Leveraging data to cultivate harmonious workplace cultures

As a data scientist, writer, and speaker, Sarah Deane uses her background in AI experience design and human behavior to help brands deliver positive customer and employee experiences. 

The founder of effect UX, Deane helps organizations translate complex data and extensive research into actionable strategies to improve workplace cultures. The goal? To cultivate emotional, mental, and behavioral wellbeing, which produces higher levels of satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

In Episode 1––the inaugural episode of our new podcast series, Empowered: Envisioning Workplaces That Work––we discuss building harmonious organizational culture, mental health awareness, and using data-driven solutions to create an inclusive approach to workplace experience strategy.

Our central question for discussion: what do people need from their workplace cultures in order to perform and feel their best throughout their day?

What does it take to radically transform and disrupt our workplaces? Below is an edited transcript of Episode 1 of Envoy’s new podcast, Empowered: Envisioning Workplaces That Work, which explores what thriving, diverse, and innovative workplaces look and feel like, and what makes them tick. Spoiler alert: it’s the people. 

We engage in timely discussions about the workplace experience and celebrate those who challenge the status quo in all aspects of the contemporary workplace––through the lens of the all-important human elements. Hear workplace experience leaders, creative problem solvers, and other cultural producers reveal how they create the workplaces they want to see in the world: their wins, pain points, and all the moments in between. 

You can listen to this episode and to other full episodes on our podcast series page, or stream via your preferred streaming platform. 

Cultivating non-toxic workplaces

It’s such a pleasure to be able to talk with you again about how workplace cultures can benefit from actionable insights and data-driven solutions. One of the ongoing ‘hot topics’ when thinking about how to build healthy, productive workplaces is the presence of toxic workplace cultures. That’s something you and I have discussed, and you’ve written extensively about this, too. What can today’s workplaces do to avoid that?

SD: There’s a lot to discuss within that topic! There are a couple of factors that create these environments which you want to work against. By understanding those factors, you can make a better plan to address them. This includes high-stress environments. They are super reactive, and you’ve always got loads of fires to put out, and no one has the time and capacity to give their all to something. 

Because when we’re in that mode, not only are we less aware, we’re less open. This can impact the relationships that people are having with each other. When you’re really stressed out, you might snap at someone, or maybe have a more extreme response than you would have otherwise had. In those environments, you can see some of these behaviors that can impact teams and collaboration.

It’s kind of like a butterfly effect at that point, right? Affecting everyone in different ways?

SD: Right. Everyone can feel it. Another factor to address that is big is the role of accountability. In an environment where people are not taking accountability––not just for their actions but for their responses, the choices they’re making, and even the language they use––you end up in the blame game. 

This creates an environment where people are fearful, where the blame is passed not only from individual to individual, but team to team, throughout the whole organization. This cultivates mistrust and it works against an open workplace environment.

There are short and long term impacts of toxic workplace cultures on an organization’s people. Some of the obvious, more tangible consequences that come to mind include: increased disengagement, loss of productivity, employee attrition. All are areas that matter to the business. What sorts of impacts are you seeing on employee experience? 

SD: Well, one big impact is on health. When you’re in these toxic environments and dealing with these types of behaviors, every day one you see high levels of stress. Something like eight out of 10 Americans and 50% of the workforce suffers from burnout. 

When you’re in that moment, in those conditions, it leads to a whole slew of actual physical health issues. We’re talking trouble with sleeping, headaches, high blood pressure, not to mention your hindered capacity to fight any conditions that you might already have.

The other impacted area is mental wellbeing. When you’re dealing with these toxic behaviors and you’re in this negative state all the time, you can’t help but carry that with you. It’s not like you exit your building and then everything you’ve just experienced for those working hours leaves your head and you go home and everything’s fine. 

I want to go back to your point about reactive versus proactive responses. Can you dig into that a little more, on how that concept that affects workplace cultures?

