20 Digital Innovators transforming benefits, HR

From virtual reality and digital voice assistants to a benefits television station and text analysis tools, new technology is transforming the industry by helping employers and employees better engage in healthcare, benefits and the workplace in general.

New technologies are no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. In fact, the vast majority (92%) of C-suite and HR leaders surveyed by global talent acquisition and management firm Randstad say that they believe technology enhances the attraction, engagement and retention of employees. That’s up from 79% who said the same in 2016.

Behind this industry transformation are our 2019 Digital Innovators, individuals driving these technologies and making these innovations possible. After poring through dozens of nominations from Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser readers, editors consulted with industry experts and called on their own field of knowledge to choose this year’s award recipients.

Rosario Avila and Andrew McNeil, founders of BenefitsTV
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Their innovation: Avila and McNeil created BenefitsTV — a series of videos posted to social media —after they couldn’t find any benefits content in video form. Since teaming up earlier this year, the two benefits advisers have created and posted more than 50 short videos for a YouTube and Instagram channel. The videos explain to both employers and employees a myriad of topics, such as what an annual group medical deductible is, payment options at the pharmacy, health savings account contributions and workplace culture. Now, some employers are asking the two to provide custom videos for their internal use.

Why it matters: The majority of employees have difficulty understanding their benefits: For instance, just 4% of Americans are able to correctly define the four terms — deductible, co-pay, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maximum — that determine how much they would personally have to pay for medical services and drugs they receive under their health plans, according to a 2016 survey from Policygenius. That confusion and frustration is taking a hit on employers, too, and is why new ideas to communicate benefits and their value are cropping up. “Audio and video are great ways to communicate with people because they can watch or listen on their own time and are able to multitask,” Avila says.
Lorna Borenstein, founder and CEO of Grokker
Her innovation: Grokker’s well-being video tool provides more than 4,000 on-demand fitness, yoga, mindfulness, sleep, nutrition and financial well-being videos along with a community of experts. Employers including SurveyMonkey and Pinterest offer Grokker’s personalized programs to employees in hopes of helping them stay physically and emotionally fit anywhere, anytime, on any device. The latest Grokker update introduced a new onboarding journey, designed to better capture an employee’s interests, abilities and goals to create a customized experience.

Why it matters: Grokker aims to make wellness fun, user-friendly and accessible. It also claims to help employers, too, since employees who use its platform report being less stressed and anxious, and more focused and productive at work. “As an employer, you will lose [employees] if you don’t give them permission and the tools to take care of themselves,” Borenstein says. “They want to feel encouraged, guided and connected, and they want to work for a company that cares about them as a whole person.” Grokker’s tool, she says, “gives employees around the world tools they will actually want to use, helping them to be present and productive in the workplace.”
Matt Bowersox, CEO of Boomr
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His innovation: Boomr is an app that allows small businesses to track workers’ time by creating a virtual geographic boundary around an office, or an area where any employee reports to work. When employees, and their smartphones, physically arrive within the geofence, the mobile device allows them to begin logging their time. “It prevents things like buddy punching, or clocking in to work when you’re still at home,” Bowersox says, noting that employers can’t use the app to see the exact location of an employee. The app also doesn’t track the location of the employee unless they open it and log in. Boomr can be integrated with HCM systems including Gusto, Paychex and Namely.

Why it matters: Tools like Boomr can help smaller employers more effectively track the time employees are spending on the job. In some cases, it could potentially save smaller employers money if an employee is cheating on their timesheet or their work. Bowersox says the app can give employers “real-time insights” into when employees are working. “This helps businesses remain compliant with local, state and federal labor laws, automate payroll and classify employees correctly,” he says.
Mike Cardillo, co-founder and president, HandsFree Health
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His innovation: Cardillo’s wellness company, HandsFree Health, created the new voice-activated device WellBe. WellBe responds to voice commands like other virtual assistants, except the model can be programmed to answer questions based on the owner’s individual healthcare and benefits information.

