Leadership

Best HR practices: Building the ultimate workforce

Written by Camilla Cornell

For companies that want to get ahead, it’s critical to attract and retain A-list performers. No one knows better than Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies that to get ahead in the information economy, it’s crucial to attract, retain and motivate Grade A employees. Here’s how the PROFIT 100 do it with such success — and how you can, too.

Connect with your local university

Like many companies, Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. (No. 37 on the 2008 PROFIT 100) in Guelph, Ont., needs employees with specific skill sets and expertise. Yet, president and CEO William Rowe says he doesn’t have trouble finding qualified staff — even without spending money on job postings or headhunters. When Rowe, whose company performs clinical trials and testing of natural products, has a job to fill, he calls the nutritional sciences department at the University of Guelph. “We know first-hand that they’re producing the kind of grads of interest to us,” he says. “And the professors refer good candidates.”

Students start off doing custom scientific writing while still in school. “They get a feel for our organization,” says Rowe, “and we get a feel for how they work.” The more impressive candidates may land a summer job and have the potential for full-time employment upon graduating.

It’s win/win/win: professors find employment for talented students, while students get a paying job in their chosen field and Nutrasource gets a steady stream of good candidates. Plus, by getting them when they’re young, the company can mould staff to fit its culture. “I think many entrepreneurs underutilize what’s available at universities, community colleges and high schools,” says Rowe. “The human-resource potential of those institutions is high. It’s cost-effective. It’s a great way to recruit and to screen.”

Flex your flexibility

Flex-time is not a new concept, but it’s still a cheap and easy approach that can deliver huge rewards. Just ask Edgar Matias. The president & CEO of The Matias Corp. (No. 55), which produces computer accessories, recruited one of his best employees by allowing her to set her own work schedule. The worker had asked her former employer if she could adjust her hours so she could pick up her child from daycare. It refused, so she took a job with Matias instead. “She wanted to come in earlier and leave earlier,” says Matias. “It had no impact on the job, so we had no issue with it.”

Matias himself frequently starts late and works late to accommodate the time difference with China, where most of the firm’s products are produced. And his CFO often works at home to cut down on commuting time and distractions. What’s the payoff for making employees’ lives easier? “So far,” says Matias, “we’ve had only one person quit in the past eight years.”

Jump-start creativity

“Innovation is crucial in our business,” says Harry Chemko, CEO of Elastic Path Software Inc. (No. 23), an e-commerce software developer in Vancouver. “The e-commerce market is highly fragmented and there’s a lot of competition, so any little edge we can get is important.” The trouble is, as the company has grown, employees have become more specialized and it’s increasingly difficult to foster a culture of creativity. That’s why last year Elastic Path launched an annual “Hack Day,” a 24-hour coding competition.

The firm’s 86 employees teamed up to create a new product or feature — not necessarily related to Elastic Path’s product. “It just had to be something that could be used in the e-commerce industry,” says Chemko.

Staff rose to the occasion — many stayed overnight, and, yes, the occasional beer was consumed. After a company-wide vote, the team with the best idea won $3,000. To date, two of the concepts Hack Day generated are close to completion, including a method for getting data feeds from Elastic Path’s clients onto price-comparison engines like Froogle. The overall benefit: the exercise gets employees thinking in broader terms, contends Chemko, “not just about how to fix a code.”

Employ the 80/20 rule

How do you prevent front-line staff from getting burnt out? It’s a question that many entrepreneurs have asked. Mike Wessinger, president and CEO of PointClickCare (No. 41), may have found the answer. Rapid turnover plagued the customer-service centre of the Mississauga, Ont.-based provider of electronic records software. “If every time you hang up the phone, it’s ringing again and there are calls two deep, you’re going to burn people out,” says Wessinger. “Some people quit after just a few weeks.”

In an attempt to reverse that trend, six months ago, Wessinger adopted a concept popularized by tech giant Google. He encouraged the 17 help-desk employees to step out of their daily grind and spend 20% of their work time doing something different from their regular job — either a new task or a role that already exists.

Staff can divvy up their time as they wish — for example, by spending a couple of hours each day at the new job or one day a week. Some employees chose to work with individual customers to enhance how they use PointClickCare’s products. Others opted to spend time working on the firm’s implementation guides.

