People analytics: How to tell if you're running a lousy workplace

A company's most valuable asset is its workforce. Just ask VoloMetrix CEO Ryan Fuller, who evangelizes people analytics as a tool to improve company culture and raise the bottom line.

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The CEO who ignores or devalues company culture does so at their own risk.

Except it's not always as simple as "evil boss hates employees." It's easy to envision a cigar-smoking magnate signing pink slips on Christmas, but often times the employers who put their employees on the back burner do so in an unconcerted way. It's not a matter of malevolence; it's that leaders who make priority decisions often rely most heavily on what they can see. Figures on a spreadsheet. Numbers in red and black. Status reports on a delayed product. Those sorts of things. For the most part, whether employees would rather impale themselves on an icepick than come into work doesn't show up in a report. And since it's bad form for an employee to march up to the boss' desk and spill out the many ways things are being mismanaged, a lot of the stuff that leads to lousy workplace culture flies below leadership's radars.

The key, then, is to make tangible what was previously intangible. How do you fit your employees' levels of satisfaction and productivity into a spreadsheet?

Ryan Fuller may have an answer.

Fuller is the CEO of VoloMetrix, a people analytics company based in Seattle that consults employers on workplace culture, employee satisfaction, and the vivid intricacies of productivity. I've written about the company before, riffing on a piece Fuller wrote for HBR about pointless and draining work meetings. In that piece, VoloMetrix was able to go into a Fortune 500 company, analyze data based on the work habits of employees, and suggest an approach that netted back five hours per week per employee. That's five hours of productivity for the company and five hours of not having to sit through Sisyphean meetings for employees. Straight-up win-win.

The common refrain whenever anyone talks about people analytics is that a company's employees are its most important asset, or at least often its most undervalued. Recent exponential growth in technologies pertaining to data collection and management have opened a door to better people management. We're approaching the point where we can quantify the previously unquantifiable. People analytics, data that assesses the workload and time commitments of employees, is a tool employers can use to simultaneously improve company culture and raise the company's bottom line.

I chatted recently with Fuller about the sorts of things an overworked employer could do to improve company culture. The first is to understand the value of prioritizing the sorts of things people analytics measures. You have to have an open mind about how you can benefit from solving problems related to overwork, useless meetings, and clumsy processes.

"This is a very hard-to-change, hard-to-quantify aspect," said Fuller. "I don't think anyone thinks it doesn't matter. It just falls off the priority list. But once you quantify it and it's like, 'Well, this is a billion dollar opportunity for the company, then all of a sudden it gets up to the front of the priority list."

Next, every employer needs to assess their own values and the values of the company. They have to hold an idea in their head of what they reasonably want to expect of their employees. That way, when the data arrives, the gap between where they are and where they want to be will become all the more tangible. Fuller offered an example from a recent client of the sort of data point an employer could expect to see:

"On average [this company's] employees received something like five e-mails every weekend and responded in under two minutes. If you're confronted with that piece of data every week, you have to ask if that's the company you want to be."

Of course, some companies (SPECTRE, I imagine) have no problem with tethering their employees all the time. And if that's the case, well, more power to them. There's not much that can be done if the person in charge sees no issue with extreme workplace expectations. What we're looking at here is an ability for people in charge to see through the opaque separation between management and employees. It's about creating transparency and sets of feedback loops, as Fuller explains. It's about making sure culture is always part of the conversation.

But that's not to say that people analytics alone can improve a broken company culture.

"Data is not magic," said Fuller. "It does not automatically solve problems."

As with any form of diagnostics, the responsibility for change falls in the lap of the person or persons receiving the diagnosis. The next decision is theirs to make.

Below, former NBA commissioner David Stern talks about a different form of analytics that has similarly revolutionized workplace perceptions... except this workplace includes the hardwood at Madison Square Garden:

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