Why it matters: The company says it hopes to roll out the new device to employers as part of their benefits package, so the technology may become a bigger part of the healthcare and benefits industry as companies look for easy ways for workers to access their healthcare information at home. Because the device would remind employees to take medications or use preventive care services, it also might help reduce costs for employers, experts say.
Lawrence Epstein, president and CEO of Welltrinsic
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His innovation: Epstein’s online sleep wellness program helps workers track their shuteye. Welltrinsic Sleep Network, a subsidiary of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, allows employees to create a sleep diary, which tracks and the quantity and quality of rest. Employees can manually log their time or upload data from a fitness tracker like a Fitbit. Employees also get a comprehensive view of their sleep and can set a goal, which can be as simple as getting to bed at a specific time or improve the quality of their rest. “Sleep affects a lot of aspects of how people feel about their work and their productivity. If you can help improve their health and morale, it will help with retaining staff,” Epstein says.

Why it matters: Lethargic employees are more likely to miss work or not be productive when they are in the office. Workers often aren’t aware that they are lacking sleep. Demanding work schedules and constant access to technology is taking a toll on workers rest schedule and mental wellness. Digital tools like Welltrinsic can suggest strategies for improving the quality of rest and simultaneously make workers more aware of the amount of sleep they are getting. Epstein says Welltrinsic can help employers “equip their staff with the means to improve and maximize their sleep as part of a healthier lifestyle, making it a vital tool for promoting overall employee wellness.”
Peter Hames and Colin Espie, founders of Big Health
Their innovation: Hames and Espie’s company, Big Health, creates digital tools that help employers and consumers better address their mental health issues. The company currently has two apps, Sleepio and Daylight. Sleepio, an automated digital sleep program, is based on cognitive behavioral therapy and delivers tips to help workers improve the quality of their sleep and reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia. Daylight, the company’s other app, also uses cognitive behavioral therapy, but to help workers combat their worries. The app uses narration, animation and helps workers assess what might be causing them stress. Then it provides them with tools for overcoming their anxieties. It also sets scheduled worry time, or a designated time of day for employees to assess their anxieties.

Why it matters: More employers are placing value on finding solutions to address workers’ mental health. “Sleepio and Daylight address the stigmatized issue of mental health in a way that feels more like entertainment than medicine,” Hames says. “Mental health is a widespread, expensive problem that’s loaded with stigma, so employee engagement is a huge challenge.” Big Health works with employers including Boston Medical Center, Comcast, The Hartford and the University of Oxford.
Brian Hamilton, vice president of SmartDollar
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His innovation: Hamilton oversees all operations of SmartDollar, the online and app-based financial program that is designed to educate employees to proactively take control of their money and get on track for retirement. Through a series of what SmartDollar dubs seven “baby steps,” the program — which is accessible on any device —aims to help participants change their behavior toward money and use their income to save and invest instead of paying consumer debt. It combines video tutorials, quizzes and a point system for rewards, along with email inspiration and reminders. Earlier this year, SmartDollar partnered with ADP; the program is now available to the more than 700,000 employers that use ADP.

Why it matters: SmartDollar is helping disrupt the financial wellness industry by giving employees a digital-first solution to help them combat high levels of debt, lackluster retirement savings and increasing financial stress about day-to-day expenses. Financial stress is a mounting problem that employers are focusing more on. “Most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and nearly half couldn’t afford a $400 emergency without borrowing money,” Hamilton says. About 4,000 employers, including Costco, Kindred Healthcare, Sonic and M&T Bank, offer SmartDollar as a benefit for their employees.
Kyle Jackson, CEO of Talespin
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His innovation: Jackson’s company Talespin is a developer of VR tech and in February the company released a tool which allows employees to practice real workplace interactions. The tool mimics conversations that an employee might have at work and can simulate anything from performance reviews to leadership training, sales conversations or even firing. In one scenario, employees are asked to fire an AI-powered virtual character named Barry, who can display realistic human responses like anger and sadness. Farmers Insurance is already using Talespin technology to train new hires, and the company is deploying the tool with employers across the telecommunications, automotive, insurance and consumer packaged goods industries.

