Interview with TINYhr's David Niu: Measuring Happiness at Work

Written by
George Dickson
George Dickson

"When employees are happy, engagement, productivity, retention, customer service and ultimately your bottom line will all improve."

Powerful words and a metric we can all understand: happiness. But how do you measure that?

TINYhr’s employee engagement solution, TINYpulse helps leaders take the pulse of happiness at work, giving them the information that they need to address potential problems before they lead to attrition.

TINYpulse's emphasis on frequent, bite-sized feedback from employees offers some valuable perspective. Wanting to learn more, we spoke with David Niu, founder and CEO of TINYhr.

Although the information TINYpulse can provide is valuable, it is not for everyone. Niu explained that TINYhr's website is very clear about who should not try TINYpulse.

"Hey, don't try TINYpulse unless you're a leader committed to change. Don't try TINYpulse unless you're going to share the feedback. And don't try TINYpulse unless you're actually going to take positive action based on that," he said.

A Disconnect Between Priorities and Action

According to Niu, if you ask CEOs what their top two or three competitive advantages are, almost all of them will say people or culture. However, most measure people and culture by conducting annual surveys.

If you ask them how they measure other aspects of their company, they'll often respond with a "real-time" solution such as real-time inventory, real-time finance, and so on.

"You just told me that your most important assets are your people, your culture," Niu muses. "But you measure that once a year versus these other things that are less important, you measure all the time?"

Granted, it used to be more difficult to measure ongoing employee sentiment and engagement, but technology changes that.

"The organizations that measure these attributes are going to be much more proactive about issues than reactive. People are beginning to realize that it's not just cool and fun to care about people and culture," Niu said. "But investing in it and continually listening and improving actually provides bottom line results and a sustainable competitive advantage."

The Power of Happiness

David NiuAs Deming taught, you can't improve what you don't measure. TINYpulse attempts to discover if the efforts that leaders put into employee engagement are actually working.

Though the term "engagement" is often used in HR, Niu's team ultimately chose the word "happiness" as a North Star because everyone understands it.

"If people are happier, it has a cascading ripple effect. You go home, you're going to be a better father, husband, wife, mother, sister, brother," he said. "So that's great. Internally at work, you're going to give better customer service, you're going to be more likely to go the extra mile, and have passion. You'll be more likely to refer friends and family to work there or even evangelize about your company's offerings to other people. Happiness starts with each individual and has a positive external effect on other things that they touch in their day-to-day lives."

Niu discussed a 2013 TINYpulse employee engagement survey that found that employee happiness is more dependent on co-workers than direct managers.

"Now that people are much more mobile and walls are coming down, there's an opportunity to increase collaboration. So, if you want to collaborate, we have what we call the Zen Den, which has our gong and a massage chair. People can go and sit down and collaborate there. Or they can go to a local coffee shop and collaborate. We encourage that creativity and working with your coworkers," he explained.

"We also number the desks and put everybody's name in a fish bowl. We draw, and wherever you're drawn, that's where you sit. We blow up the concept of sitting with your team, and we force you to sit with people you don't know with the hopes that you're able to build these bridges and bonds with people. Enjoying your coworkers and being able to collaborate with them is so important."

Changing Workplace Attitudes

Niu also noted that measuring happiness is often considered soft  kind of like "I pay you, so you should do your job." In the past, people tended to stay at their jobs, even when unhappy. Today, millennials are less inclined to stay at job they don't like. They jump around a lot more.

"If you're like most companies, in five years half of your workforce will be millennials." Niu said. "If you don't get in front of that and start measuring things to figure out where these blind spots are, you are going to be left behind because if your competition can out-talent you, then they will out-compete you."

Niu said that with millennials, pay is not the most important thing; they're looking for meaning, fulfillment, and social responsibility. "Many of the more progressive companies are starting to get behind that now that they realize that it's not just a trend to invest in your company culture, it's a strategy."

Transformative Feedback

Niu explained that as millennials enter the workforce, they don't just want to get feedback all the time  even though they want and crave that feedback. The modern employee wants to be able to give feedback too.

"It's a two-way street. For some managers, that's a little bit uncomfortable but that's just the reality of the way the world is going," he said. "Hopefully the manager sees bite-sized, quick feedback mechanisms and loops as a great opportunity to improve his or her managerial styles and skills just as it is for the employee to improve his or her skill levels."

While managers are accustomed to giving feedback to their employees, receiving feedback from employees is not as common. Bilateral feedback helps to build goodwill between the parties versus, "I'm not happy, I can't get feedback, and I'm gonna take off."

"I think that for leaders who are progressive, that's the only way they're going to get better. Why wouldn't they want feedback from their team?" Niu said.

Annual Surveys vs. Bite-sized Feedback

According to Niu, annual employee surveys don't work because employees have to spend a great deal of time filling them out. "By the time they're at question 37, they're just throwing in numbers to complete the dang thing," he said. "That's why some large companies using these big, huge pulses actually have to write algorithms to detect people doing that. On the flip side: employers, executives, and HR managers get analysis paralysis because if you ask 50 questions and you have 1,000 people, that's 50,000 responses  every data point is going to corroborate or contradict another one."

By keeping pulses tiny and dripping out one lightweight question at a time, both the employee and the manager can focus on one element at a time and then be able to take action or make an acknowledgement based upon that.

TINYpulse offers an anonymous option. "Believe it or not, people are still intimidated to go and talk to their manager or their boss," Niu said. "By having anonymity, you're able to give them a safe harbor to share the critical insights that will really make a difference in the company or the employees' lives."

TINYpulse Logo

Steps to Take to Improve Happiness at Work

According to Niu, the most important employee or team metric that every company should track and work to improve on a daily basis is this: How happy are you at work?

"Do it on a scale of one to ten super easy bracket  once a month, once a quarter, whatever cadence makes sense for you. Hopefully it's not once a year or every half year because so much happens in that time period," he said.

"Not only ask that, but ask them, 'why'?" he said. "If they are unhappy, hopefully you start getting trends that you can deal with because one of the most haunting feelings is when an employee says, 'George, here's my two weeks notice' out of the blue. At least, hopefully, you're filling that goodwill bucket and you're looking around that curve a little bit to be able to address some of these things and be proactive instead of reactive."

Niu offered a couple of pointers on how to improve workplace happiness:

Ask your employees.

You can use Survey Monkey or Google Forms for free to conduct an anonymous survey about how happy they are at work, how the company can improve, or how valued they feel.

Share the results.

Once you get that feedback, don't simply hoard it at the HR or executive level. Take it back to the team and say, "This is what I heard and here are some low-hanging fruits for improvement based on your feedback that we can do." Or, if you can't do anything about it, acknowledge that their voices were heard.

Be generous with recognition.

Recognize people for the small stuff as well as for the big accolades. Make recognition organic and ongoing so it's not always coming from the top down.

When you empower and entrust your team, you'll be surprised by the type of delightful, intentional feedback that comes out. It's easy to get started, and the results are more than worth it.

Originally published on April 06, 2015 → Last updated August 24, 2019

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George Dickson

George is dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures with thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. George formerly managed content and community at Bonusly.


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