The Next Challenge - Enough Sleep

We are a fairly health conscious group.  We have our Fitbits.  We every so often do monthly walking challenges.  We eat (for the most part) well.  We have standing desks, treadmill desks, and balls instead of chairs for those who prefer them. The next area to think about may be sleep.  A recent article from Fast Company, here, cites a study that shows how bad lack of sleep can be.  “Subjects in a lab-based sleep study who were allowed to get only six hours of sleep a night for two weeks straight functioned as poorly as those who were forced to stay awake for two days straight. The kicker is the people who slept six hours per night thought they were doing just fine.”   The study is from the Journal Sleep.

These results are compounded by the fact that people just aren’t very good at knowing how long they do sleep.  Estimates are usually off, sometimes significantly so.  And, as the study showed, when people don’t sleep enough they do overestimate how well they are doing.  Getting enough sleep isn’t always easy but we certainly don’t want people functioning as though they have been up for 48 straight hours!  Our next area to emphasize for better health may have to be sleep.

Take time, improve

It’s easy to continue day to day with the same processes but sometimes you need to take a step back and think about how to improve. We just had a series of brainstorming sessions on ideas to positively impact Referential.  What might we do, big or small, that would have a strong effect on our work?  As you can imagine there were many great ideas!  We began to implement the changes right away. One request was an easier way to know what time it is throughout the world. We do work with customers everywhere and need to know what time it is in London or Sydney or New York.  For those of us that like an online world clock we now have a couple of great urls to choose from.  For those who prefer looking at actual clocks, we now have 5 clocks on the wall so you can easily see the time in a variety of locations. It sounds simple but it’s been really helpful to very quickly see the various times.  In fact, it helped with a call to SE Asia just this morning!

Another quick one to address was improvements to calendaring. We all have to track appointments with our clients via their preferred systems as well as our Referential meetings.  Consolidating all that into one view of our commitments was something we had each done, though differently.  We now have a single approach that gives us each a consolidated calendar and a view into the free/busy times of everyone on staff.

Some of the suggestions will take time to implement, be it the outdoor seating area or various automation requests.  What’s most important is we have a team culture that values change and improvement and suggestions from everyone.  This wasn’t an isolated event but something we do often as part of our ongoing desire to be the best for both our employees and our clients.

Giving Thanks

I recently read a blog post from Fast Company which you can see here.  It's titled "Five Ways to Make Your Office Happier".  Some of the statistics were eye opening.  There was reference to a 2012 survey by the John Templeton Foundation which found only 10% of employees report saying thanks to a colleague every day, an even smaller percent say thanks to management.  60% of respondents said they "either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year." Never! Once a year!  There are various studies that show expressing gratitude is both good for your health and good for business productivity.  The Fast Company article cites a study from Harvard Health and a quick Google search shows similar results from organizations as diverse as Shape Magazine, Forbes, Huffington Post, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information, to name just a few.

Our workplace is collaborative and we hear 'thank you' often.  If yours is not or you are in the large percent of people that rarely express gratitude at work you have homework!  Thank someone today.  Let them know specifically what you appreciate and how it helps you and/or your team.  The article has several tips that can help gratitude become a regular part of your work day. It’s easy, it costs nothing more than time, and it pays back big benefits both to you and the person you thank!

Pokémon Go has benefits for us

Pokeman Go
Pokeman Go

You’ve probably heard of it.  Pokémon Go is all the rage.  For those of you not familiar with it, the game allows players to interact with virtual Pokémon as if they are in the real environment. When you find one, the game opens up your phone's camera and you flick a Poké Ball toward the creature to capture it. The game has added billions, yes billions, of dollars to Nintendo’s valuation. It’s not without controversy.  Intent on the game, people have fallen or walked into things.  There has been criticism of the use of certain graveyards and memorials as part of the game, and even reports of crime as people were lured with the thought of Pokémon and then robbed.

