Workplace Culture

A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter
A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Today, I’m doing something a little different on the blog. My longtime friends Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have just published a new book titled “The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement.” They present a unique perspective that I think you’ll find interesting.

What follows is a short interview I did with Jamie over email to give you a flavor of what’s in the book. My questions are in bold. The rest are Jamie’s words. More details about the book and how to find Jamie and Maddie are at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.


Your new book is about employee engagement. In my opinion, one of the foundation issues in most work on this topic is a lack of clear definition of employee engagement. As you also note in your book, there are nearly as many definitions of engagement as there are consultants and technology firms who claim to have the answer.

So, let’s start there. How do you define employee engagement? And what makes your definition more credible and valuable than the countless others out there?

Here’s our definition of engagement:

Employee engagement is the level of emotional connection and commitment employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

The first half of the definition is really our summary of all the other definitions out there. They all focus on the internal emotional connection/commitment. And that’s a huge problem because if that is what engagement is, then there’s nothing managers can do to improve it. That’s internal to the employee, so it’s not something I can get my hands on.

And that also defines engagement in terms of the result (level of commitment), but says NOTHING about the cause, and that’s where I think we are adding value here. The cause of engagement is fundamentally success. When people are deeply successful at work, then they have that level of commitment/connection. When you start messing with their success–THAT’s when they start to phone it in.

I’m not sure how clear we make it in the book, but we see three levels of success that will impact engagement–personal, role, and enterprise. The personal part is: am I being successful as I define it related to my life goals and destiny. This, by the way, is why I think entrepreneurs are 100% engaged–most of them were born to do it. They just can’t work for other people. So if you stick someone in a job that is not aligned with their values and life goals, they’ll be less engaged.

Role is about being successful in my specific job. If you put me in sales, but your org is so siloed that no one will give me leads, then I can’t be successful in sales and engagement drops. Enterprise is about my work actually contributing to the success of the organization. Imagine working for Kodak as they missed the digital camera revolution. I might be successful in my film processing, but I know it’s a sinking ship.

You align your organization with deep success like that, and you’ll get engagement.

Traditionally, engagement has been seen as the path to results (usually described as discretionary effort). The argument says that when engagement increases, employee output increases. In other words, more engagement leads to more success. Your definition seems to reverse the order making engagement an outcome. A cynic might argue then, why are we even talking about engagement if it’s simply a product of successful performance? I’m guessing there’s more to it than that. Can you explain?

Okay, so while I do think there is “more to it than that” (and I’ll explain in a minute), first I want to say that the cynic might have a point here. A lot of the literature on engagement cites statistics showing all the increased profits, revenue, and productivity that organizations get when they have higher engagement. They specifically imply that if you can somehow get more engagement, you’ll get those great results of profits, revenue, etc.

This really frustrates me, because I don’t think I’ve seen ANY proof of causation in those statistics–it’s simply correlation. Engagement and profits correlate. Fine. So what’s our mental model here? Is it (a) if we cajole people into being engaged, we’ll get more profit? Or (b) if we figure out how to be consistently profitable, people might actually like working here more? B honestly seems more sensible to me.

But, as you say, there’s more to it than that. Part of the bigger picture is what I said in the previous email–I think engagement is a function of DEEP success, which includes the enterprise level, but also role and personal levels. Creating a culture where everyone has success at all those levels goes way beyond simply being profitable. It’s about creating a system that is focused on those different levels of success simultaneously.

But most organizations, frankly, don’t have systems like that. They have cobbled together a culture that manages to generate some enterprise success (or they’d be out of business), but often at the expense of success at the other two levels. We finish the year in the black, but people are frustrated at the red-tape they have to go through just to get resources, or at the missed opportunities for innovation because one department won’t talk to the other.

Most companies today are focused on actions that increase engagement as a means to greater success. You argue for a different approach in the book. What do you believe organizations should do instead if they want to create a more engaging work experience for employees?  

If companies want engagement, then they should focus on finding and fixing the patterns inside their culture that are getting in the way of deep success. Get under the surface to find the patterns in the way you do things that are having the biggest impact on success, and then fix them (or reinforce them if it’s a positive impact).

