Avoiding Company Culture Whiplash

Tech Leading a New Way of Working

Baby boomers are retiring and millennials are dominating the workplace. In just two years (2020) more than 1/3 of workers will be millennials. This huge segment of the workplace is driving an interest for a different work culture than previous generations. For both men and women, four out of five top places to work are tech companies.

In addition to this shift to a millennial workforce, tech continues to be one of the top ten sectors for job growth, with Software Developers projected to increase 30% over the next ten years. With these generational and functional drivers changing the way we work and organize, we get an entirely new set of work language, cultures and expected criteria that is quickly being absorbed and adapted.

There are endless studies, speculations, polls and research to understand the millennial generation and how they work, but being such a new workforce with a different technical scope, we are left to create in a nearly empty space. This malleable arena gives us room to be different, different than the companies of the past, different ways of creative working, different ideas of being ourselves.

Changing the way we work is a necessity but optimistically, it also gives us the room be creative in our ways of engaging employees and raising the collective value of work to something that is driving our culture and society forward.

Change Moves Quickly in Tech

Work moves quickly, tech moves quickly, change happens often and the cycle of many startups are more reactive than proactive. The race to develop the product faster than your competition is fierce, even when playing the second mover strategy. The rush to dominate technological leadership is most relevant when thinking about globalised tech talent, automation and the 24 hour development cycle.

As managers, HR, employees of tech companies, we scramble to keep up with the unfilled jobs, changes in management, new policies, hierarchal concepts and rapid changes in company goals, product direction and client needs. It is tumultuous, unpredictable, scary, creative, exciting and most importantly, different.

Culture and Work Practices Move Quickly in Tech

For many startups, growing, developing, creating a workspace means applying many new HR ideas and implementing them quickly. Following the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘fail fast, fail often” we see new things being tried out all the time at the office. Maybe it’s a new employee feedback software that lasts for two months, or a program to celebrate colleagues who run on their lunch hour, or the revolutionized hot desk system. Dan Lyon’s ‘Disrupted’ gives a clear perspective into these startups where the company seems to be more culture than product.

Why Moving Too Quickly Doesn’t Work

Often the intentions of developing new cultural practices are to engage employees, to find a better way to work, to clear road blocks and make way for innovation. However, in reality, without understanding the core needs of the issue being addressed, you end up trying to superimpose a culture onto an existing one.

A good example comes from a US/European startup I worked for years past. Their engineers were based in Europe and their sales and marketing team in the US. At only a year old and with more than 50 employees, the management team was worried that their software developers didn’t care about the results of the product and subsequently the product wouldn’t launch on time or be at the level they wanted it to be.

In general, employee engagement is always an issue. It was a strong belief of the CEO that employees, through ownership of the company, feel a stronger attachment to the product and organization so he was first in creating an employee stock option program. While the US employees appreciated this, it was new to their European counterparts and was less appreciated.

To leverage this idea of employee ownership, the American CFO of the company decided to launch an employee recognition program that awarded stock to employees who demonstrated the company values in their work. The program was created so that colleagues would nominate their peers and then management would choose the winner from the list of selected nominees. The first month the program was started there was a reasonable participation with at least 30 viable nominations from peers.

The management choose a person who they thought embodied the values, a software engineer, and at the next company wide meeting, the CEO announced the winner with the employee’s photo on a full wall projection and a list of the runner ups. The CEO asked the software engineer to come up and get their award on stage in front of the entire company while he praised the way that the employee has followed the company’s values.

The next month, only marketing and sales people participated in nominating each other. Not a single tech person, in this company dominated by developers. HR got the blame for not promoting the program well enough to encourage participation but the real reason was much deeper, the program didn’t follow the needs of the employees and was trying to force a culture onto an existing one.

When we reflect on this situation we see the overlooked details that led to the failure of the program:

  • Extroverted management creating a program for introverted employees. These software engineers were introverted, they did not want to have their photo blown up to larger than life size for all of their peers. Or to be compared and singled out from their colleagues who were the list of ‘losers’. They certainly didn’t want to have to walk up to the stage to their CEO to cement this invasion of their privacy for an award which they don’t understand.
  • European vs an American style of working and communicating. Americans are often seen as fake and loud to their European counterparts. They have less of an appetite in so grandly celebrating what they see as normal day to day functions. Being rewarded for something which should be innate doesn’t make sense to them.
  • Manager’s secret delegation of the winner. The feedback from employees after the program fail was that they didn’t like the idea that management chose the employee without transparency or any clarity on why this person was selected. They saw this as a political move by management and didn’t trust them to be fair.

The management was trying to engage a group of people who they didn’t understand and without really knowing where the disengagement was coming from. The program and intentions were good, but they only discussed the idea of this program in a short one hour meeting. In the rush to cement some new programs, the CFO and management pushed the idea through without taking the time upfront to evaluate who and how it was needed. They wrote off the program as an example of ‘fail fast, fail often’ yet as HR I am adamant that ‘failing’ in regards to playing with the ways we engage and support our employees is not where we should accept risk quickly.

The icing on the cake is that the point of ‘fail fast, fail often’ wasn’t even used as a the intended learning lesson, just a way to shift blame.

What Culture Fails Cost You

Company culture is a work in progress and needs constant grooming and development. Employees need time to adjust to new changes, and managers need time to measure the qualitative results. Implementing or changing cultural practices and norms too quickly doesn’t allow for a fair evaluation of the benefits or shortcomings of the program.

Superimposed culture doesn’t work.

Culture changes are expensive and are highly distracting, taking endless meetings and side conversations with colleagues to understand and accept. Employees are suspicious of new programs and are even boycotting of change that they feel is taking away their rights or preferred existing culture. At best, badly managed cultural change and development turns off engaged employees and at worst creates turn over, burnout and poor employer branding.

By allowing these inconsistent, misaligned cultural practices and norms to develop, you are fostering an environment with confusing and expensive layers that act as a harmful misdirection of real company or product issues.

Keeping It Real

I value and champion the need for our changing working environments and the ongoing development that companies can embrace. I believe with thoughtful and aligned management teams, employees can find a place to develop their highest level of success in a working environment that the gives them the meaning they are asking for.

Culture - with its mission, goals, values, practices and norms helps us achieve this.

When developing these, I suggest using controls and guidelines as an aligned management team. Such as team agreements to ensure that side cultural changes are not happening on independent team levels, and control questions for new programs like: “What is the need that this new program/item/policy is serving?” and “Who does it help?”

We need to move quickly to stay relevant, adapt and change in the startup world with the humility to accept when we’ve failed and learn from it, however, moving too quickly with culture will end up slowing us down. With intention and commitment, there are many solutions that you can implement in order to keep the pace of your organization without giving your employees whiplash.

For more guidance in developing your company culture, email me at arela@featuredpeople.com