At Ultimate, we find that collaboration, respect, and true listening happen best in smaller groups where individual voices can be heard. Even in large meetings where the primary purpose is to share key performance indicators and strategic directions, our leaders typically like to supplement the presentation portion of the meeting with small-group breakouts, where UltiPeeps spend time brainstorming new ideas and exchanging success stories and techniques with one another, and they always make time for casual dinners and cocktail hours for meaningful but less-structured listening. We also have a wide variety of formal vehicles and events designed specifically to engage employees in forward-thinking and executives in listening, such as free days for employees to devise and present their own strategic ideas for Ultimate, anonymous surveys, feedback sessions, Town Hall meetings, and advisory boards.
CSO & CTO “Safe” Roundtables with No Managers Present
Our Chief Services Officer Julie Dodd has roundtable meetings with randomly selected individual contributors from 4 to 6 different teams to hear what they are thinking. NO MANAGERS are permitted to participate because she wants people to talk with her candidly without fear of repercussions. She asks questions such as: What is the most important thing to you in your job? What can we do better? What do you think our biggest challenge is? What do you think would be the best new practice we could institute? What is THE ONE THING you do now that you can’t do enough of for lack of time or resources or whatever? At the end of the session, she gives them her telephone number and asks them to follow up with her if they think of anything they missed telling her in the meeting. Our CTO Adam Rogers holds roundtables as well, and sometimes Julie and Adam attend one another’s roundtables to hear employee ideas from a department other than their own.
In our Knowledge Services department, the top executives have made it a formal objective to meet with every team member at least once per year, and this practice typically amounts to skipping one or two levels. In our Product Development department, our “Open Office Hours” program gives employees the opportunity to skip as many as three levels, weekly, if they like. In other departments, employees enjoy many opportunities for skip-level meetings with top executives when they attend “lunch bunches” or “safe roundtables.” Learn more about these practices below.
Lunch Bunches: Informal Executive Lunches with Employees
Certain of our executives have lunches with small groups of employee contributors, and these get-togethers take different forms. Our VP of Information Services Eamonn Caulfield started what he calls “lunch bunches.” He periodically asks a bunch of random workers to have a catered lunch with him in a conference room and, while there, they have casual conversations about how things are going. Topics range from projects they are working on and challenges they are encountering to favorite binge-watching TV shows and hobbies they enjoy outside of work. For Eamonn, a typical lunch bunch comprises 6 non-managerial-level people and has no formal agenda. Our Senior VP of Marketing Jody Kaminsky has recently started having lunch bunches as well. She targets a slightly larger group of 8 to 10 people, all from one sub-team in Marketing, such as Inside Sales, and they eat at a local restaurant. While her overall purpose is to have them share stories of successes in their work and ideas for new strategies, the talk is casual and informal.
Annual Pulse Survey
Our Marketing executive sends everyone in the department a pulse survey annually. People can submit it anonymously or not, their choice. In addition to rating such things as department morale, their degree of pride in the work they do, and their level of personal job satisfaction, they are asked to give suggestions for ways to improve morale, how to improve bi-monthly meetings, topics they want to cover at meetings, what type of training they would like to have, and where they would like to go on their Ultimate-sponsored Marketing Club trip that includes families. In addition, they are offered an open-ended opportunity to share any ideas, feedback or concerns.
After team events and trips, our Services team sends out surveys to participants asking for their input and ideas. Besides asking them to rate the event experience, we ask for suggestions on ways to improve content, timing, communications about the event, and locations for future events.
“Open Office Hours” Program
Open Office Hours is a program in PDIS where the top leaders and executives each have a published open hour weekly when anyone on any team can talk with the leader of their choice, on a topic of their choice. It is an opportunity for team members to talk with a cross-functional leader about a business question they have, personal issue, conflict on the job, ideas, or any topics they choose.
Open-Door Policy Everyday
In addition to the proactive listening events and surveys that Ultimate has in place to hear employee suggestions, our leaders have an open-door policy as a daily practice. UltiPeeps know that they can stop by Scott’s or Viv’s or Adam’s office on the spur of the moment to say “hi” or share a quick idea if they’re not in a meeting with someone else at the time. It’s more about the feeling than an actual policy. UltiPeeps know their leaders want to hear what they have to say. Plus, our leaders routinely go to the offices of UltiPeeps to get their advice or exchange ideas.