Don’t just tell me whether or not your people think the organization is good at collaboration (which is what an engagement survey might say). Show me that while people as individuals are keen to help each other out in this culture, we haven’t invested in processes and systems to support the collaboration, so it ends up being ad hoc. And at the end of the year, we can always point back to a long list of missed opportunities to deliver value to the client because we weren’t proactively collaborating. And then suggest to me some new processes or technologies you can employ that will change that pattern.

You start doing that and engagement will increase–without you having to run ONE engagement survey.


For more great insights and practical guidance for how to manage your culture to fuel success and engagement, order a copy of the new book or visit his website.  

Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week
Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, Quartz published a piece about a New Zealand company that has implemented a 4-day work week policy.

This company offered the shortened work week without any reduction in pay or other benefits. They tested it and then implemented it broadly when they found that it didn’t cause any decrease in overall performance for the organization.

The owner of the company, Andrew Barnes, is bullish about these results and wants every company to try it. But, he offers some words of caution not to talk about this effort in terms of employee well-being. Instead, he advised that you talk about it in terms of productivity.

Here’s a quote from Barnes about how they rolled this out:

“We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

This is a cool story. It highlights what is possible when organizations think differently about work.

Is this really about a 4-day week?

While I think it’s awesome that this company is proving that some of our assumptions about work (i.e. the 5-day work week) are limiting, I think the article is misleading for anyone who might want to pursue something similar in their own organization.

The 4-day work week is the kind of gimmicky silver-bullet we love to read about and debate. The gimmick is a distraction.

If you read between the lines, here’s what you find echoed in this article.

  • This company found that employees could produce the same amount of output in 4 days that they had been producing in 5.
  • When given this challenge (or opportunity) to work more effectively, employees stepped up. When surveying employees before and after the 4-day week trial, they “found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before.”
  • The policy is less about a 4-day week than it is about autonomy and flexibility. The leaders essentially told employees that if they can get their work done in less hours, they could have those extra hours back.
  • And please don’t say this effort is about employee well-being if you want to be taken seriously because nobody (particularly leaders) cares about that. (Forgive my sarcasm, but this seems to be what they chose to lead with).
  • The key to making this transition happen swiftly is an owner or CEO who gets it or has a eureka moment.

My Take

Conversations about a shortened work week are colored by how we think about work. It highlights a fundamental conflict in management philosophy. The practice of management was born during the industrial revolution where the objective was primarily to maximize the productivity of employees per hour. A majority of organizations today are still rooted in this belief.

The objective of work processes is to motivate and/or coerce the maximum amount of productivity out of each hour the employee works. 

In this model, the number of hours the employee spends working is viewed as vital to achieving performance expectations. Your role as an employee is less about achieving specific outputs as it is about seeing how much you can contribute. The manager’s role is to get the maximum amount of value out of the employee.

This way of thinking is prevalent among leaders. It’s this way of thinking that makes the “discretionary effort” model of employee engagement so attractive. It’s oriented towards getting more and more out of the same investment in people–to maximize productivity for the benefit of the organization.

An alternative way of thinking about work is that employees are hired to fulfill specific roles with clear expectations for the value they contribute to the organization’s success. This role clarity drives compensation, management evaluation, and other work processes. This way of thinking about work might be summarized this way:

The objective of work processes is to ensure that employees are clear about the expectations of their role and that they have everything they need to succeed.  

In this way of thinking, a manager’s role isn’t to get the maximum about of productivity out of each employee. Instead, it’s about ensuring that each employee is crystal clear about what is expected of them and then supporting them in achieving those goals successfully.

If an employee can complete their work in less than 40 hours per week, good for her. She’s met her expectations, so what she does with those extra hours is up to her. If she’s able to do her work in 25 hours/week, then that likely means she’s either due for a more challenging role or the role she’s in is poorly designed. Or, maybe she’s just super efficient at her job and everyone’s happy.

These two very different ways of thinking about work are really what the discussion about the 4-day work week is truly about. If your leaders believe that their mandate is to create a workplace that extracts the maximum amount of productivity from employees, then you are dead in the water before you start.

I suspect that’s why the article led with the insight to talk about this effort as “productivity” and not well-being. The implication seems to be that perhaps you can trick your leaders into the 4-day work week. But, if you don’t address the underlying belief that the goal is to maximize employee output, how long do you think it will take before your leaders realize that if employees can be 20% more productive in four days a week, imagine the productivity if they get back that fifth day?