SD: When you’re stuck in a reactive mode, something happens and then you’re forced to try and figure it out right then. That leads to band-aiding things, because in these high-stress environments, one doesn’t have the capacity or the time to take a pause and think. Instead, they come up with some quick solution and they keep band-aiding it. It’s a quick fix, but at some point, it inevitably explodes. 

Right, it’s like a leak, but it doesn’t address where the leak actually started, and what caused the leak.

SD: Exactly. What’s actually the root cause here? There no time taken to decide if this is our most optimal response? You can only take that pause in an environment where you’re not high-strung and stressed all the time. You’re going to have those stressful moments, of course, but it shouldn’t be the norm. 

This is across industries, right? You’ve observed this dynamic in tech, the nonprofit world, healthcare, medical, financial, pharmaceuticals like across the board. Are there patterns that you’re seeing within the research that you do with effect UX that can be attributed to this phenomenon?

SD: Yes, so we mentioned accountability and there’s a couple of other factors, too. One is around fear and speaking up, and that comes into play in several different aspects. If you think there’s going to be negative repercussions, especially if your opinion might differ from that of a manager or leadership, you might be inclined not to speak up. 

A healthy workplace is one where people can feel free to share their opinions and ideas without fear. There’s fear of sharing ideas, for example, because in these types of environments, you get people stealing each other’s ideas and not giving acknowledgement and similar behaviors. 

We see another pattern: there’s a phenomenon around companies saying, “okay, we need to work on our company culture. Let’s define our values.” They do workshops, write down the words, have some coffee mugs made, and communicate it. However, the disconnect occurs when employees aren’t seeing the behaviors demonstrated by management or leadership.

Turning workplace insights into meaningful change

Something that you are passionate about is helping companies take the insights that they gain from, say, an annual employee experience survey––and enacting meaningful change. The data gathering is one side, the first important part. To your point, it’s one thing to establish core values, but if they aren’t implemented in a meaningful, clear way that your workforce can understand and be engaged with, then it’s not going to succeed.

SD: Right, it becomes a box to check. You don’t get the maximum impact or the ROI from that employee experience investment because nothing’s being done with it in a way that’s meaningful. 

What we find with most companies is we’ll go in, and we can assess things for them and get a good baseline using one of our models. But the reality is that companies are sitting on a lot of their own very valuable data and they just haven’t maximized the use of it. They sit on a lot of value to help them make better decisions. Spending just a little bit of time with the investments you’ve already made can really help.

Ultimately, I think the case could be made for saying that if you can’t bring your full self to work, then you’re not going to perform well. From a data perspective, what’s needed for people to perform and feel their best? 

SD: That was our exact question that we went out to study. We gathered a ton of research on it globally and then we did our data modeling and found there are 74 competencies that you want to cultivate in your people.

These are behavioral or cognitive competencies. We’re looking at how people think and how they behave and they run over 12 different factors. These include things like having meaning in what you do. For example, it could be that you’re with your  job right now because it provides great healthcare. That’s meaningful to you. 

Resiliency is another factor: how do you actually process your emotions? Do you ignore things, or process, acknowledge, shift perspective and move on? How do you bounce back? Another is building support networks, where you’re building healthy supportive relationships that are  reciprocal.

An employee can’t be constantly giving and then not seeing anything in return. It came down to these 74 behavioral competencies and there’s a hundred different solutions for each one. You need to understand your employees first before you can match up the right one. That’s where most people stumble. They’ll follow the craze or they’ll look at their benefits and think, “oh, we can offer this at this price to everyone.” But does that have an impact? Does it even meet the needs of your employees? 

How diversity and inclusion impacts company culture

I really resonate with the idea you mentioned of a support network for different employees within your workforce. The personal investment in our work––the why, the purpose––that’s relative. I’m curious how to incorporate inclusivity, diversity and equity when envisioning these support networks. 

SD: That only really starts with an understanding of your actual employees as humans. What different profiles and segments do you really have? As a business you can not give everything to everyone. Decisions have to be made. You do have budgets and you do have resource constraints, but what you want to do is make your most optimal decisions. 

