Enhancing employee performance using the power of relevant data

Happy employees tend to be motivated high performers. A key to that contentment is their relationships with managers and expectations of staying “relevant,” according to Greg Pryor, senior vice president for people and performance at Workday, the HR tech giant. What role can HR technology play in those critical areas? Pryor shared his views in a recent interview with Employee Benefit News. Edited highlights follow.

Employee Benefit News: How can performance management be enhanced by HR information technology?

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Greg Pryor: Before you get to the technology, you need to focus on when and how employees grew up. I’ll focus on millennials. As is often observed, millennials got tremendous amounts of feedback while they were in school. The majority entered the workforce following the Great Recession. They saw that the people with the broadest skills had the most choices, and often survived the rampant job eliminations. They want what Tammy Erickson of the London Business School calls “optionality”.

EBN: What does that mean?

Pryor: That’s the ability to collect different capabilities that allow you to navigate the increasing uncertainty in our workplaces, and in our lives overall. Capabilities are increasingly becoming the new career currency. And when we think about capabilities we think not only about skills, but also experiences, energy and competencies.

EBN: And where does technology fit into this picture?

Pryor: In part, it’s a big contributor to the phenomenon we’re seeing which is that the half-life and relevance of skills is rapidly decreasing. This generation looks at the length of time they’ll be in the workforce, and the urgency of staying relevant, even if they’re not expecting to change a lot of their roles within an organization.

EBN: Does that change the importance of having basic communication and interpersonal skills?

Pryor: Actually, automation is making those human skills, which can be nurtured in the right environment, become more important, too. That requires some research to determine the key ingredients for that environment. A while back we did some work with the Great Places to Work Institute. We took their questions and methodology, put it into our survey technology, and for about the last two years we’ve been surveying our entire organization, including a weekly pulse survey every Friday.

EBN: Isn’t that survey overkill?

Pryor: Not at all. We post a series of questions, and evaluate the results based on the outcomes and employee experience that we’re trying to create for our workers. A positive employee experience correlates to good performance, so this is an aspect of performance management. We have this idea of “freedom within a framework.” You have a set of tools, you have a set of practices, and research on the frequency and effectiveness of those tools, then focus not on the activity itself but the outcome.

EBN: How does that work?

Pryor: We write the algorithms to analyze the survey data and let each people leader know the experience their team is having. They can get specific focus areas that the data would suggest are the things that need to be focused on to improve the employee experience.

EBN: What questions are asked in the pulse survey?

Pryor: We have 34 questions that we take from the Great Place to Work’s broader database. We run through them in about 17 weeks. That also allows us to have all of the Best Places benchmark data associated with that. So we can see are there any particular trends or differences, for example, in the way our folks in Europe are answering the question versus in the U.S., or whether gender is a factor in the way people answer the questions. At the end of the 17 weeks, we summarize the data and share it with each people leader to show the employee experience level that their team seems to be having. We also publish a broader infographic that we share within our company so that people have a sense of where we stand.

EBN: Is senior management looking closely at the data?

Pryor: Yes. In fact we recently started an initiative in which a member of our senior management team is aligned to support our 35 biggest offices around the world. They have access to that data and share the details with each office, and discuss exactly what our people say needs to improve.

EBN: What are some of the pulse questions?

Pryor: Most are related specifically to how employees feel about their managers, as in, “My manager provides me feedback,” or “I have the opportunity to grow and develop my skills for professional development,” or “I have the resources to effectively do my work.” And we ask a question about psychological safety: “Is this a psychological safe place to work?” We want people to feel like they can do their best work, that they can be their authentic selves, that they’re operating from their prefrontal cortex instead of their hypothalamus.

EBN: Have any managers been reassigned based on pulse survey results?

Pryor: It has happened, but fortunately not many. We also do a lot of coaching when necessary, which often does result in great improvements in manager performance.

EBN: What about performance improvement for non-managers?

Pryor: We’re very intentional about providing regular feedback, regular check-ins. It needs to come at a cadence that works for the person, though. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

EBN: Tell me about the “opportunity graph” that employees get. What is it and how does it work?

Pryor: The opportunity graph is a sunburst diagram that puts the employee’s face in the center. It shows the percentage of employees who have moved from that employee’s role into various other roles within the company. So rather than have the company tell employees what it thinks their career options are, it takes what’s actually happening within the company and presents it back to you. It gives you a sense of the organizational vitality as it relates to career mobility, and some of the different opportunities.

EBN: How are employees using that data?

Pryor: The system tells you people you are already connected to in those roles, and the skills that people who are in those roles are building. So that gives them an opportunity to talk to those connections if they want. It takes the data puts it in the context of where you sit, much like a much more consumer-oriented technology would do.

EBN: What if an employee wants to move within the company in a direction that is not often or has never been taken by other employees?

Pryor: Employees can also plug in any job in the organization and see two things: Openings for that job category, and the requirements for that role. Also the system automatically sends a notification of an opening in a role the employee has expressed an interest in.

EBN: All of this sounds fitting for a tech company. Is it equally applicable to a traditional industrial enterprise?

Pryor: Yes. We’re in an age that’s driven by the changing nature of work, the changing nature of technology, and different generational expectations in the workforce. My very good friend Michael Arena is the chief talent officer at General Motors. The work that he’s doing there is amazing and very pioneering, specifically around social networks, and looking at connections and using them to enable innovation across the organization. There are many other examples at industrial companies. It’s a fundamental shift, as opposed to just a sector shift.

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