Home Education What matters most to employees? Great workplaces or great career?

What matters most to employees? Great workplaces or great career?

by Loknath Das

The best workplaces excel in recognition. Photo: iStockphotoThe best workplaces excel in recognition. Photo: iStockphoto

Once upon a time, if you were fortunate to be born into the small middle class in India, your parents would force you to be a doctor or engineer. Many opted for civil services. If you were still left out, you would apply for a probationary officer’s post in a nationalised bank.

Else you were dead! Every family had a story of an educated unemployed cousin who missed the bus.

Post liberalisation in 1991, options increased. The newly formed IT and IT-enabled services (ITES) sector provided opportunity to the educated unemployed cousin who outpaced the doctor, engineer, probationary officer and the bureaucrat in terms of compensation and global exposure.

These IT/ITES professionals are all around us—in our housing society, at the mall, in the MBA institutes from where we recruit. This gives us the impression that this sector has created a huge number of jobs. While being a significant part of our GDP, and an even more significant part of our exports, the IT/ITES industry employs only about 2 million. By contrast, the direct employment in the textiles industry is 35 million.

The difference is that these 2 million are a part of the group that is reading this article—the Indian middle class. Contrary to popular notions, the Indian middle class, by global definition of wealth and income, is only about 2% of our population. So employment of 2 million out of the total 24 million middle class population (read Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, 2015) is significant for the middle class.

Reality check. IT and ITES industries are going through manpower rationalisation. Banking and financial services will follow once the new players in the industry move beyond the start-up phase. Telecom is consolidating (read not adding jobs).

Readers of this publication are aware that jobs in the organised sector are not being generated fast and the percentage of our workforce working in the organised sector has stagnated at 8% for a very long time.

Given this context should the reader of this article be less worried about joining a great place to work and more worried about building a great professional career? What is the difference?

In the middle of 2015, The New York Times ran an elaborate article on Amazon’s work culture. The article claims that Amazon’s professional employees are well paid and work on world-changing projects, but are pushed to the breaking point in a survival-of-the-fittest climate where they tend to burn out and leave quickly.

Much before The New York Times article, the CEO and the HR head of Netflix created one of the most famous documents in human resources—the culture deck of Netflix, downloaded more than 13 million times since then. The following is an extract from this deck: “adequate performance gets a generous severance package”.

At first glance both Amazon and Netflix do not seem to be ones where one will spend a long time. Jeff Bezos built Amazon’s highly competitive environment on a concept he calls “Purposeful Darwinism”. Patty McCord, the HR head who was the co-author of the culture deck, was herself asked to move on in 2012 after serving Netflix for 14 years.

Yet, both these organisations get great talent to apply to them. In part, it is the inspiring purpose and the challenge they create for their business, and their unwillingness to settle. You may not last long here, but you would not have spent your time doing an “ordinary” job.

These organisations may not be a complete exception to the rule. With a third of the workforce in US being free agents, and the trend likely to be similar in India in the future, chances of being in one organisation for long periods of time is slim.

A key question for the reader is no longer which is a great place to work, but how to build a great career. Indeed, some organisations may not be great workplaces, but be great places to be from, from the point of view of your resume and your career!

Which company is good for me to join?

While the pre-liberalisation workforce was satisfied if they could find a job in any company at all, for a large section of middle class in India liberalisation increased the number of choices. This meant talented employees were no longer happy with just any workplace—they wanted to work with great workplaces.

A simple dictionary search of the word “great” reveals the following definition: “of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average”. Great Place to Work® Institute defines a great place to work as one where employees trust the people they work for, take pride in what they do, and enjoy the company of people they work with.

Why should organisations invest time creating a great place to work? Apart from attracting great talent, is there any other advantage in creating a great workplace? Repeated studies over the years have confirmed that a great place to work is not just great for people, it is also great for business.

It is no fluke that recognised great places to work have consistently provided three times the shareholder returns and have significantly higher PBDIT (profit before depreciation, interest and taxes) percentages than the remaining, which is “considerably above average”.

It is fairly settled in research done by us and others—high trust cultures lead to sustained business results.

While this was the profit side of the story, what is it that a great workplace will provide to its people that will be considerably above average?

Recent studies by Great Place to Work® Institute have shown that about 74% of the workforce in great workplaces report a positive experience on matters of fair pay (not necessarily the highest pay package on paper), profit share, benefits, fair promotions and people avoiding politicking in the workplace, as against 58% in others.

