How to be Happy – Time to call off the “Engagement”

“Yes that’s right, we had a one hundred percent response rate to the survey.”

The speaker from a international airline proudly stated his results. His lovingly compiled pie charts labelled “Engagement” were resplendent in the Power Point behind him.  The audience were incredulous, a one hundred percent response rate how was it possible they asked?

“…well, of course, we made the survey mandatory”.

Whilst there are many different definitions of “Engagement” in the HR world broadly speaking and employee’s commitment to and involvement with their work and their organisation seems a decent place to start.  Like most HR initiatives the will to measure engagement starts out as well intentioned and a move towards concern for the employees themselves.  However, too often, in the application and the building of processes around this the notion of “Are our employees OK?” has been replaced with “Are our employees productive?”.  The change is a subtle one and has occurred as the results of surveys have been used as the answers to questions for which they weren’t intended.  Engagement, when measured effectively can be broken down into constituent parts.

  • Intellectual engagement – Does the person feel challenged in their work, are they thinking.
  • Emotional engagement – Does the person feel positive about doing a good job, is there an efficient emotional reward structure in place.
  • Social engagement – Does the role facilitate positive interaction with their co-workers.

When used incorrectly they are answering different questions.

  • Productivity – Is the employee producing the requited amount of labour that the company expects
  • Performance – Findings of surveys here are used as a proxy to explain results.

The shift is small and goes beyond just the semantic. For one set of employers “engagement” is now about measuring what we can “get out” of a workforce.  Like many other terms the human aspect has become distanced and now the people in the organisation can be reduced to a resource, counted and catalogued accordingly.  Even the manner in which these surveys are conducted can affect the results.  An annual engagement survey sent to everyone in the organisation is little more than the pointed stick poking at the bloated corpse of your organisation’s apathy.  Everything they measure has already happened, it’s post-mortem and the changes it would be possible to make are already too late.  A few click boxes on a website once a year is a chore not a meaningful interaction, regardless of the best intentions those questions are compiled with.

Some forward thinking companies have found a better solution.  In 2003, Fred Reichheld, a partner at Bain & Company, created a new way of measuring how well an company treats the people whose lives it affects—how well it generates relationships worthy of loyalty.  His Net Promotor Score or NPS was widely adopted and in use of companies of all sizes, segmenting the people into Promoters, Passives and Detractors with it’s simple one or two questions.  There are a great deal of benefits of adopting this approach and adapting it for employees.  When creating an eNPS (employee NPS) the annual laundry list of questions and ratings is replaced with a more frequent check-in, trends in happiness can be linked to real changes in the environment.  An entire team’s mood seems to be changing? Maybe it’s that new office space? Maybe it’s that new manager? Waiting 6 months to a year later to issue a survey is all too late.


So engagement surveys are too little too late and misused tools for measuring productivity.  eNPS is an improvement but in it’s attempt to be as answerable as possible still misses some of the larger aspects of the employee experience.  Some companies seem content to only measure those periods of time they are extracting effort from their employees, ignoring completely the fact there are external influences that might occur after 5pm.  The current toolset of HR is ill-equipped for the reality that the productivity and performance are great to measure but just as important are those things that employees themselves want to get out of work.

There is an alternative that more progressive organisations are adopting and in doing so re-humanising the process of collecting this data.  Instead of asking if an employee would recommend a place of work or waiting a year to prod at them with a laborious survey they ask a one question daily.  “How happy were you today?“.

Happiness at work and employee engagement are similar ideas but have unique and subtle differences in meaning.  Imagine you are managing a team and told to make them “more engaged” it might sound like a request for more meetings, for incentivising longer hours or an edict to start “cracking the whip”. Compare this with a manager tasked to make their team “happier”, this request isn’t about driving productivity. It feels more like a search for ways to empower the team, remove obstacles and better motivate them.

