TecHRseries Interview with Mark Sawyier, Co-Founder and CEO at Bonfyre

In a world where there are fewer in-person interactions with co-workers, how will companies build a better work culture? By building camaraderie or focusing on a more inclusive environment? This is the next big challenge that organizations will face feels Mark Sawyier, Co-Founder and CEO at Bonfyre. In this chat with TecHRseries, Mark talks about the Bonfyre platform and the biggest drawbacks that can come with having a remote work culture.



Tell us a little about yourself Mark …how did the idea behind Bonfyre come about and can you take us through the journey?

I am the co-founder and CEO of Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform designed to build human connections. I lead the Bonfyre team from our offices in St Louis and I founded the company in 2012. We first launched Bonfyre as a social networking application to make it easier for people to connect around live events – weddings, conferences, group trips, etc. And with corporate events, we saw something special happen. In many cases, the event was the one time per year where attendees were coming together in-person and Bonfyre was a great way to stay connected during and after the event. And in our case, staying connected was less about “getting work done” and more about co-worker relationships.

Similar to what we all know about using Facebook and Instagram in our personal lives, using digital communications to build relationships looks very different than using it to get work done.  You need something that is more mobile-first than desktop-centric, more about photos and videos than rapid fire texting, and revolves around high quality content rather than high volume, transactional communications. In a more virtual work experience, there’s a huge gap with this – companies have historically not had anything designed for building relationships. Serving this need is what we are focused on at Bonfyre, as we’ve evolved into the full workplace culture platform we are today.

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What according to you are some of the biggest HR and HR Tech (adoption / usage) challenges for teams as the Covid-19 pandemic-induced rise in work from home continues in several places?

At the onset of the pandemic, the biggest challenge was around productivity. We had a tectonic shift in where and how we work and understandably, the #1 priority was putting technology in place to keep that work going.

But I think that stage is coming to an end. I saw one survey of CFOs recently where 80% are saying they are now ready for re-entry to the physical work experience and 50% indicate remote work will be a permanent option. For the most part I think companies have gotten the core technology stack to get work done virtually and in a more socially distant office environment.

And while there are a lot of great benefits that come from a more virtual work experience – and we should absolutely embrace it – we also need to confront the emerging challenges of culture erosion and inclusion that will come along with it. This is where I see the biggest gap in HR tech adoption in the rise of work from home.

And we explore that challenge and how to solve it in detail in a recent whitepaper we’ve published.

Could you talk about some of the innovative HR and employee practices you are seeing businesses put in place now as a result of the pandemic?

One company that’s been very forward-thinking during the pandemic is Option Care Health. It’s a 6,000 person organization where many workers are frontline, home-based caregivers. And it has some unique dynamics – a geographically distributed team, fast changing COVID-19 protocols and a recent merger that led to a refreshed mission, purpose and set of business priorities.

Option Care Health implemented Bonfyre intentionally alongside Microsoft Teams and Chatter to connect with its employees, while also building community. It now reaches the entire workforce with trackable communications (they are seeing an 85% read rate), humanizes leadership through video messages and shares success stories across the company.

Part of Option Care Health’s strategy was to bring team appreciation into Bonfyre for National Nurses Week, where it created a “Celebrating our Superheroes” campaign that drove a high volume of recognition for its caregivers, including an 80% increase over its prior recognition platform.

And more broadly, by launching a dedicated space for culture, it has improved employee sentiment with a 21 point jump in eNPS, a 20% lift in appreciation scores and a 10% lift in belonging.

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Can you tell us what you’ve observed as some of the top challenges in virtual work and collaboration during this pandemic? What kind of HR Technologies and platforms are you seeing offer game-changing capabilities in the marketplace today to meet changing employee and business demands as a result of a rise in work from home inspired work culture?

I think those who are working remotely for the first time may be surprised by some of the negative implications that can come with it.

For example, Cigna surveyed 10,000 employees and found that 61% said they were lonely – and that was before the pandemic. And a recent study shows that 63% of employees are now spending less time socializing with their team members.

