Inside NZ’s “most improved” workplace

The HR head from a leading Kiwi engineering firm explains how the company managed to win a coveted IBM Kenexa award.

Earlier this month, IBM Kenexa announced the winners of its annual Best Workplaces Awards with a string of innovative employers taking out the coveted titles – but what exactly do organisations have to do to win?

HRM caught up with Debbie Wood – the general manager of people and culture at Harrison Grierson – to find out why she thinks the firm was recognised as New Zealand’s most improved medium-large workplace.

“Our 2014 survey results indicated that our senior leaders were engaged and felt like they knewwhat was going on in the business but some of the team members indicated to us that they weren’t particularly engaged and didn’t understand what was going on,” explains Wood.

“What that meant to us was we needed our leaders to provide better feedback to their staff, celebrate success, take ownership and responsibility and have some of those courageous conversations as necessary.”

As a result, Harrison Grierson established a plan to build on those skills and the first step started with improving communication.

“We thought there was a real gap with that open, honest and frequent communication so we wanted to focus on that and we certainly got the impression from our survey that the employees expected more effective and frequent communication from their leaders,” says Wood.

“There was a bit of a mismatch between our leaders being seen as technical gurus rather than leaders – we felt that our teams were telling to us they were actually looking for their leaders to be leaders rather than being overly focussed on technical work.”

In response, Harrison Grierson developed a three-year talent management program looking at its senior leadership right down through the entire organisation to develop skills and move the firm forward.

“We felt that to get to where we wanted to be as an organisation we had to change the way we were doing things because we weren’t going to get anywhere if we just did the same things and expected different results,” says Wood.

“Leadership has probably been the biggest thing that we’ve worked on in terms of making sure that we have a real robust program in place to really understand what we wanted from our leaders and making sure it was integrated with a lot of other training initiatives that we had in place as well so making sure everything is linked together rather than being a one-off.”

While leadership took centre stage, Wood says the firm also took notice of the little things pointed out by employees in the engagement survey.
“There was some low-hanging fruit in there as well,” she tells HRM. “Some of things our people were telling us was around reward and recognition and feeling valued so I introduced celebration day as an extra paid day off for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or some other important occasion as a way to recognise and value them.”

The firm also introduced fruit baskets as a way to help with employee wellbeing and introduced quarterly values awards which lead back to the targeted values and behaviours.

Following its ethos to improve communication, the company was also focused on keeping employees involved in changes and informed about any decisions.

“Back in 2014, when we started to put all of this together, we actually put in place an action planning mechanism and identified action champions through each of our departments so that there was somebody who was a real advocate for change and was able to support the company initiatives,” says Wood.

“They’re also looking at what is important to them and their teams in their particular location because sometimes local things are just as important as the company wide things for making people feel more engaged.”

The action champions were also charged with documenting action plans which senior leaders would later respond to in person.

“Someone from our senior leadership team – either me or one of my colleagues – went back into the departments to say; ‘Okay, we’ve had this feedback from you, this is what we’re doing as a company, let’s have a conversation about that.’”

Wood says that without that open conversation, it’s easy for employees to get the impression that their employer isn’t doing anything to address their concerns.

“We knew if we didn’t do something it was just going to be an issue time and again and people would begin to lose faith and lose trust,” she says.

However, Wood notes that employers should also be completely honest and open about the changes they can’t make, explaining why they’re simply not feasible.

“There are some things that came up around people wanting to be paid $10,000 more or everyone having a company care – those things are lovely but we have to be honest about some of the things we potentially can’t do and the reasons why as well so it’s about continuing to have that open communication with people.”

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