A case in point is InMobi, where on discovering that the quarterly variable pay system was not differentiating high performers from the rest, they decided to do away with variable pay and added that component to their fixed pay.

The result? Workers could work more efficiently, take risks and not be worried about safe targets that would have helped them earn their quarterly bonus.

Hence, it may be worthwhile to ask the question—is it possible to have a great professional career and work in a great place to work at the same time?

The answer is yes!

What matters most to employees?

Contrary to popular notions, “best practices” alone do not explain the difference between the great workplaces and the rest. The ability of leaders and managers to walk the talk, show demonstrated caring and take sincere interest in their employees (and not just treat them as a resource) is what set the best workplaces apart from the rest.

Gemba is the Japanese term to describe the place where the real action happens and actual value is added.

Leaders at SAP Labs practise “Go Gemba” by visiting employees at their workstations and directly witnessing the work done at the heart of the organisation. Short sessions of 15-30 minutes are dedicated to each team, where members share demos of ongoing projects, showcase their work, and discuss their opportunities and challenges in day-to-day work with the senior leaders. The discussion is kept direct and presentation-free, where managers are not required to share updates on behalf of their teams.

Leaders at great workplaces understand and value the contribution of front-line and on-floor colleagues, and hence go the extra mile to listen to, thank and motivate them.

The best workplaces are fanatical about communication.

The Scooter Store, one of America’s largest suppliers of power wheelchairs and scooters, fosters transparency and honest communication through their programme—the Rumor Game. The president/CEO plays the Rumor Game during company rallies, where they allow any employee-owner to address any rumour that he or she might have heard and would like to know whether it’s truth or fiction.

With gifts in hand from the company store, leaders eagerly wait for the first employee-owner to stand up and seek clarification on a perceived rumour. By opening the floor to such straightforward, candid interactions, leaders at great workplaces successfully build a culture of honesty and trustworthiness.

Every year in India we survey 600-800 organisations. Some of the key drivers of employee engagement are pride in being a part of the organisation, career and growth prospects, and fair performance appraisal.

More than an annual activity, performance management is a continuous process of planning and reviewing individual contribution and ensuring achievement of goals.

The philosophy at Teleperformance is that targets are best achieved when there is a pull versus push factor. With this principle in mind, Teleperformance India developed a visible scorecard methodology that creates an environment of positive competition. The targets and performance achievements are visible in real-time and shared daily. Employees also know what they are expected to achieve and where they stand in comparison.

The best workplaces excel in recognition.

Job promotion is a milestone in one’s career and like any other achievement, it is best celebrated with family and loved ones first. Gabriel India came up with a heart-warming practice of announcing staff promotions by first congratulating the employee’s parents or spouse and emphasizing on the accomplishments and extraordinary efforts of the concerned employee that year. The family is then asked to surprise the employee with the news, making the announcement a very special memory for the employee.

While there are many extrinsic motivation tools, internal online portals are being used by numerous organisations today to recognise and appreciate colleagues.

Marico, for instance, has gone one step further and built a holistic recognition forum called “Maricognize”. Apart from the usual features and appreciation categories, employees have an additional option called “Make Your Own Award” where they can suggest recognitions currently not being catered to. Many such categories have been created and have gained huge popularity. Some rewards also have reward points allocated which can be redeemed later.

Seventy per cent of the members (Marico uses the term “member” for employees) received at least one recognition and have been appreciated 1.5 times on an average.

Underlying many of the above practices is a fundamental principle that leaders and managers of the best workplaces have internalised. They treat employees with the same respect they give their customers.

As an illustration, the main goal for in-person interviews at Hyatt is to ensure that candidates experience the same level of comfort and hospitality provided to guests. When candidates arrive at the property, they are welcomed and personally escorted to the human resources department. In case they arrive early, they are also offered refreshments.

This practice reinforces Hyatt’s promise of a superior guest service and establishes the right expectations from a prospective employee. Even if applicants do not end up joining, they would still talk positively about Hyatt and become brand ambassadors in the process.

What are the best workplaces looking for in the talent they recruit?

Traditionally, organisations have looked at competencies such as domain knowledge, professionalism, high ethical standards, flexibility to cope with different business situations, adaptability, result-orientation and execution ability in people they recruit.

The best workplaces largely hire for attitude and fit with culture (and train for skills). In addition to the competencies mentioned above, the best workplaces expect their people to quickly understand the global business environment, be partners in co-creating future businesses, display creativity and innovation and have maturity and emotional intelligence.

