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How Microsoft Builds Employee Trust In the Workplace [Future Of Work]

PSFK chats with Ross Smith, Director of Test at Microsoft, about how gauging trust and creating games help to create a more powerful company culture.

Wesley Robison
Wesley Robison on January 20, 2013. @redixculous
The Future Of Work

As part of our Future of Work Series, PSFK reached out to experts to get their take on the changes we’ve identified that are currently going on in the workplace. We recently caught up with Ross Smith, the director of Test for Microsoft, and chatted with him about how to build trust that is vital in collaborative work, fuels spontaneous innovation and pairs colleagues for continual learning. Read our chat with Ross below to hear more about how Microsoft is measuring trust and engaging employees to create a share work culture.

How do you see games being used to build trust?

We stumbled upon a paper for a couple of researchers from the University of British Columbia, who had equated trust and wellbeing in the workplace and how an increase in trust feels like a pay raise, in terms of how satisfied you are with the job. When we started looking at this, realized that a lot of the behaviors that we wanted to see, a freedom to fail, collaboration, experimentation, risk-taking, all those things are rooted in trust.
We put a lot of work for several years into how we build organizational trust. What are the behaviors that influence trust one way or the other and really to start to see and this is now the third organization that we’re doing this in. It takes a couple of years to actually see any change.
But when you do, you start to see all those things pop up, and you start to see creative activity and experimentation and things like that. Part of the work in games is, our job is essentially to find bugs, find software bugs. The hardcore computer engineer does not necessarily use the product the way our customer does.
There’s value in a diversity of techniques, and whether that’s people diversity like getting women engineers or multicultural for role diversities. How do you get the marketing manager in some other organization to spend time testing your product? That’s your job. Why would they do your job?
The idea of games in play allows crowds or motivate participants outside of our normal roles to come and experiment with the product, but not just to use the product but actually to take a little bit extra time to giving us feedback, or sending log files or try out new scenarios that they wouldn’t normally do. Using games in that activity has been really a great success in terms of whether it’s just raw numbers or actually getting real work done by people across a broader organization.

Have you been able to create metrics to help measure some of the benefits?

We collect a lot of data on players and metrics around productivity and usage patterns. The problem is what we see is, trust is like freedom and air. You know when you don’t have it, but it’s really hard to get a measurable level, like, “Oh, we’re at a seven today,” and tomorrow we’re going to be like an 8. But if you do frequent surveys, the fifth or sixth time you get asked, “Hey, how’s your level of trust?” you start to question it.
You just get to, “Hey, why do you keep asking me? I told you I was trusting.”

We’ve really struggled with specifically how to measure it. We can see things like employee retention numbers, like I said, those poll results, manager feedback, lengthen in roll is another etc. The one I like to use, which is not too specific, is the amount of laughter through the hallways. It is a good measure of, “OK, people are opening up, and they’re free to experiment.”
But we haven’t found a good way to track the organization without having that Hawthorne effect of influencing the sample by our measurement methods.
The one that we found useful is we have an annual employee survey. There’s a question on there that says, “I feel encouraged to try new and different ways of doing things.” Then there’s a percent favorable around that.
We saw, in the Windows team, we went from, 69 percent favorable to 97 percent favorable over three years. We’re about two and a half, or two whole events into this current team.  The thinking being that if you answer that question positively, like “I feel encouraged to find new and different ways of doing things,” then there must be trust, right? Because if you didn’t have trust, you would say, “No, I’m not encouraged to try new things.”

How are generational differences affecting the workplace?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff on generational diversity that we’ve seen. Two years ago, a guy wrote a paper here on Gen Y at Microsoft. One of his recommendations was reverse mentorships. I reached out to him and asked if he would be my mentor. The Gen Y and the Millennial’s coming into the workplace have a very different belief around their role and involvement, and level of contribution.
Acknowledging that, whether it’s through praise or side projects, and this type of thing. Giving them a stronger, or a bigger role in a side area seems to work well. They come in, metaphorically expecting to be the CEO and get frustrated because their Boomer manager doesn’t understand how to use Twitter to find stuff, or whatever.
But by moving to, “Hey, why don’t you take this whole area and run with this, and do this however you think it could be done,” you get that extra initiative and that creativity and innovation that you might not get if you just, “OK, here’s your box. Go sit in this box.”

