Building a happy workforce

by 01 May 2008

Datacom Connect has built a meaningful and inspirational workplace. Sarah O Carroll speaks with managing director, Kirsty Hunter, about how a happy workforce is a vibrant, successful workforce, and how this has helped keep Datacoms turnover to an industry low and deliver a high standard of service

Kirsty Hunter, managing director of Datacom Connect, hit a point in her career when she found that she was no longer happy in her workplace. As part of a company that was rapidly expanding, her engagement levels were dropping and she became disorientated, lost and unhappy.

Hunter joined Datacom Connect 13 years ago. As it grew from a company of 50 employees to more than 2,000, somewhere along the way of she found herself questioning her role within the company and became essentially unhappy. She no longer felt motivated or driven to do her job well.

“As a general manager in the business, I was seeing such a lot of tension and stress within our organisation as we grew. I was really questioning what value I added and that was a big moment for me to really think about my role and how I affect the organisation,” says Hunter.

Instead of allowing the whirlwind of corporate life to take control of her life and unhappily drudge from one day to the next, Hunter decided to address the issue. She asked herself why she wasn’t happy when her career was going so well, and why she wasn’t feeling a sense of satisfaction and worth every day.

Embarking on a search for happiness within her job, Hunter was drawn to a set of 12 simple questions which delved into employee engagement. It was only through this and solving her own personal discontent that she could roll this out throughout the company. She was then able to stand up and look into the organisation and consider how many employees were feeling like she did. Hunter wondered how many people were actually unhappy in their job. The results were astounding.

“It became very clear to me that we needed to have a voice for people. There needed to be a way in which we could look at the organisation through the eyes of its employees, rather than senior management, because at that time, my voice was very unhappy,” she says.

Hunter wanted to assess whether the Datacom’s workforce was in a state of “happiness” and ready to attain the company’s strategic objectives. She wanted a way to benchmark the employees’ ability and willingness to execute company strategy and, going forward, track improvement or backsliding. To measure these things Hunter utilised Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey.

The 12 survey questions were drawn up by Gallupafter 80,000 in-depth interviews with managers in more than 400 companies. The survey process allowed Hunter to measure employee engagement and, more importantly, to generate results-oriented dialogue between employees and managers about specific areas of high and low engagement. These allowed employees to look at areas that might be underlying reasons for feelings of happiness but which they never would have asked about before.

“It was very meaningful because they were the exact questions I was going through as well,” she says.

Company vision and mission

In order for employees to feel happy within an organisation they have to truly know where the organisation is going, including the mission and vision. Many companies drill this out on their websites and through their marketing but, says Hunter, many companies fail to take the next step: that is, quantifying and explaining the importance of the work. Doing so, says Hunter, has an amazing effect on employee’s overall capability, as it enables a shift in thinking from just “getting through the day” to making the most of their time at work.

This was one of the major realisations for Hunter and her team. Two years ago the organisation scored really poorly on their employees’ understanding of the mission and vision. This was a wake-up call to the executive management team and the CEO that there needed to be a stronger sense of identity and direction for the company. This was the trigger that made the executive team revisit the drawing board, think about their messages, their planning and the direction. Only when this was done could they redirect the employees.

“After we did this, we could take that to the workforce and let them know why their job matters, what they’re part of and where exactly Datacom’s going. So it was an extremely healthy outcome,” she says.

Workplace relationships

Another outcome of measuring employee happiness and engagement levels throughout the company was being able to identify the best managers. Hunter found that often the teams that were performing the best at a given time were not necessarily the happiest teams. However the teams that were happy and engaged maintained consistent performance levels.

“Some managers were getting great outcomes in terms of numbers – in terms of results – but their team was not happy. These results don’t last because I absolutely believe unless people are happy and therefore engaged, performance will fall away. It may be short-term – you can make it happen, you can force it to happen – but it will not be sustainable performance,” she says.

However they identified teams that were both high performing and highly engaged and this allowed Hunter to know the managers of real value to the company.

“We looked at those managers and asked what are they doing, what’s special about them, how can I replicate that, how can I roll that out through the organisation? And how do I look after these managers? What’s the next step for them and their engagement in the company, because these are the people I want to keep,” she says.

Relationships are a key factor in maintaining a happy workforce and according to Hunter, everything comes back to building relationships.

Managers of engaged and happy teams know their people very well, and very closely. They had friendships with them and every employee had a unique relationship with these good managers. The fact that through employee happiness levels she could identify the qualities she needs in her managers was an enlightening discovery for Hunter.

“These managers are doing stuff that people most probably expect is too simple. The big message I’ve sent to my executives, and even the board, is that when you look at engagement it’s not complex,”Hunter says. “The good managers were simply taking time to build relationships with every individual that they managed. They had a specific one-on-one relationship, that was very genuine, that was real, that was not in any way vanilla.”

Relationship building is the foremost pillar of strategic planning, according to Hunter. Datacom has implemented a workforce management tool which provides a framework for managers holding and documenting these conversations, with a view to being able to track progress against agreements.

“You can’t just rely on those conversations happening. To a degree you’ve got to put some rigour around expectations and also a way of recording that engagement and being able to track it,” she says

Over the last four years Datacom has seen many benefits of delving into employee engagement and happiness levels. Rolling out these set of 12 questions and has helped them to sustain several years of 100 per cent annual growth, while keeping staff turnover to an industry low at 30 per cent. They have also delivered consistently high levels of service building a loyal customer base on the back of its engaged, happy workforce.

Gallups 12 questions

1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?

2. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?

3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?

5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?

8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?

9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?

10. Do you have a best friend at work?

11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

12. In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?