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InfoQ Homepage Articles Humanity at Work: Interview with Rich Sheridan, Author of Chief Joy Officer

Humanity at Work: Interview with Rich Sheridan, Author of Chief Joy Officer

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Key Takeaways

  • Engineers thrive in workplaces that allow them to interact with customers and see firsthand the result that their work has on them
  • Human energy and purpose are at the heart of what makes Menlo Innovations a joyful place to work.  Energy lifts the teams’ spirit, and their shared purpose drives it forward
  • If we want to create a strong culture based on joy, happiness, safety, engagement, we have to look at all of our human processes, during the end to end employee lifecycle
  • Our younger generations are more vocal about what they want and are more likely to change jobs to find the company values that are important for them

Alvares: Rich [Sheridan], thank you for giving us this interview, it’s a great honor to be able to ask you few questions for InfoQ. Since 2001, Menlo has pursued bringing joy to technology, and you sustained a culture where the business value of joy is at the core of everything your company does. You said yourself: "At Menlo, we do more than design and build great software. Not that great software is a small thing. It’s rare. But we aim for something higher. Our processes, our culture, our work ethic — they all aim toward a single goal: joy. Our company’s Mission Statement is being intentional about restoring Joy...through every step of what we do". Can you tell us more about your company’s values, about the importance of joy and what you call the business value of joy? 

Sheridan: This all goes to what we believe is our company’s purpose. In our company, we talked about ending human suffering in the world as it relates to technology, which sounds funny to people when they hear that for the first time. Technology often causes suffering or pain whether we are end-users and we don't know how to use it, or we are the people who develop software and are working long hours under frustrating processes for managing projects. That's where joy comes in place. We wanted to delight not only our end users with software we are creating for them, but also our engineers. I think this goes to the heart of the engineers. It brings great joy to an engineer to see their work get out into the world and delight people, and even greater joy when people get back to them and say: Really you did that? I love that product! You made my life better because of that! Our goal is to regularly bring that kind of joy to our people and the people we serve.

Alvares: In fact, there are more and more researches and studies validating the fact that employees’ experience or Net Promoter Score (eNPS) is directly related to customers experience, cNPS. When employees and developers thrive in a great culture and can see the impact of their work on customers, they enjoy their work more and feel more engaged. 

Sheridan: I think about it in terms of a restaurant. If you knew that the restaurant's owners of a place you like to eat at, were really mean to their cooks do you think that might show up in the food you eat there? would you eat at a restaurant where the cooks feel like they're not respected by the people who owns the restaurant? Then, maybe the wait staff there wouldn’t be very nice to you because no one is being nice to them. 

These are things that are really important for us as leaders to think about when we create a company culture.

Alvares: How does joy translate in peoples’ everyday life at Menlo? How can we bring more joy to work and help people around us feel more joyful?

Sheridan: In order to truly begin to understand what joy means in the workplace, we need to delve into the sort of things that are less visible, into questions such as: Why do we exist? What do we believe about ourselves? Who do we serve, and what would delight look like for them? Human energy lifts the spirit of your team, and purpose drives it forward. A shared purpose gives us that sense of why we work so hard every day on a particular goal, which in Menlo’s case is to delight those people we intend to serve. Energy and purpose are really at the root of what makes Menlo a joyful place to work — and then of course there are the other things we do as well that add joy to the room. There's no question that laughter, as an example, is part of joy. there is a component of joy that is happiness and while we may not be happy every minute of every day because the work we do can be challenging, I think we do need to carve out space and activities for having fun, being playful, cheerful and supportive.

At Menlo, we all work in one big open room; there's no cubes or offices or walls or doors. We work shoulder-to-shoulder with one another, so there's an atmosphere of collaboration where people are literally talking to each other all day long. We tend to reduce time spent in meetings, so that we can spend more time creating.

