How We’re Using Analytics to Strengthen The Way We Work: Transparency & Trust

by Min Park, VP of People Strategy & Analytics

We live in an age of misinformation (O’Connor & Weatherall 2019): What we believe can have more to do with who we know than seemingly proven facts. Put another way, trust often matters more than the truth in shaping our beliefs and therefore our actions. And as Voltaire famously said: “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” 

If the core purpose of analytics is to accelerate our understanding of reality to drive higher quality decisions, what can we do to create trust in what is true, in an era where many of us are growing more and more skeptical of data-driven claims? From a people analytics perspective, how can we demonstrate that we’re being honest about how we’re using and interpreting analytics about our people? That we’re using it in a way that not only supports VideoAmp’s success, but also our employees’ individual success? Why should our people believe that our analytics are well-intended, truthful and not absurd?

The answer for us lies in transparency and in aligning and inspiring our leaders to demonstrate integrity in what we say we will do vs. what we actually do with the insights. Proving this out takes deliberate actions and time.

A Common Paradigm

The output of analytics about a company’s workforce is usually considered highly confidential and sensitive company information, not to be shared beyond a small circle of business leaders and People team members. There is a common fear that revealing even a little bit can invite unwanted questions from employees that the company may not be ready or willing to address — let alone act on. There’s too much business risk in internal transparency, or so it’s presumed. 

We believe this is a dated and fear-driven view in most cases1 where the lack of transparency (typically stemming from a lack of predictability in employees’ potential reactions to it) is in itself what leads to a lack of trust from employees. It’s a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy. It assumes and perpetuates an “us vs. them” dynamic between employer and employee. It breeds mistrust from the very employees whose trust leaders need to earn; trust that is needed to empower and lead effectively for needle-moving results across the entire workforce. When employees are aware that there’s information about them accumulating in a company’s information systems and being analyzed, yet are left in the dark about how it’s being approached, it can have our imaginations running wild as to its use, or misuse. 

Challenging The Paradigm

I’ve had the privilege of observing a rare counterexample to this traditional approach in one of my previous roles. This company, which I’ll call “TechCo” openly shared with all employees a curated but honest, unfiltered and representative view of organizational insights, along with the actual actions they were committing to. Not only that, they would have calls-to-action for their employees to play an integral part in driving progress too. There was a major focus and investment in follow-through. The results were impressive to say the least. 

TechCo created a system of transparency and trust that led to 90%+ response rates from employees on bi-annual employee surveys, every single time. TechCo was able to maintain best-in-class levels of employee engagement even through organizationally volatile times — driving industry disruptive business results — and won a number of Best Places to Work awards. 

Employees responded at high rates because they trusted that taking the survey was time well spent. There was trust that their opinions mattered and would be heard, and if systemic enough, proactively acted upon to improve and strengthen the way people work together at the company. The transparency in the analytics methods and actions were not left to anyone’s imagination.

Inspired by this rare experience, our goal is to prove this out at VideoAmp too, by trusting our employees as fully-empowered and responsible human beings in applying the insights we share about them. And as we share data and insights, we drive to humanize what we’re measuring by keeping in mind that there’s a human story behind each and every data point that we analyze.

Our Hypothesis Applied to VideoAmp

The core hypothesis here is that we can earn the trust of employees by being transparent about the methods of analysis and research about them, while committing ourselves to demonstrating integrity in the actions around it. Further, that this will create greater business impact for our company overall. This hypothesis is what informed our first People Analytics tenet:

Transparency & Trust: Earn and maintain the trust of our employees; use data exclusively and consistently for the benefit of both the individual and our company. Fiercely protect the privacy of individual employees, while demonstrating transparency around our methods & actions.

There’s an underlying belief here that the same efforts that drive our employees’ successes, will also drive VideoAmp’s success. Our organization and its outputs are the product of the daily decisions and work of our people. Plain and simple. If we can support our employees’ success in a systematic way, then it stands to reason that our company will be more successful too.

For this to work, we also need to be committed to protecting the privacy of our employees so that we’re getting honest and reliable information. Individual level data — or any constellation of information that can identify or “out” an employee — is never shared. If it is leaked, there are consequences. Only a very small number of system administrators and analysts even have access to raw data and we make it publicly clear that any privacy violations will be met with consequences. If ever our employees sense leaders are not being fully transparent on an issue, it’s likely in protection of individuals’ personal situation. Moreover, any violations towards protecting the privacy of an individual employee can also lead to catastrophic consequences for the viability of people analytics at the firm. 

This tenet of Transparency & Trust scales up in so many ways as we see the tech and advertising industry as a whole making huge efforts to further protect consumer privacy and use data in safer, less intrusive ways. People have volition; as soon as we know we’re being measured, and there’s any question about the integrity or virtue of how the data are being used, it will impact how we behave and what gets recorded about us. That defeats the purpose of having a people analytics function at all. There are many reasons why protecting individual employee privacy is of utmost importance to us, and it’s in line with the objectives of our overall business mission.

