A story of the healing circle and happiness

What happens when a passionate Workplace Happiness Advocate starts working at a company? Such an expert may want to cross development psychology and contemporary career philosophies with the company`s values and operations in order to bring happiness at work to centre stage. The result is a relatively unique HR philosophy. 

However let`s start from the big picture. While most people want their work to suit their lifestyle (and not vice versa), their career to be limitless and enriching, and their lives to be balanced, many companies are still stuck in an outdated work culture. They try to tie their employees` development to company-specific objectives and hope that people identify with the organisation 24/7.

Since people`s career expectations have changed irreversibly and this is confirmed by countless research, then companies are in a difficult situation. They can either not find suitable personnel, or people don`t stay with the company for long, or they are dissatisfied, stressed and burnt out. The only cure in a situation like this is to put yourself in your employees` shoes and think about the work culture, challenges and self-realisation they need. And then put on the career advisor`s hat and start putting it all into practice. This is exactly the kind of approach that the Estonian software development company Proekspert has attempted in its HR development over the past four years, and successfully. At the Dream Employer Competition, the healing circle philosophy project was awarded first place in the businesses` category and second place in the HR projects competition.

Professional but modest

After I had taken a job at Proekspert (this was nearly four years ago) and the CEO Marko Sverdlik was introducing me to my new colleagues, I eagerly asked them what they did. The laconic answer I got was: “we programme“. I was slightly perplexed, because the happiness at work equation strongly underlines sensing the “mammoth“, i.e. understanding how we can make the world a better place. The perplexity turned into astonishment, when I got hold of a list of powerful “mammoths” Proekspert had shot – and I realised they don`t even talk about it!

Manufacturing lines, solar panels, cranes, heart monitoring equipment, banking and payment solutions are all things that software had brought into life. However the employees were quicker to be critical and modest than proud of themselves. This is relatively commonplace in engineering because the work requires very high qualifications and the only acceptable outcome is an excellent one. Unfortunately, excessive criticism has negative consequences. The energy in the organisation may turn aggressive, new initiatives are gunned down and people don`t dare to introduce new ideas anymore. They don`t like talking about themselves much because there`s nothing to be proud of.  Inside they feel that things used to be better in the past. In the end, this may turn a company that is both unique and creates high value into one that is full of distant and self-critical nerds.

Adopting an adjusted version of the American social psychologist and psychodramatist Ann E. Hale`s healing circle philosophy was supposed to change this pattern. The healing circle, in other words the philosophy of seasons, has primarily been used in development psychology. The central idea is that every “season” has a clear mission in promoting development and maintaining the whole. If the full development cycle is not covered then sooner or later, problems ensue. For example if the adjustment phase, i.e. “Spring“, is skipped, then the employee will not move on to the relationship creation phase and just keep to themselves. If the relationship phase is skipped, then the employee will never get to professional self-realisation. In order to maintain a balance we decided to plan activities into each sector to help us achieve mission-related goals.

Caring recruitment culture in Spring

Spring is always dedicated to a new beginning and adjustment. When new employees come to an organisation they are in Spring. They need time to understand where they`ve ended up and what`s expected of them, which requires support and encouragement. For the employer this season includes questions like: how do we see the labour market, how visible are we, what`s our recruitment reputation, how willing are people to come and work for us and how smooth is their transition, how quickly do they make the organisation`s identity their own?

When we started this project Proekspert wasn`t very known on the labour market, but rather reputable in smaller circles where people had prior exposure to the company. The reputation was positiv, but the company was unknown and that is by no means a good thing in a highly competitive IT labour market.

We started with openness to the IT labour market. We made an introductory video conceptualising interactive recruitment campaigns which were supposed to result in smarter engineers receiving a cool award at our office. For example instead of using a regular job ad to find software development engineers we used a comic strip with a hidden logics task. All the candidates we met, even the ones we didn`t conclude contracts with, received thorough personal feedback and recommendations to improve their CVs.

The biggest change was introducing an induction programme. Before, the tell-tale sign that a new employee could cope was how quickly they learnt to swim. Now we dedicate a lot of time to the new hire so they get an idea of the organisation`s identity. During the first two weeks they are able to speak to around ten different in-house leaders and our CEO also meets each and every new employee (we employ 120 people).

Summery hustle and bustle facilitates a sense of family

Summer is the time to create relationships in the healing circle philosophy. The goal is a functioning communication system, good relations, a healthy in-house climate, growing into a team and synergy. Three years ago I carried out some resignation interviews where I heard good people complain that their work is quite fascinating but no one showed any interest in how they were doing otherwise. We therefore made it our priority to focus on middle-management`s communications skills. We decided to do it big: we established a training centre, ProUniversity, which provided not only professional training but also psychological and communication training. Managers had a separate mentor programme aimed at improving conflict resolution, negotiation, feedback and support skills.