Instead of trying to trick your leaders into this experiment, focus instead on building a better system of performance management that clearly defines expectations and creates systems of measurement and feedback to help managers effectively manage to those expectations. Once your organization and its leaders are more clearly oriented around thinking of roles in terms of defined performance expectations, the conversation about greater autonomy and flexibility will become much easier.

P.S. This has everything to do with employee well-being, even if your leaders aren’t ready to invest in it yet.

 

Open Offices Suck, Annual Engagement Surveys are Dead, and other Lies
Open Offices Suck, Annual Engagement Surveys are Dead, and other Lies 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

I love CBS Sunday Morning.

This past Sunday, Faith Salie shared an op-ed monologue about how much she dislikes open offices. I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of the post for you to check out. She makes a pretty compelling argument.

Just a few years ago, open offices were THE ANSWER to the future of workplace design promising more communication, more innovation, and more productivity. Not to mention they are less expensive for the organization (more people in smaller spaces).

But, now a backlash has started. Lately, it’s become more en vogue to make the point that open offices are, as Faith argues, THE WORST.

Which is it? Are open offices THE ANSWER or are they THE WORST?

Arguments like these are everywhere when it comes to what’s best in the workplace.

  • Is performance management good or bad?
  • Is the annual engagement survey critical or dead?
  • Are front line supervisors the problem or the victims of a bad system?
  • Are best friends at work vital or ridiculous?

These arguments between binary choices are assinine at best and harmful at worst.

We’ve become so enamored by best practices that promise THE ANSWER to our problems, we’ve lost sight of the complexity of this work. Our fixation on finding the right choice between two polar opposite choices is causing us to ignore a harder reality.

THE ANSWER is an illusion. No, it’s a lie.

There are never just two answers. And, there are almost always several different right answers.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about open office space designs. If you’ve ever worked in this type of environment, you probably do too. I like the energy of being in open space around other people working. I like that accessibility that it creates. But, I strongly dislike the lack of privacy and constant distractions.

The organizations using workplace design to drive employee engagement have embraced that different people and different kinds of work require different types of workspaces. They recognize that private offices and open office space can be both good and bad depending on the context.

Those leaders not trapped in binary and best practice thinking are creating innovative spaces for work designed to provide options and flexibility. An example that I wrote about in my book is Hudl, whose new headquarters includes a mix of different spaces designed for different types of preferences and needs. Most employees at Hudl don’t have an assigned desk. Instead, they choose their workspace based on their needs that day.

Thinking in binary terms (i.e. Is this is good or bad?) is crippling our ability to innovate and move forward. It’s hard to resist this thinking since it’s everywhere. In politics, you are either with me or against me. In pop culture, a movie is great or it sucks. When we encounter someone, they either agree with us or they are an idiot.

We must resist this thinking. We need to break free of the “this or that” trap.

The path to growth and innovation lives in the messy grey area in the middle. Because here’s the reality, open offices are both great and terrible at the same time. Performance management can be both good and bad.

The choices are false. THE ANSWER is a lie.

Our mandate is to embrace the complexity of working with humans. Each one of us is different and unique. That means that any group of us is almost infinitely complex. There are many right answers. There are many effective solutions. Never just one.

Do the work to find what’s best for your organization and your people. Ask more questions. See all angles. Push back on arbitrary options and dig in.

Not only will you end up having a much greater impact, but you will learn a lot more along the way.

Not sure what questions you should ask? We should talk.

 

 

Before the Resolutions, Work on your Purpose
Before the Resolutions, Work on your Purpose 300 168 Jason Lauritsen

Yesterday, as I was climbing onto the treadmill to start undoing the damage I’d done to my body over the holiday, I noted how few people were at the gym.

Then I thought, “Next week is going to be different.”

It’s resolution time of year. Next week, the gym will be full of new people and those who haven’t been in a while. All of them full of New Year’s inspired resolve.

For someone who goes to the gym regularly, it’s an inconvenience to have so many people packing the gym. But I know it won’t last.  It never does.

Within a month, things will return to normal. New Year’s resolve gone.

Setting resolutions and goals alone is typically not enough to drive the sustainable behavior change needed to see meaningful results. Getting in shape, for example, is really hard. It means changing your diet and giving up foods you probably love. It means doing workouts that you are not good at that leave you feeling the next day as if you got run over by a truck.