There are a number of new tools that seek to give a better insight into this broader question, at Forward Partners we use the MoodMap tool from Happiness Works. The tool asks the single question “How Happy were you today?” every day at 5pm.  I can answer in one click of the mouse.  Monthly “Climate Studies” probe deeper and allow more insight but not at the cost of provoking respondent apathy or the feeling that it’s all “too little too late”.  Better yet the tool allows respondents to offer “ideas” for improvements in the workplace.  In our use of the tool it’s been interesting to note that these ideas mirrored almost perfectly sections of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The first suggestions were physiological or environmental – the air-con is noisy, my chair is uncomfortable etc.  In fixing these small, nagging, yet solvable items the “ideas” we’ve captured have evolved too.  There have been ideas for conference attendance, skill sharing, training budgets and social outing suggestions.  How’s that for “engagement”? example

No software tool is magic and whilst it has been incredibly beneficial perhaps the biggest benefit is in facilitating the conversation around employee happiness.  For those companies looking for a way to gain insight into their employee’s well being and then empowering them to improve themselves and their environment these tools could be a great way.  Of course for the rest of you you have about 12 months to sharpen that pointy stick, or maybe wait to get that insight at the exit interviews?

pointy stick

Firing for Values?

As a subscriber to “Diversity Inc” my interest is always piqued when they get round to the core discussion of “values”. This month’s issue has a really interesting comment in their “Legal Section” simply they pose the question “Can you fire employees with different values?”.

Weldon Latham a discrimination law attorney suggests that companies should exercise caution in these cases. He uses the example of those companies that operated in South Africa during apartheid, he goes on to cite examples of those companies who did not permit the external prevailing rules of apartheid to operate within the rules of their controllable corporate environment. Weldon gives a cautionary note however that a corporation cannot exist entirely removed from the country in which it operates. This is a great point, recently I’ve been reading about the rights of women workers in Iran – legally they are only allowed 1 term of maternity leave, if they become pregnant again they are forced to resign. In a similar vein, when women are ill, the social security office pays them 66% of their daily wage while men are paid 75%. In the face of national, institutionalised discrimination surely a corporation has a hard road to follow – they can fight the prevailing hegemony of the country in which they operate or chose not to operate in that region at all.

These are broad sweeping issues, polarising to those outside of the countries in question. The question “Hands up who wants to work for a racist company?” is pretty easy to answer, but then what “values” are we willing to negotiate on? As a consultancy should the values-led organisation be wary of which clients they are willing to engage with? Should an organisation ask expect an individual employee to put aside their personal values, attitudes and beliefs for the company’s profit margin?

At ThoughtWorks we do have stated values. They exist as in many other organisations as a web page, in some people’s email signatures and as handy “non-discrimination” notices at the bottom of recruiting ads… how then do we ensure that they amount to more than this? Too often “values” are sloganeering in the extreme, more about marketing position and candidate attraction as hollow as a sweeping “we recruit the best”. How can an organisation ensure that it’s stated values do not loose meaning overtime? In ThoughtWorks we have an answer. The values we publish are the subject of a constant conversation around their use, meaning and also as a set of checks and balances to guide decision making. There are often questioning voices as to the “values alignment” of a particular project and also occasionally of particular individuals, certainly it’s a feature of our recruitment processes, and figures as part of the “Cultural Fit” interview.

There are those people who would take a contract in Iraq at the height of the conflict as it came with a massive salary, “danger money” if you will! There are those people who would only ever consider working for a not-for-profit organisation and even then some are deemed “too corporate” or “only about the money”. I don’t think ThoughtWorkers exist at either of these extremes nor as a body of people are they stuck in a particular mindset – instead happy to measure the flow of information against their own checks and balances – filtering through their own personal values. It is this discussion around our values that gives them their strength – they cease to be meaningless corporate lip-service and become a living, breathing part of life at ThoughtWorks, we don’t expect people to recite them by rote but chances are they are already living them.

From “Social Experiment” to Memetic “Big-Bang”.

ThoughtWorks says it’s different. It’s my role to communicate this “difference” in very real terms to candidates who apply to join us. As recruiters it’s something we do everyday, what differentiates us? How are we different? What differences are more attractive that others?

It is the communication of difference that causes a problem and if a skilled recruiter can use the cultural differentiators that an organisation holds to be true about itself then these can be used to marry up to a candidate’s motivations for joining the organisation. e.g. at a basic level, their current company doesn’t offer them opportunities to travel – ThoughtWorks has many of it’s consultants working outside of their home offices and aids them in relocating for a short term, the life of a project or even emigrating for good. Obviously not all aspects are that binary, it can’t always be “current dissatisfaction + “different” cultural aspect = reason for joining”. If it were always the case then an organisation would have to be all things to all people all of the time, no company is a nirvana so there will always be pros and cons to joining an organisation. All this got me thinking about the difference of ThoughtWorks comparatively to other organisations and how I could illustrate this to candidates.

