Going the Extra Smile

Indian infotech companies are making moves to ensure employee happiness, even though some of their initiatives sound like HR hot air
SMILESTONES
THE PURSUIT OF  HAPPINESS Employees of Happiest  Minds Technologies  Pvt Ltd, a start-up  that advises infotech  firms on how to keep  their staff happy

BANGALORE ~ Sharon Andrew is a happiness evangelist. Having taught quantitative techniques and marketing at management schools for decades, she now spends her time trying to understand and explain what happiness means. So does her colleague Raja Shanmugam, chief people officer of Happiest Minds Technologies Pvt Ltd, a recent entrant to India’s infotech sector that deals with the much talked about ‘happiness quotient’ in its own unique way. The cheery name and ‘a mindful individual’ logo apart, this startup is out in the open with a problem that has overshadowed all other human resource concerns in the industry in the past few years: how to keep employees happy.

“Fifteen years ago, being in the knowledge industry was glamorous,” says Shanmugam, paraphrasing “Mr Aristotle” and adding that happiness is the meaning and aim of human life. “Today, the IT industry has become a factory model, and we thought about how we could bring the individual back into focus. In an industry driven by the mind, how can we create the best environment for the mind—and therefore the name, Happiest Minds.”

Behind the name is research done by infotech veteran Ashok Soota, who has spent the past few years researching the “context of happiness”. In a podcast introducing the venture, he says: “This IT services company has been founded with the objective and mission of creating the happiest customers and happiest teams. Unlike other startups, it is based on 25 years of learning and experience.” Having seen the industry up close and personal for nearly 25 years and having been part of Nasscom, the industry’s lobbyist, Soota’s “personal research” has apparently zeroed in on the happiness factor as a key to success.

It all began with a happiness framework co-drafted by the employees of Happiest Minds. “It was almost like a democratic voting system,” Shanmugam explains. Seven Cs—culture, community, communication, choice, credibility, collaboration and competence—were then identified to help create the framework that now has to “stand scientific rigour”.

In an environment where organisations are falling over one another to first retain employees and then raise benchmarks to keep them happy, Shanmugam clarifies that they do understand that despite everything, they cannot guarantee a person’s happiness. “It is very difficult to keep a person happy today and we accept that fact,” he says candidly, “There are no existing models for us to follow, so we are building and refining our own.”

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Every meeting at Happiest Minds begins with a little lesson in gratitude. In an atmosphere where “a privilege has become an entitlement”, everyone at the firm starts by sharing what they are grateful for.

Besides, Andrew, in her role as happiness evangelist, ensures that there are enough ‘SMILES’—the key values of Sharing, Mindful, Integrity, Learning, Excellence and Social Responsibility—to go around. Constantly reading up on the “vast body of knowledge on happiness”, she assesses the effectiveness of HR practices through happiness quotients.

“We have made the framework and now we’ll test it,” she says, adding that an office redesign is also on the cards to create the right ambience for this happiness to be nurtured. “We are looking at enhancing the already green office space to reflect our philosophy,” she adds. “We are working on a ‘smilestones’ wall that will mark our milestones. Besides, ‘smile strips’ are being created to run across all workstations, with two squares—one for the employee’s picture and the other space for him or her to tell others who he or she is. We want them to put up pictures of what makes them happy. It could be cooking, adventure sports or music. The idea is to bring in a bit of them in the formal workspace.”

Explaining the need for firms to underline qualities like gratitude, contentment and happiness, leadership consultant Priya Khosla says that there is a growing stack of evidence that indicates that happiness is linked to performance. “The emotional quotient and self-motivational aspects of the work force in the IT sector have been found to be very low. At sessions we conduct, people have broken down because they have been unable to manage their own emotions. Organisations are now stepping in and replacing the concept of ‘employee satisfaction’ with ‘employee engagement’.”

So, responses to a simple question like ‘Are you happy?’ are now forcing firms to listen closely to their employees. Everyone is now looking at how to put the ‘tenets of happiness’ into organisational practice. The concept of the ‘work-life-balance’, though an old one, is being revamped with more flexible hours and renewed focus on an employee’s family and general well-being.

From how a supervisor should start a conversation with a junior to outsourcing helplines to deal with stress, buddy programmes and women’s clubs, infotech firms are looking beyond the usual team-building exercises of the past. More thought is being put into the “colours of joy” that would energise the workplace, and recruitment policies are being modified to go beyond technical qualifications and trying to understand the candidate’s mind.

Says Jayanthi, chairman of Ad Astra Consultants Pvt Ltd: “A lot of sanity has set in with both people and companies realising that it is important to retain employees [given] the constant churn that the industry [suffers]. A lot of our clients complain about how they have become training grounds and are losing employees within the first six months of their joining.”

As a design architect puts it: “It may not be evident, but retaining people has become a real problem for companies. The worst are those who accept a job and don’t turn up on the first day because they have a better offer.”

“In these sectors, it has been seen that there is just 65 per cent productivity,” adds Commander (Retd) Tomy P Tharian, senior consultant at Inspirons. “The rest is known as ‘discretionary effort’, and today companies want to tap that additional 30 per cent.”

That could explain why Infosys woos and motivates its employees with the tagline: ‘Working with Infosys is not a job. It is a journey. An experience...’ And for its women employees, it runs its Infosys Women Inclusivity Network (I-Win), a forum that discusses schooling options available, health issues and childcare, and also serves as a common ground for discussing “almost anything under the sun”.

“It was at one such workshop that I was first introduced to the Montessori method of teaching,” says an Infosys employee. “It almost instantly helped me decide which school I wanted to put my son in. Months of confusion on making that right choice of school had been very stressful.”

At Accenture, Vahini is an inhouse women’s group that organises treks, pottery classes and workshops on a range of issues. A company helpline also promises complete anonymity to the caller, considering that immediate superiors are often the reason for someone’s quitting.

“Even within the framework of keeping employees happy, the emphasis is on the working woman,” says Jayanthi. “Firms want more women for their perceived [job longevity] at a workplace. And for them, existing rules are being bent and new rules being formed. Also, forums that have existed are being given a fresh impetus.”

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That is not all. Companies are now also outsourcing certain aspects of the HR function to reassure their staff of a relatively fair and neutral approach to their concerns. Online social networking tools are being used to update employees on trends and policies. They are being urged to adopt healthful diets (a glass of warm water, say, instead of a cup of coffee) and ‘celebrate life’. Young techies are being encouraged to relax, and this means more than wearing jeans and sports shoes on weekends; they are being pushed beyond their algorithmic existence with routine breakers such as free spa treatments, massages, concierge services to plan family vacations… in short, anything that could evoke happiness.

“Techies are left-brain oriented,” observes Khosla in a lighter vein. “They actually need to be made aware of the right half of their brain, which deals with emotional intelligence. It’s a part of their selves that they are not very aware of.”

In pursuit of this happiness, perhaps the biggest move made by companies is having shifted their focus away from Fun Fridays and annual getaways to more practical concerns of employees. Understanding a ‘techie’s frame of mind’ is now the formula for a more productive workplace. It’s a pursuit that’s on in earnest.