Why it matters: Talespin’s technology helps HR teams develop interpersonal skills during complicated office interactions. Jackson says virtual reality tools can help teach managers how to be better bosses, which can improve retention at a company long term. “HR teams [are] engaging [with] interactive training tools to help employees quickly retain information, learn nuanced skills and practice their jobs in a safe, low-risk environment,” Jackson says. “Before these technologies, it was difficult to realistically simulate challenging workplace situations like an employee termination or giving a colleague critical feedback.”
Jason Lee, founder and CEO of DailyPay
His innovation: DailyPay is an app that allows workers access to their earnings before payday. It offers employees 100% of their paycheck instantly; fees are paid either by employees or by employers if they offer the service as a benefit. DailyPay works directly with about 100 companies, including Vera Bradley, Sprinkles Bakery and Westgate Resorts. But through a recent partnership with payroll giant ADP — DailyPay is now available to employer customers who use ADP’s HR platform — thousands of other employers can add the DailyPay tool for employees.

Why it matters: Instant pay apps are becoming a hot offering among employers as a way to help employees who struggle with financial security. Giving employees instant access to their earned wages instead of waiting two weeks between paychecks can help workers avoid expensive payday loans and avoid late fees, advocates say. It also can be a lure for employers, too: DailyPay claims that its own studies say that companies using a daily payment benefit were able to fill open positions 52% faster and reduce employee turnover by 41%. Further, it says employees are willing to take a 13% reduction in pay in order to receive daily versus weekly pay.
John Moore, medical director at Fitbit
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His innovation: As medical director at Fitbit, Moore has helped the company zero in on the employer wellness space. The company released the Inspire and InspireHR wearable devices in January, which were designed with corporate and health plan clients in mind. As part of its employer wellness offerings, the company also has Fitbit Care, a wellness platform for employers and employees, late last year. With employee consent, employers can use the platform to view individual steps, distance and active minutes for individual workers. They can also see aggregated sleep data. Adobe, Domino’s Pizza and Limeade are among the employers who are now offering the Fitbit devices to employees.

Why it matters: Fitbit can provide employers and employees with actionable data about activity level and sleep patterns. The company has partnered with both large employers and health plans to offer Fitbits to consumers. Moore says tools like Fitbit Care help employees get positive reinforcement for healthy behavior and better manage chronic conditions. “It helps to fill in the gaps between traditional office visits in healthcare and to provide the support that people need to get on the path to success, whether that is with awareness through wearables data, guidance in setting goals, high-touch support from a human coach or comfort and accountability from family and friends,” he says.
Thomas O’Banion, marketing communications manager at DataPath
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His innovation: When benefits disasters come knocking — you can count on Captain Contributor to save the day, or Thomas O’Banion, who voices the comic book character for DataPath. O’Banion helped create the superhero for the benefits administration company, which is featured in podcasts and videos, as well as a print comic book. Captain Contributor is meant to help teach employees about their benefits making complicated benefits concepts easier to understand. “Whether people want to learn more about FSAs, HSAs, COBRA or transit benefit accounts, Captain Contributor is the solution,” O’Banion says.

Why it matters: Gamification like Captain Contributor can be an effective way to increase employee engagement with their benefits. O’Banion says they’re also hoping the comic book will attract the attention of another important demographic — employee’s children. Children often find the bright Captain Contributor illustrations alluring and spend time looking through the book, which encourages their parents to also take a look. He says the superhero can “transform dry, hard-to-understand information about benefits into a more educational, exciting and accessible experience.”
Maeve O’Meara, executive vice president of product and customer experience at Castlight Health
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Her innovation: Responsible for managing product operations and investments, O’Meara has helped advance Castlight Health, which offers an employee health benefits platform that includes tools to allow patients to see the prices of medical services at different providers. Last year, the company invested more than $45 million in technology improvements, and O’Meara led its integration of machine learning and AI-powered personalization into its employee health navigation platform. These technology features are aimed to help Castlight “deliver more targeted, accurate health recommendations based on each employee’s individual needs and health profile.” Earlier this year, O’Meara managed the rollout of two new Castlight products — a health plan solution and Castlight Complete, its comprehensive health navigation solution.