So to counter these negatives, it’s important for employees to connect in a digital space designed to build work relationships. Something that’s more like Instagram than instant messaging. More mobile-first, rich media-centric than lots of text messages and files.

It’s on a dedicated platform like this where employees can build commonality, explore shared interests and form relationships in a new way. And companies that offer a workplace culture platform like this send an important signal to its workforce that employee connectivity and wellbeing are valued.

How do you see this pandemic impacting the global talent and work marketplace in tech / B2B?

 I anticipate a lot of focus on empowering managers to form closer connections within their employees and become better leaders. In this new work reality, it’s hard enough to get work done and even harder to be intentional in developing a team. And building relationships digitally may not be intuitive for every leader, especially those who didn’t grow up with platforms like Facebook and Instagram at their fingertips.

However, there are lots of opportunities to leverage data and technology to help here. The analysis of meta data, platform actions and employee survey responses can identify behaviors most associated with positive outcomes like satisfaction and retention. And technology can help recommend and automate actions that managers can take – whether that’s in the form of virtual team building activities or recognition – to increase the chance that those outcomes are achieved.

Companies that invest in programs and technology to empower their employees in this way will have a competitive advantage when it comes to talent acquisition and retention.

Could you take us through some of the process / team changes Bonfyre has undertaken during this downtime – to help boost employee coordination and motivation?

 Internally, we adopt many of the same culture-building practices that we counsel our clients on everyday. Weekly photo sharing contests (eg, “post a photo that best captures your summer”) and virtual happy hours keep us connected on a personal level. And yes, these activities are fun on their own merits, though they are a critical aspect of leadership and culture in the new work reality.  Whether you’re working 100% remote or have a hybrid work experience, fewer in-person interactions make it so much harder to get to know each other as people. And so as leaders and organizations, we have to be more intentional than ever about how we build workplace relationships.

Our view is remote work doesn’t work if you don’t have trust. So how do you build trust when you don’t get together in-person? It’s about building commonality – and while there’s no substitute for doing that face-to-face – we can close some of that gap digitally. Take the photo contest example – those are usually personal in nature, but also low barrier to entry. It’s a relatively non-polarizing topic that still gives people the opportunity to express themselves – maybe we’ll see a photo of kids, a pet, outdoor activity, etc. These are all different core points of commonality that help us feel like we belong. And workplace relationships – getting to know each other as people to bridge locations, roles, and languages – are the backbone of culture and inclusion.

A few general thoughts / tips for businesses worldwide dealing with the current world pandemic?

Even as businesses are re-opening, social distancing is still in effect so the ability and willingness of people to gather at larger company events simply won’t be there. While there will still be demand for co-workers to connect in person, those opportunities will just become more precious and selectively planned.

One of the things we discuss in the whitepaper is that organizations can help empower that – giving them tools and policies to organize ad-hoc, opt-in experiences for colleagues around widely shared common interests – happy hours, outdoor walks, coffee, etc – and doing so in a way that aligns with local rules around gatherings. Organizations will need to quickly get comfortable – and also strategic – with decentralizing company social events and meetups.

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Bonfyre is a workplace culture platform designed to build human connections. The mobile-first platform replicates the spontaneous and casual interaction that creates better workplaces, serving as a “virtual water cooler” for distributed workforces.

Mark Sawyier is the CEO and co-founder of Bonfyre, a workplace culture platform designed to build human connections. Mark founded his first company, an off-campus apartment website, in 2004 as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, and has been leading companies ever since. A passionate and experienced entrepreneur, Mark now brings his curiosity, creativity and leadership expertise to companies ranging from Fortune 500s to early-stage startups. Mark believes people are the most valuable factor of any successful company and maintaining a workplace culture that benefits the employees has become his passion, for both the sake of the employee and the continued growth of the organization. Additionally, Mark is active in local charities such as COCA, Saint Louis Art Museum and Peter & Paul Community Services.