Corey McAveeney is a Culture Geek at Culture Amp, the creators of Murmur, a survey and analytics platform for measuring and improving your workplace.
“Work hard play hard” is an often repeated motto among many startups, as is the popular “Get shit done.”
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I’m all for those who bring it to their startup culture, but what is the meaning behind these platitudes? Thankfully, “It is what it is” was short-lived and no one I know has tried to describe their startup culture as such.
These oversimplified sayings are more about the effort founders, people ops folks, and others in leadership roles make to communicate the behaviors they expect from everyone on the team. It’s one way to get people to connect with the work and other team members, essentially working to boost the tried and true indicator of many things: employee engagement.
What exactly is employee engagement and why should your company measure it?
Do you know someone whose heart sinks at the thought of leaving their job, their team, or their company? If so, you may be witnessing an engaged employee.
In addition to emotional attachment at work, symptoms include getting a friend a job at the same company, going above and beyond the scope of work, envisioning future work anniversary celebrations with the team, and generally being proud to work at a company.
There are many facets to being engaged at work, these are a few sentiments commonly measured by teams looking to make sense of their people data. Your employee engagement level is simply a yardstick for how emotionally motivated, committed, and connected people are to their work.
The part of the employee engagement equation that so many teams struggle with is the emotional part. When you pour all your time and heart into something, you want to see it succeed and grow. When founders of early stage startups are interviewing people to join as the first employees there will never be a conversation like this:
Founder: All righty, well, I think it’s clear that your complementary skill set, broad experience, and personality make you my top choice. You’re a great fit and I’d like you on my team. Do you have any other questions for me?
Interviewee: Cool. Yeah, I mean, I love the product and I’m psyched to help build it out. I could stand being trapped in an airport with you guys. Can you give me a better idea of how emotionally equipped everyone is to handle the highs and lows? Would you say you are interested in my personal and professional development? Do you envision us all working together for the long haul or do you think of me as a great person to initiate getting your startup off the ground and running and then making over the team with a whole new set of people once you get funding? I just want to know how much I can personally afford to invest emotionally before I commit fully.
If you understand the needs and expectations of your people and you communicate the same to them, the emotionally charged milestones won’t be filled with the intensity of any big, bad surprises. But how can you watch for the warning signs?
The absolute best way to look at employee engagement is through simple observation. Look around and determine whether people are emotionally connected, motivated, and committed. If your startup culture is of the aware and communicative variety, chances are you have established a set of core values to define how everyone is expected to work.
Same goes for the company mission. You may even find yourself relating the purpose or ‘why’ of your work (the mission) as well as the ‘how’ of your work (the values) to others.
All that means nothing unless you actually apply this to your actions at the office, or wherever you work. If your startup hasn’t gotten to that point or doesn’t dedicate time to having conversations about cultural norms and expectations, you may eventually find that people wander off to contribute somewhere that is clearly articulating their passion.
Once you observe the level of engagement, you’ll realize you can also measure the level of engagement. The people data you’ll collect can help you predict, prevent, and improve everything from manager effectiveness to your churn rate.
How can founders measure engagement?
Often, the initial approach to employee engagement surveys is to create them internally, collecting and analyzing data manually. If you have the resources, an automated survey platform is a simple solution that saves you tons of time and provides the analytics.*
Either way, remember that surveys are a form of research. They are most effective with an outcome in mind, i.e. How can we increase our employee engagement?
It’s a good idea to first survey the entire team to get a baseline of your culture.
What questions are the best indicators of engagement? Relating back to the definition of employee engagement, think of questions that measure motivation, connectedness, and commitment. Commonly used statements for evaluating engagement are:
- This company motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere,
- I would recommend this company as a great place to work, and
- I rarely think about looking for a job at another company
Typically these types of questions are answered on a scale of 1-5 or a scale of agreement. These three statements are a good start towards compiling data for a basic engagement index at your company.
Rounding out your survey with more questions is a good idea. This will lend greater statistical reliability and give you a better picture of what your engagement looks like.
Depending on the interests and goals of your team, you may want to ask people about leadership, opportunities to learn, recognition, collaboration, among other aspects of your culture. Working with someone who has experience in survey design and research methodology also doesn’t hurt, they’ll ensure you ask questions that have a history of providing the links to the outcome you’re seeking.
Keep in mind that if you aren’t prepared to address all of the issues that arise from a question, you probably don’t have any business asking the question in the first place.
What do you do with the data?
Once you gather your team’s responses, you’ll need to take some time to comb through the results. Whether you’re a data wiz or you’ve been following the realtime results in your dashboard, turn your attention to that initial desired outcome. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted to look for some elusive problem.
With your desired outcome in mind, analysis of the responses will confirm or disprove your line of thinking. For instance, maybe you’re looking to be more proactive about connecting with people who leave the company before they consider leaving.
Perhaps when you ran your last survey, you saw that a seemingly innocuous question about ‘being part of the team’ had a strong correlation with an individual’s tenure. For the past six months you’ve witnessed that being more attentive to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment has decreased the number of people who leave.
This is just one example of how tracking elements of your culture – particularly engagement – will benefit your whole team in the long run.
Remember that you need to communicate before launching the survey, during the survey, and after results have been reviewed. People will expect the results to prompt action; never let their opinions and suggestions get swallowed in a black hole.
Surveying your team is a crucial part of your feedback loop. Whether you sift through the data yourself or sit back and appreciate automated analytics highlight the key issues, know that collecting a ton of data is not as valuable as making it actionable.
Try it and see how your company can improve with just a few questions! Good luck!
*Disclaimer: Culture Amp is a survey and analytics platform.