Bye-bye boxed-in workers

Nabeil Alazzam, CEO, Forma AI

By Jason Kirby

In many companies it’s a rite of passage— employees head to a bar after work to complain about their bosses, while managers are at another bar complaining about their employees. For Brennan McEachran, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based SoapBox, it’s a missed opportunity that reflects decades of failed efforts to boost employee engagement.

Which is where his company comes in. Soapbox has developed a set of tools to help managers better communicate with their employees, whether in meetings and town halls, or when gathering feedback about ways to improve the workplace. “We’re trying to make those conversations between employees and managers happen in a productive way,” says McEachran, who founded the company in 2010.

McEachran says for too long employee engagement has been “a fluffy thing that HR talks about” when in fact, the single biggest determinant of engaged staff is what they think of their bosses. Which is why SoapBox was designed for managers instead of HR departments. There’s a free version available for managers to download and a premium version for companies to purchase. The tools, which include best practices guides, action-item trackers and an artificial intelligence component that suggests agenda topics and questions to ask, are designed to help managers and employees share feedback “in a low-friction, natural way,” he says.

To date, more than 750,000 employees have used SoapBox’s software, and it’s attracting 1,000 new businesses each week with its free version.

But sometimes, a good manager-employee dynamic isn’t enough to keep staff engaged, especially if they feel they’re not being paid enough. This is particularly true in the competitive world of sales, where variable compensation can be hard for managers to set and for employees to understand. Another Toronto startup, Forma AI, helps companies motivate sales staff by using AI to design, implement and administer better variable compensation strategies, with data and insights gathered and delivered in real time, says Nabeil Alazzam, Forma AI’s CEO, who founded the company two years ago.

Variable compensation is the pay a sales team receives over and above salary, including things like bonuses and sales commissions. The formulas are typically set on a one-year basis, and company managers often spend many months, and rely on outside consultants, to produce them.

Forma AI seeks to change that. Its platform sits atop its customers’ data and, using machine learning, automates the complex analysis needed to set variable compensation for each sales team member in a way that is “transparent and motivating,” says Alazzam. And because it can adjust in real time, companies can refocus a sales team’s efforts as business and market dynamics change.