InChorus: Data and Tech Combine to Drive Culture Change

In this episode, I spoke with Rosie Turner and Raj Ramanandi co-founders of InChorus, a Speak Up platform that amplifies employee voice. Our discussion ranged from simplifying data and focusing on insights that can drive the right decision-making to engaging managers in culture change.

For this conversation, I was joined by Rosie and Raj from InChorus. They have appeared on the Inclusive Growth podcast twice now and our conversations about the technology they’ve developed and continue evolving are always interesting. A lot of their work is with Chief People Officers, also known as CPOs, so that was the main jumping-off point for the conversation.

Before we got deep into the discussion, I invited my guests to introduce themselves, with Raj going first.

‘I’m Raj Ramanandi, the co-founder of InChorus. Essentially, we are a tech company and we’ve been going for maybe four years now. The reason we started speaking early on was that the core focus of our work was zooming in on the area of microaggressions, which I know you have a keen interest in too, Toby. That remains a core USP of our platform but we’ve stretched the area of our focus and we are always developing and learning more from our client base trying to understand how we can support them better.’

Rosie then introduced herself saying, ‘Lovely to be here again. I was actually thinking, this is our third podcast table. My name’s Rosie Turner. I’m co-founder of InChorus alongside Raj. I think Raj has summarised nicely. I’d add bringing a background in HR tech and diversity and inclusion to think about how technology and innovation are helping to push that forward has been our focus over the last five plus years now.’

I’m aware that the main people InChorus works with are Chief People Officers so that’s going to be the basis of our conversation. I work with Chief People Officers too so I know they’ve got a lot on their plate at the moment. I asked Raj, ‘What are you noticing? Where are Chief People Officers currently at, would you say? What’s going on for them?’

‘I think it’s always a stressful job, you probably see the same thing, Toby. There are many layers to it, but we’re at a time now where it was a function and a role that took the brunt of the lockdown, COVID and hybrid impacts. I don’t know whether we’ll roll into this, but it was certainly an area that expanded as a consequence of those global events. That’s definitely one of the new aspects of the role that is leading to a very stressful time for CPOs.

Then another thing that’s fairly well documented is that they’re also dealing with probably the most diverse workforce in a long time. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense that we speak about, but particularly in relation to the generations in the workforce and their different expectations of work. There’s been a lot of great work around the boomers and the zoomers being in the same workplace and having very different expectations and that places a fair amount of pressure on CPO.

Again, what’s also been very well documented, not just in research circles, but in the news is the idea that work should have more meaning. In the past work was something that you did separate from where you found joy or pleasure or meaning, there’s now a perception, and this is probably from the younger generations in the workplace that work can and ought to deliver some more of that which is absolutely applying pressure.

The final one is the pressure that the economy is under. That’s in the stretch of resources and the mass layoffs that we’re seeing that have already kicked off in the tech industry. We’re seeing it in professional services now and I think will roll through other industries. These are all major pressures falling at the feet of CPOs.’

A lot of what Raj said is also what I’m hearing from the Chief People Officers I work with. I asked Rosie what she has observed recently in terms of what Chief People Officers are grappling with at the moment.

‘I would say most recently there is this urgency around efficiency everywhere. Particularly I guess in the tech space, we’re seeing huge layoffs. There is this combined pressure to essentially do more with less and that’s something that’s coming through all the time. As Raj was saying, there are these increased expectations around what the world of work should be able to deliver; how we look after people; how we listen to people. But simultaneously we’re expecting CPOs and HR officers to do that with essentially less budget and less board attention. There’s definitely that tension, I think that seems to be coming through from a lot of the people leaders that we’re speaking to.’

One of my favourite coaching questions to ask when I work with my clients is, if I came in and fixed my magic wand and you suddenly had the most diverse workforce you’ve ever had or the most inclusive culture that you’ve ever had, what would that look like? I asked Rosie and Raj what Utopia would look like for the people InChorus works with.

‘There’s the obvious caveat in that it looks so different for different sectors, but there are strong trends and patterns. I think, on the one side we are definitely seeing a need to create strong employee experience, whilst not completely overwhelming and bombarding people. There’s definitely a tension there that we see. I think employee voice is very important and people understand that, particularly with some of those younger generations there’s a real expectation that people will be able to share their opinions and be heard within the organisation around a wider range of topics than before.

