“Only connect.”– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

We live in the most connected of times and yet our ability to communicate meaningful ideas seems to be at an all-time low. Nowhere is this truer than the workplace. There exist a plethora of media to communicate – voice and videoconference, email and IM, in-house wikis and text. Business organizations are good at delivering tools to foster communication, but they struggle at facilitating honest feedback from supervisors to those they manage, from employees to management, and everything in between.

Often, companies fail to prioritize feedback as an organizational goal. Many businesses preserve a vestigial annual review, a custom more honored in the breach than the practice. This is plainly not enough. Employees want more feedback from their organizations and supervisors. A 2014 Harvard Business Review study measured the extent to which employees prefer to give and receive both praise as well as corrective feedback. Surprisingly, only 43% of workers preferred praise and recognition while 57% preferred corrective feedback. When asked what was most helpful for their career, 72% believed their performance would improve if managers provided corrective feedback. A staggering 92% of those involved in the study agreed that even negative feedback, when delivered appropriately, was helpful. This desire for feedback is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Despite employees’ receptiveness to constructive criticism, employers have generally clung to dated models for providing feedback. A 2013 survey conducted by the SHRM of HR professionals found only 2% of employers provide ongoing feedback to their employees.

Even when companies are genuinely interested in soliciting feedback, logistics can get in the way of results.The feedback process may be inhibited by lengthy questionnaires, difficulty in securing comments from supervisors and coworkers, or an inability to meaningfully assess collected data. Delays inherently degrade the feedback process because the information the employee receives is stale and it may be too late to use the information to course correct.

Where logistics are the primary roadblock to providing meaningful feedback, technology can help. New software can help facilitate the feedback process and even provide employees with the opportunity to approach management (anonymously, if they want) and offer suggestions or useful insight.

So you’ve decided to give real-time employee feedback a try, but you have no idea where to begin. Here are three categories of software and apps that are widely available to startups and big businesses alike that can help improve feedback in different ways.

  1. Simplifying data gathering and analysis. A number of developers offer software that simplifies the delivery of questionnaires to employees, shortens response times, and allows management to analyze the resulting data. Impraise, for example, allows employees to solicit feedback on projects via mobile device and enables colleagues to provide anonymous, real-time feedback. TinyPulse similarly simplifies the feedback process, but with a focus on how employees feel about the organization. Management can ping employees with short questions every week about how the organization is doing. TinyPulse compares results not just within one specific organization but also across a range of clients. It is easy to get employees to participate, as they only have to answer one question per email. Questions change each week and, once a month, employees are asked one baseline question that can be tracked over time.
  2. Encouraging honest dialogue amongst management and employees. A growing array of software utilizes anonymous social networking tools to obtain “suggestion box”-type feedback from employees and allow for ongoing discussions among employees and employers. For example, Memo provides forums for workers to candidly raise issues to management and peers and receive feedback. BetterCompany is a community for people to find peers within similar or the same industries. It is intended to be a safe, supportive, constructive online space to allow like-minded employees and employers to anonymously discuss their jobs, create circles of professional friends, and comment on other companies.
  3. Getting a beat on your culture. A third category of software tools assess a company’s culture, the degree to which employees are a fit for that culture, and how organizational culture changes over time. RoundPegg uses web-based polls to discover what employees value most and how well they work together. Management can use data collected via the software to assess whether initiatives to develop a cohesive corporate culture are working. The developers of RoundPegg have chosen to emphasize participation rather than comprehensiveness. The software works by using five-minute polls to identify workers’ core beliefs and whether or not they align with a company’s values.

Given the wide array of software tools aimed at facilitating feedback between management and the workforce, your organization should consider the goals it wants to achieve before investing and deploying any software. Are you trying to provide feedback to your employees about their performance or are you trying to assess their fit within the organization as a whole? You should also consider the problems that are specific to your organization. If you are a small, tight-knit organization that works in a single space, management and employees may constantly interact, providing for real-time, though low-tech, feedback. On the other hand, you may want to set a goal of improving the usefulness of a particular webinar to your employees. Adopting software that enables you to quickly ping your employees and track and analyze that data over time may be useful.

Having an engaged workforce means providing employees with feedback and soliciting their input. Organizations that neglect open communication with their workforce do so at their own peril. And, with a wide array of software options available, allowing management and employees to meaningfully connect with one another has never been easier.