How To Create A Great Place To Work [Interview With Fania Stoney]

How To Create A Great Place To Work [Interview With Fania Stoney]

September 25 2019

We had a fascinating conversation about employee engagement (and a lot more) with Fania Stoney of Great Place To Work on a recent episode of the Your Pursuit of Happiness podcast.

Read on or listen to the discussion below.

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Podcast Interview

Ok, let's get into the discussion . . .

Fania's Background

Fania Stoney: I'm a consultant with Great Place to Work, going into my fourth year with them at this stage. So actually, I suppose my own trajectory with the business gives you a sense of what it is that we do. So when an organization gets involved with a Great Place to Work, there are two elements to what we do. The first is we survey all employees and we get kind of a range of data from that. Then the second piece of what we do is an organization puts in what's called a culture audit. So it's based around nine practice areas, how you hire, how you communicate, how you recognize, there's a whole range of things in there. When I started with a Great Place to Work, I was part of the culture team that assessed those documents. So I was getting culture audits in from a range of industry, range of size, that whole piece, and going through those and assessing them as part of their submission.

Fania Stoney: Then the role itself has kind of expanded out now, that it's a full consultancy led piece. So I'll be going back in, delivering an overall results session to an organization, giving them a sense of their data, and what their practices are. Benchmark them against other industry, an example of best practice, that kind of piece. Then spring boarding that into action planning and driving change within the organization.

Paul Smyth: Okay, so you did well here, not so well here. This is what you could do, that type of thing.

Fania Stoney: Yes, exactly. So here's an idea of your relative strengths. This is where you're ahead of your own industry or organizations of your size, and here are some relative opportunities for you too. So it might be worth investing in your career path mapping, or there's a bit of a sense of where people not kicking in with a strategy, how can we help you make that more explicit?

Fania Stoney: Actually, depending on how much slicing and dicing that organization has done with the data, we can say things like, actually it's the managers of your marketing department who are really feeling the pinch. How can we help you help them?

Paul Smyth: So you get really specific?

Fania Stoney: Yes, and it depends on what's going to be useful for the organization. You know, if you've got 20 people, there's only so much of that you can do and we have to protect people's confidentiality in it too. But if you're in a bigger setting, if you take big retail where there are thousands of people, we can get a sense of, okay, well here's a couple of high performing stores, what can we learn from them? What learnings can we translate across the kind of employee experience?

Paul Smyth: Do Great Place to Work, do you guys work on improving the scores, for example? Do you work with partners? How does that all work?

Fania Stoney: So there's kind of, it's very ... So an organization often asks us that at the start. So, you know, when we get our results back, what do we do at that point? It's almost impossible for us to tell them that until we've actually seen their data, right? For some it's, you're there, you're going to be recognized, congratulations, you've got a great trajectory going, continue on that path. For some it's, you're almost there. You could do with a bit of specific workaround X, Y, and Z, but also, how can we help you learn from our wider network? So actually we know guys who are doing performance management really well, performance management has turned up to be a bit of a pain area for you guys, let's put you in touch, have a chat, and kind of figure that out from thereon. So there's kind of that dual access I suppose.

Paul Smyth: Very good. Obviously, we connected with the employee engagement guides that we're releasing today. Or has been released, depending on when you hear the podcast.

Fania Stoney: Depends when it goes, yes.

Great Place To Work Quote

Paul Smyth: So within that you kind of shared three specific things, or three findings. I wonder, could you talk us through those, please?

Fania Stoney: Yes, absolutely. So one of the big areas for us, and we're seeing it as a growing area in both the culture audit and the data, is around career and development. So people really wanting to understand what that means. The slight terror around the future of work and what's that going to mean. My role won't exist in five years, and how can we kind of co-create that together.

Paul Smyth: The robots are coming.

Fania Stoney: Yes, literally, you know? So there's kind of three things that we're seeing that some organizations are doing really well in this space. So the first is those who are finding that sweet spot between I have enough work that I'm sufficiently challenged and up for it, but not so much work I'm overwhelmed. They've really managed to bridge that experience for employees. I suppose having a bit of accountability and co-ownership in there too. So people being able to say, it's too much, or bring it on, I really enjoy that how can I keep doing or going in this trajectory?

