news was made worse by the fact that he and Jennifer were living in the United States, without access to Canada’s universal health-care system. But he was determined to rehabilitate and started reading everything he could about how to recover. While doing rehab, he noticed his mental outlook often affected his progress. “The more positive and optimistic I was, the better I became,” he says. His nurses and therapists noticed the same and commented on how surprised they were by his progress—some even came in on weekends and days off to help, Moss says.

A month later, he was walking—and exploring a new fascination with the power of thought that prompted him to go back to school to study positive psychology and to launch a happiness-boosting social media platform called Smile Epidemic (think of it as Facebook for the Up With People crowd). The website was popular, but the Mosses couldn’t figure out how to monetize it. That is, until a hearing-aid company called Unitron asked to use it to boost employee morale. The Mosses found their business model and began developing a platform for corporate environments.

Plasticity, which charges clients $3 to $5 per employee per month for use of its platform, begins its workplace data collection with a simple question every user answers when they sign in: “How happy are you today?” Employees can also choose to answer occasional pop-up surveys that drill deeper into aspects of happiness and engagement, and also help Plasticity identify upward and downward trends. The Canadian Business team used the platform for only a few weeks to get a quick snapshot of how it works (typically, it needs a few months of data to yield useful results), but that was enough for Moss to suggest our sense of inspiration was declining—an observation that wasn’t surprising, since we were juggling an unusually high number of projects at the time. Frequent real-time feedback like that can be a powerful tool for managers and executives, according to those following the trend in the field. In an online post called “Yes, Feedback Is the Killer App,” HR consultant Josh Bersin wrote about the potential for employers to use the results of workplace surveys to make highly focused changes that can dramatically affect engagement. “A new world of feedback tools and approaches has arrived,” he wrote, “and I believe it could be one of the most exciting things happening in management and HR.”

By examining a company’s aggregate data (Plasticity anonymizes answers and doesn’t share individual results with employers), the Mosses and their team can identify the factors dragging down morale and also capture mood swings within regions or business units. “We can often tell companies they have a problem before they realize that they do,” Moss says. One client, for instance, discovered it had a significant spirit problem in its western region. Even though the company hadn’t been directly hit by the economic downturn, employees were stressed out and worried their jobs could soon be on the line. Company executives got on a plane and met with them, Moss said, reassuring them that layoffs weren’t going to happen. Happiness levels saw an immediate uptick.

Plasticity’s data can also help employers predict seasonal changes. Stress levels surge in September, for instance, when the school year hits families hard, and again in December, when supposedly fun holiday activities add pressure to everyone’s lives. Other factors drive happiness blips, like the Blue Jays’ surprise run at the World Series. “The Blue Jays’ effect was really noticeable this year,” Moss says, adding that smart employers can leverage information like that. Offering flexible hours at the start of the school year, for instance, could alleviate stress and make for happier, more productive workers. And if you’re based in a city with a local team that’s on a winning streak? “You’re not going to give them every game day off, but closing early on the day of a big playoff game could do a lot for engagement—and retention.”

John Stix is a boss who pays attention to data like that. He heads what sounds as if it could be one of the most blissed-out workplaces in Canada: Average happiness scores entered by employees at Fibernetics, his telecom company, hover in the high 80s to low 90s.

But his company wasn’t always this happy. Fibernetics rolled out the Plasticity app in 2014 as part of an ambitious campaign to turn around what was then a struggling business. Sales were flagging, and customers were complaining that the company had become difficult to deal with. So Stix holed up in his office for a couple of weeks and started doing research, trying to figure out where the business had gone wrong. Then he spent months working on a corporate makeover that included hiring a consultant, Jackie Lauer of the Heart of Culture, to help identify core values for the company, such as trust, teamwork and accountability. Stix sat down for long, sometimes painful conversations with members of his leadership team to identify problems that hindered effective communication and collaboration. He decided to start enforcing employee downtime and vacations, developed plans for an on-site meditation room and made a host of cosmetic tweaks, like painting the company’s walls bright colours and showcasing its new corporate mantra: “I’m in.” Stix’s description of his corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Ont., now makes Google’s fun-seeking campus sound dull. (“Let’s see, when do we have craft classes?” he says, mulling the in-house schedule. “Is it Thursday? Oh no, that’s boxing club.”) Finally, he rolled out Plasticity’s happiness tracker at a company-wide event designed to celebrate the blissed-out new collective vision.

He loves the numbers he’s seeing in the tracking reports—and on his bottom line. Fibernetics has hit sales records each month since the corporate relaunch, and customer complaints are at an all-time low, he said in an interview earlier this year. Human resources concerns have dropped by 80%. “We’re rocking it,” he said.

It’s worth noting that Plasticity has only been one part of Stix’s massive cultural change. To build positivity that’s likely to last, there needs to be deep and vocal commitment in the C-Suite. Stix introduced the revamped corporate vision with an all-staff town hall, a clear sign that the change wasn’t being driven by the HR department. “If you don’t have support from the top, the probability that change will stick is low,” says Kim Cameron, a professor who specializes in positive leadership at the University of Michigan. Employees need more than just an app. They need a sense of why this change is important to the workplace, clear evidence that the company is committed to it and a sustainability plan to keep the new culture alive, among other things.

Meanwhile, Plasticity’s data can help companies focus energy and resources where they’re needed most. That might mean taking aim at December holiday stress by giving employees a day off and a trip to the mall to deal with their shopping. That way, they wouldn’t feel tempted to leave work early or call in sick to get it done later in the month. “Guess what’s going to happen in January and February, after all their employees go on Facebook and talk about what a great employer they are?” asks Jennifer Moss. “They’re going to get 10 times the resumés. Because everyone wants to work for a company like that.”

While the data Plasticity collects helps managers fine-tune decisions, it also presents the opportunity for a little workplace self-help: Unlike many other mood-tracking startups, Plasticity gives users personal feedback and offers individualized exercises to employees who need to kick-start happiness traits like optimism or resilience (both of which can be developed like muscles, research suggests). Online exercises called “sprints” ask employees to write down things they’re grateful for at the office. Once again, it’s a task rooted in science—88% of respondents in a John Templeton Foundation study said they felt happier and more fulfilled at work when they expressed gratitude to their colleagues.

Moss even talks about “priming” employees to receive bad news by pushing optimism and resilience sprints during the weeks leading up to an announcement. Are human brains actually that plastic (as the company name suggests)? It’s possible that a few online exercises don’t really affect happiness all that much. Perhaps employees are just reporting more happiness because they think they’re expected to. Cameron points to something called the Hawthorne effect, a phenomenon identified during experiments conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne Works, a factory outside Chicago. The company had varied lighting levels in the factory to see if they affected worker productivity. What it discovered was that output went up when lighting improved but also, surprisingly, when the light was turned down. The results suggest that the novelty of being research subjects can prompt people to change their behaviour while they’re being studied.

Still, Plasticity’s growth is impressive: At the beginning of 2015, it had about a dozen small to mid-size clients. Now it’s signing on multinationals. And after two years of bootstrapping, it’s cash-flow positive, thanks in part to investors like John Stix, who started out as one of the company’s first clients and has since become an investor (Plasticity raised $2.1 million in a financing round led by the venture arm of Stix’s company in 2014).

Stix himself says his quest for happiness has given him a new mission: “To show leaders that if you’re sitting on the fence about caring about people—and showing that you care—just do it,” he says. “And if you don’t care, you should still do it because it dramatically affects the bottom line.”