The Test

Our test was to see how much improvement we’d see between two bi-annual surveys on indicators associated with employee trust. Do our employees perceive that action will result from the survey and related analyses? Has there been receptivity to the insights and actions taken based on the prior survey results and other relevant analytics? What is the impact on employee engagement (as an indicator of productivity) and therefore business results?

Specifically, six months ago, we launched a variation of an employee engagement survey that we custom designed in-house (and administered via Culture Amp) to focus on diagnosing the integrity of the design, implementation, and operationalization of our intended culture, as well as the state of our organizational climate2.  Since it was our first major survey, we ran a campaign — an informal competition among our Executives — to see whose line of business would have the highest participation rate and got to a representative 93% participation rate company-wide.

In this first survey only 67% of our employees shared that they believed action would take place as a result of the survey. Or said another way, as many as 1 in 3 employees were skeptical that meaningful change may result from what insights we gained. 

Once the survey was completed, our goal was to take a holistic view of our workforce dynamics to identify the root causes getting in the way of a more optimal work experience. We conducted an organizational system-wide analysis combining insights from the survey with insights from data accumulating in our HRIS (Human Resource Information System) and as well as from metadata sitting in productivity and collaboration systems including G-suite, Zoom, Slack, Jira, and Github which our partners at Worklytics helped us collect, analyze and interpret. 

We’ll share more details about the analysis itself in our next post. For now, here’s what you need to know.

This holistic analysis resulted in two company-wide focus areas that we rallied all of our leaders and employees around:

  1. Creating trust and integrity around our values. About 1 in 2 employees said the values we rolled out almost a year before don’t match our culture. Among other programmatic and systemic policy actions happening in the background, we asked everyone at our company to start holding each other accountable and speaking up if they saw behaviors that were out-of-integrity with our values. 
  2. Increasing meeting effectiveness. We wanted to instill this by not only improving meeting hygiene and etiquette, but also by creating greater psychological safety through integrity in the implementation and use of our values as guiding principles for decision making. We saw that the misalignment between the intended vs. actual culture (on top of a COVID-19 challenged organizational climate) was resulting in downstream consequences around meeting inefficiencies: meetings before meetings to prepare for other higher stakes internal meetings. And while we were seeing an overall decline in the average length of our people’s workdays during the pandemic, there was an overflow of time into excess weekend work from the rise in meeting time — another employee satisfaction and productivity issue.

Note that despite these opportunities, we were doing quite well from the standpoint of business results. What our focus areas were really about was unlocking a better way of working. One that makes it easier for our employees to navigate their day to day so that it’s easier to unlock even greater results as a company. Results that are orders of magnitude greater than what most might have thought possible.

Six months later, we’ve just completed the spring version of the survey to check-in on progress and feedback from our people with a 95% response rate. While we still have room to improve, the results look very promising to say the least, well exceeding what we hoped for in a six month period. There are clear signals that we’re on a very productive path.

Unfortunately, I will need to leave you on a bit of a cliff hanger as to what the specific results were. A part of building trust means that we socialize the results with employees first and elicit feedback, before we share the results publicly.

I will say this for now: so far, we’re thrilled to see that TechCo was likely not an exception and early signs indicate that Transparency & Trust is a transferable principle to VideoAmp. We hope that other organizations might consider taking a careful and more open approach to sharing insights with their employees and what they’re doing with it.

Key Takeaways

  1. Earning trust at an organizational level takes deliberate effort and time, stick to it: In an age where so many of us are psychologically conditioned to want instant gratification, we need to be patient when it comes to earning trust of large groups of people. We have to be comfortable with the reality that it can take months if not years to earn this type of trust across the board; some may be more skeptical than others for longer. 

What we’re after is systematic progress in the right direction, not immediate perfection. 

  1. Context matters: The employer-employee relationship is a sacred one. There is a power dynamic that cannot be ignored. Employers have the power to affect the livelihoods of all of its employees. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. To lead an organization effectively, trust is a powerful currency that is well worth cultivating for both the benefit of the company as well as its employees. The two are one in the same.

We hope that this has given you some food for thought into how you can apply this in your own setting. Please drop us a line with your thoughts or questions: peopleanalytics@videoamp.com

I’m looking forward to sharing more concrete results with you in mid-May when we explore our next tenet on Effectiveness.

Footnotes

  1. With clear exceptions; I will be the first to acknowledge there are organizations where there are well substantiated reasons to be more careful.
  2. Culture and climate are related concepts. Culture is more enduring than organizational climate, evolving slowly over time; it represents shared values, beliefs, fundamental ideologies, and shared assumptions of an organization that provide a lasting ‘deep structure’ to every day actions within an organization. Climate is more temporary; it is about the perceived here-and-now in terms of what constitutes appropriate behaviors based on  current organizational practices, procedures, events, and norms within our company.  Both drive how information flows within an organization, and ultimately the quality of decisions that drive business results and shape our future.