Why it matters: Castlight Health focuses on helping employees navigate a complex health system, which is increasingly a focus of employers. More are also turning to technology to help with this mission. Research from Willis Towers Watson finds that 65% of employers are interested in investing in technology that improves health navigation and the benefits experience.
Tim O’Neil, executive director, employee benefits and wellness, Meredith
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His innovation: O’Neil is focused on bringing new benefits and technology to the media company’s 6,500 employees across 25 states. This year, he played a key role in redesigning the company’s wellness website, alongside tech company Meliora Technology. O’Neil says it was important that the site was as digital as possible, allowing employees a variety of access points including on their mobile devices. As part of the program, Meredith provides a growing number of benefits including a health assessment, wellness screening and coaching, gym memberships and financial wellness tools. The company also has onsite medical clinics for its New York City and Des Moines office. O’Neil says Meredith is “leveraging an electronic medical records system to build a financial model/business case based on the value of the services performed.”

Why it matters: Because Meredith employees are spread out around the country, using technology to meet them where they are is important, O’Neil says. He’s constantly looking for new ways to engage employees and assesses their feedback. Moving forward, O’Neil says he’s looking at new benefits surrounding student loan refinancing, college savings plans and parental friendly benefits like breast milk shipping or backup childcare. Technology can help him educate more employees on these offerings. “In general, technology has really enhanced our efforts to not only provide great benefits but to educate our employees and their families to leverage those to their advantage,” he says.
Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics
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Her innovation: Pymetrics uses neuroscience-based games and artificial intelligence to help match candidates to jobs. The games can measure a variety of traits, for example, attention or memory. Current employees play games on the Pymetrics platform and based on the data gathered, the tool builds algorithms that represent success in a particular job. It also audits for gender and ethnic bias. From there, employers get a better sense of the type of candidate that might be successful in a specific position, and can then use those algorithms to screen candidates who are applying for a job. The company works with employers including LinkedIn, TIAA, Mercer and Unilever.

Why it matters: There is a push to eliminate resumes in the hiring process, with some experts claiming they aren’t an effective way to determine if an employee is a good fit for a position. Polli says Pymetrics can replace the resume as a “first-pass filter by assessing candidates based on their true potential, their inherent cognitive and emotional make-up.” It serves as a “common application” she adds, that allows workers to be judged on their skills, rather than their experience.
Josh Riff, founder, and Michael Laquere, CEO, Employer Health Innovation Roundtable
Their innovation: Josh Riff is the brains behind the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable, a grassroots group made up of nearly 60 of the country’s biggest employers — including Boeing, Facebook and Walmart — who meet to connect and match with health-tech startups and look for solutions to a host of health-related issues plaguing the workplace. With Michael Laquere acting as the group’s CEO, the EHIR added 20 employers in March, and now represents more than 8 million employees. The group’s goal is for employers to match with a health-tech company, then for the two to work together to pilot a program for the company’s employees.

Why it matters: The group represents a meaningful initiative in the healthcare industry: Employers joining together to try to take more control of a health system they see as wasteful, costly and confusing. Frustrated by carriers and other industry players who haven’t come up with new solutions to help with a number of issues plaguing the workforce, employers are directly partnering with tech companies, including Hello Heart, Cariloop, Vida Health and more, to help improve employee health and drive down costs in the process. “An employer cares about their employees’ health more than any other stakeholder besides the employee themselves,” Riff says. “Technology solutions allow employers to reach all employees regardless of geography or role. Healthcare technology represents a great equalizer.”
Ray Reddy, founder and CEO of Ritual
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His innovation: Ritual for Business lets employers allocate money to provide meals for their workers. Employees can use those funds to purchase food from local restaurants. The order ahead app is offered as a benefit by large employers including Spotify, Chicago Trading Company and Verizon Media. Employers set a budget and parameters for meals. For example, $10 toward dinner to any worker that is in the office past a certain time in the evening. Employers can also elect to only provide money for workers purchasing healthier meals, which Ritual uses a wellness tag to identify in the app.

