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The 9 Critical Questions Every Business Needs to Ask about Their Employees in 2021

Ludek Stehlik

People & Data Scientist

February 3, 2021

10

min read

As many of us can personally testify, the year 2020 brought about profound changes in our workplaces, primarily caused and/or accelerated by COVID-19. The common denominator of many of those changes is that the processes and tasks we used to accomplish in person and in the office had to be done remotely, usually within our own homes. This brings both new challenges and new opportunities in how to achieve our goals by new means. 

In 2021, business and HR leaders thus need to be aware of the key metrics within their People Analytics reports that will help them navigate these changes more successfully. The following 9 questions that are important for every company to ask themselves periodically form a natural frame of reference for definition of such metrics. Let's take a closer look at the individual questions and illustrate the related metrics on a few metrics derived from our own passive data.

1) Are we successfully onboarding new people, even while working remotely?

Making “insiders” from “outsiders” as quickly as possible is one of the basic imperatives of all businesses. Remote work made this transition more difficult. Fortunately, with proper digital tools it is still possible to rely on traditional and well-established onboarding practices; whether it’s an onboarding plan with clear milestones, welcome pack, access to business-critical tools, informal group gatherings, collaborative learning or regular check-ins. 

By analyzing new hires’ behavior on collaboration platforms you can check whether these practices are sufficiently effective even under the current non-standard conditions. Our own data shown in the graph below indicates that things didn’t go so well at Time is Ltd. in this respect. Clearly, during the second half of the year, the tempo of building a network by new hires (measured through meetings) was much slower than in the first half of the year. But before making any strong conclusions, we should check what roles we hired for in individual quarters. It’s possible that in the second half of the year we hired people for less “relationship-oriented” roles than in the first half of the year.         

2) Are teams still collaborating effectively?

With the majority of employees working from home it may be more difficult for managers to keep an overall view of how their people work together to achieve set goals. It is difficult, while working from home, to see the bigger picture of how employees are collaborating and how their communication changes over time. Luckily, HR teams and managers can access tools that aid remote observation. One of such tools is Sociomapping that reveals existing collaboration patterns by transforming complex relational information into clear 3D maps and by utilizing our innate ability to comprehend even very complex spatial patterns and regularities.

We can demonstrate the usefulness of Sociomapping with Time is Ltd.’s own use case. As part of our efforts to make our products and services as relevant for our clients as possible, we have tried to intensify communication and collaboration between our Data team and our Sales team. One is responsible for innovating our products and computing new metrics, and the other has direct contact with clients and their needs. By checking Sociomaps, we see their communication on all our three major collaboration platforms over time, and are able to validate whether or not communication increased. By comparing relative positions of the Data team and the Sales team on the Sociomap from February (at the top) and May 2020 (at the bottom), we can see that the teams became much more closer to each other, which indicates that they started to collaborate more intensely. 

Sociomaps showing Time is Ltd.’s entire collaboration patterns in February (at the top) and May 2020 (at the bottom), respectively. Proximity of departments represents the volume of mutual communication on three collaboration platforms together - meetings, emails and Slack. Height represents the overall volume of collaboration a given department participates in, through meetings, e-mails and Slack messaging.    

3) Are we putting enough effort into networking and nurturing existing connections?

The pandemic caused many of us to stop traveling and limit our personal contacts, having a detrimental effect on the size of our external networks. We see this trend in our clients’ data and we can see it also in our own data, as shown in the graph below for three externally oriented departments in Time is Ltd. - Sales, Marketing and Management. 

The first and main “victims” of this shrink are usually so-called weak ties. An employee’s weak ties are integral to their inclusion and success in the working community. They allow employees to  disseminate and gain access to information that they might not otherwise be able to. We should not readily accept the current state of affairs, and should prevent “weak ties” from dissolving under the current conditions,, e.g. by being more active in communities on professional social networks.   

4) Are the right digital tools in use for remote productivity?

There was a one widely shared meme in recent weeks:  What’s been the biggest driver of digital transformation in your organization: a) The CEO b) The CTO or c) COVID-19? If you’re with the majority, your likely answer is c) COVID-19. 

Regardless of the catalyst, both CEO and CTO need to know how  digital transformation strategies translate into actual employee behavior. Without an awareness of behavioral change, digitalization plans can fail to bear fruit, and remain empty proclamations. The graph below, showing how quickly people at Time is Ltd. in March switched from physical to virtual meetings, represents an example of one such simple check. 

5) Do we have enough time for focused work?

When switching to remote work it is much easier for people to get distracted and overwhelmed by a continuous stream of notifications, emails, instant messages, virtual meetings or phone calls. By measuring activity on collaboration platforms one can estimate what parts of the company are at the highest risk of lacking time for focused work due to various collaboration distractions. 

Using our own data for illustration, we can see in the graph below that the teams most in need of focus time - Data, Dev Design and Development teams - are, fortunately, in the upper half of the graph. Marketing and Dev Management teams, on the other hand, may profit from learning some best practices for focus time protection

Best practices for focus time generally fall into two categories: improving individual habits and improving team habits. Individually, employees can, for example, use blockers in calendars, batch similar types of tasks, turn off notifications in applications, proper regeneration, etc. As a group, teams should make (and respect!) an agreement regarding their use of selected digital tools, e.g. not use emails for instant messaging, use Slack threads to update colleagues on tasks, use emoticons as a tool for collecting quick feedback, etc.

