In my last post I wrote about biting the silver bullet. As a founder with a disengaged workforce your only option is to bite the bullet and get feedback from your team. A lot of it will hurt. It will feel like you’ve opened up pandora’s box. You need your most vocal colleagues’ input to get to the heart of what you need to fix. You’ll need to find ways of engaging everyone.
There’s few silver bullets when it comes to scaling a team. The only one I can name for sure, is that a culture doesn’t emerge from nowhere — you’ve got to validate the fundamentals of your culture. Founding principles and values need validating with feedback. Not once, not twice, but continuously. It’s how you benchmark your progress.
So if that last article was the why then here I’m going to get into the how: What does employee engagement actually look like in practice?
Here I’ll get into how we at Starred went about re-engaging our team. If you’re hoping to scan this article for quick, convenient soundbites then I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s not that simple. The learnings and best advice I can give are going to make it clear just how much work this is for everyone you involve, and why you need to act now, not later.
Tech has a problem with jargon and BS, so let’s start with the basics and unpack the term, because it has genuine utility.
What the f- is employee engagement?
For quite a while most blogs circulating around company culture emphasised having happy employees. Having happy colleagues is great, but you can have a company full of happy colleagues delivering absolutely nothing. Engaged colleagues are often also ‘happy’, but are moving the needle for your business.
So what are the key differentiators? In Build it, Glenn Elliott & Debra Corey argue that an employee is engaged when they:
1. Understand and believe in the direction the organization is going — its purpose, mission and objectives. They feel part of something bigger than themselves.
2. Understand how their role impacts and contributes to the organization’s purpose, mission and objectives.
3. Genuinely want their organization to succeed and feel shared success with the organization. They’ll often put the organization’s needs ahead of their own.
The benefit of an engaged workforce is that your people make better decisions. They’re more productive. They innovate more. They do these things and exhibit engagement because of identifying with the bigger picture.
So far so good. So what’s the route to gain this kind of understanding? Ask yourself if this is the case in your organisation and find out the why.
Start with feedback
We measured Net Promoter Score to find out if our people would recommend Starred as a place to work. We took a baseline measurement of feedback on our values. Given we build feedback software, we didn’t have to look far for good tooling. We ate our own dogfood and built a comprehensive Starred survey to evaluate our values.
We asked our team about our values:
- Do you understand them?
- Do they resonate with you?
- Do we live by them?
The outcome was that we actually had good values. The values weren’t the problem — our people understood them and the values resonated with them. We just didn’t live by them.
Work smarter, not harder?
The case of the value with the lowest scores: work smarter, not harder is an interesting one. A quick Google of this expression reveals a lot of well-intentioned advice on hustling to get results and hacky ways of time- and cost-saving. The reality of running a start up and growing it past traction into scaling up is that you often need to roll your sleeves up and put in honest work. At Starred we’re huge fans of automation. We do it often with internal processes because we believe in working smart. We advise our customers to be smarter with their feedback and automate feedback through Starred.
No matter what, however, hard work is hard work and we saw many of our people confused by this message. Working smart ≠ not working hard. There was evidence some people thought that by being smart, they didn’t have to work all that hard. The learning here was we miscommunicated the intention — we want to recognise each other on working hard and being smart in how we pick our battles.
With the exception of Work Smarter, not harder, the key takeaway for us was that our values were not necessarily bad, or badly formulated — we actually just forgot to implement them.
Assemble a team
We assembled a team of 7 people from across the company to get to work. This means people from every team, and across our two main offices in Amsterdam and London. I cannot overstate the importance of this. At this earliest stage of (re)engaging your colleagues you need voices from all corners of your company. Even if it means flying in people from London to Amsterdam to talk about ‘culture’ at your 30-person startup. Video calls don’t work in this case. Real, human conversation is how to get started, and what we did here was a worthy investment.
The team of 7 each represented several more people so the whole organisation was consulted on this project. The book I mentioned earlier — Build it — was what we used to frame our discussions and give our work and division of labour a structure. The framework Glenn Elliott & Debra Corey build is highly aligned with Maslow’s ‘Pyramid of Needs’. We used the framework from Build It — which breaks up employee engagement into its constituent elements.
The Engagement Bridge works from the bottom up like Maslow’s pyramid. The physical fundamentals of feelings of wellbeing,offering a great workspace, pay and benefits are the foundation. Note that ‘open & honest communication’ is the next element, the principle upon which further elements are based: purpose, mission, values, management, leadership, learning, job design, recognition.
If this sounds like a lot that’s because it is. With everyone’s input we refined people’s feedback on where we were going right and wrong on these topics from the Bridge.
- We asked ourselves where the values and mission figure into each aspect of the Bridge. For example one of our five values is Building Together- so how is this reflected in how we recognise each other’s good work?
- We looked at every possible scenario from an actual vs ideal perspective. We itemised quick wins in each area of the bridge.
- The focus was on clear deliverables. What emerged was that everything was important. Accept that Employee Engagement is not one topic. It’s many. Deal with it.
You can’t focus on how you manage your team one month, and how you deal with leadership in another. They go together.
There’s no element more important than any other. They’re all essential and interconnected. You have to go about addressing them simultaneously. You’ll see that the overlap is the most interesting part of this process of building your culture.
Dealing with it all: case in point.
Take these three elements of the bridge: Job Design, Learning & Development and Management.
Let’s say you focus on Job Design. It means asking yourself serious questions as an organisation about how the roles you hire for will play out. Are you ‘plugging the holes in the wall’? To what extent do your jobs satisfy the fundamentals of Task Identity and Task Independence?
For job design to begin and carry on building, you need to have your management principles sorted. This is because performance reviews, 1:1 meeting rhythms and team structure will affect how effective you are in building and developing engaging roles. This isn’t even yet mention learning and development, which will benchmark, measuring and give opportunities for your people to flourish in those jobs you’ve designed.
Now remember that to make big steps in Employee Engagement you need to work on all of these simultaneously.
Tasking people to work on these things means they need to align them as they’re building them. Constantly. Members of my team Alex, Lisa and James were forming their own jigsaw puzzles with Job Design, Learning & Development and Management. They then had to bring their puzzles together and form a bigger picture which made sense.
But this coming together wasn’t a one-time thing, and this example is only one of many alignment challenges that the 7 team members had. If you work in silos, your engagement project won’t work. It also won’t work with an approach of thinking you can pick one of these themes a quarter and taking your time.
- Know in advance that the interconnectedness of Engagement topics will open up as many new questions as you’re providing answers.
- Have a timeline for early deliverables, as well as your next bigger steps.
- Give yourself enough time and resources. The payoff of working in this way is showing your organisation that engagement isn’t a buzzword, it’s the real deal.
No process is perfect. To do Employee Engagement right you’ll need to open Pandora’s Box and get stuck in to every aspect of what it means to work for your company.
I hope the things we learned along the way are useful for others doing the same. Opening yourself up to feedback, benchmarking and then measuring progress is essential.
In my next post I’ll be talking about keeping momentum and my thoughts on being a founder in the middle of re-engaging a workforce.
Reach out and share your thoughts! I definitely want to hear others’ perspectives on what Employee Engagement means to them. No buzzwords needed, just roll up your sleeves and get to work.