Soliciting Ideas at Town Hall Meetings, Sparking Ideas with Movie Clips
With the objective of soliciting fresh, innovative ideas for enhancing our highly-acclaimed customer experience even more, our Customer Success Directors traveled to each of our office locations and held Town Hall meetings to listen to our front-line, customer-facing people. The thematic focus for a recent meeting was “World-Class Customer Service.” To encourage lively discussion, they showed a number of video clips from familiar movies that illustrated both good and poor customer service, and then asked our employees to share their ideas on what makes great customer service and how we might improve ours at Ultimate. The directors were active listeners, grabbing markers and diligently recording their concepts on flipcharts. It was a fun, non-threatening way to engage UltiPeeps in commenting on common issues, our current practices, and potential new approaches. As a result of this collaborative communication, our directors built the new types of learning suggested by UltiPeeps into our training, and UltiPeeps have been more eager to acquire the new skill sets because they feel respected for their opinions and proud of their role in the development process of new directions. The Town Meeting format was also a great opportunity to celebrate in person the UltiExcellence monthly award winner, since often these awards are shared on virtual conference calls.
Pair Shadowing: Program Suggested in Employee Surveys, Recognizing Innovative Approaches
Pair Shadowing is one program that recently evolved from leaders of our business and product analyst teams listening to employee suggestions on an annual feedback survey. With our new pair shadowing program, business and product analysts learn new processes, strategies, and tools by sitting with people who work in different domain areas. Previously, our analysts worked primarily in silos, focusing on their particular areas of expertise, such as payroll, human resources, benefits, talent management, recruiting, and onboarding. With pair shadowing, an interested analyst signs up for the program and is then paired with an analyst in a different domain. Each one spends a half day shadowing the other. Often they shadow on days when team meetings are scheduled, so they can experience how other teams operate as well as how their pair individual approaches the work. As a follow up, shadowers are required to share what they have learned on an internal blog so many across our organization can view what’s been learned in the shadowing process.
While on the surface analysts in different domain areas follow similar processes, the people who experience shadowing are vocal about how differently other areas operate and how much they learn from one another. A payroll analyst, for example, was very impressed with the roadmap that the recruiting analyst and his team use, and introduced the mapping concept to her payroll team. Other shadowers talk about new techniques they’ve learned from a pair partner for writing the customer stories required for product design. The blogs are very inspiring because many employees, who might not otherwise be recognized for their daily work, are called out and praised for their introduction of innovative tools and approaches to standard processes.
Our Offices Designed for Collaboration
Ultimate’s offices are designed to encourage collaborations with large open work spaces, lunch-booth-style work areas with writable tables for small ad hoc meetings, outdoor tables, and “grab & go” rooms with monitors and internet connectivity that don’t require scheduling and are perfect for 4 to 6 people.
Front-Line Employees and Executives Working Side by Side
When you visit the offices of Ultimate, you frequently see our top-level executives working side by side with our front-line UltiPeeps. In our day-to-day work, it feels like more like peer-to-peer collaboration rather than a boss/laborer relationship. The collaborative spirit comes from the pervasiveness of respect, equality, and essentialness of every UltiPeep in everything we do. And it comes from the family-like culture.
Collaboration: The Cornerstone of Our Product Development Lifecycle
At Ultimate, collaboration is the cornerstone of our process for creating software products efficiently and synergistically. People on our development teams share a co-located space, both physically and virtually, through collaboration tools that reside centrally on servers. Although our engineers report up to engineering managers for goal-setting and career-pathing, much of their work is done on teams collaboratively with people in different job roles, such as business analysts, product managers, and user experience engineers. To manage the logistical chain of our collaborative work from ideation to completion, we use a Kanban methodology that was designed for lean, just-in-time production. Our implementation of the approach involves daily status updates and feedback, an intricate network of communication that involves a number of stakeholders, measurable team accountability, and flexibility to adjust for unexpected challenges. Because we measure throughput at a team level, rather than individually, the approach inspires collaboration and results in high-quality, efficiently created products.