It’s hard. And because it’s hard, you are likely to quit.

Unless.

If you want to keep more of your resolutions and meet more of your goals, start by first getting crystal clear on why they are important.

Why do you want to get in better shape? What consequence will it have in your life when you succeed (or fail)?

Is it to feel better and have more energy to play with your kids or spend time with friends?  Is it to avoid suffering from some serious health conditions that could take everything away?

When you are clear on your “why,” it’s harder to quit.

The workouts might suck, but you aren’t quitting on the workouts, you are quitting on your kids (or your future, etc.). Being clear on the purpose behind your goals is where real resolve comes from.

This the same reason that so many projects and goals fall short at work as well.

Organizations often commit themselves to improve employee engagement in the same way we set resolutions to get in better shape. It seems like the right thing to do and it seems like everyone else is doing it.

So we survey our employees. And despite the fact that our leaders think everything is fine, we discover that it’s not so great for the employees. And, making the needed changes is going to be hard.

You will probably quit. Mainly because you (and everyone else) aren’t sure exactly why any of this really matters.

If you want to make an impact at work towards creating a better work experience for your employees, start with purpose. Before you set any goals or make any plans, get really clear on why it matters.

Is it to improve your employees’ lives? Is it to improve organizational performance? Is it to save your organization from going out of business?

There’s a lot of reasons why you can and should care about employees’ experience at work. The important step is to uncover and articulate why it matters for your organization.

Because doing this work, like getting in better shape, is hard work.  And when you (or your leaders) want to quit, you need to remember that you aren’t quitting on a survey or an HR project. You are quitting on the organization or your employees’ future.

Before you start writing out resolutions or making plans for next year, invest some time in thinking about why any of it matters. Goals and intentions built on a solid foundation of purpose are far more powerful and effective.

Make 2019 your best ever by starting with clarity about what really matters.

Happy New Year!

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Why Performance Management Still Sucks
Why Performance Management Still Sucks 395 120 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve spent a large part of the last year writing a book about performance management.  

One of the big questions I wrestled with was “how did we get this so wrong?” That question isn’t all that hard to answer when you look at the history of management and discover that it was based on a contractual, compliance-based model.

This helps explain how we ended up with compliance-based processes like the annual performance appraisal and performance improvement plans. They make sense in the historical context in which they were created. 

But times have changed. And work has changed. A lot. 

Performance management hasn’t. 

A majority of organizations are still running these same compliance-based processes today. Taken in the context of our climate of work, they make little or no sense.

Employees hate it. Managers cringe at the mention of performance management. And HR keeps running the system despite knowing that it doesn’t really work.  

It’s glaringly obvious that it’s a broken system. It’s been obvious for decades. Why is it taking so long to fix?  

This might be the more important question. 

Performance is the lifeblood of any organization. Without it, the organization withers and dies.  What could be more important than the management of performance?

And yet.

No one owns it.  

Everyone participates. Everyone is impacted.

No one owns it. 

Managers are charged with the day to day responsibility of ensuring employee performance. Leaders are broadly responsible for organizational performance.  And HR is where the formal, compliance-based processes for the appraisal of performance.  

But who is responsible for designing and deploying and maintaining a system for managing performance across the organization? 

Certainly, HR is the assumed answer. 

But, I think I’ve only met a handful of HR professionals in my life who’s primary job role and function was performance management. 

This fall, I facilitated a panel of HR leaders at the HR Tech Conference to discuss the evolution of performance management. I asked each of them how performance management fit into their overall HR structure. Each of the four companies was different. 

In one case it was part of total rewards (i.e. benefit and comp). In another, it was viewed as part of employee engagement. In another, it was under the banner of employee relations (i.e. compliance). 

In two of the four cases, the main reason HR undertook the process of changing performance management was that executive leadership demanded it.  

It’s crazy. 

A well-designed performance management system should be the operating system for your organization. It ensures a sustainable and consistent employee experience that unlocks individual and team performance. Most organizations today are still running a performance management operating system written in the 1920’s.

It’s way past time for an upgrade. But, that upgrade will never happen unless you make it a priority.  

Every organization should have a role or team dedicated to performance management systems. If you don’t like the phrase “performance management,” then call it performance enablement or performance processes.  