Fania Stoney: The second is generally people join organizations, but they leave managers. So managers are critical to the employee experience of an organization. We've all had experience of it. You know, we've had that experience of a great manager who knows how to recognize me, gets how I work, knows how to challenge me, knows how to stretch me, that kind of piece. Or I could also turn and say, okay enough, or do you know what, I actually need to go pick up the kids today. Is that all right? And he, you know, he'll allow that to happen, or he or she would allow that to happen. And we've had the flip. So when you don't have a great relationship with your manager when it's not clear for that manager how that consistent behavior can be applied, it generally turns into a pretty low trust, first of all for us, but then also non-enjoyable employee experience.

Fania Stoney: So while somebody may be really committed to their work and really committed to the organization, their experience of their manager isn't great, and that's why they leave. So it's kind of a specific piece. And the managers who are doing stuff really well, again, going back to that career and development piece are co-creating the career trajectory of their employees. So having that chat, keeping it regular, it's not a one-year performance development review process where we have to tick nine boxes and put you in a matrix, and that kind of piece. It's 20 minutes, every month. What's going well? What's not working well? How can I help you and what does support look like? How are we going to keep you moving on in this place?

Fania Stoney: The final one is around, in the literature it's called the EVP. So the Employee Value Proposition. This is the communication to everybody what it means to be working here, what our culture means, but also what are all the practices? What's our promise to you as any given employee? Organizations who are doing this really well, communicating that really well, are getting really good buy in from employees. They're unlocking that level of discretionary effort that people know, okay, if I give myself over, this is the benefit for me within this. I can see where the organization is going, I can see what's an offer to me, and I can see where I fit into that. So, I suppose, they were the three main pieces that we're kind of seeing in that career and development space.

Paul Smyth: The EVP one, actually I think Niamh from The Pudding talks about that in the guide as well. Some of them are very strong and that needs to be very authentic.

Fania Stoney: Absolutely.

Paul Smyth: And real, and not just words on the wall.


Fania Stoney: And you know, people often come to us and go, what's the copy and paste here guys? What's the secret sauce? And it doesn't work that way. People don't buy it, it's not authentic. And it depends on your environment. So if you're a heavily driven sales culture, certain things are going to work for you that aren't going to work for an R and D lab in pharma. So you can't play with it that way. Actually I suppose on that one, we were doing a bit of work with the pharma, and they were looking at flexi work. Because flexitime has become one of those big driving forces in the market, that kind of piece. Their lab guys are kind of saying we'd like a bit of flexitime, but we can't really bring the lab home. So what's the, you know, you can't work from home because of what's going on, but what's the equitable offering? So is it that we get a decent level of shift work going on, or how does that work for you that's an equitable experience to the guys who are in the office who are able to avail of flexitime. So that's the authentic piece. It makes sense for the employees and the environment, and it makes sense for the organization overall.

Paul Smyth: I guess that all can change potentially as companies grow, and move from small to medium to large, they're the categories you use aren't they?

Fania Stoney: Yes, so depending on the size of the workplace, the nature of the work. What we would also see is, and I suppose this is why it's core to our model, is it comes down to how trusting the environment is. So trust is core to the Great Place to Work model, and if you try and implement flexitime in a low trust environment, people are going, "Dave's not at as desk, he's definitely not getting the work done." We can guarantee that. In a high trust environment, "We haven't seen Dave for four weeks, we'd better check-in, make sure he's getting on all right." It's just a different type of conversation that you're having.

Paul Smyth: That can be a real shift. Like when you introduce flexitime, or work from home, or whatever, we did it ourselves pretty much when we started the business. Consultants have the opportunity to work from home and everyone's on ... and it's not a case of, shit, they aren't here at 10 o'clock or whatever. It's mostly working from home today, but it's hard to-

Fania Stoney: Get that balance.

Paul Smyth: It's even hard to make that mindset shift, you need that trust and you need that ... it's a different way of managing now.

Fania Stoney: We would, you know, there's an overall feeling that maybe in an Irish market a lot of managers aren't there yet. So if someone's not at their desk, they're not working, and the kind of catch up that needs to go there. There are two other pieces. One is we've seen it coming out of our US data that they've almost gone too far, so nobody ever sees anybody anymore and there is no sense of a work community or work environment. And how are they going to combat that?