It’s not just, well, “I feel overworked,” it’s also thinking “How do I perceive our cultural values? What is our stance? How is the company responding to Black Lives Matter?” or whatever it might be. I think there’s a real push for having nuanced channels in place. I guess Utopia is to have a variety of nuanced channels whilst also not having fifty separate tools that are complicated to use and people feel bombarded and don’t understand where to go. There’s a need there for careful aggregation of different ways to speak up about issues, and ways to gather employee opinion that’s mirrored from the people leader, or the HR leader’s perspective.

What we typically see today is there can be engagement tools for this. Then there’s perhaps a whistleblowing solution or a grievance process. There’s a survey that goes out. There’s a separate exit interview. There’s a huge array of data points and insight and then it’s very difficult to aggregate and assimilate to extract that insight from. When we talk to people and look at what the ideal would be there, it’s often around being able to do more with a bit less.

So how do we pull that together and extract insight from it in a useful way? Well, we look a lot at how as a single platform we can aggregate these different datasets in a way that is really focused on action and being useful for people teams. And finally, it is around closing the loop. Again, we often see that people leaders are very overstretched. So, it’s about how, when you find a problem or you find a piece of data that points to something, to streamline and make it much quicker to get feedback to the organisation.

If there’s a targeted action shared with managers, it often has to go through multiple different groups of people. But I think the ideal is that it can be stitched up a lot more effectively and quickly using automation and technology. Again, that’s something that we’ve been leaning into.’

I asked Raj what would happen if he had a magic wand?

‘I think Rosie gets the crux of it at quite macro level as to what a CPO might be seeking. When we are working with CPOs that are stretched, we stress the word value to them. They think about where they are extracting value in their current setup, which still might be too expensive or not as effective as they might want it to be. We’ve spoken a fair bit about data, but it’s a bit of a 2010 problem. Not having enough data is a bit dated for lack of a better word. What we now have is probably an abundance of data, too much data, data all over the place. What’s needed now is a simplification of that data because oftentimes disparate data creates more complex data.

Let’s use the example of engagement surveys where there are many survey technologies out there battling for market share. The way they’re doing that is with more and more complexity when it isn’t necessary. A survey is a survey. I think that that’s something that we have to hone for our clients. We sometimes see how much our clients are spending on survey technology, and it’s phenomenal and then you look at the action that’s taken off the data coming from the survey… There’s research available based on how survey data is very rarely used. So, why spend that money? What’s the value that you’re getting from the data and not from just one example of the data.

Another area that we’re talking about with CPOs is trying to seek as much value as possible in their tech stack. I talked earlier about lockdown, and then the move into hybrid. As part of that, we’ve seen an awful lot of technology creep into the workplace, a lot of which has been vital to continuing BAU or Business as Usual. But I do think that what we’re now seeing is essentially, from an employee perspective, tool fatigue.

I think Rosie hinted at this. It’s where, you’re going to too many different places, for too many separate functions when what’s needed is to aggregate some of that data. I think seeking value from the tools that you’re using is something that we’re really trying to drive home. Again, I’ll talk about surveys, but you have onboarding tools, survey tools, wellbeing tools… it’s being overdone in some organisations. I think, particularly in this economic climate, stripping back on some of that and ensuring you’re getting value is important.

I may be treading on a topic that we’re going to talk a bit a little bit about later but looking at the greater demand for purpose at work, we’ve seen a misalignment between organisations and employees. It’s about how you fill that gap of purpose. I think that we’ve just thrown purpose at that problem in the past. We get better performance from employees when their wellbeing is looked after, when they feel connected and engaged with their work and they feel that their values align with their organisation. I don’t think a fruit box or subscription to the FT is going to drive any of those, whereas you may get that value from team away days, or you may gain that value from creating psychological safety, from having appropriate mechanisms in place to share your opinions. So, it’s the value pillars that we’re often bringing up with the CPOs when they get on the call with us.’

Those are three important pillars Raj outlined. I like what was said about the need to consolidate and simplify things as well. I think there’s an abundance of data and, when I talk to my own clients, in some instances they’ve got data coming out of their ears. They’ve got engagement survey data; they’ve got pulse survey data; they’ve got data from exit interviews. They’ll then do a diversity and inclusion survey data with me, and then they’ve got loads of data coming out of their HR management information system that is part of business as usual. I think there’s definitely a need to consolidate and simplify things because a lot of my clients say, “It’d be great to have all of this data in one place so that we can make the right decisions because on one hand we want to collect diversity demographic data, but then we want to overlay that on things like who’s getting promoted or who’s not getting promoted and at what speed are different people getting promoted throughout the organisation.” So, they want to overlay different data on top of their existing talent management process.

