Like any organisation associated with the recruitment industry, the fortunes of online job board SEEK are closely aligned with the fortunes of the broader employment market. Unlike some of those other organisations, SEEK's employees remain motivated and engaged with their work despite the economic environment. How? To some extent, Meahan Callaghan, SEEK's HR director, puts this down to the corporate culture of the organisation. Although hesitant to call the culture 'resilient', she has no doubt the foundations of the culture will hold strong regardless of the economic climate.
"We'd classify our culture as being highly professional and lots of fun. We like working with each other, we have a good time while we're here, but we also really value the contribution we make and what we can achieve by working at SEEK. Maybe resilient is not quite the word - but our culture is something that can continue regardless of the economic climate because it consists of fundamental building blocks," she says.
Callaghan has been with the company for three and a half years, and she notes the culture was very much in place before she arrived, established by the founders - brothers Paul and Andrew Bassat and Matthew Rockman.
"It was part of what attracted me to the job and company and it's something I make my daily business to maintain and uphold while I'm here," she says.
While Callaghan does not see HR's role as being the cultural ambassadors or flame-keepers, she does acknowledge it has an important role to play. "Because we manage the employee survey process - which we do every six months - we are responsible for advising people on how it's going. We can give feedback to everybody in the company - what people are feeling, how true to the culture we're being, and how well we're living the values," she says.
Callaghan believes everyone who joins the company is responsible for the culture, and this is something that is stressed in the recruitment process. "I don't want that to sound flippant, but we do say you need to understand the culture, it needs to be something you will thrive in and contribute to while you are here. It's very much a whole company mandate and it's part of our goal across the whole company to be the best employer across Australia and New Zealand," she adds.
Big and bold or small but effective?
There's a perception that keeping staff motivated in tough times requires significant financial outlay. Not so, says Callaghan, although she feels that both the 'big events' like dedicated teambuilding days, and the smaller initiatives like celebrating birthdays have their place.
"I think you can do either, and there's a place for both. We've achieved a fair amount in the last six months in doing quite inexpensive things," she says.
Callaghan and her team have focused on two points over the last six months:
1. managers have looked at individual goals for each employee and ensured they make sense and are realistic in the current economy
2. managers and employees have worked together to ensure that everybody feels motivated by their goals
"We continue to do work on goal design and goal formation. The other thing we've done is stay true to the culture and understood the long-term journey that we're on. We've tried not to make any short-term decisions that would impact on our culture long-term."
As such, the company still holds events - a recent example was a tennis competition before Easter where the whole Melbourne office participated (around 200 people). The families of employees attended and it was a valuable networking and bonding opportunity. A football event - the sales team vs the rest of the company - is scheduled for later in the year. "It's fairly inexpensive to run these events and we would not consider cutting them because it's still really important to the culture of the organisation," Callaghan says.
Callaghan goes straight to the source to ascertain what's important and what's not: she surveys SEEK's 400 employees every six months. "We get a lot of feedback on what we're doing well and what we're not doing well. We get feedback on what we should keep doing and what we should stop. We also have a culture team, which is a group of people across the organisation who come up with a lot of ideas. They came up with the tennis tournament and they are very connected with what people want."
The culture team sets up and runs events themselves, and getting their involvement guarantees interest, Callaghan says. "We just had a brainstorming session about our Christmas party this year. We asked what sort of event and theme people want. Engaging people and seeking their opinion helps to make them feel valued and appreciated."
Callaghan has also introduced a number of cost effective strategies to keep employees motivated and keen to work. She introduced a mentor program that is open to all employees, which she believes costs little except time and the price of a coffee. "The critical part is there are very few rules. Anyone can be a mentor and anybody can be mentored. There are no restrictions on who can participate. The only requirement is you need to be clear about what your goal is. Your goal could be 'I want to be in marketing one day, so I'd like to learn from someone in marketing'. It could be 'I want to be the CEO of the company one day so I'd like to learn from the CEO'. Or it could be 'I want to feel more connected and regularly catch up with people who I would not normally interact with'. It can be pretty broad, there just needs to be a goal," she explains.
Employees are matched with a mentor based on that goal, and the mentor and mentee meet regularly over a four month period. Callaghan manages this on an exception basis - if someone is unsure about how to have a meeting or how to be a mentor the person will be coached individually. After four months the parties assess if they want to keep going, or decide if another mentor might work more effectively, or if there's a new goal to work towards. There are currently 120 employees participating, including the whole executive team and the two CEOs. "It's very inexpensive and we've had fantastic feedback. It is a great career development initiative and keeps people connected to the business," she says.
Easy motivation tips
Sometimes the simple things really do make a difference. In line with the 'inexpensive but effective' initiatives, Callaghan speaks highly of the simple act of celebrating everyone's birthday.
"When things tightened up we obviously looked at all expenses, but anything we felt had a good positive impact on our culture was a no-go area. The birthday cakes were one of those areas. It's really exciting when everyone comes round and celebrates your birthday. The e-mail goes out every morning telling people who's birthday it is, and at some point during the day there will be a cake to celebrate," she explains.
SEEK provides all employees with breakfast each morning. Not only is this a pleasant start to the day, Callaghan believes it's a valuable networking opportunity. "It's surprising the people you bump into and the conversations you have while you're waiting for your toast to pop up," she says.
SEEK also provides employees with volunteer leave, which is one day each year that provides an opportunity to give something back to other people and the community. A number of employees volunteered for the Victorian bushfires and Callaghan was buoyed by the feedback she received from this simple act. "We received lots of e-mails saying how they appreciated working for a company that allowed them to have a paid day to go and do that," she says
Callaghan strongly believes in collaborating with employees to inform the decision-making process. She wants the initiatives the company puts in place to be the right ones that employees actually value. "I personally read through every comment in our Employee Survey and make notes about the themes that are coming out so that helps us know what things we are doing are having an impact. Some things we do just because we know it's a great idea - the free breakfast is an example. For other larger initiatives we go into consultative process and put out a call to people who want to contribute. If you consult on everything, particularly when you know it's a positive initiative, you can get bogged down," she says.
Callaghan has two tips to impart to other HR professionals facing uncertain times. First, she urges them to take a long-term focus. "We go to a lot of trouble to hire the right people to work here so we don't want them leaving under any circumstances - so we need to look at how to keep all these great people."
The second tip is to operate with honesty and integrity. "We've had to deliver some tough messages internally but the way you do that is to be very honest and transparent about what you're doing. As soon as we know something we communicate it straight away. When we knew about what was happening in the external market and what it was going to mean to clients and our business, we communicated that straight away. We would never resort to spin or withholding information. That open communication can be motivating - just to know you're being treated with respect and as part of a team," she concludes.
What drives your staff?
Psychometric consulting firm SHL provides some tips on motivating staff and increasing productivity in a downturn
No 'one size fits all' approach: Remember that motivation is an individual preference. What motivates you will not necessarily motivate others. Consider the work environment your employees operate within and whether circumstances have changed. Everyone will react to change differently.
Get the real picture: Asking 'what motivates you?' won't pinpoint the factors that will improve performance. Use objective tools and methods of identifying motivation to make sure you have the most accurate information to address the needs of your people.
Knowledge is power: Equip your managers with the right tools and resources to understand how to drive different types of employees to perform, particularly in times of change.
Potential versus performance: Remember that an individual's potential needs to be tapped into by their manager in order to perform. Two-way communication is essential to ensure managers and staff are on the same page.
Swing into the upswing: Having a motivated workforce will ensure your organisation is well-prepared for the upswing. Focus on the survivors so that they are ready to hit the ground running when the good times return.