ThoughtWorks has already done a lot of thinking about how it wanted to be different from the day it was founded and still does. Roy’s Social Experiment offers a model for a company based on humanistic or anthropological lines concerned with the human behaviour, belief and value systems, sociological and cultural norms, that matched the type of company the founder wished to work in. This is obviously already a marked difference from the established organisational model which owes more to engineering showing an organisation as human constructs to be planned and controlled by rational, formal, structures and procedures. Though I feel the first model still holds true, ThoughtWorks is now a much larger place, over 1000 “ThoughtWorkers” across multiple continents in a myriad of countries. In growing globally “cultural norms” are blurred and belief and value systems are disparate and sometimes even conflicting. How then does a “social experiment” of an organisation maintain “cultural norms”. One answer is to regionalise and accept geographical/political boundaries as cultural way points – the other alternative is to create a culture of your own.

The third model I propose in communicating the “difference” of ThoughtWork’s organisational structure is organic evolution by natural selection. In the case of ThoughtWorks it is an evolution punctuated by the imposition of selected “organic replicators” – the employees are selected through an interview process. While organic evolution is blind or without conscious design (sorry to the Creationists) organisational evolution is a conscious program of selected memetic replication, shaped by internal forces managers, recruiters etc as well as external forces market pressures, competitors and technological advancement.

Biological metaphors have long been applied to the world of business e.g. “Survival of the Fittest” to illustrate competition, but more recently new thinking around “Chaos” and self organising systems offer a better model for an organisation than the “engineering” approach. Allowing us to realise that organisations like economies “evolve” as self organising systems. If we take this “genetic” approach I think it’s natural to take Roy’s Social Experiment as the memetic Big-Bang that went on to spark the evolution into the organisation as it exists today

ThoughtWorks as an organisation has, from Roy’s original primordial soup, developed surprisingly common sets of dominant motivators. People who don’t share them don’t join, or don’t get on, or are the first to leave on discovering a culture than can be alien to the “norms” that exist outside. In creating and managing a “learning organisation” we can escape the genetic dominance of the simplistic “survival of the fittest” and move towards an assumption that companies are creatures of their memes in the same way that organisms are creatures of their genes, that is vehicles which the memes or the genes, the replicators, create in order to perpetuate themselves.

For me this is what ThoughtWorks has become, a memetic snowball rolling down a hill, growing as those that share the similar ideals and values join and growing larger with each new hire. The fact that this evolution is constant can account for the “bursts” seen in nature exploiting environmental factors, this has an obvious parallel with the exploitation of new technological advances and the fostering and cultivation of those advances that will give the organisation an edge. New memes can propagate freely and become “viral” within the organisation, undergoing a micro-evolution of their own as they pass among individual ThoughtWorkers.

Working outside of rigid and constraining forms of a “normal” organisation allows for freedom of communication, a flat structure free from hierarchical constructs and allows the collaboration that fosters innovative thinking to thrive. That’s not to say that ThoughtWorks is a panacea for career ills, it is a company full of individuals and with that come individual opinions, ideas and all the flaws and foibles that make us human.

Thinking about the company I work for in this way enables me to better illustrate how “different” we are from other workplaces and allows me to assimilate all the tangents that a candidate might have questions about. Motivations for joining a company are diverse and it’s rare that I talk to two people who share exactly the same motivators, however the ever changing and constantly evolving elements that go to make up ThoughtWorks as a whole enable me to offer an area of interest to most who apply.

Vive La Différence!

A Question of Culture

As an in-house recruiter there are a number of ways to win over a prospective candidate. A widely adopted and often reneged upon practise is that of throwing money at the person. Said person, pleased with new found affluent status joins your company only to later find he is yet another code monkey in a cubicle. What price spending eight hours a day treading the same worn carpet, surrounded by people you hate?