First, you’ve got to understand your employees as people and their needs. Giving your employees choices as to where and how they spend those dollars or invest time based on their current state is key. It’s not just with services, but from an educational standpoint, how are you making your employees aware of these things? How are you having the conversations in your workplace? 

And that it’s okay to deviate from traditional norms or standards.

SD: Right. Just because a percentage of people go to the gym doesn’t mean that that’s the best thing for another employee. Maybe taking a 10 minute walk in the middle of the day is good for them. You need to encourage people to find what works for them. Wellbeing is more than just working out and eating healthily. It’s a big part of it, but it’s not the only aspect of wellness that  companies need to consider.

That’s a huge point there. Say it louder for the people in the back! We’ve talked about this kind of stigma around mental health. What are some ways, or trends you’re seeing, to accommodate a diversity of wellness within a workplace?

SD: We are definitely seeing organizations moving towards having more healthcare options for people, providing onsite therapy or access to different types of services. We still have a long way to go. There’s a high percentage of people that do not have access to these types of benefits, but we’re seeing a trend of companies moving towards offering a more end-to-end and more holistic view to healthcare.

I wonder if that end-to-end solution is about having access to these services on our own time versus during work time. 

SD: Absolutely. It’s about institutionalizing these things that make it a lifestyle. Work is a part of your life. It’s not separate. it’s about making it comfortable for employees to engage in self-care. How do we help them understand what they need? We need to give people options to figure that out. We need to ask why they are stressed, where the stress is coming from, and find out what can can be done to address it.

Right. We also need to create a safe space for that conversation to happen and make it known that it’s not a mark against them to have it. It’s not considered a weakness or something they have to work on in an emotional silo. 

SD: Exactly. That goes back to the stigma around mental health, too. Everyone pictures that asylum with the flickering lights that you saw in a movie. We have such a lack of education and awareness around it culturally that people are really fearful. What label will they get? Will they not get that promotion?

In reality, mental wellbeing is all about bringing your best self forward, reaching your potential, being able to handle the normal stresses of life. If you think of it like that, like who in their right mind doesn’t want more of that? 

The benefits of a positive energy workplace 

You’ve mentioned this idea of the culture model and associated data around the benefits of the positive energy workplace. This is a new term for me. Can you unpack the concept? What does this mean and why is it important?

SD: We have a model around this that we can assess for. It comes back to those 74 competencies that we mentioned before. When you talk about performing your best and feeling your best, there’s a lot to that. Human emotions and human feelings are complex. 

Everyone has different energizers and de-energizers when it comes to behavior. What this really means is what state of energy are you in? If you’re in a negative energy state, you’re in survival mode. In a toxic workplace, you’re treading water, barely surviving, pretty overwhelmed. 

When you’re in a neutral state, you’re kind of in a maintenance mode. Things are good, status quo, but you’re not necessarily progressing. When you have an abundance of energy, you’re thriving, more resilient, and you can handle the challenges and you’re growing. We see loads of benefits from this because with less stress comes more openness and more tolerance. 

Courtesy of MyEMQ.

This goes back to that idea of the ripple effect, though happily, in the other direction. 

SD: Exactly. Because energy is contagious. We all know the energy drainers, like you’ll see their name in a meeting and you’ll be like, “Oh god, like I have to have a meeting with this person.” That’s draining. 

Energy vampires.

SD: Yes. if you have people that are positively energized, this creates that ripple effect that you speak of and you know, you can kind of feel it in the morale and  in every part of the organization. You also see great levels of innovation because a distracted, occupied mind just doesn’t have the space to see the solutions or someone that’s in the negative emotion. 

When you have that positive energy state, you’re actually more able to see how things connect and come up with more ideas––which is good for the person and for the business.

Absolutely. What are some ways that you’re seeing workplaces institute these positive energy situations? What can we expect to see on the horizon for workplace cultures in this regard?

SD: You’ll see more and more of it. Some workplaces are trying to implement positive practices in terms of how they recognize their employees, how they communicate and collaborate. There’s such a need for it, but it’s going to take a minute for it to become mainstream.

