How Workday maintains the employee experience through business growth

How Workday maintains the employee experience through rapid business growth

A keen focus on values supported by regular surveys and staff feedback through internal and external channels has been critical to maintaining a positive employee experience at Workday as it has grown rapidly over the past few years, according to its global head of HR.

While it is relatively easy for organisations to maintain a cohesive workplace culture when they are small, businesses often struggle as they grow in size, scale and complexity. Workday, which was founded in 2005, listed in 2012 for US$9.5 billion ($13.9 billion) and today has a market capitalisation of about US$40 billion ($58.5 billion) with around 10,500 people across some 60 offices around the world.

As it has grown rapidly, its HR team and organisational leadership have had to recalibrate internal processes to ensure the company and its culture stay true to its founding values, said Workday’s chief people officer, Ashley Goldsmith and has global responsibility for HR, global impact and workplace facilities.

The company’s founder started with a formula that happy employees’ equal happy customers, with a strong focus on the employee experience from the company’s inception.

“We believe deeply that if employees feel respected, valued and that what they do matters and they can make an impact, then they will do great things for our customers,” said Goldsmith.

“If they’re developing technology, there’ll be more innovative, for example. If they’re providing service, they’ll work even harder to make sure customers are happy.

“So, with this ethos as a backdrop, ensuring we have a strong culture and sticking to our values has been really important,” she said.

However, Workday has faced challenges in maintaining this culture as it has experienced rapid growth.

In 2016, for example, the company had been growing quickly with about 4000 employees on its books.

“We were seeing all these little signals that the culture, values and experience were just not what they used to be,” she recalled.

Internal surveys, as well as external feedback through Glassdoor ratings and LinkedIn, were slightly down from previous highs, and Goldsmith said trendlines in employee feedback were not heading in the right direction.

“We were seeing all these little signals that the culture, values and experience were just not what they used to be”

“That was an important moment for us,” she said.

“We looked in the mirror and asked ourselves whether this was just a symptom of growth and recognition that all companies can’t stay amazing forever and if we were okay with being really good – or if we wanted to be exceptional even through major growth.”

“We decided we wanted to be exceptional, so we implemented a number of measures and steps to refocus on our values and culture in order to improve employee feedback and sentiment.

“We were highly intentional about this at the leadership level and we realised that some of the ways we had been doing things were not working to the standards we wanted, and just hoping that working the culture and values through normal channels was not going to work in the face of high growth.”

Workday’s people leadership summit
Workday started by focusing on its people leaders, as Goldsmith explained that they have the greatest cultural impact on employees’ day-to-day experiences.

“To start, we brought every single one of our people leaders from around the world together for two days to meet with Workday’s co-founders and our senior leadership team, to learn why we need to nurture our culture and how to create positive experiences for employees,” she said.

The executive team taught all our people managers about what it means to lead and manage in alignment with Workday’s values and culture – which was the exclusive focus rather than company goals and results.

“Managers make or break the employee experience, right?

“If our founders could have wonderful views and corporate could be really a great place to work that’s great, but your actual manager stinks and isn’t reinforcing the values, then you’re going to be having a really different experience,” said Goldsmith.

This original get-together in 2016 has now been formalised into an annual program (called the people leadership summit) which is designed for every people manager in the company who has been newly promoted or who is new to Workday within the previous year.

“We continue to hear people come out of it and say it’s one of the most impactful things that they’ve done,” said Goldsmith.

“We’re looking for points of correlation in the data which can assist us with creating our desired employee experience”

Assessing employee experience
Another initiative Workday has adopted is a survey to measure employee sentiment on a weekly basis.

Every Friday, every employee across the globe receives two questions (which take about 15 seconds to answer) via mobile phone, and the questions are part of a set of 34 questions which are broken down over the course of 17 weeks.

Feedback is collated and populates a dashboard which every manager has ongoing access to in order to understand the experience they’re creating for their teams.

The system also pushes managers content on areas for improvement in order to further their development and increase employee engagement

This content is delivered in bite-size format to improve accessibility, according to Goldsmith: “So if listening was one of the three areas I need to improve on, for example, Workday learning would push content to my phone with suggestions on what videos I could watch, what courses I could attend or which articles I could read – all to hone listening skills,” she said.

“The system constantly refreshes content for managers with guidance and advice to help improve the employee experience of their teams.”

This data is also important for Workday’s HR team, with data points that can be leveraged in conjunction with other rich data within the company to help define areas for focus and improvement.

“We’re looking to create a consistent employee experience which is in alignment with our culture and our values, so we’re looking for points of correlation in the data which can assist us with creating our desired employee experience,” said Goldsmith.

For example, female employees in Workday’s Dublin office indicated that they felt they weren’t being treated fairly and that their voices were not being heard.

“This was pretty alarming for the Dublin leadership team and for us to see,” said Goldsmith, who explained that a half-day session was convened to look into the reasons behind this less-than-ideal employee sentiment – followed by actionable steps for implementing change.