I asked Rosie and Raj what their advice is for Chief People Officers in terms of trying to consolidate and simplify things so that they’re making life easier for themselves.

‘The top tip, whether it’s being forced on CPOs or not, is to take stock and run that audit on where you’re driving value. The pressure may be coming from you from the perspective of just seeing your organisation with schisms or splinters or disengagement. This may be forced upon you from the bottom up or it may be forced from the top down with the economic pressures that companies are under.

All of these tools and apps come at a cost and so the exercise of taking stock is an area where, not all the time, but oftentimes we are in the mix with people in HR teams understanding where they’re getting value from their current stack and how they can aggregate some of those things.

That’s a key area where we as a platform have slightly crept because we realised that ultimately, we have a mechanism that is always on for employees to push or pull data from the organisation. Essentially a key comms layer for the people team. It’s assessing whether you need the bells and whistles from a certain tool and paying for it. Then it’s stripping away those that you don’t and focusing only on the amount of data or the number of tools you need to take action if you’ve even got the bandwidth to take action. I think it’s an audit exercise and it’s being frank and open about what’s doable right now in the current climate.

Something that certainly I feel in our experience and it’s changing slowly, but hasn’t happened in the past, is looking at and sharing your challenges with other leaders facing similar problems and learning from those people. So, I think it’s about being open and having those discussions. We enjoy those because it helps us to calibrate some of our thinking. But it’s certainly helpful for a very stressed-out CPO and people team.’

I think the benchmarking that Raj touched on is useful. I often get asked by clients when I’m presenting back diversity inclusion survey results to them, how they compare to other organisations. And most of the time I’m like, “You know what, you’re all in the same boat. It might feel like you are on your own uphill struggle here, but actually you are not alone.” I think that can be quite comforting to some of my clients that they know that there are other heads of HR or other organisations that are facing the same challenges.

I know one of the things that Rosie is quite keen to explore is the focus on insights and automation rather than just gathering more data, which is what Raj has spoken about. I asked Rosie to explain her thoughts a little further.

‘Raj definitely makes the point clearly about collecting data for data’s sake is pointless. I think we often see it as eroding employee trust over time. If you are asking questions, getting people to take their time to fill in surveys or to share experiences with you and then not feeding it back effectively to the organisation with an action that’s being taken, over time people feel that it’s going into a void and that it’s pointless. I think they end up feeling more unheard than if they were never asked the question in the first place. So that’s something that we stress time and time and again. Your thinking has to be that the only reason why you are asking this question is so that you can do something about it.

So, trying to stress to people that that’s only half of the equation at any one point, getting the data and having to close that loop in which case, it kind of begs the question of resource. Many of the people leaders that we speak to across all industries have limitations when it comes to resource. It really begs the question of like, “Okay, well how much can we do here?” And then it comes to looking at how we can work smarter, not harder.

From our perspective, we are able to see time and time again, where there are likely to be perhaps common trends in the data, perhaps around, specific behaviours or specific challenges. There are then often common interventions or actions that an organisation will want to take. For example, if we’re seeing time and time again that, let’s say, women are feeling consistently spoken over in meetings, they feel that their ideas aren’t given credit, there’s a lot that can be done just around how to run inclusive meetings. That’s quite simple. It’s well documented, and it’s a very clear action that an organisation can take with minimal cost. But it sees the data point, it takes the intervention, and feeds it back to the organisation. We can use our technology to do that now essentially. And that in turn, really enabling organisations to do more with less.

So, for example, if rather than a people team leader having to ask the question, get that data, analyse it themselves, and then go out and take that intervention, we can now, through the platform, see the spike, offer the recommendation, and send it to perhaps the appropriate manager of the team where we saw the problem. As you can see, that’s really balancing then. The need for only taking insight is that you are going to do something with it, making it much quicker and slicker for people leaders to do that. And I think that’s something that organisations can start to use powerfully to reduce the chances of eroding employee trust by not taking action. I think that has to be avoided.’

I’ve seen that myself in the surveys that I do with my clients. Quite often the theme that comes out is, “Why are we even doing this survey? Because in the past we’ve done surveys and the management team hasn’t listened or they haven’t taken action based on the feedback that’s been given.” Like Rosie says, that just erodes that confidence in employees because they’re like, “Why bother? What’s the point of sharing?”

At this point, I asked Raj who touched on the purpose over perks issue a bit earlier in our conversation. ‘Why do you think it’s important that we’re focusing on purpose nowadays rather than the perks?’