“The idea is to let people gravitate to what they do best,” Wessinger explains. “The value is twofold. It enriches life for the employees, and because they get to focus on those things that they have a passion for, it’s good for the company.”

It’s early days, but Wessinger intends to roll out the 20% initiative to all 114 of his employees. In the meantime, the impact on employee satisfaction has been profound. Says Wessinger: “We have had almost no turnover in our service organization in the past six months.”

Call in the experts

In today’s fast-paced world, keeping abreast of technological developments can be a full-time job. MGA Computer Consulting Ltd.’s visiting-experts program makes it easy for staff to stay current.

About twice a year, Toronto-based MGA (No. 33), a job-placement firm specializing in providing IT talent, draws on its network of professionals in technology, project management and engineering to teach in-house seminars targeted specifically at its employees. The sessions cost $1,000 each, says MGA CEO Mehradad Arjomandi, and arise out of weekly management meetings at which, “as a group we decide what training is required.”

A recent example: a consultant from a recruitment-training firm gave a full-day presentation on how to use new networking technologies to locate passive job seekers. “There are a lot of people whose resumés are not listed on job boards like Workopolis and Monster because they are not actively looking for a job,” explains Arjomandi. “But everybody’s profile is on the Internet somewhere — on LinkedIn or Facebook or MySpace. We need to be able to locate these people.” The seminar, which taught MGA employees how to narrow their search by using targeted keywords, paid off almost immediately. “We were looking for someone to replace the chief mechanical engineer of a mining company who had over 300 people reporting to him,” says Arjomandi. “There might only be 10 prospects across Canada, but by using the tools they showed us, we were able to locate two candidates.”

Stay in school

“If you’re not learning on a daily basis, you are going to fall behind,” contends Mehrdad Arjomandi, CEO of MGA. But how do you know what your employees need to learn? Trust them to know, says Arjomandi.

Arjomandi offers each of MGA’s 29 employees an education account of $2,000 a year to be used for anything from membership in a professional organization to university or online courses. The only guideline: the program or membership has to be relevant to MGA’s business goals and must be approved by management.

For Arjomandi, investing in his people is a no-brainer: “Without them, there will be no future for MGA.” And his largesse has paid off in a group of employees with an enviable breadth of skills. Says Arjomandi: “One sure way of measuring the return on investment is that many of our consultants are sought after as permanent employees by our clients because of the skills they possess.”

Get a meeting rhythm

Just as soldiers traditionally march to the rhythm of a drum, Abbotsford, B.C.-based Pacific R.I.M. Services (No. 151) relies on its “meeting rhythm” to keep everyone moving in the same direction. “If employees are going to feel like they’re part of the company and not just a nameless cog in the wheel,” says CEO Dwayne Stewart, “they need a solid understanding of where the company is going,”

Every morning, each of the construction firm’s three-member project teams hold a seven-minute huddle, often by phone, to update each other. The meetings follow a predetermined agenda, with a staccato rhythm that sounds like this: “Today, we’re pouring concrete at 2 p.m. Did we pass the inspections? We’re waiting for a document — will we have it by 2?”

The project managers then share key info with the head-office team of up to 11 people in another seven-minute meeting that ensures the building teams have what they need to do their jobs. And once weekly, head office has a 90-minute meeting to check progress against 12 key metrics.

The meeting cycle culminates in a quarterly day-long event that includes some training, a bit of fun and lots of communication on the company’s goals for the next quarter. “Every significant goal that we have written down, posted, measured and tracked over the years,” says Stewart, “we have met or exceeded.”

Learn, then teach

Linda Hipp, president of LIJA (No. 83), a golf-clothing designer and manufacturer in Richmond, B.C., believes employees need to feel challenged and have opportunities to develop their skills. But ongoing education can be pricey. So, Hipp ponies up for staff training on two conditions: the employee must present her learning highlights to the rest of the staff, and must write a report for LIJA’s learning resource file, a library of information anyone can access.

