Why Don’t You Ask?

Last week I’ve had a coffee and talk with a friend of mine who also happens to be a founder of a very interesting and a very ambitious startup. As it happens with startups, his company has been going through a very tough period of a few months struggling to find financing and at the same time deliver product with very limited budget. You know these problems. So he was really happy to finally share some good news: he’s got a commitment for the investment round to deliver the product and grow the company for the next year or so.

However, on the negative side of things he was really concerned with the team spirit despite the good news he has announced. That is a small team of 4 extremely talented software developers, each one having unique skills and they did extremely good job delivering product to wherever it is at this point. But because of the constant struggles, financial issues and all the associated stress they are pretty much burned out. Two of the team members have already started talking to other companies and the other two are frustrated to a point of not being productive at all. “If I loose the team — the company is dead. And I have no idea what to do about it.” he said.

“Did you ask them what you can do to keep them and make them happy again?” was my first reaction. To me it seemed the most natural way to deal with the issue — understand people’s desires and see what I could do to meet those. If they want less stress — offer them 2 weeks off, if they are tired of low income — use the new investment to increase their salaries, if that was uncertainty that was the issue — offer some long term plan and a roadmap. But apparently that was not obvious for my friend. He has not even thought of asking his colleagues directly but was rather trying to approach the issue blindly.

That same day he came back to the office, talked to the people openly and by now was able to make sure that everyone in the team is committed to stay in the company and he has a clear understanding of what needs to be done to increase motivation and team morale.

But is my friend the only one who does not ask this kind of questions? Is it only startup problem? No it is not. In the knowledge economy people became the most important asset for any company and companies do realize that and invest a lot of money to keep their employees happy and engaged. Companies pay high salaries, invest in fitness and wellbeing programs, offer flexible hours or open vacation policies. But the problem is that companies do not know how efficient their investments are. Do they actually invest in what their employees want them to invest into? Are there cheaper ways to achieve same or better results in terms of employee engagement and retention? Unfortunately, in most cases companies do not have answers to that.

Of course most companies run annual or semiannual surveys trying to understand employee engagement level and the impact of the programs these companies invest into, but those do not work. At the very best annual survey can give you some idea about employee perception of the engagement programs from last year so it very well may be that for the whole year you’ve been investing into something that does not really work. And by no means it gives you any idea of what is it that would work better.

It was easy to talk to 4 members team in a startup, but what about established businesses? How do you ask your employees at scale? That is where pulse surveys can really help.

In a way pulse surveys allow companies to adopt practices that democratize workplace. So instead of signing a contract with a nearby fitness service provider that covers 100% of your employees to realize a year later that only 10% of your employees have actually went to fitness at least once — you can actually ask them upfront. Something like “Would you prefer company to cover your fitness program or have free fruits every morning?”. Or “Would you prefer 5% salary increase over 10 extra vacation days?”. These are very basic questions but if done write — pulse surveys would really help understanding your employees demand and adjust your engagement programs in a really agile way.

Not only this approach provides you some very valuable insights and gives you opportunity to invest into the most demanded topics in the most efficient manner, it also gives your employees a feeling of “being in control” of their benefits. When employees can influence such decisions — they start feeling they are a part of the company rather than just working for a company. That alone makes people a lot more engaged and involved with the company and proactive in their work. And finally people have a real reason to participate in studies and know it is in their best interest to answer honestly.

Having an ability to ask questions and get answers before you invest is critical for startups. But it is also equally critical for an established business. It applies to customers, investors and employees. So if you ever end up in a situation where you do not know how to make your employees happy — why don’t you ask?

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