Once Is Not Enough: Creating a Culture of Feedback


Last week the Boston Globe announced the 2017 Top Places to Work in Massachusetts. One hundred and twenty-five companies are very happy to have made the lists. Perhaps even more important, these companies (and hundreds of others that didn’t make the lists this year) gained critical insights into what their employees think and feel about working there, so the organizations can take action and improve. (This is the heart of an employee engagement strategy.)

The rankings are based on an annual online survey developed and managed by Energage (formerly known as Workplace Dynamics.) Employees respond anonymously to 24 statements, and responses are analyzed using sophisticated algorithms.

Annual surveys are a valuable tool but they are not enough to understand and keep up with a fast-paced workplace environment. A whole new category of “pulse survey” tools – from Energage and others -- are now available to address this “always on” reality and become part of everyday life for employees and employers.

Want to know how it works for one fast-growing technology company? Here’s a short Q&A with Clive Higgins, the Chief Operating Officer at one of my clients, Exaptive.

The Company

Exaptive is an early stage software developer building enterprise apps for analyzing and creating new value from massive data sets. The employees are very dispersed, with about two thirds of the people at their headquarters in Oklahoma City, and the rest of their employees working remotely in the US, Canada and Japan.

The Objective

Get a pulse of what employees are thinking and feeling as the company goes through a steep software development and implementation phase: do they get the vision and strategy? What do they need to solve to perform at highest level? How to create an environment where employees can be healthy and sane while immersed in startup challenges?

The Answer:

Make getting feedback from employees a habit, a way of life, and do it in a way that protects anonymity, causes minimal disruption, is engaging, and generates valuable responses to act upon. There are numerous pulse survey platforms available; in this case, we used TINYpulse.

Conversation with Clive Higgins, Exaptive Chief Operating Officer

Q What was the driver for introducing a feedback mechanism or pulse survey platform?

A We’re growing so fast, and our people are spread out, and we need to keep great people and hire more great people, and keep everyone pulling in the same direction. Creating a strong, shared culture is foundational to our ability to scale and succeed. The truth is, we really weren’t sure how or what our employees were feeling or thinking. So we committed to finding out. Janet at Bluefire introduced us to a pulse survey platform – TINYpulse -- and guided us through the planning, set up and ongoing management.

Q You’re a pretty small company (<100 employees) – couldn’t you do this informally, just by walking around or in regular meetings?

A You would think so, but even a small organization has introverts (especially one with lots of developers like we do) and we are very dispersed. So, this has created a common experience and outlet for our people to share what’s on their minds. At a bigger company, the relevance would be working with a team within the larger organization.

Q What are some examples of questions you have asked employees?

A We’ve asked serious questions like how well they understand our vision and strategy, or what’s one thing we should never change about the company? And we’ve asked more playful questions like if Exaptive were an animal, what would it be and why (actually, amazing insights about our culture and values from that one); and what song they would put on an Exaptive playlist (also revealing about how they are feeling and see the company.) Some questions are asked again on a regular cadence, for benchmarking and tracking.

Q What value are you gaining from this habit of feedback?

A We have been able to prioritize where we spend management time because we know what’s most important to our people, where the kinks are in our business, which groups need guidance. The Cheers for Peers feature is a huge hit among our employees – they are more generous in noticing and thanking each other for their hard work and ingenuity. And they look forward to getting the next question.

Q How are you managing the process of asking questions, reporting and acting on what you’re learning? How much effort does this take?

A Well, that’s where Janet’s expertise and support come into play. We work together to create and schedule the questions, using either TINYpulse’s questions repository or to craft custom questions, depending on what we’re trying to emphasize or find out. Janet creates the reports we share with our employees building on TINYpulse tools and putting it into context with our culture and priorities. It’s a very efficient process.

Q What’s the value of doing this work with an outside expert vs doing it all in house?

A It’s a few things. An extra layer of anonymity (our people know there is an outside community manager reading and replying to their responses); helping us distill meaning from an array of responses; keeping our focus on actions to take based on employee feedback; guidance on question topics, language, cadence; and counsel to put this effort in context with the overall employee experience and mission at Exaptive.

Q What advice do you have for other early stage (or any) companies considering adopting “culture of feedback” strategies like this?

A Just get started! Don’t be afraid of what employees will say – it’s worse to wonder and deny them a voice. And do make sure you have the right expertise to guide you – it really makes a difference.

Want to know more? Here's a Bluefire_Culture of Feedback  one pager to get you started.