Every work day begins with a 15-minute stand-up meeting, where status is discussed and team members are encouraged to raise design issues or impediments that could block work completion. The high frequency of this communication keeps everyone on the team informed and gives them a routine platform for sharing issues and ideas. The communication loop widens when a representative from each team’s stand-up then attends a daily product review meeting where the team representatives share their status, challenges, and ideas. Business analysts, key stakeholders, and quality-assurance people all review the work, offer input, and can impact the product lifecycle with their feedback.
Turning to Front-Line Workers for New System Prototypes
When our executives are looking to upgrade processes for metrics analysis or trend tracking, they often turn to our front-line workers for advice. For example, in our Services division, when our executives wanted to develop a more-refined, automated system for assessing customer satisfaction levels, they turned to front-line workers to brainstorm and design something less subjective and more precise than semi-annual customer survey scores. Team leaders chose some of their best-performing managers and individuals, who work with our customers on a day-to-day basis, to construct a more meaningful system. Together, the co-workers came up with a prototype system for Account Health Automation. Our executives evaluated and tweaked the system and it is now being tested as a beta project, with expected rollout to our entire customer base by the second half of this year.
Cross-Team Collaboration: Virtual-Team-Led Projects
At our Technical Services Delivery semi-annual meeting, when executives and team members review KPIs, goals, and customer experiences, they tackle several new collaborative projects for the following six months to address areas outside the scope of their day-to-day responsibilities. Since these are often areas they might not otherwise have time to handle, they harness the synergistic power of volunteer teams to collaborate and get the work done. Each project group typically includes six people from the larger teams (Conversion, Interface Development, and Business Analyst) and three from the smaller teams (Business Intelligence, Special Projects, and Clocks), and each group is led by a virtual team member. Volunteers devote one to two hours per week to the projects, and together they analyze and suggest new approaches to areas important to the team, our company, or our customers. One project for the first half of 2015 was to contribute to more effective career-pathing for employees by reviewing and analyzing current job descriptions by function; highlighting differences that may exist for the same role across our Enterprise, Mid-Market, and Clocks activation teams; determining the core behaviors, competencies, and experiences; and standardizing where possible. Another H1 2015 project was to brainstorm ways to inform and involve virtual team members better in the many community-service programs that the larger UltiPeep population enjoys, and a third was to analyze and determine methods for comparing the quality and effectiveness of our deliverable construction tools and customer-facing processes across our various customer markets.
eChuck: Giving Virtual Workers a Seat at the Collaborative Table
Ultimate has begun using remote-controlled robots with iPads mounted on them to enable our virtual workers to be a more tightly integrated part of our onsite collaborative meetings. Since Chuck Nicholson, our Director of Technology Services, is the person who discovered the technology and brought it to our attention, we call these robots “eChuck.” This is another great example of our leaders’ eagerness to give credit to employees for creative thinking. It’s also an example of the pervasive understanding at Ultimate that it is a high priority to include everyone in collaborative work. Chuck thought this robot concept would align with Ultimate’s objectives for inclusion and collaborative work, and he was right. Our teams like using them, and so we are extending our group of three robots to eight and making them available to our various offices this year. The Facetime technology we enjoy on our mobile phones is used here to project the virtual employee’s face on the robot’s iPad enabling face-to-face conversation with others in the remote meeting room.
Virtual Champion: Enabling Virtual Collaboration
Marketing groups with virtual team members have monthly video meetings via Skype or Lync Video to make collaborative discussion more effective. In addition, in 2015, Marketing implemented a new role called “Virtual Champion.” It is an optional position that requires 4-6 hours per month on top of the volunteer’s regular workload – and includes an annual bonus for taking on this additional responsibility. The job of the Virtual Champion is to ensure that all team meetings, events, and communications are “virtual-team friendly,” and to develop new ways of giving more visibility to virtual team members, escalating any concerns or challenges that virtual team members have.
