Officevibe's Jeff Fermin on Building a Better Workplace
Environment and culture have an enormous influence on an organization’s effectiveness. Everything from recruiting capabilities to stock price can depend on employee experience, but despite that, many are still left wondering how to actively improve it.
We met with Jeff Fermin, Co-founder and Director of Good Vibes at Officevibe, who shared his insights on what makes a great workplace, and some actionable advice for anyone working to build one.
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The impact of employee engagement
"We have stats all over our page," Fermin explained, "talking about just how unhappy employees are. They're just not productive. They show up to work, collect their checks, and go home. They're living unfulfilling lives, which is making them unhealthy. So that right there is costing companies in the U.S. alone billions and across the world hundreds of billions. Right now there's a huge disengagement problem and we are trying to create something where employees have a voice."
That voice is central to the Officevibe platform where employees are able to give confidential, anonymous feedback each week. These bite-sized surveys provide management with a pulse on employee engagement as well as insights that they can take action on.
Fermin discussed two related trends he's witnessed. "Companies, particularly tech companies, are making a shift to be more fun. To be more like those West Coast tech companies with all sorts of cool perks," he said, "their offices are very relaxed. It's not necessarily the old-fashioned corporate environment. It's becoming more like the West Coast cool startup with a hundred or a thousand employees who are happy to be there creating new things."
The other trend Fermin mentioned is that of the "new style" employee. "This is an employee who is dedicated to what they do, and they generally want to see the company advance and grow and thrive. The book, How Google Works, describes this new brand of employee not as, millennial, GenX, or baby boomer but as the smart creative. Those smart creative types are slowly invading offices and they want to make their offices or companies work better."
"I see companies switching to more relaxed environments," Fermin said. "I think we've come a long way since the Mad Men days of management or the Tayloristic industrial-type style of management where we reward people with paychecks for just doing their job. People are now starting to feel welcomed, but at the same time, only a small number of companies are doing some of these things."
Perhaps the best way to understand an engaged workplace is to look at a real example. Fermin shared a few insights into Officevibe's culture. The team follows what Fermin describes as a Chip Kelly offense approach, where everything moves at 100 miles per hour.
"We use agile methodologies and quick communications — very quick 15-minute meetings where we describe what's going on. It's so fast, it's almost a daydream," he said. "Everything is data-driven and everything that we do, from our meetings, from our goals, everything is measured by data. If it is performing well, it's going to stick; if not we're going to put it in our backlog and see if we can make that better down the road. If we spend too much time trying to perfect something that may or may not work, it's a waste of time. Transparency and communication, those are the two best things going on."
He also said that downtime is very important. "We make sure that we vacation and have a great time as well. It's awesome. But at the same time, the days that we're here, we're going hard. Fast."
In addition, all employees have a membership to the gym downstairs. "We flex at each other, making faces, having fun with it," he said. "We all go nuts when we see each other. It's part of our culture here."
It takes a village to make a better workplace
Creating an engaging workplace typically falls on management, but Fermin was quick to point out that it's a two-way street.
"Whose fault is it to not have an engaged office?" Fermin asked. "Is it the manager's fault or the employees' fault? I'd say it's about 70 percent of the company's fault why most offices aren't engaged. They're not giving their employees their needs or even their wants.
"Some companies may not have the resources to give employees what they want. For example, not every office is going to have a ping-pong table or the crazy cool perks that you see at those West Coast tech startups. I think as long as they collect enough feedback from employees, they will be able to provide a good environment for their employees to thrive in."
He also talked about how important it is for employees to be informed about engagement. For example, if a company wants to improve engagement, it's much harder if its employees are not informed or knowledgeable about industry practices. Whether a business is launching a new employee wellness initiative or just asking employees to give feedback to their managers, it's good for the employees to be knowledgeable about the initiative.
"They're able to read something like that and say, 'All right, that's why they are doing it.' It's not to force anything upon the employee; it's simply to make your company better and to make sure that you're doing better as an individual. It's going to benefit the company as a whole," Fermin explained.
The power of data: translating data into action
Fermin also discussed data collection and Officevibe's "simplicity is beautiful" mantra. He explained that the responsibility to make data easy to access and understand falls squarely on developers and companies.
"We have this on our wall: 'Simplicity is Beautiful,'" he said. "The easier it is for an HR manager to understand or interpret data, the easier it is for them to take action or come up with an action plan based on the information they've obtained."
Fermin expects to see more data analysts in the future of HR. "I definitely see an HR manager or someone working in the HR department needing to be able to understand how to interpret data and understand what people mean when they fill out a form," he said. "It's another one of those two-way streets. It's our job as developers and companies to come up with the easiest ways for HR managers are able to get information and improve. But at the same time, HR managers have to use their discretion, and they have to be very wise in how they're going to act if they're going just off numbers."
Emphasizing health and wellness
Talk to anyone about employee engagement and the topic of health and wellness inevitably comes up. University of Warwick research has shown that healthy workers are more productive. Fermin said that interest in improving health is high with millions of websites talking about how we need to eat better, why it's vital to be active, and why employee wellness initiatives are becoming popular.
"I know that people, in general, want to be healthy, there's no doubt about it. People want to look their best and, whether it's physically or mentally, people just want to feel their best," he said.
This awareness has made its way to the workplace with initiatives focused on health. "Now we have walking desks and walking meetings," he said. "Some of the most creative minds have come up with the most brilliant ideas when walking. A lot of companies are picking this up and now they're doing walking meetings, which I think is awesome. But aside from that, you hear of companies that offer healthy meals in the office or subsidize gym prices for their employees."
One of Officevibe's survey categories focuses on employee wellness with questions about energy levels such as sluggish or energized. According to Fermin, several Officevibe customers have acted on this feedback by offering yoga classes in the office or implementing activities that get employees moving.
Fermin told the story of Next Jump, a company in New York that built its own gym. "They gamified the process with cool leaderboards and games," he said. "We heard stories from their employees, saying they were losing 15, 20, even 35 pounds within the first four months of being there. Because wellness was such a big deal to them, they went all-out and made it a team-building activity. Wellness becomes a part of the culture if they start doing stuff like that."
If you're thinking you can't possibly afford to subsidize gym memberships or offer other health and wellness programs, Fermin says it's not just something you do to be nice, there's real value in these programs.
"We have an employee engagement ROI calculator on our site that shows how much you'll save on wellness initiatives based on your turnover rate, even if it is zero, number of employees, and average salary. You can see what you'll save in terms of productivity, absenteeism, and turnover," he said. "Having healthy employees correlates with a more productive atmosphere."
How to start building a better culture today
Fermin is passionate about his work and genuinely interested in helping others create amazing workplaces. He encourages anyone who wants to start building a better company culture to focus on two things:
"Whatever's going on, good or bad, let everyone know when it happens. People will know when things are going bad, and there's no need to hide it. Tell them everything. Don't be scared of that. When something great is happening, let them know."
"Go hang out with each other. Get to know each other. Don't be scared to make friends with the people you work with. You sacrifice a lot, especially in a startup, to be there. We move really fast over here, we have to keep going. But at the same time, we want to be sure we're a nice little tight-knit family.
Officevibe believes that "everyone should be happy, healthy, and productive at work" and is on a mission to "give organizations the tools they need to become amazing workplaces."
What are you doing to improve happiness at your company?