With a culture that was heavily influenced by the office vibe, The Happiness Index’s ‘cultural health’ quickly deteriorated at the start of the pandemic. In rapid response, the company’s Head of People Gemma Shambler focused efforts around employee feedback to improve wellbeing, bridge connections and even turn the organisation’s structure on its head.
As an employee engagement survey and technology provider, The Happiness Index understood the importance of putting people at the forefront of their business agenda well before the pandemic arrived. For Gemma Shambler, Head of People, this small company had created an enviable office culture that enabled valuable social connections and nurtured a strong sense of belonging among its employees.
“Our company motto is ‘freedom to be human’ which means treating people as individuals, not a number. We believe that people should feel empowered to work how they want and express their feelings so they can be themselves at work,” said Gemma.
Of course, since Covid-19 came knocking on our doors, ‘freedom’ is not the word that springs to mind for the period of restrictions and instability that ensued.
“Since the lockdown, we have all lost a lot of our freedom, so our business struggled to deliver our vision to its entirety,” said Gemma.
What was particularly challenging for The Happiness Index was the temporary end to its thriving office-based culture. As a small and social team, its multi-purpose shared space was a dynamic environment that facilitated collaborative working.
The office also included games rooms, a rooftop area and a gym where professional trainers came in to deliver workout programmes and classes. All of this was very difficult to replace with the move to home working during lockdown.
Measuring ‘cultural health’
Understanding the power of data to drive positive action, Gemma used the organisation’s own ‘Employee Voice’ survey tool to internally assess how people were feeling in response to the drastic changes and allow everyone to provide feedback.
Here are some of the key findings from The Happiness Index’s internal surveys during the first wave of the pandemic:
Feedback comments with a negative sentiment rose to over 26% compared to 9% pre-pandemic.
The average employee happiness score for three months before Covid-19 was 7.4/10 compared to 6.3 during the first three months of lockdown, signalling a sharp decline in the happiness and general mode of the organisation’s people.
In July, the average score plummeted to an all-time low of 5.9 as employees endured their fourth month of Covid-19 restrictions.
With these findings suggesting ‘cultural health’ had hit rock bottom, Gemma had her work cut out in shifting a healthy office-based environment into something just as energetic in the remote working world.
Campfires, relay races and social lunches – gone virtual
Taking inspiration from the insights uncovered in the internal surveys, Gemma and her colleagues introduced a number of new communication channels, wellbeing provisions and social moments to help support and connect the team in a virtual setting.
The team launched ‘You Said, We Did’ to demonstrate the organisation's commitment to making employee-driven changes. Gemma and the team examined the sentiment from the Employee Voice data to come up with key areas for improvement, ensuring these actions were communicated back to employees.
The company also set up bi-weekly company updates to provide an opportunity for transparent communication, alongside space for socialising and learning. The meeting’s agenda included ‘campfires,’ where employees could talk about their home lives and how they are feeling, alongside finance updates, which was particularly important in giving employees a better idea of when the business would be able to bring people back from the Job Retention Scheme during the lockdown period.
The organisation’s Quarterly Happiness Meeting also went virtual. This whole-company session is an opportunity to review the financial quarter, present plans and have some fun. When the meetings turned virtual, each employee received food vouchers so everyone could enjoy a lunch together.
To positively contribute to everyone’s health and wellbeing, The Happiness Index provided an annual subscription to Headspace to help with mental health, sleep and focus.
The team also arranged a ‘Hope for the Homeless Relay’, to not only support employee wellbeing and home fitness, but also to raise money for homeless people. Working up a sweat, the team ran, cycled or swam as many miles as they could in a month on Strava to raise money for Beam, a charity that helps empower homeless people to create better lives for themselves.
After raising over £500, the team have since kept the Strava community and use it as a platform to encourage and give kudos to each other’s physical activity. It’s proved to be a great platform for connecting employees and spreading positivity.
To give people the opportunity to take a break from their home office set-up, the business also paid for individual memberships to Work.Life so everyone had the option of working from a co-working space twice per/week.
3. Social connection
As in-person social moments were so important to employees at The Happiness Index, when government guidelines allowed them to do so, the team would encourage people to get out of the house and socialise with each other in a Covid-19 compliant way.
When face-to-face interactions were not possible, employees had the online Happiness and Humans Community to turn to, a platform open to all who wish to collaborate and discuss ideas for revolutionising the working world and creating happier and healthier workplaces. So far, the community has well over 34,000 members.
Introducing the ‘Quantum Organisation’
One of the biggest changes The Happiness Index made was to its organisational structure. Staying true to its vision of ‘freedom to be human’, the business transitioned away from the traditional hierarchical, command and control approach and adopted a flatter structure.
“By ditching the hierarchical approach, we empowered our people to make their own decisions and think creatively”, said Gemma. “This encourages them to work flexibly and be accountable”.
How exactly does the new structure work? In a nutshell, the organisation has set up different communities all built around the vision of ‘freedom to be human’. Everyone has the opportunity to join different communities and work on new projects that they typically never would have, giving people a fantastic opportunity to develop themselves in new ways.
What did employees think of these changes?
Having implemented all these new initiatives to support employees through the pandemic, Gemma and the team looked once again at their Employee Voice internal data to assess the impact.
Scores improved to 7.6 during August 2020 as restrictions began to ease. What was particularly impressive about this score was that it was higher than the score (7.4) three months before lockdown.
Sentiment analysis was down to 16% negative during August, which was a reduction of 10% since the start of lockdown and meant that comments received during this month were overwhelmingly positive.
Happiness isn’t everything
While many of the initiatives proved to be a success, one area that the organisation decided to let go of was targeting themselves solely on a happiness score.
“We learned that it isn't natural for people to be happy all of the time so we shouldn't be aspiring to that,” said Gemma. “The important thing is that people feel comfortable sharing their true feelings/thoughts/emotions in an open and trusting environment, which we have worked hard to facilitate”.
What’s next for The Happiness Index?
For Gemma and the team, the future involves, quite simply, more of the same. Their ongoing process of listening to employees and translating feedback into positive change is clearly working and remains central to their vision of ‘freedom to be human’.
“We will continue to adopt a human-led, data-driven, decision-making approach to ensure that our people are central to our business and we are constantly changing and adapting to maximise growth,” said Gemma.
What did our Culture Pioneers Ambassadors think?
For an organisation whose office culture was the heartbeat of the business, the ambassadors were impressed with the initiatives and channels set up to maintain a highly sociable and fun virtual environment.
“What came across was the challenge of replicating a culture that had relied so much on the vibe in the office,” said Blaire Palmer, CEO of That People Thing. “It was clear, however, that much creative thought went into addressing this challenge and ideas like the campfire had the kind of fun, human feel that lies at the heart of this company’s culture”.
The company still found ways to connect in person too, and that’s what grabbed the attention of Shakil Butt, Founder of HR Hero for Hire. “The stand out point was meeting in person where safe to do so to ensure real interactions. That for me was at the heart of the submission”.
The realisation that happiness shouldn’t be the sole metric for success was also commended. “Employees don’t expect their employers to make them 100% happy,” said Becky Norman, Editor of HRZone. “What’s far more important is that the organisation is nurturing a culture where employees are consistently listened to and their feedback acted upon”.