In addition to creating healthy workplace cultures, what do these tools and resources look like in terms of sustaining healthy, high-performing workplace cultures? It’s one thing to identify the pain points and another to implement solutions that will drive your business forward and go the distance. What are some ways that companies can make employees feel valued and encourage that loyalty to stay?

SD: A big one is creating an open environment where an employee feels like they can bring their whole self to work. That they don’t have to hide a part of themselves, that their ideas have value, and that their perspective is valued. 

Research shows that career development and growth opportunities are hugely important. When we’re stagnant, it doesn’t feel good. You’re stuck in this mode of, “okay, here’s where I am that I could do so much more, but how do I get there?” Companies need to cultivate an environment that helps employees understand what they have access to: learning opportunities, mentorships, new roles, and career paths. 

This can also fall into the checkbox trap, though. You can create these career paths, but it’s about having the underlying structures in place to actively define, engage with, and track an employee’s goals. The company should point out areas to be aware of, what needs to be worked on, and relevant people to talk to. How do you move them along the path? Because having it, to your point, is one thing, but enacting it is different.

I think a huge part of successful career progression is having a mentor who steps in and says, “Hey, I’ve noticed these strengths of yours. I want to see you build on them. Is that something that you want to build on? Is that something you’re interested in growing?” What role does management and leadership play in proactively stepping in facilitating professional growth?

SD: It plays a huge role. A manager has to support and value their employees in their growth journey, and they should be able to connect you to these opportunities. I had a brilliant boss once and he said that a good manager grows you and a great one knows when to let you go. 

Wherever that path might take you, maybe it’s to another team, or right within the organization, but where are your best opportunities for growth at the company and do you see a future there? 

If the opportunities aren’t there or you don’t know how to access them, then you’re not left with many options. You’re either left going through the motions or you start looking for something else.

I think even taking advantage of opportunities assumes a level of privilege and a level of comfort with asking for those things. Say a company gives an educational credit. That’s amazing. I think all companies should do that. But what if you don’t know where to look or what’s available to you in terms of resources?

SD: You have to empower your employees with the information so they can make the right choices for themselves. That’s where companies sometimes fall short. They tend to forget about the rollout, and the communications around it.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear that there’s resources available and the employees just don’t even know about them! This means neither the employees nor the company is getting the maximum value; that’s a forgotten piece. How are we communicating about what we’re offering and how our employee employees figuring out to utilize these offerings?

Right. Not everyone’s a go-getter and is going to sit there and raise their hand and ask these questions.

SD: Like you said, some people are fearful to ask for help. They’re fearful of rejection or they’re fearful of how it might seem to others. There needs to be a comfortable environment. Toxic workplaces don’t tend to have these open environments where people have that comfort.

Why you need to prioritize self-care to avoid burnout

On a more personal note, what are some of your top self-care tips for staying grounded in your working life? For instance, maybe it’s 10 minutes on a treadmill. I pet my dog, that’s one of mine!

SD: The treadmill thing is not so much for me. For me, it’s my morning coffee. When no one can speak to me. It’s just me and my coffee.

There’s also what we call detachment breaks. Your body works in cycles of energy. You can start the day with a ton of energy, but then your focus starts dipping. Just like a car, you can’t go on forever. You need fuel. What we tend to do is override that with coffee, or a sugary snack. 

What I started doing a couple of years back was just taking a 10 minute break to walk away, have some water, or whatever it was. That really helps keep your energy up throughout the day. 

Another thing I do is create a list of the tasks I absolutely have to get done. Like there’s normally like one, two, three things you absolutely have to do. It takes you five minutes. I’ll do it the night before, and this helps open up a lot of your time.

I don’t know if this is a good thing, but I’ve taken to sending myself an email at night with the top three things that I have to do that are on my mind. I know I’m not gonna be able to go to sleep unless I do this! And email just seems to be the way that I make that happen.

SD: And that works for you! Be open, try it out, see how it goes, and you’ll find what works for you. We all have our own styles and our own needs. 