6) Is the collaboration load evenly distributed among employees?

Those who carry the most workload in a company are often the ones who complain the least about it, often until it is too late to do anything to prevent their exhaustion, burnout and/or decision to leave the company. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep track of distribution of collaboration load across employees. Managers should be prepared to make necessary adjustments to collaboration “traffic” well in advance. 

Based on our own data from November 2020, displayed in the Pareto chart below, we have some cause for concern: 80% of Slack communication is generated just by 31% of employees. The 31% are potentially suffering from over-collaboration. Nevertheless, before making any next steps, it would be wise to make similar analysis for individual teams across a longer period, and also look at other aspects of the  data. Is this maybe a result of being tagged by others in Slack channels? We can try to corroborate the data by directly asking selected employees, and if necessary, make appropriate adjustments in the way people collaborate with each other.     

7) Do we give people enough space to work independently and the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes?

Remote work can make many managers feel uneasy about losing control over the work of their team members. This feeling leads many of them to try to keep a closer eye on the work of their people. Given the well-proven negative effects of micromanagement on employees' work morale, engagement, and productivity, it is a good idea to mitigate any tendencies towards micromanagement. Regular feedback on managerial behavior can indicate the presence of this undesirable managerial style.

One way to detect micromanagement is by measuring the proportion of meetings that are supervised by top managers, or direct supervisors of the meeting attendees. At Time is Ltd., as illustrated in the graph below, the vast majority of meetings are supervised. It is also clear, however, that the proportion of unsupervised meetings is slowly growing over time, which corresponds to the phase Time is Ltd. is currently in. Company founders in top management still want to be significantly involved in “steering the ship”, so that company direction aligns with their original vision. More senior people are also continuously recruited and hired.     

Another way to estimate tendency towards micromanagement is by looking at the proportion of emails into which managers are copied. In the case of our own data from November 2020, it is quite interesting that the Data team copied almost ⅓ of its emails to direct supervisors. One can make several questions/hypotheses why this is so, but it requires  further investigation. Is there any other evidence that the Data team is being micromanaged? Are there junior people in the team? What proportion of such emails are internal/external? What kind of input is typically provided by superiors to Data team members?       

8) Do people meet often enough with their managers in 1:1 meetings?

In the remote work mode, it is more difficult for employees to feel as being an integral part of the team and the company. One way to nurture inclusion is through regular 1:1 meetings with direct managers. Unfortunately, 1:1 meetings today can too easily take second priority to other tasks, due to many managers’ crisis management mindset. In such circumstances it is crucial for managers to make use of this management tool, and not let it fall prey to other priorities. These meetings have very important development, engagement, retention and coordination functions. Our own data shows that we have quite a large room for improvement in this area, as the proportion of employees who have at least two 1:1 meetings in a given month is very small.

9) Do we manage to maintain a good work-life balance?

Working from home makes it more difficult for people to keep a healthy division between their professional and personal lives. A blurred line between these two life domains may be advantageous in the short-term, as it quickly boosts one's productivity, but it is not sustainable in the long run. Sooner or later, the negative consequences rear their head in the form of lower employee satisfaction and retention, health issues and/or relationship problems. That’s why it’s important to continuously pay attention to how employees structure their working activities on various digital collaboration platforms over time. Appropriate countermeasures should be taken if excessive overtime starts to occur on a regular basis. 

From this perspective, we were ok at Time is Ltd. in November 2020. The vast majority of our activity on all of our three major collaboration platforms occurred within standard working hours. But to be sure that there are not any hidden issues, we should segment the data by teams, look at it over longer periods of time, and also take into account weekdays. This may reveal potential issues.       

In conclusion

The list of questions and examples of specific metrics above is certainly not complete and exhaustive. No doubt they are biased by the problems that our own clients solve and by what we at Time is Ltd. can measure on the basis of the available passive data. Yet I bet that the questions raised here (and especially the answers to them) will be relevant and useful to a large proportion of companies because they address some of the key aspects of positive employee experience - meaningful work, supportive management, positive work environment, and growth opportunity. 

Looking for more about how HR teams can be successful in the time of, and aftermath of, Covid-19? I recommend the following: Nailing the Landing: Preparing for the New Normal report from HR Analytics Think Tank, HR Data Analytics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic article from SHRM or COVID-19: The Role of HR & People Analytics in the Crisis article from myHRfuture

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At Time is Ltd., we measure digital collaboration and productivity, without ever sacrificing employee privacy. We provide an advanced analytical SaaS platform that delivers a holistic view of an organization collaboration patterns. We measure your team’s digital footprint to improve communication, productivity as well as save precious time. Our approach only aggregates meta-data from a variety of data sources, to show how your teams work with your collaboration tools so you can get them more productive and motivated.

wRITTEN BY

Ludek Stehlik

Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, his research focus extends to psychometrics, sociometry, statistics, and HR consulting. Previously worked for Deloitte or Assessment Systems International.