‘I think that there is lots of research looking at how you drive better performance from teams and employees. Time and time again it shows a better culture and greater safety. Everything that encapsulates finding purpose at work is more and more important. And it feels like the old way of plugging that problem, which is kind of those perks is no longer fit for purpose. I used the example earlier of fruit boxes, and it sounds funny, but we all remember those when they came into the office and I don’t know how much rate or connection with our colleagues we felt as a consequence. There are a few things that we are trying slightly more InChorus’ focus to tackle this challenge.

We’ve taken a much more team-centric approach to how our technology works. When people are conducting their surveys in their organisations, they’re under no illusions that they have this monoculture across the company. Every division, function and office geography has a different culture. That’s one of the things that we focus on within technologies, zeroing in on the team and understanding better what the challenges are within that team. One of the key things that we’re focusing on there is how to drive that purpose. We ask questions about what the culture is like, and how is that affecting the individuals within it. The key point, again, from the technology perspective, is that we are now empowering culture change not at a macro level, but at the team level. So again, being more effective with less data, but with the right data, is critical.

We are able to automate, so if we’re seeing signals from a particular team that wellbeing is low, we can push in content, for example, saying, pushing in the flexible working policy and asking, “Do you know that you are able to have this flexi working? Or are you aware that these counselling opportunities are available across the organisation?” We are working at a team level to focus on driving better culture so that individuals feel that they are in an environment where they are valued and that they can fulfil their purpose at work.

I think I’m ultimately saying that the research hasn’t manifested in the workplace well enough. It’s something that we’ve doubled down on. By stripping away layers of technology and data we are able to do something that companies haven’t been able to do in the past.’

I know when I talk to my clients often the Chief People Officer and the senior leadership team, they understand the importance of culture. They understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. So, they’re putting a strategy together. They’re going out and gathering this feedback by doing surveys or using Speak Up tools like the one InChorus has. But I suppose the sticking point for a lot of my clients is that middle management layer, getting them engaged and asking them for help. When I talk to those middle managers, they’re feeling squeezed because they’re feeling the pressure from the top of the business and they’re feeling the pressure and the expectations rising from the bottom of the business. I asked Rosie what’s her experience has been and what’s would her advice be around how Chief People Officers can engage this important management layer and bring managers on a journey with them?

‘We really see the same. It’s often a common pain point I think, how you work with that critical layer. It’s one thing having a tool or an initiative sold into the organisation, but so much of the success and actually then depends on the managers either to kind of get the message out or to be part of taking those actions. I think through our experience, there are a couple of key things. One is there’s definitely a piece around avoiding defensiveness about this topic. Sometimes as soon as we talk about culture or diversity, it can feel like a defensive topic for people. People can feel that there’s suddenly going to be a blame game.

Another important piece is around the framing of why this work is being done. Get managers on board as early as possible so that they don’t feel that this is something that they’re being told to do and it’s kind of happening to them. It’s a shared challenge and managers have a vital role to play as part of the team of people that need to do this work. I think there’s an initial piece of messaging that we often work quite closely with our clients on. It’s to understand how we are going to present this work. How do we identify key champions who are ambassadors across the business? As well as thinking about how we get managers on board through stakeholder workshops early on.

There’s also a piece too, which is baked into the design of our platform, which is very much around the way that our Speak Up tools often work. It is that we are very much looking at trend or pattern data, and we try not to introduce this idea of blame because I think as soon as people think about reporting or microaggressions or diversity, it’s very quick to jump to this idea of everything’s going to become a problem. We spend quite a lot of time really reassuring people as to how this technology works, that we’re all here collectively looking for solutions and how it’s going to be effective for managers and the people team. I think that’s definitely a foundational step. I think the second piece that I would say is around confidence. We also see lots of managers who are brought in, who want to get involved, but who perhaps don’t feel hugely well-versed in a lot of this conversation.

I think we even feel that sometimes workplace changes and developments are moving so quickly and fast. What we expect in a workplace and how to feel confident, particularly perhaps where there are generations coming in who are very well versed and far more familiar with a lot of these concepts and ideas than perhaps some of the more senior managers. There’s a broad assumption there, but it’s definitely a trend that we sometimes see. So, one thing again that we look at with a platform is how we can take some of that fear away from managers who want to do the right thing but are perhaps worried that in trying to do the right thing, they might do the wrong thing. We provide them with content nudges and suggested actions so that they can kind of take some of those smaller steps with a bit more confidence. That takes away some of that fear again, of people feeling that they might do the wrong thing inadvertently and then end up creating more of a problem.