Thinking about your own self care, what are some companies or thought leaders that you’re inspired by that are challenging the status quo when it comes to like creating healthy company culture?

SD: The Salesforce tower places a lot of emphasis around wellness. Apple’s doing a lot around bringing in different kinds of care to their employees. You can definitely see some companies going into that arena and trying to be more holistic. But like I said, we have a long way to go. 

There’s a lot of companies out there that aren’t doing that. There’s also a lot of professions, outside of big tech companies, like teachers, firefighters, lawyers that don’t have these affordances.

So how are we reaching people? Because this shouldn’t be something that’s just for certain segments. Everyone has the right to be their best selves and thrive, and reach their potential. What about the underserved communities? How are we helping them with education and other resources?

Hearing you say that, I think about recruitment, too. We’ve talked about what happens when folks are already embedded within the company culture. Do clients that you work with ask how to translate these practices into the recruiting arena?

SD: I think it’s very beneficial. People look for companies where they kind of have harmony between their work and life. Companies that help them do that, whether it be via flexibility or bringing amenities onsite where they can kind of get things done at the same time. 

I would say that’s a top question I ask when I am in a job seeking mode: what’s the work- life balance like?

SD: What we find is that people try and compartmentalize themselves. It’s about how you harmonize between your work and personal life. Say you’ve got that crunch deadline and then another week, sometimes you’ve got some family commitments. How does your workplace enable you to meet the demands that you have across your life?

To accommodate that ebb and flow. What are you excited about seeing grow in the workplace experience space?

SD: We’re excited about the shifts that we’re seeing towards more emphasis on people’s positive mental wellbeing. We have a model, it’s called MyEMQ. Think about it like going to the doctor and you get blood work done. The lab looks for different markers and they find out what’s wrong and a plan for you to fix this situation.

We are literally doing the same thing but with data for the mind. You can take the test and we’ll look for all these indicators. We then share how these behaviors are causing you to either not feel your best or perform your best. From that standpoint, we can then align the right solutions. People have a lot of fear around this topic, so a big goal for us is making mental wellbeing approachable but also achievable.

Does the EMQ stand for ’emotional’? 

SD: It stands for ‘energy management quotient.’ We shortened it to EMQ because people asked if we were working with light bulbs [laughs]. We’re talking about your personal energy, how you can serve it, how you expand it, and how you give it to different things. What we found is that this plays the biggest role in how you feel, how much capacity you have, and the impact you can bring to what you do.

Can anyone take the EMQ test?

SD: Yes! Once we get the results, we look at over 1,200 indicators to build a very clear picture of what hindering you or might be impacting you. What we found is that everyone has three to six macro patterns. You start chipping away at those and working against them and going through these techniques. We’ve aligned different processes to different macro patterns to rebuild how you’re thinking. We’ve just had great success in that. We’re really excited for the future because we’re seeing more emphasis on on that.

That’s so cool. So then you make recommendations based on the results?

SD: Yes, we make recommendations. At the individual level, it takes about 30 days to make behavior changes. It’s the actual techniques, the life and mind hacks, that you can use to work against it.

What would be your number one life hack? 

SD: One important place to start is setting aside a couple of minutes just for yourself and reflection. Even if it’s just checking in with yourself: what happened today? How did it make me feel to process a situation? Even if that time you want to dedicate it to worrying, just be worried in those minutes.

It really helps create space for you to deal with the stuff that’s going on. And most of the time we don’t do that. We run from one thing to another. Or, we’re doing seven things at once. Most people don’t make enough space for it. People think of change or behavior changes as a big overwhelming thing and it really doesn’t have to be. It’s about breaking it down and just taking those couple of minutes to do certain things. And the more you practice it, the more automatic it becomes.

We all have a story to tell about our working lives: how we got there, what we experience, and what we can do to make it better. Find more information on this episode of Empowered in the episode show notes.

For more details on how to get involved, listen to full episodes and discover more about how to challenge the status quo in your workplace, check out the Empowered series page. You can also read episode recaps right here on the Envoy blog

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