For us it has been beneficial.  The game gets people up and walking and if you know Referential you know we value health and encourage exercise.  The part of our team that usually walks the least is now up and about at lunch and breaks.  Not only are they getting steps, they are having fun together.  And those of us who don’t play are enjoying it.  We’re learning the lingo and watching the friendly competition as folks move through the stages.  Who knew a game would have such impact on health and camaraderie!

A new intern has begun

A lot has happened here in the past few weeks. We’ve had many people out on vacation, a few days here and there to a week. We've participated in events and have both a new client and a major new project with an established client.  In the midst we also had a new intern start. While school is still in session, spring quarter to go, he is part time and then will be full time in the summer.

Classically interns spend the summer in a role, often the summer after their junior year, and if they do well are offered a full time job, ready and waiting for them after graduation.   We’ve not taken that classic approach.  

We’ve actually preferred to have interns start with fewer hours, while still in classes. As anyone who has had an intern in the past knows there is a lot for them to learn. At the beginning it’s easier for us to train a few hours a day than be faced with full days.   We’re able to ‘chunk’ the learning into manageable pieces and know he’s ready for the next step. By the time his schedule does allow for full time work he’ll be more independent and when summer is over we are hoping to see him continue with us part time.   

Last summer we hosted an intern for one of our clients. The majority of the intern’s work was with us, though they did participate in some events at the client site. We’re lucky, several good universities are nearby so interns can come in to the office and work part time with us during the school year. Having several recent college grads on staff also makes for a welcoming environment to someone still in school, many of us are not far removed from college days! We enjoy having a new team member and a fresh perspective, there will be more interns in our future.

Will you be able to escape?

We just had a fun afternoon of team building and trying to escape from a spy’s room!  Friday we spent the afternoon with Beat The Lock. Referential went as a team and started with some team building activities. The good old game of Two Truths and a Lie (can you tell which is the lie?) is more difficult when some of the team members are related and others have known each other for many years – not the usual work group. We had great fun and learned quite a lot – from who has won dance competitions to who can barely swim. We learned we have jump rope champions and those with scuba certifications.   Several had been keeping their music talent from us! It’s a fun way to learn a bit more about each other. 

The next activity split us into two groups and we had to come up with 5 things true for everyone in the group. Easy for one team but the other struggled. Surprisingly every one of us has at least one sister and has traveled in Europe! 

But the main attraction was to participate in the room escape experience. We were in the spy room – we suspect our neighbor is a spy and enter his room to discover his identity and find we’re locked in! There is an hour to look for clues, solve puzzles, break codes, get various boxes unlocked, and finally diffuse a bomb and escape.   No worries, it’s all in fun and role play! When the phone range we answered and took the clues – each of the 3 times they were offered. We didn’t quite escape in the hour, but did within the additional 5 minute grace period.   It was tough! Not to give anything away but look carefully, consider everything, and enjoy the experience. If you are in the local area and looking for something fun to do with a work group or even family consider escaping! Give a look.  

A month of new beginnings

January has been a month of firsts. We begin the year with several new clients! Lots of new people, products, systems, and company cultures to learn. It’s always exciting to add a new client, several at once keeps all of us learning and busy.

We also moved to a new financial system. We were up and running more quickly than expected however everything is just slightly different than in our old system. Many things are faster and easier while others are not – yet! First time through reconciliations to invoicing takes a bit longer as well. Hopefully by this time next month it’s as familiar to us as the old system was. With our growth we needed something more robust and are happy with how smooth the change has been.

January has also seen benefits changes. It’s our first month with a new benefit – dental insurance. We had bit of a glitch as we went through the enrollment process but everything has been addressed and we are happy to be able to offer this new benefit to the team. In addition our medical plan changed. We still have the same provider but it was time to change as our old plan would no longer be grandfathered. We were able to offer choices and everyone is happy with the new coverage.

As we grow we are seeing lots of change.  Exciting and it's certainly been a busy start for 2016!

