Growing by Listening – How to Maintain Fluid Communication in Your Workplace

Published on 2013-04-08

Growing by Listening
As times change and organisations grow older, the way they do business must also change. Gathering feedback is vital for growth and change, but doing so can be tricky. Large organisations become complex and communication from the front lines to the heart of the organisation can take too long. Smaller organisations on the other hand have a much easier time of passing information back and forth, although making use of this information can be challenging due to limited resources.
Ubisoft and TTI Success Insights have taken unique approaches of keeping their communication fluid, but acting like a smaller organisation. Here is their advice:
[quote style=”boxed”]“Everyone sits next to each other, managers have open doors and employees can drop in any time they feel.”[/quote] “At Ubisoft we have an open door policy” says Eric Pepin, the HR Director of Ubisoft, a large, global video games production studio. “Everyone sits next to each other, managers have open doors and employees can drop in any time they feel.”
Ubisoft also has an integration program to let new employees know how things work. Not only does this introduce them to the open atmosphere of the company, but several months later their feedback regarding their onboarding experience is gathered, further reinforcing the understanding of an open atmosphere.
“After 3 months we will sit down with the new employees and ask them questions about how they like their job, has it met their expectations, do they feel they have had access to adequate support and even their general feelings about the environment and the team” says Pepin.
Pepin highlights that at Ubisoft, human capital is considered key and the role of the HR team is to ensure that the workforce is well supported. The Staffing Team and the Business HR Teams work closely with each project, listening to the needs of team members and looking for solutions to address these needs.
May Lam at TTI Success Insights, a management consulting company based in Shanghai, leverages the small size of her team to make new staff feel welcome even before they start their job.
“Most of our employees were hired by me. A lot of these employees are hired through contacts or referral. Often times I will meet with them and have a cup of coffee with them before I recruit them. I will be very open with them about the company, where it’s going, what challenges it’s facing etc. So even before they join the company they will have an idea. I will also encourage them to come to the company and meet the staff. So right at the beginning I’m creating this kind of trust. I encourage them to be open with each other before they even join the company. This shows them we have a very friendly company here. So once they come on board, we spend up to a day going over the onboarding with them, not just about what the business is doing but also about them as well” says Lam.
Lam highlights that in  TTI Success Insights a lot of decisions are made by ongoing discussion between all members of the company. She explains, “I think a big part is that our company size is not that big so we have a lot of flexibility. We work as a team, so we encourage our employees to voice their ideas. As a leader we have to be open minded. We have to accept different ideas. Even for strategic meetings, I will involve my team in the meeting.”
When Pepin first arrived in Shanghai, things weren’t quite what he was used to. “When I arrived in Shanghai I sat with some managers and I was asking them, ‘What are the risks in your project?’. The managers would hesitate. This was unusual for me because in Montreal where I was previously based we were always very open about the risks and problems associated with projects.”
But very soon Pepin realised that this was not a cultural issue. “At the beginning I thought this sharing of problems was a cultural issue. But afterwards I realised it wasn’t. When you don’t know your manager well, no matter what country you come from, you won’t be so willing to mention the risks or problems. So we needed to build trust. When they shared problems we didn’t shout at them, we helped them find solutions.”
Trust is extremely important in order to encourage staff to open up, especially with supervisors and managers. As Pepin points out, “For me I have the impression that if the manager doesn’t listen well, or if the employee doesn’t feel that he will be listened to, then this will prevent the employee from providing ideas. It’s not easy to be a manager.  It’s really a big challenge. For us, our managers are sometimes really young, so it’s normal that they make mistakes.”
Pepin highlights mistakes that managers make that ultimately hamper trust. “If the manager doesn’t know his team well, or if the manager fails to provide a clear direction to his team, then soon the team will lose confidence. Finally, if the manager fails to listen and fails to ensure the employee opinions are valued, and then trust will be lost.”
May Lam at TTI Success Insights takes a very personal approach to building trust with her team members. “I voluntarily get involved in their personal discussions. Not long ago we had an employee who broke up with a boyfriend so I took her out for a coffee and I took two hours just to listen to her.”
This type of trust-building may be especially relevant in China as Lam points out “There is a difference between China and Hong Kong, and the US. I find in a small company it’s very important to have a family feel. Talk about challenges in the employees’ career even their life. It’s important to care about employees. Not everything should be about work. I’ve noticed that is an important thing in China. I always have my door open, so in China you have to combine business and a family feeling.”
Being aware that it’s OK to share information, and having a relationship of trust with one’s manager are two fundamental elements for encouraging employees to speak up. But the third issue that needs to be addressed is the ‘how’. How can employees speak up?
Proactively providing as many opportunities and channels to share feedback is highly likely to encourage staff to share more ideas. As Pepin demonstrates, “In my team we have HR Business Partners; It’s comprised of HR professionals that are dedicated to following different projects, so when the employees have some ideas they have a link to discuss with, then the Business HR will discuss with me, then we discuss the training, C&B, career development and recruitment issues. The HR Business Partners communicate with other departments as well if those comments are related.”
Pepin continues, “Every year or two years we have some global Ubisoft surveys to get the feelings and opinions from the employees. On this survey we have some questions that are related to Shanghai. And finally after each project we have a ‘post-mortem’ analysis to get the comments from the employee. This really helps us to see what is needed to improve.”
For Lam, it is all about ongoing discussion that involves everyone in the company. “Even for strategic meetings, I will involve my team in the meeting. Partly because I’m not local so I need to get their perspective. We will listen to every one of their ideas, we will study their ideas and we will agree on certain points about those ideas.”
But Lam also points out that management still has to be extremely proactive, to a level beyond simply offering opportunities for discussion. “At the beginning you have to have an open mind. As soon as somebody says something you might have a big question mark and want to discard it, but I don’t do that. Normally I just listen and will ask them to explain more. Even when I have to discard it, they will feel that I have given them the time to share their ideas. I’m always curious about what’s behind the idea. So I always ask why this idea came about.”
Managing Expectations
If employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas, and proactively come and provide them, then that’s great. But not all ideas can be implemented, and it’s important to be upfront from the beginning and manage their expectations.
At Ubisoft, the HR Business Partners play a very important role, not just in collecting feedback but also sorting it, sending it to the right places, and facilitating communication between the individuals and managers involved. If an idea may not be practical, then the individual will be notified.
Eric Pepin explains, “We will meet the person and we will tell them sorry we have checked and unfortunately it will not be implemented. Or sometimes we will say it won’t be implemented now but we are still working on it and we are waiting on an approval. Sometimes we need to get an approval from our head office in Paris. So sometimes we have to ask them to be patient. This is why the HR Business Partners are really key because they are the channel of communication for the employee.”
In smaller companies, a lot of the time implementing an idea comes down to the individual with that idea, and they only have to seek approval in order for this to happen. May Lam sees this as a great motivator, “Every idea executed in the company has to have a leader, and he or she has the authority and has to take on the responsibility to do that.”
This does present some challenges though, because not every employee has the time to take on extra tasks. “If we find that they don’t have enough time then we encourage them to bring up these issues” adds Lam.. Maintaining this open atmosphere and constantly encouraging communication, as well as keeping a sense of trust between managers and staff will help promote a healthy balance of feedback and implementation.