Engaged Workplaces = Trust + Consistency + Leadership

On Friday, July 23 I attended the Great Place To Work Conference at Bangalore and I wanted to share my key take-aways and recommendations that you can take forward within your organizations, irrespective of the industry and size.

To begin, best workplaces had nothing to do with size or number of employees.

The theme of the event ‘Creating a Fair, Consultative and Collaborative Workplace’ had not just representatives from Great Place To Work Institute (the owners of the global annual study) share insights from research findings but a set of speakers from leading organizations such as Infosys, Google, NetApps and Mindtree talk through some of their best practices. The India top 25 list for 2010 includes usual suspects Google, Intel, Qualcomm and Fedex.

Stick to the Basics

At the end of the conference I learnt that there isn’t anything called ‘best practices’ or ‘next practices’ when it comes to engaging your workforce. What works in one organization may fail completely in another depending on the openness and maturity. You got to understand your organization’s DNA and create suitable plans.


Standing ruins

Organizations that featured regularly in the top workplaces ranking were those who rallied employees towards their common goal, were consistent in their actions and whose leaders demonstrated courage under pressure. The recent recession tested many leaders and organizations and those that took consistent actions were respected.

To give you more context on the Great Place to Work study – the survey measures Credibility,  Respect and Fairness (under one bucket called Trust) along with two other dimensions – Pride and Camaraderie.

The survey includes a Trust Index which has 2/3rd emphasis and consists of 60 statements and 2 open ended questions. The other piece is a Culture Audit with 1/3rd representation and importance in the study.

While there are many definitions of ‘trust’ – they define this measure is by the quality of the three; interconnected relationships: employees and management, employees and jobs/company and employees-employees.

Most of the questions that probed how employees felt about their employers sought inputs on leadership commitment, involvement in decision making, degree of empathy, role of the manager in removing road blocks to their success and how empowered and proud they felt in the larger scheme.

Here are some specific insights that stayed in my mind –

–          Almost all the top 25 best places in India did have ‘layoffs’ but still managed to keep morale and engagement high.

–          Perception of leaders’ action/inaction played a big part in opinions formed by employees

–          Engaged organizations didn’t increase compensation but still had good scores

–          Perception dipped at lower career levels

–          Largest companies suffered least (above 10,000 people)

Shift in Mindset

Among the key drivers of employee perception were –

  • the investment by management in attracting talent (Google is a case in point – there isn’t a time bound target for recruiters. They focus on getting the right person on board through a process that ranges from 4-8 interviews and sometimes stretches to 12-14)
  • being truly inclusive in behavior (Opening out a policy in ‘beta’ for employees to reflect)
  • allowing collaborating practices to flourish (Eureka Forbes has a popular and ongoing House of Euro Champs that conducts council members who have to set goals for constituencies and are elected via a secret ballot) and,
  • honestly caring for staff (Qualcomm is known for its dedicated department on Quality of Life that works to improve mental, social and spiritual health of its people).

The study also points to how organizations can focus on ‘gifting’ a conducive workplace which treats employees as equals rather than have a ‘transactional’ arrangement.

I panned key words that reflected in their employee ‘buzz’ study and what struck me were dimensions such as ‘culture’, ‘opportunity’, ‘freedom’, ‘family’ and ‘organization’ which employees believed they got from best employers as opposed to words such as ‘salary’, ‘team’, ‘facilities’ and ‘processes’ that they saw as needing attention.

I loved the following approaches –

–          ’95:95:95’ transparency philosophy of Mindtree that promises to share 95 of information, 95% of time with 95% of all employees. I am sure the intent is there in most companies when it comes to information sharing but articulating it upfront sets a totally different responsibility.

–          “If you trusted them till yesterday, why not now?” is what Vikram Shah, President of NetApps India mentioned referring to layoffs they did and how they treated employees who were let go. They were provided pen drives and asked to take whatever information they needed as well as meet with teams and say goodbyes. Mind you, NetApps is in the data storage business! Contrast that with how some organizations conducted their ‘reduction in force’ exercises bundling employees into cabs and putting ambulances on stand-by. While those firms felt they were ‘sensitive’ to employees’ needs, in reality the perception built that ‘ambulances = layoffs’!

–          Google has a forum called “Bureaucracy Busters’ – bottlenecks that impede progress ranging from minor concerns such as expense processing to more serious issues related to product releases. These pointers are put forward to the leaders to act on.

–          Another one from NetApp: when their leaders visit India the only focus is on culture and values. No business strategy or other ‘gyaan’ session! I think it is simple, employees will believe that culture is important only if they continue to see leaders focusing on it in thought, word and deed.

–          Qualcomm’s leave donation policy that allows employees to lend their leaves to peers who need it in say an emergency

It was heartening to hear from all the speakers that internal communication did play a large role in getting employees aligned and to be part of the progress.

The conference had breakouts where participants seated the tables shared initiatives from their organizations.  When I reviewed the set of practices (these were shared with everyone at the end of the meet) I didn’t come across any unique and out of the box ideas. Most were aimed at being popular among employees (‘inviting employees to give feedback to the MD’, ‘online suggestion box’, ‘ombudsman approach’, ‘lunch with the CEO’, ‘no reserved parking’, ‘informal Fridays’ or were already common practice across the board (‘mid-year salary changes’, ‘celebrating employees’ families’, ‘whistleblower policy’, ‘open workplaces’, ‘IJPs’).

So what’s the final word on building a great place to work?

Focus on the ‘whys and hows’ and not on the ‘whats’, ensure leaders walk the talk and your organizational practices and behaviors are consistent.

I believe it is a personal responsibility to spot opportunities within your organization and also to ‘stop’ or ‘change’ practices and behaviors that you think are not in line with your culture and values.