Businesses which fail to provide a way for staff to provide objective feedback on their working world are missing out on a wealth of insight that would help drive productivity.
Once a week, the almost 300-strong team at Surrey-based water softener manufacturers Harvey receive an alert on their computers which asks them to take part in a short survey. The software behind it is called Officevibe, and the surveys – which last a few short minutes – promise respondents total anonymity.
For Alexandra Thompson, Harvey’s head of HR, it is a godsend. “We can look at how our staff feel about their wellness, for example, so it will ask such seemingly odd questions like, ‘Did you have breakfast this morning?'” she explained.
“What it is doing is understanding the kind of behaviours that happen in people’s lives that are indicative of good or poor health. What we then do within my team is analyse those on a weekly basis and look for any sharp up or down swings – because that can highlight that something bad has happened, which is really helpful to know.”
An additional feature of the software opens up a line of communication between staff and management that many organisations find difficult to implement. Thompson explained: “There’s a space at the end in which people can bring up anything else on their mind, and because of this we get an absolute wealth of people’s random thoughts, feelings, frustrations and happiness coming through. It is really rich territory for us to explore and, at times, implement changes or give us awareness of things we just wouldn’t know about.”
Few employees will speak more loudly about the effectiveness of this system than those working in Harvey’s factory, whose objective feedback about their workspace being excessively hot compared to the air-conditioned offices of the rest of the business resulted in the company investing in a new cooling system for them.
The whole workforce, meanwhile, benefited from a gripe that was flagged up both on Officevibe and also through some of the Glassdoor reviews that staff are encouraged to write. “One piece of feedback we had from a lot of staff was that our holiday offering was too light,” said Thompson. “They were saying that 20 days was rubbish, so we changed it to 25.”
Not everything that irks employees can be acted upon, of course – and Harvey’s HR chief accepts that being receptive to staff comments could result in employees getting into the habit of placing the metaphorical monkey onto management’s back. “That’s completely possible,” she said, “but I think it’s all about mind-set. It’s really easy to be dismissive of every gripe or problem people bring to you, but if it matters to your team then it should matter to you, too.”
That said, she agrees that sometimes people will use an open feedback system in the wrong way – and that their comments will sometimes be more influenced by feelings than fact. “But if you don’t give them that avenue, they’ll still be feeling that way – only you just won’t hear it,” she added.
Going old school
Officevibe isn’t the only way of gauging the mood of the office – other tools include Culture Amp and TINYPulse – but tech-shy managers and business owners don’t need to miss out. A simple suggestion box in the corner of the room (kitchens remain popular places) can be a great way to tap into what your employees are thinking and to hear their ideas. Talking to them regularly, of course, can unearth similar gold – and is usually feasible until organisations become too large.
This is something Adam Ewart, founder and CEO of luggage delivery company Send My Bag likes to do with his 30-strong team, and he is equally keen to ensure that employees know they can talk to their department managers.
“I think it all comes right back to when we hire people,” said Ewart. “When everyone starts with us they have an internal progression programme, which means they want to be part of something. As soon as someone comes in the door they know it’s not a dead-end job.”
Having a shared vision, added Ewart, makes staff more vested in the business – and more keen to offer both helpful suggestions and objective feedback. All are welcome, and in fact, periodically, Ewart has a “promotion” in which new ideas that are implemented earn whoever suggested them a £100 bonus.
“We don’t really have a name for it – we just say, ‘If anyone’s got any ideas, let us have them’,” he said. “The great thing about it is that because there’s a cheeky little £100 involved, everybody throws in lots of ideas and there are usually two or three that come out of it which are worth a shot.”
Ewart asserts that ideas come thick and fast regardless of whether staff are incentivised – employees are always coming up with clever ways to automate repetitive tasks, for example. “Sometimes the ideas are completely impractical,” he admitted, “but it’s better to have people suggest them rather than just complaining. In other organisations you might have some people who say nothing or quietly complain about it to others. What we have here are people that will flag things up and come up with solutions.”
Make it competitive
It is not difficult for business owners to start embracing a culture in which objective feedback from employees is welcomed and acted upon, Ewart feels, and perhaps the best way to start is to remember that employees aren’t worker drones – they are a living, breathing part of your business.
“What we do here is say, ‘you guys are on the front line, you’re going to know more about what you do on a daily basis than anyone else – so let’s hear your ideas’,” said Ewart. “And if you like you can throw in a reward like we sometimes do it tends to result in lots of smaller ideas that people might never have bothered bringing to you before.”
His “ideas promotions” work in part, he thinks, because they bring a fun, slightly competitive edge to proceedings. “I think they’re all in competition with each other,” he suggested. “Everyone likes the thought of getting their idea out there. But overall, I think it comes back to making sure that everyone understands that they are part of the business. It’s not my business, it’s our business.”