Measuring employee engagement

This year, GuildQuality was named the 5th best place to work in Atlanta among businesses with fewer than 100 employees. I was pretty pleased with that, and also glad to still have some room for improvement.

We spend a lot of energy on our culture and our work environment. To make sure we’re investing appropriately, I’m interested in measuring our progress. If we’re losing any of the things that make us a special place to work, I want to know about it before things get out of hand.

The single best way that I’ve come across to keep my finger on our pulse is a brief, anonymous survey, conducted once per quarter. We call it our “Barometer” and use Google Forms to make it happen.

Here’s our survey:

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Things get great when anyone can quit at any time

Peter Gray, The Play Deficit

For the last few years, I’ve been telling myself that I’d like every single person in our company to have the abilities, freedom, and opportunity to leave our company at any time, but have our company culture be so strong that no one wants to.

Lenore Skenazy and Abby Schacter recently led me to a wonderful article by Peter Gray that articulated that aspiration in a way far better than I ever could.

Some backstory: since becoming a parent, I’ve followed (and been inspired by) Gray’s articles. As my wee ones have grown to become fully-formed little people, and the wonder of the wide wide world becomes as important and influential to them as the comfort of our cozy home, my appreciation for his writings grows.

Cultivating a strong company culture is similar to cultivating a strong culture at home, but there are some notable differences. One of the biggest is that adults can generally leave a company, and children can’t really leave a home. But in children’s play anyone can withdraw at anytime.

Schacter quotes Gray:

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit….

That’s exactly what we’re working toward with our company culture.

As grownups, we have the added challenges of creating value for our customers and making some money along the way so that we all get to keep coming back to play another day.

Policy is like a cast

Policies and procedures, hierarchy, and bureaucracy are similar to a cast, a brace, or a splint. They’re incredibly useful to immobilize a broken bone so that it will heal. They remove judgment from the equation: If you want to move beyond the limits of your hobble, you can’t. That sort of limitation is something you need if your culture is broken and you’re trying to help it heal, but it’s something you definitely don’t want if you’re healthy.

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer recognized this when she began restricting Yahoo employees’ freedom to work remotely. Remote employees were struggling to be productive, and their results clearly showed it. That represented systemic failures across the board in hiring, onboarding new folks, leadership, and communication, and those failures had injured the organization so severely that the first step in repairing the damage was to introduce restrictions that would allow Yahoo’s bones to heal. If Yahoo does well, that healing will come via the departure of people who aren’t committed to the company’s success, through improved communication, through better leadership, through more selective hiring, and through more diligent onboarding.

For a healthy limb, broad range of movement is critical to strength. Artificial restrictions on motion weaken muscles, and the lack of use eventually causes bone brittleness. So if you are relying on a cast, splint, or brace to prevent injury from happening, you’re making yourself more susceptible to injury.

Once Yahoo has healed its bones, Mayer can (and hopefully will) strip off the cast, and focus on strengthening muscles.