How often do you and your boss have a real conversation about your work?
For many of us, it’s likely a once-a-year-sit-down to parse your list of accomplishments and areas that need improvement, otherwise known as the annual performance review. Yes, the dreaded annual review. Dreaded because managers acknowledge that they don’t maintain an ongoing dialogue with individual team members and it's tough to give and get good feedback when you’re only meeting once a year. Despite this, only 3% of companies report that they stopped using annual reviews as a way to grade employees.
He may not be looking to completely eradicate the annual review, but David Hassell, CEO of 15Five, believes there is room to improve (or in some cases begin) dialogues between supervisors and staff. To do so, his firm has built conversation-starting software that it now sells to some 400 companies across industries.
The way he sees it, "Companies don’t have an effective communication structure in place to let employees have an outlet and a voice." Even though he acknowledges that it does tend to be costly to hold weekly one-on-one meetings, Hassell’s a believer in the power of regularly giving and gathering feedback to boost engagement. And regular Fast Company readers recognize that one of the secrets to having a happy company is to encourage a hive of engagement.
So how to manage such a meritocracy? Ask the right questions. Often. Hassell took a page from Patagonia’s playbook, invoking one of CEO Yvon Chouinard’s philosophies that a regularly scheduled quick sweep of staff achievements and challenges could keep him in the loop and also motivate his workforce to maintain a competitive edge. The basic premise is held in Hassell’s company name: Every week employees takes 15 minutes to fill out progress reports. Then a manager spends no more than five minutes to read it.
Hassell says thanks to 15Five’s cloud-based software, the feedback loop can become "organizational habit on a lightweight basis" by providing managers a 360-degree view of the company from the employees’ perspective based on their answers to four basic questions. (For examples of the questions, see the sidebar.)
Rather than trying to tease out what’s bothering disgruntled employees or to hit the sweet spot between praise and criticism (hint: it’s nearly six positive comments for each negative one), 80% of 15Five’s current roster of 400+ customers simply use the software’s default questions such as: What’s going well? What are your challenges? What help do you need to improve?" Veterans of the annual review process (like me) are probably stifling an involuntary shudder at the memory of being put on the spot when trying to spin a challenge into a positive.
By culling the feedback regularly, Hassell contends his staff is more likely to share the need for support as well as the success. "We are big believers that when people are really open and authentic you can build real trust and a solid powerful organization," he says. Hassell does realize that openness can be a "pretty scary" concept for many organizations, but says 15Five’s implementation has already surprised him. For companies with a culture that leans toward open communication like Warby Parker, 15Five surveys even helped with innovation.
The eyewear company that upended the expensive retail model for prescription glasses spawned a slew of imitators. To stay ahead of the pack, Warby Parker tasks its entire team to produce ideas for innovation each week under the belief that great ideas can come from anyone in the company.
Neil Blumenthal, cofounder and co CEO of Warby Parker, says that the company’s eschewed the basic questions in favor of custom queries. One is: "Please list one idea to improve your individual productivity, the team's productivity, our customers' experience or the well-being of one of our communities."
"The idea, which we call our weekly ‘innovation idea’ can be small (like adding additional break-out tables for meetings) or big (like an idea for a new product line or non-profit partnership)," he explains. "More often than not, the best ideas come from those closest to the problem."
As a tool for providing managers with a quick, intuitive method for gathering and escalating team feedback, Blumenthal says the results were immediate. "We also ask employees to report their overall happiness score for the week. This brings concerns immediately to the forefront and increases overall productivity," he adds.
Warby Parker also uses feedback to improve accountability. Read notes that employees list tasks achieved during the week as well as top goals for the upcoming week. The tool also helps senior managers keep a pulse on what's going on throughout the organization. "Managers are able to easily identify common threads amongst their team members and prioritize concerns that come up most frequently," he says.
Hassell, like Oren Teich at Heroku, believes that to truly be happy and engaged, people have to feel like their work matters, that they're part of something bigger and that they're valued for their contribution. "The difference between showing up and doing the minimum for a paycheck versus giving their all comes down to whether they care about the company and their work," Hassell argues. There's no simpler way or more clear statement a company can make than simply giving their employees a voice—asking them for feedback on a regular basis and engaging in an open and authentic dialogue about their successes, challenges, ideas, and morale."
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[Image: Flickr user Westy]