It can be in HR or it can be elsewhere. It will depend on your organization. 

We would never let something like sales or financials or technology go without an owner who has the responsibility to ensuring process effectiveness.

Why do we allow it with something as vital as the management of performance?

Let’s change that. 

Designing Employee Experience (A “How To” Series)
Designing Employee Experience (A “How To” Series) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

As I’m seeing more and more discussion about employee experience, I’m not finding a lot of content about how to activate and do the work.

The reason I’m so bullish about the concept of employee experience is that it is proactively actionable whereas traditional employee engagement practices are largely reactive. Organizations can intentionally design the employee experience to improve engagement and performance.

Over the past two months, I’ve been writing a series of posts for my friends at PeopleDoc titled “How to Design the Employee Experience.” If you have been pondering employee experience and how to get started, I urge you to check out the series.

  1. The Impact of Experience 
  2. Applying the Design Process
  3. Getting Started with Discovery
  4. Define Your Ideal Employee Experience
  5. Delivering a Great Employee Experience
  6. Using Technology to Enhance the Employee Experience

I hope you enjoy the content and find it useful. My new book, Unlocking High Performance, will dive even further into this when it’s available in October.

 

UK Pre-Order NOW! US Pre-Order July 28th

 

 

Does your company discourage vacations?
Does your company discourage vacations? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting chat with my Lyft driver on the way to the airport in San Francisco.

He was a career business development professional who uses Lyft to supplement his income. Our conversation turned to company culture and work experience (shocking, I know).

He told me about how he had changed jobs and moved his family to Sacramento because he worked for a company that consumed every moment of his life.

When he wasn’t traveling, he was expected to attend client events in the evenings. His wife and family hardly ever saw him.

Then there was the whole issue of vacation. He shared a story with me about a time early in his career when he’d qualified for a company-paid sales incentive trip to Hawaii.

He invited his girlfriend to go along. She agreed based on one condition–that he leaves his laptop at home. She knew that if he brought it, he’d work much of the time. He knew it too but didn’t feel like he had a choice. He chose the laptop and ended up making the trip alone.

At this same company, he described the ritual guilt trip that would be applied by management every time he tried to request vacation days. They’d always say the same thing, “We’ve got so much going on right now, can’t you find another time to go?”

He felt so tied to his work that he couldn’t disconnect, ever.  And, it had an impact on him and his family. Thus, he finally left.

I wish his experience was a unique one and that he just happened to work for a company that was getting it wrong. But, I know too many people who have had the same experience to think that’s true.

And, the data seems to suggest the same.

According to the 2018 Work and Well-being Survey recently published by the American Psychological Association, despite 76% of respondents saying that taking vacation time is important to them, only 41% reported that their organization’s culture encouraged taking time off.

That’s 6 out of 10 organizations where the employees feel like they are discouraged from taking a vacation. Let that sink in.

So, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that 65% of respondents reported that the positive benefits they feel as a result of taking a vacation (when they do take it) either disappear immediately or within a few days.

This is crazy.

And it’s symptomatic of much deeper cultural and performance issues. If you feel like you cannot be gone from work for fear of lost opportunity or what might happen while you are out, that suggests a teamwork or trust deficiency.

If you don’t want to take vacation time because you feel penalized by a backlog of work that occurs while you are out, that’s a process and work design problem.

If you don’t want to request vacation because of how guilty your manager makes you feel about it, that’s a leadership failure.

The pace and intensity of work have increased steadily over the past couple decades thanks largely to technology. We spend more time connected to work than ever before.

That makes vacation time more important than ever before. People need time away from work to rest and connect to the things that are important in their life (family, friends, travel, etc.).

This weekend, I’m leaving for a week of summer vacation with my family. I didn’t realize how much I needed the time away until it started to draw near. It’s been a pretty intense year so far and I have not unplugged in a long time.

Time away from work is necessary to recharge.

Organizations should encourage employees to use their time off, even require it if necessary.  And, when people leave for vacation, expect them to disconnect and give their full attention to whatever they do while they are out.

Your organization’s posture towards vacation is a good indicator of how well you are tending to an employee’s overall well-being and engagement.

If you aren’t sure how you are doing, take a peek at how much vacation time is being used. Or even more simply, go ask some employees if using vacation time is encouraged.