Fania Stoney: Actually we were doing a bit of work with an organization here in Ireland and they had really fantastic flexible work practices. It was something that people really benefited from, their main demographic were parents. So they really liked the fact that they could either drop kids to school, pick them up, you know, they were afforded really great flexible working practices during the summer, and the energy scores were low. We did a bit of focus group work with them and turns out for a lot of people it wasn't particularly energizing working from home, or the days they did come into the office, they weren't seeing their team. So you know, you're on email to people the whole time. You're maybe not even on the phone to people. The simple thing that they did was every second Thursday is the day that the team comes in. So everybody in that team is in on the same day, they're bouncing off each other, they're having the chats and everybody's going home. That was enough.

Paul Smyth: One other thing on this-

Fania Stoney: No, you're fine.

Paul Smyth: It's just really interesting, the challenge and support aspect. So in our coaching ... we have a coaching business that's separate to Top Tier Recruitments. Possibly challenge and support is one of the most common things I see come up. I know when I went through it initially the training, it was a guy called Tim Gallwey, who's a former tennis coach, wrote a book called The Inner Game, who really talks about challenge and support. And the whole thing was, you know, you can win every single game of tennis you want if you're a grown adult playing nine-year-olds, but where's the challenge?

Fania Stoney: Yes, I like that.

Paul Smyth: The other side is, if you don't have enough support then you don't feel comfortable enough to take a risk, to meet the challenge. So that challenge support piece, it's tricky and I think you can only really get that by really working with your team when really communicating with people and asking them questions as opposed to finding solutions for problems straight away as well.

Fania Stoney: Yes, and the other big piece we'd see in that is how is failure dealt with? So if you take a risk, you take a project on, it doesn't work, is it brushed under the carpet and none of us talk about it? Or is it, okay, didn't work, let's come back together as a team. Let's figure out what we're going to learn from this, and how we're going to springboard that into future projects. That has a big impact on how up for it people can be.

Paul Smyth: A really interesting question around failure, if a company says, "We want people to fail, it's okay." When was the last time you did fail [inaudible 00:11:15]?

Fania Stoney: Yes.

Paul Smyth: It's just an interesting one to ask.

Fania Stoney: And again, we'd see some best practice around this, is some organizations have a fanfare around failure. It's one of the best failures of this month. How are we celebrating failure? You kind of go, "What? Celebrating failure?" But it's part of their culture, and actually, without taking those risks, they're not going to get the advances in their product, or in their offering or whatever it is. But they've embraced it as opposed to let's not talk about that, you know? So it's kind of where you are on that as well.

Laura Smyth: Excellent. Fania, A Great Place to Work has, and continues to gather, some fascinating data. Any other interesting insights you can share for employers?

Fania Stoney: Yes. When I was talking to the team about this one before I came across, leaching all their knowledge too, and actually one of the biggest things that we're beginning to see is there's a lot of sensationalism around Great Place to Work. So it's bean bags, and it's free food, and it's a pool, and it's a gym, and it's, you know, all those wonderful things. Absolutely, there are organizations who are part of our list and who we work with, who have all these wonderful things. But actually, what's driving A Great Place to Work is people who are doing the basics really well. So they're linking people into the value of the vision, the mission of the business. People understand where their work fits in. They're communicating really well. Some messages are getting from the top to the bottom, both good and bad. I suppose linking back to that failure piece, how are they building that in? And there are mechanisms to get a message from the bottom to the top. I feel that I'm going to have an impact on changes that are going to affect my job, my career, that kind of piece.

Fania Stoney: What else are we saying? Yes, people who are really clear about development trajectories, that piece, able to recognize people for a job well done. People being able to link back with something bigger than themselves, maybe through their CSR or their healthy wellbeing, that kind of piece.

Fania Stoney: So we just had that chat, you know, and around, okay, so what is it that's differentiating A Great Place to Work? And it is actually getting those really basic things right at the first and foremost. Building a really high trust environment, and kind of springboarding from there. I suppose the other kind of follow on we were chatting about was there's a lot of talk in the market around what does a Gen Z, want versus a Gen Y, versus a terrible millennial and all this kind of stuff. What we're actually seeing is it's less to do with that kind of generational piece, but actually where people are in a life cycle. So what's your benefits offering for somebody who is nearing retirement versus somebody who has young kids and elderly parents at home who are dependent on them, versus somebody just entering the workforce? So I suppose it's again, those who are differentiating themselves from the market have a really responsive package based on the kind of life cycle of the people in front of them.

Paul Smyth: Actually, another contributor to the report who are literally just across the way.