2016 - Off to a fast start!

VolunteeringHere’s a photo of our volunteer stint at Health Trust. As you can see from our attire it was a bit cold in their warehouse! Afterwards we had a team lunch and later a gift exchange.   Most of us worked all of December, a few took off a day or two.   It stayed surprisingly busy, as many of our clients were at their fiscal year end. Our advocacy work was critical to help our clients close more business, and close that business faster. 2015 already feels so far away. We are not far into 2016 but we’ve switched to a new finance application, reallocated team hours to match our new contracts, started work with a few new clients, and have one of the new clients visiting on site today. Next week we’re gearing up to host a local customer advocacy group meeting. The new offices give us plenty of meeting space for larger groups. We are off to a great start for what we know will be a great year for our company and the team.

More good news, in just 7 days we’ve already had more rain in northern California in January than the last 3 Januarys combined so we’re hoping we make a dent in the drought!

May 2016 be a wonderful year for you too, both personally and professionally.

Holiday Volunteering - Health Priority

Next week we will be celebrating the holidays as a team. As we did last year we will spend the afternoon volunteering. This year we’ll be sorting food with the FOODBasket Food Sorting team of The Health Trust. We will be sorting and then helping with storage and display of fresh produce which will be offered to their AIDS Services and Family Resource Center clients. We are in the heart of Silicon Valley, a place of great wealth, but also of great need, as this paragraph from The Health Trust website makes crystal clear: Silicon Valley is a place of innovation, opportunity and affluence. On average, it is one of the healthiest, wealthiest places in the world. But not all residents of Silicon Valley share in that wealth – or that health. More than 13 percent of children in Santa Clara County are living in poverty. More than half of the adults are overweight or obese. Nearly half of the county’s older adults are considered impoverished. More than 19,000 adults and youth are homeless.

Our time as a team is one way we can help contribute to their vision of a healthier Silicon Valley for everyone.  It's also aligned with our priority on health and wellness - from Fitbits for everyone to regular discussions about nutrition.  This volunteer opportunity is a good match for our company.

Year end planning, in full swing

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and from a business perspective year end planning has begun in earnest. We finished open enrollment for new benefits plans, adding optional dental insurance and more medical choices. Last week our payroll service provider had a year end information session, full of good reminders for the end of 2015 as well as what we’ll see as 2016 begins. We know what our 401K match will be, due early in 2016. We offer a 401K match to all employees, regardless of their level of participation in the program. We want everyone off to a good start towards their retirement. Also, today we sent a message off to the accountant to verify the information he needs to provide an early estimate of our tax liability. Last year we volunteered as a team at Second Harvest Food Bank, just before our holiday lunch, and are scheduling another volunteer session for this year. A white elephant gift exchange is planned, maybe some of us will find Black Friday deals this weekend! And to make the office festive, we have decorating ahead. In our old office we had lights strung around the main room with ornaments. Our new offices are much bigger, more decorations are also on the shopping list! While there are many business details to year end we also ensure there’s time for fun and giving back to others.

Open Enrollment Decisions

Open enrollment is nearly upon us and last year our medical provider told us our current plan was grandfathered and would not be continued into 2016.   So we must change. We need to move to an Affordable Care Act compliant plan.   Since we’ve known this for some time we felt it would be important to have some guidance and chose to utilize Zenefits. While Zenefits offers many benefits and time savings to businesses, our decision to use them was primarily based on our need for a broker to assist us with our medical plan decision. We haven’t finished the process but Zenefits has been proactive and researched several options beyond those our current provider suggested.   They also have researched additional benefit offerings for us to consider, low cost to the company and high value to the employees. With medical we are seeing premium changes, and those changes vary dramatically. One option has employee rates going down by 1-3% for our youngest employees and up about 16% for others. In addition the dependent rates increase up to 66%!   Lots of decisions ahead, but so far so good with the process.