Managing one’s physical and psychological health is increasingly becoming a key prerequisite in a fast-changing workplace. gCalm, for instance, is a new online, interactive portal to help Googlers manage stress. Users learn about the science of stress, hear from other Googlers across all functions about how they manage their stress, and learn quick, in-the-moment tools called “stress-busters” to help them manage their personal stress to build resilience.

Hyderabad is one of the 38 Google locations where this programme is live and 93% of attendees report positive effects.

Does creating a Great workplace require the same effort for all organisations?

The answer is no. Our research shows that socio-economic demographics play an important part in determining the expectation levels of employees. For a similar experience in an organisation, an employee with lower expectations will be more engaged. This is the reason why some industries like IT, ITES and telecom will need more good practices than industries like microfinance, retail or manufacturing to achieve the same level of employee engagement.

Contrary to what many claim, the differences in employee engagement have less to do with age and artificial categories like GenY and millennials, and more to do with demographic differences. In fact, educational qualifications, place of origin, time taken to reach office—there are numerous variables which have an impact on engagement of employees, factors over which organisations have no control.

So why are young people less happy in some organisations?

Great Place to Work® surveys more organisations in India than any other research and consulting firm. Research shows that engagement levels of younger workforces is lower than those of older workforces. However, statistical analysis of survey data shows the key drivers of employee perceptions of a workplace do not vary from age group to age group.

For example, sense of pride, career and growth opportunities, fair performance appraisal and family or team feeling is important to all age categories, not just to Generation Y or millennials.

Cross-tabulation of age data with tenure establishes that age is not the key variable to study differences in engagement levels—tenure is more significant. Our research shows that at the time of joining, younger employees do not join with lower perceptions about the organisation. Perceptions of employees fall after the first six months in the organisation and starts increasing only after five years in the organisation.

Employees with lower tenure have had a lower opportunity to integrate and establish themselves in the organisation.

Isn’t the manager the biggest reason why people leave?

Many studies routinely identify the manager as the biggest driver of engagement and disengagement. This concept is now more than 20 years old. Consultants and engagement specialists continue to reinforce this belief.

Is this the complete truth or is it a self-perpetuating myth? Is this strong belief as relevant today as it was twenty years back?

Twenty years ago, the manager had real power over people, simply because not many jobs were available. Today’s employees, particularly millennials, have more options.

If they can switch jobs easily without the manager having any power to stop them, what would they gain by giving the manager absolute power over their engagement? What will happen if from day one employees are told that only they can drive their own engagement, managers and others can support the process (or be a roadblock at times)?

The notion that employees are at the mercy of managers seems to be one of those self-perpetuating beliefs that we should question. Most such beliefs are based on assumptions that are not questioned, leading to actions based on prejudice, which reinforces the same assumption.

To break this mindset, CitiusTech has developed a wonderful practice known as My Job My Choice. Through this initiative, young employees can share their desired job profile in the short term (three years) and their mobility preference, if any, using an online portal opened for 30 days every year. This helps leaders learn and discuss the career aspirations of employees and offer a role change based on their preferences whenever positions open internally.

Employees develop a greater faith in the organisation’s ability and willingness to align individual needs with organisational objectives, while the organisation is better equipped to retain and develop employees by being aware of their desires, creating a win-win for all. The manager is not the gatekeeper.

It is in the interest of employees to take charge of their careers and not jump ship every time they encounter a manager who is not supportive.

Studies show a clear correlation between engagement and productivity, quality and creativity. If it is so important to my career, why would I sit back and wait for my boss to engage me? What if she is herself disengaged and waiting for her boss to engage her? Where does this chain stop?

If I were a young person starting my career today, I would keep in mind the following principles:

1. My professional career can only be built by me. A great place to work is a logical first choice for anyone. Since great professional experience and exposure is critical for my future, a great place to be from is my second choice if I do not work in a great workplace.

2. Ability to learn is more important than competence in any one area.

3. The biggest driver of my engagement is me, not my manager (or mom or dad!).

4. My relationship with my manager is a relationship of mutual dependence between two adults, both of whom are not perfect. My manager is not an encyclopaedia of knowledge with infinite time and extra-sensory perception. Neither am I. My manager’s intentions might be good, but actions may not match intentions. Just like me. In short, for the clear majority of people the manager is not evil. If you empathise with your boss, his or her default reaction will be to empathise with you.

For organisations that want to attract and retain the best talent the message is clear. Start treating your people the way you treat your customers. Use every opportunity to build trust, start by walking the talk. Manage expectations and understand socio-economic demographics of your people, since that will impact their engagement.

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