Building Our Online “UltiHome” Through Collaboration
UltiHome is a new internal website for UltiPeeps to share news, pictures, events, interests, items for sale, and more, and a place where they can gain access to learning sources, classifieds, images, calendars, and more. One of the things that makes UltiHome so special is that it was built through collaboration. As part of the design process, our Information Services people held Town Meetings where everyone in attendance was invited to comment on the prototype positively or negatively, make suggestions, and question design choices. On the first day that UltiHome was rolled out, they again proactively solicited ideas for improvement from UltiPeeps. Within a couple of months, the team sent an email to everyone at Ultimate, listing new features that were suggested by UltiPeeps since rollout and were added to the site. They also took the opportunity to ask for more suggestions, reminding everyone that it is our online home.
Our Product Development and Information Services (PDIS) team has an elected nine-person Advisory Board to advise the leadership team. All Advisory Board members are individual contributors — no managers, directors, or executives. The Advisory Board’s primary objective is to improve communications among people, teams, and leadership. A secondary goal is to encourage innovation in product development and services. The Advisory Board maintains a blog on our Confluence internal communications site, meets regularly to hear ideas for change that people have, and routinely circulates email newsletters on recent events, changes implemented, and new programs.
48 Hours: Engineering Innovation
Every year, in our Product Development and Information Services department, we host the “48 Hours” event, where individuals or teams can elect to work on any project they want as long as it can be tied to Ultimate’s products, customer services, or company objectives. Teams work for two consecutive days (with lunch provided) on their projects and then showcase what they have done. Participants set up their displays in science fair-style, and they bring their laptops and whatever resources they need to demonstrate and explain their projects. Teams typically name themselves and their projects. Winners are chosen in multiple categories and are selected by the applause of participants and observers.
A recent 48-Hours winner came up with code to streamline the process of employees’ donating money to causes through our UltiPro payroll solution. At Ultimate, our CPO and other UltiPeeps frequently share stories of a co-worker or charity in need and ask our people to donate, offering a payroll deduction as a convenient option. The typical process includes several steps — an email to all about the crisis or charity, creating a survey to determine co-workers’ donation choices, and an administrator acquiring the giving option selected and then manually entering the appropriate detail into our payroll solution. We are now incorporating an automated donation process into UltiPro modeled on our 48-Hours winner’s concept. We and our customers will have a one-step process for employees to select from a multitude of giving options, such as donating $150 in three $50 increments over a 3-month period, and having their donation choices automatically assigned as a deduction to their pay and showing the line-item on their electronic pay stubs.
Take 2: Knowledge Services’ Innovation Program
Knowledge Services has had 3 innovation projects over the last two years in its take-2-days program called “Take 2.” Due to our need to provide training to customers 5 days a week, our Knowledge Services people take turns spending time on innovation rather than having everyone work on innovations for the same two days. During a designated two-week period, Knowledge Services individuals can propose an idea, assemble a few team members to join them, and find 16 hours to work toward the project. The objective is to propose a new way to develop or deliver learning that enhances our customer’s learning experience. A panel of judges from Knowledge Services management and a couple of guest judges decide the winners and award “prizes,” which are Amex gift cards, ranging from $25-$50 per winning participant. Six of eight recent proposals are being implemented, including a new Virtual Assistant inside our UltiPro solution.
Day of Difference: Innovation in Services
Similar to our 48 Hours competition for engineers, Day of Difference is a day set aside for our people on our various customer service teams to work on an innovative project of their choice. The overarching goal is for our people to come up with creative, new ideas for improving our customer satisfaction. Teams have a lot of flexibility. They can focus on internal tools they think would enhance our capabilities for serving customers in novel ways or they can spend a day researching innovative approaches to service or learning new techniques through coursework. They can design new types of customer communication vehicles or develop innovative ways of helping our customers through the year-end closing process. Our team approach at the event encourages collaboration and removes the undue stress of individual performance.
The teams showcase their ideas in 10-minute presentations before our leadership team. Winners are selected in several categories: Best Overall Project, Most Creative Project, Most Practical Project, and Audience Favorite (as voted by attendees of the showcase).
