Jeff Harper, VP of HR for Demand Media, discusses initiatives that are inspiring creativity and passion among employees.
By Stephanie Harris
Throughout his career, Jeff Harper, Vice President (VP) of Human Resources (HR) for Demand Media, has been drawn to companies that do things differently: “The ones that believe in HR as a driver to the business,” he said, “they look atculture as a competitive advantage.”
Harper believes a company culture that promotes employee creativity, innovation and passion is essential to the overall success of the business. He seems to have found the right home at Demand Media, a social media and domain services company that operates online brands such as eHow, LiveStrong and Cracked.
Founded in 2006, the company has grown to nearly 800 employees in five countries, and has implemented innovative initiatives aimed at fostering employee motivation and creativity.
“I’m charged with the idea of helping people find their passion and drive toward it,” Harper said. “My job is, to take what we are trying to accomplish as a business, and help figure out how to create an environment and opportunities that build excitement, motivation, and ensure we have the right people in the right place to drive us toward those objectives.”
Creating and maintaining a work environment that facilitates creativity is not accomplished through a single effort. Instead, Harper believes it takes an integrated approach—several initiatives over time—which is exactly what Demand Media is doing.
As an example, the company launched a leadership development course about a year ago called TEAM Training, which is designed to build leadership skills. Small groups comprised of about a dozen employees meet for six half-day courses over a 12-week period, covering everything from coaching and conflict resolution to delegation and time-management skills for managers.
“They work with each other on everything, like understanding different work styles so they can better understand their employees and peers and what motivates them,” Harper said. “We try to get a more comprehensive view of leadership development so we can help build these skill sets.”
Another initiative is Demand Media’s Hackathons, which initially were started by the engineering team over a year ago but have grown in popularity across the company.
“Twice a year,” Harper explained, “we shut down the business for two days and say, ‘We want you to get into teams, you pick your teams, pick your concepts and come up with something crazy, different and innovative.’”
Employees have two days to develop and build their concepts, then present the idea on the third day. The winning ideas go on to be funded within the company, with the goal of eventually being built and launched.
“The whole idea is try to stir up creativity and reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit that is the foundation upon which the company was built,” Harper said.
As a company grows, Harper recognizes that it can be challenging to drive forward an entrepreneurial spirit once you have already built the product. “You slow down and get into the maintenance of it, but how do you keep that drive going forward?”
The company also inspires motivation by encouraging employees to give back to their communities—and they make it easy to do so through their new Volunteer Time Off, or VTO, program. This provides employees two paid days off per year to dedicate to a worthy cause or causes.The Hackathons seem to be working: This last event had more than 300 participants, and 100 different projects were proposed.
“One of those days will be part of a company event, and one of those days employees can do something on their own,” Harper said. “They have a free day off to go do that.” In support of these efforts, Demand Media hosts and invites employees to sign up for company volunteer events each quarter.
Through initiatives such as these, Harper hopes to instill inspiration among employees so that they are excited to be a part of the Demand Media team. “To truly be a great place to work, which I believe is our driver, is to make the person excited that they’re part of the company, not just working for the company” he said.
Guardian of Culture
One of the biggest challenges that Harper—and other employees—face is keeping up with the fast pace of the organization while not losing sight of
“It’s challenging sometimes just to sit down and make sure you get time with folks and get connected with what’s going on; to stop and spend time thinking through things rather than feeling like you always have to just act,” he said.the company’s vision.
With the company’s unbridled growth in recent years, some leaders began to feel as if they were losing sight of Demand Media’s true identity. To rectify this, they developed Demand DNA, which brings together employees from various departments, locations and levels to open up the dialogue as to who Demand Media is as a company and what makes up its DNA.
“A company culture is really driven both by senior leadership and the people, and it’s HR’s job to help figure out how we bring that to life—we’re the guardian of culture, we help guide that cultural revolution,” Harper said. “The DNA group is where we, as a mixture of people from across the company, started talking about this and coming up with ideas.”
“One of the best things HR can do is bring the different groups together to make sure the voices are heard, aMembers of Demand DNA began discussing an array of topics, including how challenging communication can get as a company grows. They devised solutions, such as a recently launched intranet site where employees can easily share information with one another.
nd that is what the DNA group is doing,” Harper said. “We’re using people within the company to help us understand where the challenges are.”
Passion & Propelling
As the company continues to grow, Harper is excited to drive the business forward while making Demand Media the best place to work.
“You want to get the people passionate and excited to explore opportunities, but you also want to make sure that you are helping to propel the business forward,” he said. “The more successful the business is, the better the business is able to support that kind of culture.”
Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
Jeff's Key HR Partners:emTRAiN (Online Training) | HUB International (Benefits Broker) | ADP (Payroll Systems) | Halogen Software (Performance Appraisal Software) | Benetrac (Online Benefits) | Lockton (401(k) Advisor) | Radford (Surveys)
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