[Click on the image to enlarge it]

Alvares: Happiness at work is becoming very important today for leaders and corporations as they try to drive greater engagement levels among their employees. Joy and happiness seem similar but are different. Joy is believed to come from within and some say is an attitude of the heart and a state of being. Happiness is known to be external, changes with situations, circumstances and is more temporary in nature. I believe to sustain joy at the workplace, it’s important to foster a culture where joy and gratitude can anchor and last, a culture free from fear. I see safety as a prerequisite and foundation for joy. What are the steps you took to foster a culture of safety at Menlo?

Sheridan: We’re hearing more about the idea of psychological safety. Google released their study and found out that where people feel psychologically safe, they thrive. If we want to create a strong culture just in general, however we want to call it, i.e. safe, experimental, resilient, etc. we have to look at all of our human processes, during the end to end employee lifecycle: how do we recruit our people to work here, how do we interview them when they choose to interview here, how do we decide who succeeds through that interview process, how do we onboard them, how are we going to provide feedback or promote them, and so on. If we're going to create a strong culture based on safety and joy, this culture must be lived in every step of those processes. 

A simple counter-example is when companies and leaders talk every day about the importance of team work and collaboration, yet their foundational human process that occurs once a year, the annual performance review, is centered around individual achievements, in comparison to everyone else on the team. That's a simple counter-example of how we can destroy a culture of trust and collaboration in just a moment. At Menlo, we interview candidates in groups. We bring 30 or 40 people in at a time, and since we do everything in pair, on the model of pair programming, we interview in pairs. We put two candidates together and we ask each candidate to help the person sitting next to them succeed, help them get to the second interview, make their partner be successful, demonstrate good kindergarten skills, play well with others. From the first moment of our human processes, candidates are learning about our most important cultural elements. 

Alvares: Adam Grant has written a beautiful book about the importance of selfless collaboration, "Give and Take. Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, where he said: The more I help out, the more successful I become. But I measure success in what it has done for the people around me. That is the real accolade."

Sheridan: Absolutely! We all inherently understand that an abundance mentality is better than a scarcity mentality because it leads to a safe and joyful approach to human interactions.

Alvares: What were the challenges along the way? Are there downsides to fostering a culture of joy at the workplace? 

Sheridan: Well, it's hard work and some might consider that to be a downside, I don't. We, humans, are wired to work on difficult things. Anybody who chooses to do something differently, the way we have at Menlo, is going to first be called crazy, until considered genius for having tried and succeeded at something different and difficult. The hardest part is to stick to your beliefs no matter what is happening. Often, people give up on their dreams and objectives because they didn't know quite how close they were to success when they gave up. Maybe they were 99% percent of the way or maybe they were 98% percent of the way there and they gave up because the journey is hard.  

Alvares: Just like Nelson Mandela said, "It always seems impossible until it’s done." 

Sheridan: I often remember when President Kennedy announced in 1962 that we were going to send a man to the moon and bring him back. He said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." It was such a bold pronouncement given where the space program was at the time. I think that in that single statement though, President Kennedy did three things:

  • He called us to work on something hard, challenging, something innovative 
  • He called us to work on it together, because we humans are wired to work in community with one another. Teamwork is what gets us ahead, not individual hero
  • and he called us to work on a very big purpose, something that's bigger than ourselves

When we combined those elements together, hard work in community with one another and something bigger than ourselves to serve others, we do amazing things as human beings.

Alvares: That’s beautiful! Is there a relationship between joy and retention or attrition at Menlo Innovation? Would you say that it’s a leading measure of success? 

Sheridan: I think there is a relationship between a joyful culture and attrition, and yet we have our attrition here too. I don't think that the goal of any organization should be to avoid attrition because there are a lot of people at different stages of their life, who for different personal reasons may want to move on. Organizations create other issues when they try to artificially prevent attrition. If someone finds an opportunity, there may be a bunch of reasons why they think that's going to be a better spot for them, and we need to honor that as leaders. Trying to retain people with benefits such as pay increases, can often have the opposite effect of what we are trying to achieve, a joyful culture. People may feel trapped, may feel more challenged to find similar opportunities elsewhere, and may become bitter for being trapped in a job. As employers and leaders, we need to reflect about what we don't want to see happening such as loosing people we don’t want to loose. It's tempting for people who read our books, or interview me, to think we're perfect and we're not. We are a regular company with human teams who walk in everyday with their personal lives, emotions and challenges. But we support each other, we display genuine kindness, we ask somebody how they are, we listen and empathize with what they say, how they feel. Ultimately, we need to learn to care for each other and the human organization. 

