May 20 2021

How We’re Using Analytics to Strengthen The Way We Work: Systems Thinking & Effectiveness

Whenever I’ve experienced upper back pain, for years I would ask my better half to give me a massage to help alleviate the pain. Seems like a sensible approach. Or so I thought.

A couple of years ago I learned that a much more effective way to alleviate upper back pain — at least the kind I was suffering from — was to stretch out my chest by putting my arms on a wall or door frame and leaning forward for 30+ seconds about twice a day.   

This anecdote about resolving my back pain is intended as an everyday analogy for the principles we applied as we looked to level up our organizational strength and the ways we work together in a remote setting over the past year: systems-thinking and effectiveness.

Cultural pains

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and our workforce went remote, we started hearing that our legendary in-person culture was taking a hit. It was experiencing its own version of back pains. Many pointed to the pandemic as the cause and believed we’d be okay again once we were back together in person again. 

Waiting for the pandemic to end wasn’t an acceptable answer for us. 

We knew we’d be operating this way for at least a year, possibly longer. There would be clear and negative implications for our people’s well-being and productivity if we didn’t act on this as one of our key People related priorities.

While the timeline of the pandemic was not in our control, what was (and still is) in our control was our ability to analytically seek out what strengthens culture at VideoAmp, how it drives employee engagement and retention, to then help us seek out ways to develop organizational strength in a remote setting. The added bonus was that by doing so, we would increase our ability to sustain our culture both in-person and remotely.

We weaved together all five of our People Analytics guiding principles to drive progress — with a particular emphasis on Systems Thinking and Effectiveness:

  • Effectiveness: Having the right facts is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. We also have to be effective at using the right facts to drive impact towards our vision. Diagnose, act, evaluate, monitor, refinet and iterate.
  • Systems Thinking: Understand the systems that govern us, as a way to identify and manage root causes instead of their symptoms. Use it to anticipate consequences and impact.

Results so far

Our hypothesis was that if we can strengthen our culture and the way we work, we’d see improvements in employee engagement — which drives productivity and therefore business results — as well as improvements to employee retention. As a part of that, we needed to understand what factors have the greatest impact on driving these outcomes; more on how we landed on that later on.

Note that voluntary employee turnover rate is the metric we look at to understand employee retention as it reflects how people are “voting with their feet” in terms of choosing to stay at the company or to leave. While a healthy level of turnover can be beneficial in a way as it can create career opportunities for others that stay, excessive employee exits can be costly and we are looking to ensure this stays at a reasonable level.  We’re pleased with where we are now as it represents a healthy level of churn in and out of our business.

Here’s what we’re seeing in terms of progress over the past several months for these outcomes of interest and their drivers:

Employee engagement: how much are employees proud of and committed to working here? How willing are they to go above and beyond to help the company succeed?(outcome)▲ 4-pts
Voluntary employee turnover rate: employees choosing to leave the organization voluntarily, looking at the rate of departure over the prior 12 months; the # of exits divided by the average headcount during that time.(outcome)▼ 3-pts 
Belonging: “I feel like I belong at VideoAmp”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 22-pts!
Energizing work: “I have opportunities to engagement in energizing work”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 17-pts
Fun workplace: “VideoAmp is a fun place to work”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 17-pts
Impactful work: “I have opportunities to engage in impactful work”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 15-pts
Cultural integrity: “I believe our company values match our culture”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 12-pts
Survey action credibility: “I believe action will take place as a result of this survey”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 9-pts
Meeting effectiveness perceptions around clarity of purpose for meetings, roles, and follow-throughPercent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 4-pts
Survey action credibility: “I believe action will take place as a result of this survey”Percent of employees reporting that they agree(driver)▲ 9-pts

We were pleased to see as much progress as we have in such a short period of time. We still have ample opportunity to improve, but we’re very optimistic that we’re on the right path. 