The “learn, then teach” approach is cost-effective and bolsters employees’ presentation skills. As well, says Hipp, “they’re able to pass on something valuable to their fellow employees. That makes people feel good.”

Create your own labour pool

With the average age of the installers of Calgary-based manufacturer and installer Spindle, Stairs & Railings (2002) Ltd. (No. 157) creeping close to retirement, president Kevin Halliday knew he would soon face a severe labour shortage. So, he approached several colleges and trade schools to encourage them to train new recruits. He received no response, so instead he opted to start his own school, run out of his headquarters.

Students receive individual instruction from long-time installers for as long as they need it — usually about three months. Halliday recruits mostly by word of mouth, and last year had no problem graduating 30 learners, all of whom he hired. One of the big draws: instead of making students pay for their education, Halliday pays them $18 an hour. “They’re working,” he says. “So I can generate revenue from that.”

On top of that, as experienced installers, they can expect to earn $10,000 to $20,000 a month working for Spindle, Stairs and Railings.

But if students go to work for competitors or strike out on their own, isn’t the investment lost? Not a chance, says Halliday: “We’re a manufacturer, too. If we’ve trained them and done everything right, we’ve created a customer.”

Give staff the platinum treatment

A few times each month, Peter Hart, president and CEO of Rideau Recognition Solutions Inc. (No. 176), takes a group of four to six customers or potential clients on a Platinum tour of his St-Laurent, Que.-based company, which manages customer- and employee-reward programs. He leads them through the different departments, gives a history of the company and introduces them to employees in the sprawling operation. And he finishes up the two-hour tour in one of the conference rooms, where the group gets an annual report and a small gift.

When staff expressed interest in the tours, Hart began giving them the tour, too. “The company has grown rapidly and changed over the years,” says Hart. “This is a great opportunity to make sure everyone is on the same page.” It also allows him to demonstrate his Platinum Rule: treat employees the way you would have them treat your customers. “We tell employees: €˜We’re going to treat you like customers and that way you’re going to get an idea of what we say about our company to customers, suppliers, to prospects’.”

As well, employees get a feel for how Rideau’s various departments work together to create an integrated product offering. “Invariably, it you look at the people’s performance evaluations after they’ve gone on the tour, they go up,” says Hart. “They are more engaged. They understand what the company is doing, what other people are doing in the company and why their role is important.”

Unite and conquer

“We used to have our offices in this really small space,” says LIJA’s Linda Hipp. But the golfwear designer’s rapid growth meant that before long, people were on top of each other. So, LIJA moved offices. The unexpected result: when the various departments were separated physically, they began to carve out their own territories. “The staff began to forget or question that others were working as hard,” says Hipp, and the animosity level grew. “There was this sudden disconnect.”

To foster greater integration among departments, Hipp implemented a quarterly team-building afternoon. One department each quarter is charged with educating other employees about some aspect of their jobs. “For example, product development might explain the process of creating new designs,” says Hipp. Then, the entire firm participates in team-building activities. Recently, one department planned an afternoon of dodge ball.

Team-building days provide a welcome break, says Hipp. But she also believes that having a better understanding of how other departments work has resulted in greater tolerance. “Things get done faster,” says Hipp. “People cooperate and work together more as teams.”

Take fun seriously

Drop in at HotSpex Inc. (No. 38) in the last half-hour of each workday and you are likely to witness staff enjoying an Olympic tire-toss, a rock/paper/scissors competition or a cinnamon eating contest. What gives? “People are highly mobile these days,” says Shane Skillen, president of the Toronto-based global market research firm. “Money is one way to attract and keep good people, but there’s research that says the intangibles are much more important than money.”

So, Skillen works hard to create a fun work environment. His thinking: snag the best people and you’ll attract the best clients, allowing you to run a profitable and sustainable business.

Along with the zany competitions, there are massage days, Connect Four tournaments and regular summer barbecues. At least once a quarter, on company time, Skillen organizes field trips — from dragon-boat racing to movies. And to ensure the good times keep going, he set up a “Fun Committee” with an annual budget of $15,000. Pricey? Not when you consider the payoff: “With 0% voluntary turnover,” says Skillen, “we have the fastest growth rate and lowest turnover in our industry.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com