Alvares: How can we scale a culture of joy and empathy? 

Sheridan: You are familiar with scaling agility, one team at a time. My suggestion to all your readers is to not think about the complexity and the burden of moving all the mountains of your organization at once but just thinking about the small piece around you. Be the change you want to see around you and change yourself first because that's the easiest place to start, not that that's even easy. When we bring a joyful energy at work it becomes infectious, and then others’ joy becomes an interesting feedback mechanism because you may need that every once in a while. Maybe you came out of a difficult meeting yourself and somebody smiles at you. My encouragement to leaders is, for the moment at least, don't worry about the big picture, just worry about the little picture which is the part you have direct contact with. Little success seeds. People will ask how did you do that here? We want to do the same for our group! Once you start sharing what you do to create a joyful team culture, people will want to know what you’re doing, transfer to your team, or try the practices you’ve implemented. All of a sudden you and your teams will become the tours stop inside your organization.

Alvares: You have 3 daughters, and I am sure that you think about how we can better prepare our workplaces to welcome our new generations of Millennials and Zs. Millennials make up 50% of the workforce today, and Zs started entering the workforce since 2015. These generations come with high expectations of culture, work-life balance, happiness at work, social justice. What can we do to welcome and better retain them?

Sheridan: I happen to believe that people are the same across the world. Every generation wants to feel a sense of purpose in their work, wants to take care of their families, wants their parents to be proud of them, and wants to contribute to the well-being of their neighborhoods, communities and nations. I think these are simple universal human truths. Our younger generations are more vocal about what they want and are more likely to change jobs between the age of 18 and 35 because they have more opportunities. At Menlo, our culture of joy, collaboration, innovation is why people stay or come back to work with us. We constantly receive referrals from current employees, and from parents who are sending us their children.

Alvares: Today, we evaluate the health of organization by looking at their stock market indexes and other financial performance metrics. I foresee that in the near future, our new generations will be looking for a different set of health criteria such as joy, humanity, leadership and inclusion indexes. Companies will be prompted to measure and post a Culture Index composed of various values, such as joy, work-life balance, collaboration, growth, etc. Our new generation of workers will not only choose the corporations they want to work for based on these indexes, but will most likely choose to invest their time and money in those companies that best align with their vision of life, work and future. What are your thoughts?

Sheridan: There are certainly companies that measure that sort of thing. The Gallup organization has been measuring employees’ engagement for over fifty years and the numbers have surprisingly not moved at all since. Whether organizations measure a Joy Index or not, organizations that are humanizing the work through creativity, human energy, collaboration, purpose, innovation and invention, are going to succeed. Customers will decide which companies are creating the most innovative and creative products that they want to purchase and use, and employees will decide where do they get to be the most human. The Joy Index will probably simply spring from which company survives and which didn't wake up to the idea that human energy could actually allow us to survive in the marketplace.

About the Book Author

Richard Sheridan started his career in programming in 1971. Since then, he held various roles in technology and became VP Product Development in 1998. With James Goebel, Chief Architect, he founded Menlo Innovations where he serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Storyteller. While Rich’s focus has always been around technology, his passions are leadership, culture, teamwork and organizational design, with one inordinately popular goal: the business value of joy. Some call it agile, some call it lean ... Sheridan and his team call it joyful. And it produces results. Menlo Innovations and Rich received several Inc. magazine revenue growth awards, invites to the White House, speaking engagements around the world, numerous culture awards and so much interest that they are doing a tour a day of the Menlo Software Factory™. 

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