August Step Challenge

Although large employers have been expanding wellness programs in recent years, small businesses have not. As small businesses employ nearly 50% of all private-sector workers, any expansion of wellness and prevention programs can really be beneficial. We are doing our part and even have someone designated as our Wellness Officer. With this in mind here at Referential we have kicked off an August step challenge. Armed with our Fitbits and Jawbones everyone has committed to an average of either 7, 10, or 15 thousand steps a day for the month.   And if we all meet the challenge we will be treated to a nice team lunch.   And it will be a healthy lunch!

Often small groups will take a walk or a slower saunter around the block once or twice a day. We make good use of our treadmill desks and are encouraging walking, rather than sitting, meetings where appropriate. Meet a friend for a walk, instead of lunch, on the weekend.   Those of us with dogs are taking them a bit farther each day. I’m sure there will be lots of creative ideas this month and I hope to see us all meet the challenge!

Mid-year Houskeeping

Well 2015 is flying by!   It’s hard to believe it’s time to do mid-year business housekeeping. We always find the middle of the year is a good time to review time off and time off policies with everyone.   It’s a good time for folks to look at how much vacation they have already taken. Everyone should be clear on company vacation policies – if there are rollover hours, caps on rollovers, if vacation allotments will change in 2016 and so on. With that information we can all then think through our plans for the second half of the year, especially during the holidays. At Referential we need to ensure coverage for our clients every business day of the year and it’s not too soon to discuss who wants to take time off at the end of the year.

Let’s not forget taxes. Your business income and expenses for the first half of the year can provide valuable guidance to you on what to expect for the rest of the year – depending on how seasonality effects your finances. This is probably a good time for all of us to check in with our accountant/tax preparer to see if there are any actions to take now to lower the year’s tax bill, both for the business and personally!

We have mid-year forms to file for our 401K, need to finalize the 2016 holiday schedule, we want to decide on holiday gifts for our clients to avoid a rush at year end, and we will plan for the many annual expenses we see in December and January. What else is on your mid-year checklist?

Adding even more language expertise!

Language expertise is very important as we reach out to our clients’ customers. We find being able to speak and write in local language is extremely helpful when discussing advocacy opportunities.   Program activity is increasing in Asia and as a result we prioritized fluency in Asian languages for our most recent hire and are happy to say our newest hire is from China and also fluent in Korean.   She recently finished her MBA in the US and joined the team last week.   Her work experience in China and time living in Korea gives her a familiarity with both business vocabulary and etiquette, which is critical. As we hire for language expertise we have made it a priority to hire native speakers or individuals who have spent extensive time living, and working, locally.   For western countries as well, sensitivity to local practices enables us to build trust, understanding and confidence with those we come into contact with and is helping us forge very successful and longstanding business partnerships and relationships.

Be Present

One of Referential’s operating principles is to ‘be present’.   That’s a short way to say give the task at hand your full attention. Don’t multitask in meetings, come prepared, and be on time. One necessary tool that can also be a distraction is the cell phone. They are required to do our work as several of our clients have security requiring multi phase authentication to access their necessary systems and data. We all have a variety of security apps on our phones, depending on which clients we work with. While a useful and necessary tool, we do try to minimize the distraction element of phones.   We haven’t done an outright, official ban of cell phones from meetings, brainstorming sessions, group training sessions, and so on; but they are certainly discouraged. Placing the phone on silent or vibrate isn’t enough to avoid distractions. Employees bringing their cell phones to meetings are tempted to read text messages and email. We have said that unless you’re using your phone for client system access or it’s an emergency put them away, there’s plenty of time to catch up with friends and news at lunch or breaks.

A recent study showed nearly half of all firms have official policies about cell phone use, does yours?

We are hiring!