Why it matters: Reddy says Ritual creates a more social work environment because teammates can collaborate on orders and elect to pick up for one another. It could also save them money, he adds. Offering free or discounted food and drinks to workers is becoming a more popular employee benefit. While the trend started at large Silicon Valley tech companies, it has expanded to employers of all sizes. Reddy says offering this as a benefit can help improve the office experience. “It’s one of those things if you have a good corporate culture and team, it enhances it,” he says.
Daniel Shepherd, senior manager of customer experience at Walmart
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His innovation: Shepherd used his own passion for gaming to develop a new virtual simulation training game for Walmart called Spark City. The app, which is freely available on the App Store and Google Play, allows workers to role play as a manager of a Walmart dry grocery department. Players receive performance scores based on customer satisfaction, sales and inventory. They are also scored on how clean, fast and friendly they are to customers. Employees play the game on company iPads at the Walmart Academy, or 200 stores where front line supervisors and managers receive two to six weeks of training before hitting the sales floor.

Why it matters: Gamification technology is one way to make training more digestible for workers. Shepherd says that turning mundane activities into games, can make routine tasks more fun and create positive habits among employees long term. “It allows them to quickly connect correct decisions with positive results by condensing days to minutes and giving immediate positive reinforcement,” he says.
Kieran Snyder and Jensen Harris, founders of Textio
Their innovation: Textio is a tool that uses augmented writing technology in an effort to reduce bias by uncovering patterns in language and can be used in the hiring process to attract certain candidates. Textio says the tool also can be used to engage passive candidates and offers a shared document library. The company’s data comes from real-world hiring outcomes from hundreds of millions of job listings across industries worldwide. The dataset grows by 10 million new documents every month. In a company blog post, Harris explains that augmented writing can help employers “quantitatively predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a document or email you’re writing will get the outcome you want.” McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson and Spotify are among the employers using Textio.

Why it matters: Augmented writing technology like Textio is intended to help employers tailor their job descriptions to be attractive to certain candidates. “The patterns that show up across your company’s jobs show what you truly value,” Snyder wrote in a company blog post. Employers need to be consistent with their message to make the office culture clear to candidates. “However you try to spin it, the truth of your cultural environment shows up in the language that your team uses to communicate — especially when your entire company uses the same words,” she writes.
Michael Walsh, founder and CEO of Cariloop
His innovation: Walsh is the brains behind Cariloop, a caregiving app used by employers to better help their employees manage and access caregiving resources. Among other capabilities, Cariloop assigns a healthcare coach to each employee; employees can use the platform to centralize their communication about care and share health, financial and legal documents. Roughly 120 employers now use Cariloop, including Brinker International and Michael’s Stores.

Why it matters: Platforms like Cariloop are intended to help the ballooning number of employee caregivers: About 40 million American adults provide unpaid care for a child or adult each year, according to a 2015 report from AARP’s Public Policy Institute. On average, these individuals spend 24.4 hours per week providing care and more than half say they work full time, AARP reports. This places a heavy burden on workers who often find themselves stretched thin between work and family responsibilities, and leaves an opportunity for employers to better serve them.
Michael Zammuto, CEO and co-founder of Completed.com
His innovation: Completed.com, launched in December, allows employees to rate their experience with direct supervisors. This is different from other popular websites, such as Glassdoor, which only have ratings for company CEOs and culture. Since its launch, tens of thousands of users have created free profiles on Completed.

Why it matters: Supervisors often make or break an employee’s experience with a company: Great ones foster happy, loyal employees; bad ones have workers firing up their resumes. “People quit managers, not companies,” Zammuto says. “Your direct supervisor determines how happy or successful you are at your job.” The new site may be an important tool for HR managers to keep an eye on their managers and get insight as to the inner-workings of their workforce and prevent talent from walking out the door.