Taking the pulse of staff

Governments are often accused of running countries by focus groups and opinion surveys. Now IT firms appear to be taking a leaf out of the same book -- in their staff management, at least.

Governments are often accused of running countries by focus groups and opinion surveys. Now IT firms appear to be taking a leaf out of the same book -- in their staff management, at least.

"Climate surveys" -- typically a series of questions on an intranet toe-dipping reaction on a subject -- and small-group follow-ups are increasingly being used to discover what employees love and hate about their employer.

“A climate survey is a two-way street -- staff need to participate fully, giving honest responses to ensure the results are meaningful,” says gen-i HR manager Karen Vernon.

If that honesty is forthcoming, the answers are collated and presented to staff, usually by chief executive Garth Biggs, who also discusses initiatives the company will put in place to address any issues resulting from the survey.

“We communicate the good news on things that are going really well and commit to how we change things in areas that may not be going so well or could well be improved,” says Vernon.

Last year gen-i initiatives included “Project Communicate”, which involved company representatives making monthly visits to the firm’s offsite staff. This group of personnel form a quarter of gen-i’s total and the meetings both "raise morale and keep the company connected with its offsite staff", Vernon says.

Following another survey, gen-i introduced courses in stress management, Vernon says, claiming that these initiatives help the firm have a lower staff turnover than the high average for the IT sector as a whole.

Companies rely heavily on staff for their competitive advantage, believes telco TelstraClear. HR manager Duncan Thomas cites studies by US forestry giant Weyerhaeuser that suggest the more open and effective its communication, the more profitable a plant or department’s operation. He also points to surveys such as Unlimited magazine's “Best Places to Work” as an example of how IT firms have to “optimise" the work environment before staff achieve to their full potential.

In addition to climate surveys, the telco stages follow-up focus groups to help the firm better understand staff issues, put their views into a company context and improve the work environment. Management also seek staff opinion by a number of simple methods: looking at staff communication such as newsletters and noticeboards, walking around, observing how staff address each other and their work practices. Management try to tap into what's happening on the grapevine through informal lunchroom discussions, stories in the media and ever-present office gossip.

“If you have satisfied staff, they are more productive and happier to work across teams," says Thomas. "If you have a positive work environment, you produce better results and in turn attract better staff to the company,” Thomas says.

But others see such staff survey exercises as a complete waste of money. Phil Holliday, chief executive of iTouch Mobility, is one.

“We do MBWA -- Management By Walking About," he says. "We talk to our staff every day. They are a bolshie lot and will tell you. They don’t always tell me what I want to hear but I do try and take notice."

At iTouch Mobility, staff are encouraged to produce ideas. Good ones will probably be followed, says Holliday. For example, a staffer had the “brilliant” idea of the firm installing an espresso coffee machine. The company subsequently got a reputation for having the best coffee in Christchurch. "People come here for meetings. We don’t have to go to their places anymore,” Holliday says. They asked for a bowl of fruit, so it was provided.

He recommends managers follow the “Peter Principle” of dumping HR departments and doing the work yourself, saying this is what he did in the UK. This extended to, at one firm he took over, getting the HR manager to “fire himself” by writing his own letter of redundancy.

Holliday is sympathetic to the idea of governments canvassing the views of its constituents, saying successful businesses need to do the same. “People tend to vote with their feet."

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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