However, there is another way. When buying a car/PC/home/inflatable friend, skilled salesmen won’t sell you “features” they will sell you “benefits”. What’s the difference? The fact a car is a convertible is a feature of that particular model the salesman will turn this into a benefit “I can see you now driving a long by the beach, top down, wind in your hair, Kylie blaring out…” that’s a benefit to you as a person (maybe not the Kylie) – if the salesman has hit on some of your motivators you’re more likely to be taken with his shiny new car. So what “benefits” can a recruiter call on?

In my estimation the biggest value that a Recruiter can add is to emphasise and demonstrate the Culture of the company in which they work. Getting a cultural match with a candidate is a sure fire way to hit plenty of those key motivators that made them apply in the first place… of course Recruiter’s will need to have confidence in the company they are recruiting for and the company itself will need to be aware of it’s cultural representation. This is where most internal recruitment falls down, if recruitment is a function of HR they are to a certain extent sheltered from the realities of working “at the coal face” – in some organisations its seems that the recruiters have never met a technical team besides the occasional email or diary entry. If not through the recruiter how can a candidate find out about the “culture” of an organisation? Whether that is a mediated culture – what they want you to see, or grass-roots opinion – what really goes on.

There are a number of ways ranging from very low effort to more robust research. At the very least a candidate should have read the website of the company they’ve applied to. It’s always the first question I ask – if you haven’t looked at the ThoughtWork’s website I will reschedule the call. Personally I wouldn’t apply to a company without first Googling them. It might just be my hypercritical untrusting nature but I’m never one to believe exactly what everyone says – everyone takes a position right? If Google shows up court depositions of financial irregularities or news stories of Developers being chained to radiators and forced to code in VB, then that 10 second Google search has paid dividends. Is it possible to go further though? Should candidates have a route to gaining deeper access to understand a company? I say yes, and the best way to do this is to talk to the employees. If you’re not able to, the company doesn’t allow blogging, the employees have no outlet to the rest of the world or simply that no one in the company really wants to be a part of the world at large I’d start to question the organisation.

I’m really fortunate that ThoughtWorks encourages blogging and attendance at conferences – for good or bad, most people I meet are able to take a position on the corporate culture at ThoughtWorks. My role as a recruiter is to check this against reality. There is a myth I’d like to shoot down at this point though – when you join ThoughtWorks in all likelihood you will not be sat between Martin Fowler and Ola Bini, working on a Rails app, while finishing your 3rd book and adjusting your Hadi Teherani Gold plated chair… We’re a company like any other and that means a load of diverse people with an equally diverse load of opinions. If you’re thinking of joining ThoughtWorks feel free to Google us and find out what people are saying.

Hiring “The Best”?

In my role I am always interested to see how organisations market themselves to prospective job seekers. Amazon is a wash with books dedicated to the subject. Better interviewing techniques, different questioning styles and shiny new assessments to avoid actually talking to a candidate. In all this how can an organisation justifiably say they hire the “Best” candidates? What does “Best” really mean? I’m currently in Calgary and travelled through Chicago to get here, one only has to walk down a busy street to see how many shops are serving “THE BEST!” coffee, and it must be true…they’ve got the neon signs to prove it!

If we can all see the holes in that argument as soon as it’s made why then do we attach values to prospective employers? There are no “Best” employers, it is of course an opinion, a mediated position arrived at somewhere between the expectations of candidates and the advertising of employers. If all major technology employers are to be believed they all employ the top 2% of graduates of global graduating classes. That 2% must be stretched a little far!

“The Best” place to work is the place that suits you. A place where your motivations are understood and catered for. If you want to work 20 hours a day, risk not seeing your children until their 18th birthdays and work your way up to be “Vice-President of *insert something about architect here*” there will be hundreds of companies happy to take you on! Likewise if you’d prefer to work less time, take the option of flexible working and not be penalised for it, there are companies out there that are right for you too. “The Best” is every case is what’s right for you, you can’t really make a fair judgement call on any organisation until you’ve worked there yourself, and a great place to start is by thinking about your own motivations. What’s right for you? What concessions can you make and what in your work/life balance in non-negotiable? If an employer thinks you’re their perfect person there are ways to make things work out for both parties.

Personally, I like to think I’ve hired people for who ThoughtWorks was the right choice. They give up certain things – for some it’s that hefty amount of travel – to work in an organisation that they feel works for them too. Their colleagues share the same passions, they appreciate similar things and share common goals. Before this trails off into advertising territory I’ll end and save the advertising for later…