Systems-thinking applied to strengthening organizational culture and improving climate

Rather than launching a traditional employee engagement survey, we custom designed an in-house survey focused on organizational culture and climate, which are related concepts:

  • Culture is more enduring than organizational climate, evolving slowly over time; it represents shared beliefs, ideologies, and values of an organization, as well as the taken-for-granted means — language, narratives (myths, stories), practices — by which these are transmitted to an organization’s members (Trice & Beyer 1993).  
  • Climate is more temporary; it is about the perceptions around what constitutes appropriate behaviors based on current organizational practices, procedures, events, and norms within the company here-and-now (Denison 1996).  

Strengthening culture and improving climate were not only a matter of helping our employees feel good while working here. There’s an unequivocal link to improving business performance given the communication lines it has the ability to open up.

We reviewed a fair amount of literature from academic sources to understand what drives organizational commitment, and how employees infer what the true culture of a company is vs. what companies say their culture is, and how various rewards and recognition systems come into play to strengthen (or weaken) a company’s culture and its perceived climate. When I’ve led People Analytics work in the past for larger organizations with thousands, tens of thousands, or even over a hundred thousand employees, there is a luxury in being able to harness vast quantities of employee data and apply statistical modeling or other sophisticated quantitative methods to empirically understand some of the answers to these types of questions. In applying People Analytics in a smaller start-up scale with fewer data points to work with, we quickly saw the importance of drawing upon Theory, with a capital “T” — systems of ideas that have been tested and validated to not only explain what has happened or is happening, but has the ability to predict what can happen in the absence of data. We used our research to inform what we probe on in the survey to get to actionable insights.

What did we learn?

Looking at raw correlations, we found that those who experienced consistency between our values and our culture were more likely to be engaged. Those who had favorable perceptions among survey items associated with our values were even more committed to staying and going above and beyond to help the company succeed. 

The following surfaced as the most likely top drivers of engagement linked to our values and where we had the most opportunity to improve in a remote environment: 

  • Feeling as though employees belong as part of the VideoAmp community (CREATE TRUST)
  • VideoAmp being perceived as a fun place to work (MAKE IT FUN)
  • Having opportunities to engage in energizing work (EMBRACE WELLNESS)
  • Having opportunities to engage in impactful work (BE A LEGEND)

In the fall of 2020, only 53% of our employees agreed that our values matched our culture. This represented a massive opportunity for us. Creating trust and integrity in how we live our values was a systemic root cause opportunity to positively impact our drivers of retention and engagement by focusing on and rewarding our employees based on their ability to embody them holistically. The disconnect as to whether the values matched our culture, resulted in confusion and lesser sense of psychological safety among our workforce. Another downstream consequence of this was an excessive amount of internal meetings, reducing the amount of focus time that employees had to get their work done.

What did we do about it?

We integrated our values into all of the programs we’re developing, from onboarding to performance and rewards. We’re also providing leadership and employee development programs around creating trust, psychological safety and managing conflict, among many other relevant topics to come. 

Building upon this strategy, each and every one of our Executives developed their own action plans based on the results of the survey specific to the organizations they lead.

Perhaps just as important as all of the above, we openly shared our findings with our employees with clear calls-to-action for everyone to do their part in helping improve the workplace experience for one another (see Transparency & Trust for more of our perspectives here). 

We kept it as simple as possible by sharing two calls-to-action for all employees. We asked every employee to do the following two things moving forward:

  1. Create trust in our values by holding ourselves and each other accountable to living and applying the values holistically and to speak up if they saw behaviors that seemed out of alignment from them moving forward. We shared that values would be a part of the rewards and promotion processes as a way to further build integrity around our values and our culture.
  2. Help each other improve meeting effectiveness: we directed everyone to ask for clarification when meeting objectives, agenda, or roles were not clear ahead of time, to maximize time in between meetings, and to create reliable systems for tracking and following through on action items if they didn’t have one in place.

