People at the top of companies generally have no idea what’s going on with most of their employees, and it’s incredibly difficult for them to find out.
Even at smaller companies, it’s impossible for a founder to meet weekly with every person at the company, and they get disconnected when they’re away.
As a consequence, far too many cultural issues, inefficiencies, and problems don’t get noticed or acted on until it’s too late. And too often, employees don’t get a real voice or the chance to show off their ideas and accomplishments.
San Francisco-based startup 15Five is trying to fix the issue for companies by creating reports that take employees fifteen minutes a week to fill out, managers just 5 minutes to review, and that let all of the most important nuggets, successes, and ideas filter all the way to the top.
We spoke to founder and CEO David Hassell about where communication in companies goes wrong, why email contributes to the problem, and why he thinks his company can fix it.
He got the idea from a strategy used by Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard. “He’d have everybody in the company spend fifteen minutes a week writing a report that takes their manager no more than 5 minutes to read,” Hassell says. “At the end of that period all of the information from the front line employees all the way through the managers and the executives would be rolled up in a digestible format without him having to do anything, no matter where he was in the world.” This idea let him manage his company effectively while he was climbing mountains and surfing around the world.
Hassell is also an outdoor enthusiast, which helped him identify with Chouinard. His desire to create a tool to bring the idea to more companies was reinforced by his own experience running a startup in the late ’90s. “I found myself really challenged when I was away from the business, and even when I was there, to get a sense of what was really going on for my employees,” Hassell says. “It wasn’t feasible to do one-on-ones with everybody in the company every week.”
Big companies are even worse at getting these sorts of essential insights on culture from their employees. “Historically companies have done an annual employee survey, and [for] some Fortune 500 companies I know, it’s too cumbersome to do an annual survey, so they do it every other year,” Hassell says. “They’re getting feedback from their employees once every year or two, and the problem is that things move so fast, if there are changes or problems in the culture, you’re not going to find out about it and solve it until it’s 5 to 8 months too late.”
Even smaller companies where there’s more contact can’t always find the right information “If CEOs actually could do a one-on-one with every one of their employees every week, probably 50 percent of the people wouldn’t get anything useful in any given week,” Hassell said. “But there probably is a nugget from each person at the company that would be really valuable for them to know about.”
And current tools, particularly email, aren’t up to the task. That’s something Hassell knows personally. “I have been in a battle with my email inbox since my first email account in 1994, and I think I’ve finally won, literally in the past two months”
Many others will empathize with his struggle. It’s incredibly easy to spend a whole day responding to emails. And trying to get a sense of what employees are thinking and feeling through email is an exercise in futility, Hassell argues.
“Imagine that you’re a middle manager and you have 10 direct reports, and you say ‘OK, lets have all of the direct reports send an email Thursday night.’ What happens is they get 10 emails, or more likely they get eight, across who knows how many hours, some may come in the next morning, some may come in the afternoon and some in the evening. Then they’ve got to figure out who the two people are that didn’t send them the email, track them down, then they’ve got to go from email to email reading and trying to copy and paste to create another email for their manager, and 10 minutes into it, they’ve given up.”
Anything that can be done to reduce email overload and make communication more efficient is a boon to a company.
Inspired by companies that make simple and elegant software like 37Signals, 15Five is designed to be fast, easy, and focused. It’s built to help people get their thoughts down as quickly as possible, and for managers to rapidly sort through them. That boosts engagement, and makes it part of the workflow, instead of an interruption.
It also gets better over time. The company provides four basic starting questions on successes, challenges, ideas, and morale, but companies are coming up with even better questions on their own, and can customize them for departments or individuals.
Here are some of the best ones companies have generated on their own:
Teamwork: What did I do this week to help another member of my local team?
Happiness score: On a scale of 0 to 10, how happy were you at work this week?
Happiness reasons: What are the one or two primary reasons for your rating?
Plan for Next Week: Please list your top priorities for next week. Feel free to use single words or short phrases.
Are you satisfied with the volume of work you have right now?
What projects are on hold (are you waiting for something)?
What is one pain point our users are experiencing the most this week?
Did you feel like you had a productive week? How can you make it even more productive next week?
What about any aspect of our company do you worry about the most?
As a manager, name one decision you made this week to improve the quality of the product that we provide?
Many managers want the answers to these questions, and many employees want to answer them, but never get the chance.
As we get better at making software, and begin to understand more about how we can apply it to management, we’re going to ditch more and more of our traditional tools like email and massive surveys in favor of other tools that are faster, more efficient, and more effective.