Finally, and this is something I would like to see organisations go further on personally, but there’s definitely a piece around how we incentivise managers to do this. Because I think you’re right, Toby, they’re often very squeezed. They’re often under enormous pressure with their day job. If you are not incentivising managers to be responsible for their teams, their wellbeing, their retention, not just perhaps the productivity, even though we obviously know that the two are very connected, it can be difficult for managers to fully buy into why they’re prioritising this.

With some of our clients, we are definitely seeing a shift towards that, where there are manager performance reviews or as part of their bonus or remuneration a recognition of this work and the importance of this work as well. And I think that that is definitely something where organisations can go further.’

Both Rosie and Raj have extensive knowledge through developing the InChorus platform so I asked Raj first, ‘What do you believe are the key actions that Chief People Officers should be focusing on next based on our conversation.’

‘It’s coming back to those top tips that we spoke about earlier and an open audit around the work they’ve done. I feel oftentimes all of us feel like we have invested so much in the initiative and tools and programs that we roll out that we feel we have to defend them with our lives. I think the world of work has changed so much that a far more open and honest audit needs to occur. Whether that takes the form of a conversation internally or externally, I think that our number one tip is to reassess where you are on all of those pillars that we spoke about earlier. So that’s the data that you are capturing and finally where you are in terms of working towards driving a solid culture that underpins the performance and not one that’s just grounded in slightly shallower perks. I think that’s the message.’

Rosie responded, ‘I would add to Raj’s list this idea again of thinking about action. The starting point needs to be, Okay, what actions am I wanting to take back and what is almost then the minimum data process that I need to get that?” And thinking as well about how you are tying up that loop, because I think it’s just very easy and I know we’ve spoken about it, but to formulate that data collection and think, “Well, what am I doing about it?” as a bit of an afterthought. I think that in this kind of economy that’s looking for more and more efficiency and a streamlined process, thinking about engineering from that point of action and who needs to be empowered to think about how that gets to the managers, how these people are supported, and I guess auditing the tools and processes through that lens are things that I would encourage.’

I asked Raj how InChorus is able to help Chief People Officers with the actions and things that we have been discussing.

‘I think the key area that our product has focused on is how we equip organisations for a progressive new world, which embeds culture values and EDI principles at its core without making that incredibly difficult with too many tools and too many data sets and too many training sessions that pull people away from core work. We’ve really focused on how we embed simplicity and best practice into the existing workflow rather than taking people away from it. We have a very strong belief that the way that our platform operates is solving some of the challenges that we spoke about at the very outset of the podcast. Using one tool that does four or five things really well but doesn’t give you almost pointless in-actionable bells and whistles is the way to go here.

From the very outset, we’ve only focused on action. Both of our backgrounds are very much tech-driven. Then we come to the world and the work of HR and its processes slightly differently. That’s given us far more clarity about what work should be done, jobs to be done, essentially and which ones sometimes backfire. Intentions are great and too many initiatives and programmes get rolled out because they’re the right acoustics, but they backfire because you’re not then seeing them through. A lot of the challenges that we’ve spoken about are addressed very well. The tool is a manifestation of our beliefs.’

Rosie added, ‘As well as echoing a lot of Raj’s points, we are really focused on creating effective channels for employees so that this tool is used in the first place. Obviously, there is a problem that sits alongside having too much data, which is not having enough data because you’re paying for expensive tools that actually aren’t used, which is definitely something we see around reporting processes.

Those mechanisms are underused in a way that isn’t necessarily true engagement surveys. It’s about making sure that employees have all of those channels, but then the data that is coming from those is aggregated in one place. I know we keep making that point and we keep beating the drum on it, but there is so much additional insight that comes from being able to overlay disparate data sources and focusing on doing that directs people and leaders to actionable insights much quicker. Our platform is designed to do that, to try and cut through what’s essentially noise to focus on here are two or three key priorities, and here is the action that can be taken. Stitching that together is something that we’re doing that is quite different at the moment. I believe we can help that.’

It’s always great to hear from Rosie and Raj how the platform is evolving, acting on client feedback to address the challenges that Chief People Officers are facing in the real world because businesses over the last few years have been through a very difficult time. It’s been good to talk to a business that is so responsive to its client’s needs.

To reach out to Rosie and Raj and have a chat about data in your organisation and how the InChorus platform could help, do check out the website where you can sign up for the newsletter, learn more about the product or book a demo.

InChorus: Data and Tech Combine to Drive Culture Change - Mildon