Engaging our Executives and all of our employees was a key factor in driving needle-moving results. As we did this, we applied our principle around Beauty, Enjoyment & Enablement:

  • Beauty, Enjoyment, & Enablement: Delight our employees with beautiful & useful insights that engage, inspire and enable all of us — at scale — to work at achieving beyond what we thought possible. Draw leaders in to spark curiosity that leads them to take full responsibility and ownership of affecting team results consistently over time. MAKE IT FUN.

We shared insights in a story format that was intended to be as engaging as possible for our employees, with relatable anecdotes and practical tips. We provided easy-to-use resources for our Executives to enjoy the time they would spend in critically thinking about the insights about their teams, ultimately to build effective action plans around it that would strengthen and elevate their leadership.

What’s next?

Our work is not done yet. While we are encouraged about the measurable progress we’ve made as it helps validate the effectiveness of our approach. While we’re happy with this, we believe there’s still further room to grow. We need to keep at it. 

Meeting and time efficiency is a particular challenge for us at VideoAmp. In a scrappy startup environment it can be tougher to set up a highly structured way of working and collaborating at the pace we’re moving. We’ve yet to “crack the code” on this area and we’ll be furthering our analyses into this area so that we can be more effective here with support from Worklytics

For now, we’ve asked our employees to stay steady with the same calls-to-action as before, and for our Executives to identify any specific pockets within their organizations where there may be blockages — chronic complaints or sustained lack of progress — so that our growing People team can provide targeted coaching and advising to help unblock team-level issues.  We will also be continuing team resilience assessments through RallyBright throughout the year so that leaders have the tools to further pinpoint and address these focus areas at the team unit level rather than company-wide or one individual at a time.

Reflections & Takeaways

When I joined VideoAmp over a year ago, some of my former colleagues expressed skepticism about being able to apply People Analytics at an organization with about 200 employees. It’s a fair perspective. It’s rare to see this investment outside of companies that don’t have at least a couple of thousand employees already. What data points would there be to analyze? 

While it may be true that we’re at least a year or two out from having consistent enough data to apply statistical modeling or other more advanced quantitative methods, the past year has taught me that it is more than possible to apply an analytical approach on a smaller scale with great impact. And it doesn’t take a lot to get started. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Relentlessly seek out root causes to identify the simplest actions possible that will maximize impact. Think about the system dynamics at play. When we see certain patterns, we ask why that might be, and what might be the cause of those symptoms. And are they symptoms or the cause of something? How are things connected? We keep pulling on these threads until we get to an answer that seems most reasonable and testable.
  2. Don’t shy away from learning and adapting academic knowledge and research to apply well-tested Theory as a way to help pinpoint what to measure, especially when data and resources are limited. If this idea is intimidating in any way, seek out experts to help. A little goes a long way. 
  3. Monitor key metrics of interest to test for effectiveness, but avoid using metrics to set hard goals, and definitely avoid attaching financial incentives which can drive undesirable behaviors. For instance, if ever a credible perception forms that employee engagement survey data is used as a ‘weapon’ (even unintentionally) to manipulate employees to behave or act in a certain way, or used to make punitive decisions, word can quickly spread and evaporate employees’ trust and willingness to share honest and candid responses in future surveys. Once that happens, we will lose employee opinion and feedback as a trustworthy data source.
  4. Make it fun and enjoyable for everyone. We believe that every employee is a steward of our culture and climate, playing a key role in creating an environment where everyone can flourish. No one person, leader, or team “owns” our culture even if some can have a disproportionate impact on it. Taking care to generate and share accessible information that resonates with each group of stakeholders is a key ingredient in enabling them to drive progress effectively. 

While our own story is wrapped around the pandemic as our context — where having data and analytics became necessary “eyes and ears” for our people — we believe there are learnings for any organization that’s looking to strengthen their cultural consistency under any circumstance and hope that you’ve gained from our story what you can apply in your own setting.

Thank you for reading our series! Please drop us a line with your thoughts or questions: