What's today? Smiley or frowny? Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 24th September 2015

In the mood?

Dancing? Romancing? Real-time mood measurement?

‘How’re you?’

A quintessentially British rhetorical question. Beyond ‘Fine’ and ‘Not bad’, the one thing you should never do is say how you actually are. Visitors from abroad are viewed with a mix of pity and discomfort as they actually go ahead and give details from their life and times.

So we’re not great with asking how we are. Yet it’s looking more and more likely that many HR departments will soon be seeing some form of technological equivalent to a ‘How’re you?’ around — real-time mood measurement.

It sounds like exactly what it is. Employees are coaxed (with love, fear, money, etc) to record their mood in a manner of different ways — a sliding scale, a selection of smiley/sad faces — in the hopes of gauging organisation-wide mojo.

It can be deployed as software to employees’ desks, or a physical installation in the place of work, e.g. an iPad on the wall to press at the end of the day.

With this, the theory is that HR HQ can gather thousands of datapoints and find some patterns. Taking all the Snickers out of the vending machine led to a 3% decrease in winky face moods across the board, women in Accounting had a 20% rise in frowny face when Dave got transferred. And so on and so forth.

The idea is that by tracking the rise and fall of organisational mood, HR can identify and react faster to incoming problems, and get a clearer picture of when something is working and when it isn’t — so long as you can join the dots between correlation and causation.

And from our comfy leather armchairs, that’s where we see there being a few issues.


If the old annual feedback survey was like attempting to cram a year’s worth of life story into a ten second soundbite, real-time mood measurement is like collecting an entire year’s worth of ‘Fines’ and ‘Not bads’ and attempting to build a cohesive picture of how your year was.

Even if uptake is good and the process is simple, how informative is this data? Even if we assume people to be perfectly honest (and when are they?) there seem to be as many pitfalls as there are vantage points with this information.

Is the organisation’s mood going down the pan (-15% in the last three months alone!) because of your new CEO, or is it the miserable winter weather?

Celpax, one of the leading suppliers in this field, advertises on this exact premise: ‘Find out how your London office reacted on their first day with the new branch manager.’ But even if the mood is bad on their first day, drawing any conclusions from this would be dangerously premature. Mood will never be showing you the big picture, and you’ll never know what other variables are at play.

If one person on a team has two weeks of bad mood and the rest have been euphoric, who’s the problem? The obvious answer may not be the right one.

The more you know

Many of the options out there (Hppy, Happiily, CompanyMood) are anonymised or have the option to be. This at least makes people more likely to give honest feedback, but if this is replacing periodic feedback, it can come at a price of losing useful data.

Finding out that people are unhappy is of course useful, but finding out what they are unhappy about is far more so. For all the drawbacks of a more in-depth annual survey, at the very least the feedback will be reasonably specific and considered.

If your all your feedback is doubleplus good, that’s great. But the overall process is not nuanced in the slightest. What if you’re 90% ecstatic but have some reservations — what room is there in [broad grinning smiley face] to convey that?

A sliding scale offers no space for both positive and negative feedback at the same time. Feedback will always be coloured one way or another. Mixing all your opinions on what works and what doesn’t together may just register as ‘neutral’, which may imply indifference or that nothing is working especially well or badly.

What is being exchanged here is quality of data for quantity, and in an ideal world you want a solution that provides both.

Uncharted territory

The danger is that constant mood measurement has the potential to be deeply misleading, and requires information about trends across several years and other organisations to account for deviation that you shouldn’t have to worry about. (For example, mood will be lower on average by x% in February no matter what.)

But of course, none of this exists yet. These tools look more like a boondoggle unless you are prepared to invest heavily with time and money to be a trailblazer.

Sears, the American retail giant, has a system where employees log their mood at the end of the working day. So far, they say there has been a slight correlation between sales/customer satisfaction and positive mood.

No earth-shattering insights to be taking away as yet then.

The question is whether it is better to let others make the mistakes first, or whether being the first to get the hang of it is worth the price of admittance.

Either way, we are [querying smiley with one raised eyebrow] about real-time mood measurement for the moment.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?