Laura Smyth: Yes, I was going to mention.

Paul Smyth: In our recent discussion with Eppione, they talked a lot about flexible benefits, because if you're, I don't know, a graduate coming straight out you probably don't care about a pension.


Fania Stoney: This is it.

Paul Smyth: You should, but you don't. And if you're near retirement or you've kids or other considerations, maybe, I don't know health insurances.

Laura Smyth: Health insurance or pension, yes, changes. One size doesn't fit all.

Fania Stoney: This is it, and then, you know, added onto that as if you're working in a high trust environment, you can have a bit of fun with it too. So I'm working with a company who had unlimited holidays, right? It was a low trust environment, it was total chaos. I mean it just hadn't worked as an exercise. They didn't know where people were, they didn't know where projects were. Then people kind of clambering on top of people when they were in. Either, if they kind of had two ends of the spectrum, either some people just weren't ever in work or some people never left. So they kind of compounded that. Whereas when we see that working really well in a high trust environment, it absolutely gets the job done and then we can see what that flexi benefit looks like for you. So, it's got to be underpinned by that mechanism of trust.

Laura Smyth: Absolutely.

Paul Smyth: I heard someone talk about managing by objectives now as well, as a new way to manage. So it's clear in terms of expectations and timelines, so you can have that flexibility. So it really doesn't matter if you're at your desk, if the job gets done to the really clearly communicated standards and everything else, then ...

Fania Stoney: That transparency piece is massive. So that's where people who on your team is seeing what you're doing. How is your manager clocking in with what you're doing? How are you reporting back all of that? I suppose that's when you talk about insights and trends, one of the others we're seeing are people who are taking on transparency in a whole new way. So there's a couple of examples from, I suppose, the world wide network. One is there's an organization in Brazil where you turn up for interview and if you're successful, you're told the salary of everybody on your team and your manager, and you're asked to choose your own salary. So you know what everybody's on, you know what their work is, and you know what your work is going to be. So now please choose your salary accordingly.

Fania Stoney: Can you guess what their biggest problem was?

Paul Smyth: No.

Fania Stoney: People undervaluing themselves.

Paul Smyth: Really?

Fania Stoney: They actually had to encourage people to pay themselves more because they were being relative. They felt new, I don't know if I'm ready to give value to this team yet. That was the kind of stuff that's coming up in the conversation.

Laura Smyth: That's so interesting.

Fania Stoney: Then another one was Swedish company around expenses. They were having a real problem with expenses and they decided to go 100% transparent. Everybody's expenses got put up on the company internet and everybody could check everybody else's expenses. So the receptionist could say, "Excuse me, Mr CEO, who was that lunch with today?" And he would have to be like, "Well that's, X, Y and Z, and we did this and we did that." Cut their expenses by a third within a year.

Laura Smyth: Wow, that's amazing.

Fania Stoney: You know, because it's this idea of, and I'm still coming to terms with this, but radical transparency, but this idea of the more transparency you have, the change in the culture around that.

Paul Smyth: Yes, and actually, so we do a lot on Blockchain, not a lot because there isn't a lot [inaudible 00:17:11]. But we've done a bit relative to others in Blockchain. A lot of success of Blockchain projects we see or use cases that we see, are effectively around transparency. You know, so a company we worked with there was all about if I give X amount to charity, I want to know exactly where it goes. And you can see-

Laura Smyth: From beginning to end.

Paul Smyth: Laura bought X with this, or whatever. So really interesting, the whole kind of transparency [inaudible 00:17:33].

Fania Stoney: I suppose we would even see it with organizations who take on Great Place to Work as a framework and mechanism for change. Those who are more ... the more transparent you are with it, the better buy-in you get from the employee experience.

Fania Stoney: So I'm trying to think of a good example of this. Avantcard, so they used formerly MBNA down in Carrick-on-Shannon, average tenure I think they were saying something like 16 years and Avantcard as a brand has only existed for something like four, right? So they've got this kind of dichotomy of experience going on. They came on for our certification program, which is a three year commitment and they've been very public about this. They came in year one, 57% trust levels. It was not a trusting environment, and they said, "Okay, how do we take this on?" Again, when for that very transparent approach. So they set up a Great Place to Work team, which I think at the time were called the cultivators, and they had, these are the three things that we as a team are going to go after. This is the data, this is what we're using to support this. HR, these are the three things that we're going after. This is the data to support this. Senior team, these are the three things we're going after. This is the data to support it.