Marketing Expo Day Innovation
Every year, our Marketing department holds a Marketing Expo Day where teams of marketers work on new, creative approaches to marketing our solutions, and the teams present their ideas to judges, who are typically executives from other departments. Most recently, the judges who joined our head of Marketing were our Chief Technology Officer and our Chief Sales Officer. On alternate years, teams are cross-functional and so are comprised of people who do not typically work together. The subsequent year, participants work with their day-to-day team members. Sample assignments for the competition have been: Developing the Most Creative Social Media Campaign, Redesigning ROI Slides, Creating the Best Viral Campaign, and Winning the Most Views on a Video. The prize is one day of free PTO off for the winning team members, an awesome trophy, their name on a plaque in the Marketing lobby, and a techie gadget of some kind. This year the techie gadget was a pair of Bluetooth speakers to each person on the winning team.
Wiki Blogs: Employees Enhancing Processes
Our employees suggest improvements to our service processes by adding copy to “Wiki” blogs. “Wiki” is our informal name for an online collaborative resource center where we document our customer-touching processes, and it operates on principles very similar to Wikipedia.org. Suggested improvements and process changes added by our employees are subject only to management review to ensure there are no conflicts with current practices or policy. It’s an efficient way for us to rapidly incorporate the ideas of our front-line people who have the most intimate knowledge of our customers by virtue of their daily experiences. It is also an efficient vehicle for sharing information on our best practices and communicating across all our teams.
Fierce Conversations Training
Ultimate has been providing managers with conflict-resolution training and education in Fierce Conversations. The training in Fierce Conversations is designed to help managers listen to employee issues in an unemotional, open, and unthreatening way. They also share the techniques with their teams, so that team members learn how to talk about perceived inequities in a productive manner that can lead to resolution rather than escalation. Just sharing the techniques with team members sends the messages to UltiPeeps that talking about perceived inequities and co-worker disputes is accepted behavior at Ultimate.
Our managers learn all four of Susan Scott’s conversational models, including Team Conversations where teams learn to have frictionless debates and to confront and resolve differing points of view. These conversation models are not really so “fierce,” even according to Ms. Scott. By making Fierce Conversations a part of our culture, we engage our people in situations that allow them to more openly challenge the status quo and to speak up for themselves in appropriate and effective ways. At the same time, our managers learn to hear opinions differing from their own and to allow dispute as long as it is made without aggression.
Conflicts & Appeals eForm
To help people avoid the stress sometimes felt when talking about an unpleasant situation at work, some teams use a Conficts & Appeals eForm. Individual team members can write up a description of a conflict they are experiencing with a co-worker or manager and submit it online. If the person with the issue has already discussed it with their manager, he or she can use the form as the first step in an appeals process. This request for issue resolution initially goes to the top executive of the department, and from there a decision is made about what people to involve in suggesting possible avenues for a resolution. Unlike surveys we send to employees to evaluate their level of satisfaction or ideas for improvement, this eForm cannot be anonymous as the purpose is for a specific person to solicit help for a specific issue.
The Effect of Open-Door, Skip-Level Communication
Our CEO’s open-door policy means that people who are unhappy with some aspect of their jobs know they are free to talk to not only their managers but those above their managers to seek resolutions. In Development, for example, new hires meet with both our Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Engineering, and in those meetings, both encourage the new hires to come directly to them and assure them that it is “accepted” at Ultimate to seek the advice of a different or higher executive if an individual believes he or she is not being heard by a direct manager. That’s not to say that in some cases, the person would not be directed back down, but the point is that our leaders listen to appeals and do not rebuke a person with an issue. Instead they make it a high priority to seek alternative solutions whenever possible. Common methods for resolving appeals are to find a different team for the person or create a new position more suitable. Our employee surveys indicate a high percentage of our people believe their “appeals” are heard.
For more detail on the availability of high-level leaders to front-line workers with concerns, see the sections earlier on this page called “CSO & CTO ‘Safe’ Roundtables with No Managers Present,” “Skip-Level Meetings,” and “‘Open Office Hours’ Program.”
Chief People Officer as Resource
Like other executives at Ultimate, Chief People Officer Vivian Maza has an open-door policy as well. At our new hire orientation that all new hires attend, she says that she is the person to visit if people have unresolvable issues in their jobs. She is known as a fantastic listener and problem solver, and she acts as a careful facilitator for change when that makes sense. The goal is for all our people to find the perfect job-fit.