The workplace is changing. That’s, “No duh!” But the breadth of skills is also changing. A new employee who comes in with the ability to manage a network of 1,000 Facebook friends every day. That’s a fabulous skill, in let’s say a sales organization. But how do you map those two together, right? What elements of Facebook makes sense in the workplace?

Well, it’s likely that the organization has no idea, particularly because the organization’s generally going to be run by boomer, Gen X managers, who aren’t savvy Facebook users, right? But the Gen Y or millennial employee coming in certainly knows how to do that.
If the senior leaders or the organization can develop a culture of high trust, then the individual’s going to be free to experiment and suggest new things and try new ways of doing things and uncover how Facebook skills map to a sales organization. Or it might bring in salesforce.com data. That really liberates or provides autonomy and empowerment to the individual to start to move along the business processes into the new millennium.

How does open communication help augment a companies process for the better?

There is a very open and transparent flow of information, in both directions. Things move a lot quicker, you get a lot more detailed anecdotal information that can relate to broader organizational trends. The proposal for new ways of doing things, modification of business processes, things like that, you have a lot of experimentation, people really going outside of their normal role to exercise skills that are not necessarily associated with their role, but are very valuable to the organization.
From a development or a quality assurance (QA) perspective, people on the QA team actually developing code and adding features to the developing prototypes, that not only help move the product along, but also flush out your usage defects. These are things that aren’t related to their traditional roles, so their able to grow and expand more that, in a low trust environment, they would say, “Oh, no, my job is this narrow little window. I do that and I don’t do anything else.”

What have you seen as technology begins to blur the line between digital and physical and bring globally based workforces closer together?

Microsoft research is doing some interesting stuff there. As the user interface changes and now you can use Kinect and have movement, maybe on both sides. If I’m in a conference room with eight other people and your video is on a screen in the room, the room reacts much differently than if you’re a phone device sitting in the center of the table. The impact of physical presence is a big difference.The technology’s almost there where you’ve got a 3D hologram or some physical avatar in the room that can interact, move around, check IDs, and stuff like that.
There’s definite impact, whether it’s Skype, or Citrix, or WebConnect, or any of these things. The technology is not quite there yet on a mass market consumer, but it’s definitely coming. The research is there. There is an interesting opportunity to change the way we communicate.
We did some experiments on a lot of the brain/computer interface. They have headsets you put on. You can concentrate and move the ball on the screen. It’s bizarre, but it’s possible now.
You might be kicked back with your feet up on the windowsill, gazing out the window, dozing off during a conference call or Skypeing with your head down on your desk with headphones and the mute on. I can’t tell that you’re not paying attention. Or you could be glued to the handset, hanging on every word that I say.
We have the technology to help; maybe I don’t get a detailed description of your body language. I could certainly see something like, “Hey, change the topic!”

As companies are building that context around the dialog, are there other tools that are driving these change and affecting how people inside companies communicate?

Yeah, there’s a really interesting post about the Farley Files. Farley was the Press Secretary for FDR. He had a file on everybody the president talked to. Using this concept of a Farley file we can fix the issues that come up during long gaps in conversations. If we don’t talk for a year, we’ll be like, “What were we talking about. Yeah, I remember it but I don’t really…” But to be able to, as online conferencing improves in a year from now, be able to reference past conversations and have something that comes up and says, “Hey, here’s some notes from our conversation.” Maybe you mentioned your kids, or your parents, or your cousin or your birthday, or your trip this weekend.
Now I can pick right up, “Oh hey, I remember last time we talked, you were headed to Hawaii. How was your trip?” Totally changes the context of the conversation and your opinion of me, and gets us to that next level of communication.

Thanks Ross!

Catch more Future of Work sneak peeks as we reveal highlights from the full report throughout the month, including new trends, futuristic concepts, expert interviews and opportunities. Still want more? Watch the summary presentationbuy the entire report and see everything that you’ve missed so far here.  Join the conversation to get involved and share your ideas about the future of work with the #FoW hashtag on Twitter.

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