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How Citi's wellness challenge led to employee engagement

It was tough to keep Citi's 200,000 employees across 95 countries engaged and connected. Here's how the company used a wellness challenge as a place to begin.

With over 200,000 employees spread across 95 countries, financial services conglomerate Citi wanted a way to boost employee engagement. A simple wellness challenge turned out to be the springboard.

Multinational or not, companies everywhere struggle with changing workforce demographics and a tight labor market. A successful employee engagement effort can mean reduced turnover, higher levels of employee satisfaction and perhaps even an advantage in recruiting. But finding the right blend of message, platform and technology can be elusive, particularly when it comes to the very personal area of health.

"Wellness can be a massive differentiator," said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. "It can make employees feel like they work for a company that thinks of them as more than a number," he said. "But if companies do it wrong -- like just adding on an on-site health center -- it can make employees feel it's a trick to make them stay at work longer. It's hard to balance."

It certainly was not a straightforward journey for Citi, according to Megan Adornato, vice president of global health promotion programs, who outlined the process during a presentation at World Congress' Virtual Health Care Summit. In 2012, for the company's 200th anniversary, Citi's global public affairs team launched a wellness challenge focusing on steps. The company, which had 300,000 employees at that time before ongoing consolidation reduced the number by approximately one-third, saw 30,000 people sign up but only 3,000 participate, Adornato said, even though participating employees could raise money for a favorite charity. Participants were also rewarded with Citi swag, she said, but "that didn't end up encouraging change, so we got rid of that."

Despite the slow start, Citi continued the wellness challenge yearly, and in 2016, responsibility was handed to Adornato's team of three. "We felt like it always belonged with us," she said. "This was another way to solidify HR's leadership behind wellness."

Adornato and her small team continued to promote, tweak and push this wellness challenge over the next few years. They custom-built an app that serves as the program's platform, because they couldn't find a third-party provider that could create something to work in so many different companies. "People tell you they're a global vendor, but in most cases, they're not," she said. At the same time, things were changing within Citi that made both a wellness challenge effort and employee engagement more important, Adornato said. "There have been some severe changes in the workplace that can have a real effect on wellness," she explained. Open workspaces remove any feeling of privacy, while remote work -- either forced or by choice -- often means an employee feels completely disconnected from colleagues. "These things can really affect your physical and mental well-being," she said. "We started to see we really needed to change how we engage with employees."

As a result, Adornato's team did a substantial refresh of the Citi wellness challenge this year. Their custom-built platform was updated with fresh colors and fonts, and using APIs, the team was able to sync it with 14 different wearables. Time and energy were spent on upbeat and catchy internal communications, she said, and the promotion this year was less health-focused and more about fun. "We really wanted to meet our employees where they were." Participants could keep track of their activity using the platform or through wearables or mobile phones, and Adornato said the messaging was careful to point out that any activity -- from tai chi to soccer -- counted because Citi wanted to include every possible demographic. The results exceeded her expectations: Over 15,000 employees participated in 93 countries, logging 9 million minutes of activity during a six-week period.

Adornato found the outcome so impressive the team has decided to use this platform in a much more general way, moving it away from health to a more classic employee engagement tool. "We are saying goodbye to the fitness challenge," she said. "We want to leverage this mobile app in a more holistic way." Not only does Adornato expect this platform to be used as a place to build social connections among employees, but she and her team are going further and creating a content management system so it can be used to push relevant notifications for everything from flu shots to Ebola outbreak updates to social events.

Adornato expressed hope she and her team can continue to change things on the fly as needed moving forward. "We all deal with things changing," she said. "We have to be flexible and nimble and be aware of the business priorities changing. You've just got to be ready to move all the time."

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