We have a job opening! Referential, Inc. is focused on customer success, that's what we do! We design, implement, and manage customer reference programs; which includes turning stories from our client's customer base into compelling pieces which then help close additional sales. We have an opening for a staff reference manager. We’re looking for a creative person, and foreign language expertise is highly desired. This role will be a member of the core team and responsible for client database information data entry, reference customer recruitment, some reference request fulfillment, assisting with our web site, and helping us penetrate new markets. You can see more details on the careers page of our website. Help us find the next great member of our team!

Summer Changes Begin

Some staffing changes are ahead for summer. We have a master’s student in communications joining us for the summer. She’ll be writing case studies and helping with social media. Several of our clients have communities for their advocates and we’re involved with both initiating and maintaining those communities. Lots of interesting updates to post and we’re seeing significant participation both from our client’s employees and their customers. With a few new client agreements that focus heavily on writing we’ll certainly keep her busy! We will also have an intern from one of our clients join the team. While the company is headquartered here in the Bay Area, we are fully responsible for their customer advocacy program. Our client decided it was best to locate their intern with us, in fact their interviews were here in our building. We can provide the necessary training and support, which can be substantial for an undergrad in their first true business role. He will have trips to headquarters to meet with others and participate in activities planned for the intern program overall, but home base will be with us. As we’ve hired several team members directly after their graduation.

Nothing like an intern or recent graduate to remind you to explain acronyms (even ones like EMEA or COO), clearly describe ‘business casual’ attire, and go over all sorts of other general business topics we otherwise take for granted!

Adding a little formality

We’ve been going through business etiquette topics from running a great meeting to digital communications issues. Our team includes someone from Germany, several from the UK, and people who have spent significant time living abroad.  Through our discussions it's clear the US is the most informal country.  Where else would you assume from the start you can call someone from their first name from the beginning of the business relationship? We think nothing of addressing a new business contact, in our very first email, by their first name.   In person introductions often don’t include last names. And being in California we’re probably the least formal of the informal! We see this in terms of interactions with others through to dress. ­­It’s a rare occasion you see a suit and tie here outside of certain industries such as finance. We’re known for the turtleneck, hoodie wearing executives!

The discussion of formality was a good reminder to think carefully before addressing others, particularly our business contacts in other countries. We’ll be much more conscious of starting our communications with Mr, Ms, Herr and other appropriate terms in the future.  The way we address associates in California or even the US is not the approach we should take when communicating with our colleagues in other countries.

Business Etiquitte Refresher

We’re embarking on an etiquette refresher for the team. We work in a small, informal office but our new location is quite near offices and homes of some of our clients. We expect more drop ins than at our old location. Also some of our new hires have been recent college graduates.  They bring tons of great skills but haven't spent a lot of time in an office environment.  They’ve not had the opportunity for business lunches or developed a sensitivity for the differences seen when working with clients in various countries. So for some this will not be as much a refresher as a learning it all for the first time. This is probably not seen as the most exciting of topics so to inject a bit of fun we put the topics in a hat and each pulled one. Over the next several weeks we’ll have brown bag lunches where we’ll each take a week to present our topic.   We’ll be fed, we’ll be learning, we get to take turns presenting – not so bad! We’ll share highlights with you as we go through the topics.

HR review - good to do!

Our dear friend Nicole is here, in person, and we’re having an HR audit. Now, she might not call it that, but in reality that’s what it is, and something all companies should do regularly.   Today we reviewed the employee manual – and she had great suggestions for improvement.   Then it was on to our performance evaluation form, which passed scrutiny!   Reviews to come for our non-disclosure agreement, offer letter, and other associated employee/hiring forms. Great timing because it precedes our full implementation of Zenefits, which among other things will help streamline our hiring process. Nice to know all our hiring forms, employee manuals, and associated policies have been recently reviewed and updated as necessary.

We’re still a fairly small company but it’s important to have this foundation in place.    Nice to know we’re in really good shape and ahead of the game compared to most small businesses!   Nicole’s an expert, having worked with companies large and small, we’re happy to have her expertise and assurance that we’re doing well when it comes to our most important asset, our employees.