Fania Stoney: So they kept it really transparent and the type of practice they were doing where ... so they had a bit of an issue around managers feeling involved. So they did a senior team rotation where a manager goes on to all of the senior leadership team meetings for three months. They see every decision that's happening. The whole process kind of opening up again, that level of transparency. They jumped from year one to year two from 57% to 73%.

Laura Smyth: Wow.

Fania Stoney: So massive impact on the data, right? Everybody included in that story. So, you know, people can really make it work for them as well. That was just an example from the network, I guess.

Laura Smyth: Transparency is key.

Fania Stoney: Yes.

Laura Smyth: There's so much happening in the world of work. What changes do you think business leaders should be aware of and preparing for?

Fania Stoney: To be honest, I know we kind of briefly touched it on the start. I think one of the big dominant narratives at the moment is future of work. What that's going to mean? As you said, robots are coming to get us. What's AI going to be doing? And then the flip of this narrative is, well, you know, we're not going to have to do any administrative work and we're all going to be completely clear to be our fully creative selves. And you know, there's a lot out there, right? A lot of chat out there.

Fania Stoney: I actually think one thing that we would see that leaders are doing really well, it's kind of not nipping that in the bud, because it's the wrong way to look at it. We're getting in front of that conversation, so owning that narrative a bit. So yes, absolutely, in five years time, your job might not exist, but let's have a chat around that. What does the job look like for you? How can we build that together? What are the trends that you're seeing in your work? How do you think AI is going to help you? What are the supports that we can put in place so people feel they're part of that conversation, as opposed to it happening separate from them, and is going to be imposed on them in some future time that they're not in control of.

Fania Stoney: Trying to think of a good example of this. I know one of the organizations we work with did what they called the dream job exercise. So everybody was tasked with, if you could build the dream job based on something that's going to be useful for the business, and good for your career trajectory, what would you do? And everybody couldn't. It was part of their performance review, and this kind of piece. And they were said, take in the themes that are coming in from the outside world, and bring all of your knowledge and expertise to the building of these dream jobs. And 27 new roles were created that people then stepped into. So this wasn't an abstract exercise, this was tangibly where are we going as a business and what can we own in this space?

Fania Stoney: So I suppose managers and leaders who can get upfront on top of that story and part of that narrative or are going to differentiate themselves in the market.

Paul Smyth: Pretty good. In terms of changes, so do you see much of a trend between different economic cycles and, I suppose, thinking of Brexit?

Fania Stoney: Yes.

Paul Smyth: If you've heard of it.

Fania Stoney: I don't know if you've heard of this Brexit thing. Actually one of the girls took two and half hours to get into work yesterday. Because we're right beside Merrion Square, and obviously the whole thing was closed down and Boris was late. So she got late, anyway. Yes, I mean, part of that is where you can get the knowledge, get the expertise, use the available channels to you, but there are other elements to consider. I'm trying to think of a tangible example now. Okay. So health and wellbeing, it's massive at the moment. We would see candidates going for interview who are interviewing the organization on what is your health and wellbeing offering? Tell me about this, that kind of piece. And there's a part of us that think that a lot of stuff out there in the market at the moment is quite tick-box around it. You know, so you can have your fruit bills, and your yoga, and that kind of piece and that's great.

Fania Stoney: Then there are some people doing some really fantastic strategic work embedding it. Actually what that means, because we're on a rising economic tide, there is oftentimes available budget for stuff like that. But if we see that shift happen, it could potentially be the first thing to be cutaway. So it was lovely to have one times were good. So for all of these things, I suppose when an organization does really care about who they are and what it means, what the employee experience means for them, they've just got to embed that, and got to kind of commit to that. Then that becomes part of who they are and it's not the first thing that's cut away based on economic change.

Fania Stoney: Then there's all the uncertainty that goes with that too. So you can only contingency plan for so much. I know we were talking to an organization called weeks ago around the whole Brexit thing, and they were like, you know, we got to contingency plan number 602 and just decided where's our worth one investment at the moment? So it's what you can do, and then it's being able to be adaptive and reactive enough that you can kind of take on any change that comes in the market.

How To Contact Fania & Great Place To Work

Visit the Great Place To Work website.

Alternatively, you can email Fania on fania.stoney [@]

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