With the completion of the next cycle of 17-week survey questions, with feedback indicating dramatically improved results for the Dublin office.

“You need to be willing to try things, understand what the real business issues are, how technology might help solve these”

“This was a good example of something going astray in the face of growth and change, recognising the problem and then taking a targeted approach to fixing it quickly,” says Goldsmith.

Hiring for culture/values fit
With a renewed focus on culture and values, talent acquisition also came under the microscope to ensure the business was hiring the right people at the beginning of the employee experience journey.

All managers (including hiring managers) undergo an “ignite training” program which helps them understand what values to look for in candidates and what kind of questions to ask in order to identify behaviours which fit the culture of the business.

Workday also has a process called “results-based selection” in the talent acquisition process, which focuses on specific examples of achievement to help hiring managers understand how candidates respond in certain situations.

“We want to make sure that their values are going to be consistent with ours at all times,” said Goldsmith, who explained that Workday recently brought together 200 managers from across the US for ignite training.

“If these 200 people are engaged in interviews and hiring people into the company, but they’re not subject matter experts, then how can we ensure we cover off all the areas we need to?”

To assist with this Workday is piloting a “culture ambassador” program to help strengthen the process of effective talent acquisition and culture/values fit across the business.

“If I’m hiring somebody on my HR team, for example, I could have a software engineer who might interview a candidate, and this engineer is somebody who we’ve recognised as a really strong reflection of our values as a company.

“So, they’ve been trained on how to do this and what they should be looking for through a really objective lens – so they can add value to the interview process.

“We’re eager to see how this helps, because as we grow, one of the most important things we can do is make sure we have people who are aligned to our values,” said Goldsmith.

“If employees opt out and leave us, or we opt that they are not right for the business, that certainly indicates we didn’t hire well”

The evolution of HR
As a finance and HR technology company, innovation is an important focus for Workday and Goldsmith explained that this is also reflected in its approach to HR.

While HR professionals don’t have to be technologists or software engineers to extract the most value from technology and data, they do need to possess a deep curiosity about what technology can do for them.

“You need to be willing to try things, understand what the real business issues are, how technology might help solve these – and then engage,” said Goldsmith.

“Historically, I don’t think HR has had a strong ROI mindset and we need this to move forward.

“We need to look at the outcomes that our work is generating and asking ourselves: are we measuring those outcomes? Are they adding business value? Is it delivering the results that we want (or not)?

“And we need to be willing to phase out the things that are not having an impact,” said Goldsmith, who explains that this approach is particularly important in cultivating a good working relationship with the CEO and executive team.

Business strategy should drive the company’s talent strategy and all HR initiatives and programmes, which will provide a clearer line of sight and stronger discipline around tangible outcomes.

“It’s easy for HR to focus on the output rather than the outcome, so our HR team is focused on ensuring that all our people strategies support the business strategy,” she said.

Results and outcomes
Internally, the company measures its HR success in a range of ways – many of which focus on harder business outcomes.

When it comes to training, for example, Goldsmith observed that most companies assess training effectiveness through good faith and smile sheets which ask participants about whether they enjoyed the course, if they liked the instructor and if they feel the training was relevant.

There are correlations between positive business outcomes for people who have higher sentiment levels and a better employee experience, and to this end, Workday assesses the employee experience for people whose managers have attended ignite training, versus those whose managers have not.

“It’s easy for HR to focus on the output rather than the outcome, so our HR team is focused on ensuring that all our people strategies support the business strategy”

The Workday survey encompasses 13 dimensions, and Goldsmith explained that across each dimension there is a statistically significant difference in the employee experience of those people whose managers that attended ignite versus those who had not.

“Knowing this training correlates to legitimate business outcomes such as higher retention, better promotability, stronger intent to stay, better candidate referrals as well as higher performance tells us that we should continue to invest in this training – rather than just hoping that it’s a good programme,” she said.

Workday also measures traditional HR metrics such as 12-months attrition rates, and Goldsmith said this is an important indicator.

“If employees opt out and leave us, or we opt that they are not right for the business, that certainly indicates we didn’t hire well,” said Goldsmith.

“We do track these numbers and we have an internal target for what we should be aiming for, and we also benchmark attrition more broadly as well specifically against our industry.”

Throughout the globe, Workday has never exceeded 10 per cent attrition (whereas the industry benchmark tends to run at 20-plus per cent).

Workday has also been recognised in numerous external surveys including #4 in the Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For 2019, #2 in Fortune’s 40 Best Workplaces in Technology 2018, #3 in Europe’s Best Places to work (Great Place to Work 2019) and #3 in Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women 2018.

“We’ve very open about what works and what doesn’t,” said Goldsmith.

“There are some things which haven’t worked, but we have stayed focused on good business outcomes and that is a very important success characteristic at Workday.”

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