All company summer days, winter days, Christmas parties and other sports events are geared towards communication. The company supports its own basketball, volleyball and football teams. In addition we organise spontaneous dance luncheons, board game and film viewing evenings. For two years we also had a company band. Since employees were critical of information distribution, management minutes were made public, we organise at least three annual information days with after-parties, there`s a forum on the intranet where everyone can express their opinions, and every other week we hold Managing Director information briefings to discuss important matters in the lounge. Once a month we publish an in-house newspaper Hello World.

You might ask ‘why should a software company publish a print paper when there are other channels and faster ways of distributing information?’ First of all it`s a nice change to virtual work to produce something visible and tangible every once in a while. Secondly the newspaper also features profile stories which are much more enjoyable to read on paper.   

Autumn – dedication and health hand-in-hand

I found “Autumn” to be the most complicated challenge. It is aimed at helping employees grow professionally. Software development is an area I am not very familiar with.

We started with organising professional training at our ProUniversity. Then we created a voluntary career system where all employees were able to test themselves to discover which area they could evolve in. In order to better disseminate information in-house we started providing engineers with training skills and encouraging them to become mentors. As a result a programme of internal training called the “Sharer” was born, bringing in experience from customer projects, new frameworks and even hobby projects.

Aside from professional growth, “Autumn” is also about professional vigour. To maintain this we define ourselves as a health promoting employer. Again, we started big: almost weekly health lectures, I pinned all information boards chock-full of articles on healthy nutrition, we provided breakfast, an office masseuse and exercise classes. If I`m self-critical I`d say the outcome was that the focus shifted too much from working to eating and exercising. For example I was in correspondence with employees on whether you could have a double portion of jam on your porridge, or what do MH measurement units mean in the article on the information board discussing the damaging effects of microwave ovens. By today we have struck a balance in the form of offering quality health check-ups, a very ergonomic work environment, fruit Wednesdays, health lectures and a gourmet breakfast once a month. Our message is that the work environment must support a balance between body, mind and spirit.

Summary, and looking back leads to a new beginning

“Winter” is the time to draw conclusions, run analysis, look back and learn from experience. In order to give employees feedback on what can help them on their road to self-realisation we tailor-made performance discussions, following career counselling methods with regard to this particular organisation`s needs. For example, we used Canadian career Professor Norman Amundson`s wheel of values to ask people what they value and how our company corresponds to those expectations. Life has shown that the more we correspond to people`s values, the more satisfied and dedicated they are. We made an excellent summary of our last 20 years` experience in author Sass Henno`s book “Writers of tomorrow“. We met many former and current employees, collected stories and memories which made for quite a novel that even people far-removed from IT found an interesting read. In addition, it`s an homage to the employees who helped establish the company and dedicated the best years of their lives to it. Of course we also collect feedback with satisfaction surveys, but in addition, our agile work processes include constant feedback on completed tasks.

One of the trickiest things was to come up with a recognition system which would highlight the shot mammoths and extraordinary people. The first year I launched the “Performer of the Year” selection and got seriously burned. Some employees thought it a bit naïve and organised an election campaign. That year the recognition was done through a thick veil of humour, but last year`s “Project of the Year” selection was a much more dignified undertaking. In addition we created a recognition system for daily praise where you can pat colleagues on the back for their efforts and give them a treat. Just choose “Give Kudos to your friend” in the recognition system by entering the person`s name, the reason, choose the treat and thank-you note with a small gift like a cinema ticket, box of chocolates etc. which magically ends up on the colleague`s desk.

In summary these seem like things a lot of companies do and they don`t call it the healing circle. However, Proekspert`s legacy is comprehensiveness, to make sure we don`t forget any sector. As a career counsellor and trainer I noticed that in most companies Spring is short or non-existent, there is no time for adjustment and there is no summer either. Employees sense that they are in endless autumn and burn out. At Proekspert, this philosophy helps us keep things balanced. After Autumn, there needs to come a time to draw conclusions and prepare for the following Spring.  For example this answers the question of why it makes sense to hold inspiring performance discussions and recognition events – because afterwards, another cycle begins. We want our people to grow both professionally and personally in this organisation and for their personal dreams to come true.

Time to count our chickens

I started from the challenges I faced at Proekspert four years ago. Now, counting our chickens, I could say: ‘yes, our work environment and internal communication improved’. Yes, active negative energy was replaced with active positivity. Yes, we are much more visible. Yes, people want to come and work for us. Many good people feel reinvigorated, many have returned, but it is definitely not only because of the HR philosophy because at the same time the company has been working hard on its brand and carrying out some daring structural changes. Since summer 2013 we are an organisation free of managers  and in that light, the healing circle philosophy supports our current culture, where every employee`s skills and decisions are trusted and the majority of the management and responsibility has been given to the employees.

Tiina Saar-Veelmaa