Creating a culture of support beyond sprints - Ascendion

Creating a culture of support beyond sprints

Inclusivism - Exclusivism
Ascendion December 10, 2021


Arun Varadarajan
Chief Commercial Officer, Ascendion

The technology industry is one of the biggest and fastest-growing industries in the world. This is an industry said to have a market size of $5 trillion, completely based on leveraging “human capital” who we call knowledge workers. Consequently, Human Resource management in this sector critically impacts both the top and bottom lines. And still, according to Global Knowledge, 91% of unsatisfied employees in the IT industry are likely to pursue alternative employment.

While more than a third (36%) of tech workers said they had received an increase in salary, 28% of them reported that they were concerned with the state of their mental health. This is an increase of more than 75% compared to the Harvey Nash Group Technology & Talent Study’s 2020 survey.

An article published on LinkedIn statistically depicts the scary reality that the number of workers in the tech space who reported a mental disorder is in fact higher than the nationwide average. This really is something for everyone in the IT industry to mull upon. Most of this displeasure arises from extreme workloads and minimized training for development, in supporting career and in personal goals, and is further compounded by having no say in how they work and what they work on. In an industry where profitability is largely measured by the number of people and the amount of work they put in, can we still achieve a workplace where people define their own pace and create their own space? My submission is a big yes and, in my opinion, if you do create such a work environment, you will not only attract the best talent but boost your profits substantially over time! To make this a reality, there are 3 things we must examine closely in our current talent model: our performance systems, the prevalent work culture, and our current operating model.

Performance comes from defining purpose

It’s great to have role models and to follow the people who inspire you, but no one person can blindly follow someone (even the richest, most successful people) to feel truly happy or fulfilled. Even if there is an ideal model of how the technology industry should work, every organization, its project teams, and its members can have a greatly insightful and innovative take on it if given the opportunity. What are the parameters that we’re setting for the engineers of today that define their sense of success? How are we measuring their performance and contribution? Greater experience of structural analysis or familiarity with data modeling or developing complex algorithms? Delivering a tech offering today isn’t just about the technical skills, but also about great problem solving, teamwork and communication.

We’re in a time where the Gen-Z have entered the workforce. As leaders and/or mentors, some onus lies on us to make sure they don’t get frustrated or feel stifled by dogmatic work and cultural practices in our industry that may not have evolved from the last generation. These are highly spirited and talented young people who were born and raised in times where technological disruption does not baffle them, in fact, they’re always looking for newer, better ways to do something. However, more and more employees are reporting being anxious and feeling stressed every day. Phenomena like the impostor syndrome or summit syndrome are making workforces less confident and creating a culture of unhealthy practices. An article in Forbes magazine talks about what leaders can do to help people deliver what they naturally gravitate to and what enlivens them, to enable a sense of meaning, purpose, and achievement. 

Women, and especially women of color have been facing this for a very long time. This is highlighted in an article by BBC1 and by Maureen Zappala (former propulsion engineer and rocket scientist at NASA) when she says: “For years I thought NASA only hired me because they needed women. I felt under-qualified and in over my head. I worked long hours to try to prove myself. I was too afraid to ask for help because I thought if I’m really as smart as they think I am, I shouldn’t need the help, and I should be able to figure this out on my own.

How mentors can help their teams perform with freedom
  1. Create a sense of purpose and establish a larger vision that defines who and what is important in the workplace
  2. Give timely feedback on both the good and the bad
  3. Understand each person’s full personality traits to help them find their calling
  4. Celebrate achievements, and acknowledge mistakes as well
  5. Focus on the strengths, help overcome weaknesses
Changing work culture, nurturing and engagement 

It is a great time to be alive, for all of us participating in the digital landscape that has democratized access to capital, talent, ideas, and markets. There are so many opportunities for people to express themselves, pursue their dreams without it being the privilege of a few. Never were roles and responsibilities so fluid and empowering. Today a software engineer can very well be a rapper on the side, creating hip hop beats in the basement, and also a YouTuber sharing culinary skills with the world. Has ever before a teenager been able to make millions by streaming how they play video games? The number of mediums and platforms that we all have, are pushing us to live fuller lives and break away from traditional work cultures. Further, as David Epstein says in his recent book Range, the myth that one needs to be narrowly focused or married to just one area is actually detrimental to creativity and innovation. When people have a range of interests, it can lead to connections from across disciplines and interests, thus creating an environment for breakthrough ideas. When people use analogies from sport or music and transfer that to how teams work, perform or solve problems it gives a new and fresh perspective. It is a common fact that some people work better during mornings, some like the tranquility of a black sky, some thrive on strict routines while others produce in spurts. There is a possibility that if we let team members choose their pace, their interests, and their own timelines, the result is a lot happier minds enjoying the process of writing optimal and error-free code.

Why have we not recognized this change and brought it back to the workplace? This dissonance is a major challenge to surmount as we build the workplace of the future. We should also be thinking out of the traditional box in our hiring. Those who have dabbled and sampled across disciplines bring with them a breath and range that are important ingredients of creativity and innovation.

In a report on the state of employee engagement in tech, U.S.-based startup TinyPulse, found that only 28% of IT employees know their company’s vision, mission, and cultural values — 15% less than all other employees. Worse, some of them do know the company values but disagree with them, or at least how they’re being put into practice. This suggests that we must explore more effective strategies that really capture the voice of our employees and get them engaged in defining and refining who we want to be.

Robotic operating models must be examined

The current cost accounting practices in the tech industry are based on the number of resources and their activities required for a given project. It is only a few who have control over who works on what, which technology is best suited, how much time something needs, and how much is the optimum cost of it. We have reduced software engineering to a repetitive, mundane metronomic Sisyphus-like existence by removing joy, creativity, and free-thinking spirit out of the process. How can we make the core of what we do more meaningful and exciting before systemic ennui sets in? This calls for bringing in new talent that has a fresh perspective, and multiple experiences to pull from. It calls for a flexible work environment, and breaking barriers to entry. It calls for diversifying the workforce and ensuring that teams are composed of different kinds of people, with different perspectives, experiences, and cultures.

The future forward for engineering

So what is the way forward? What should we do to create a workplace where team members can create their own space and their own pace? Why are we hesitating to make a change? Should we change our accounting practices? What should we do with our antiquated performance systems? How do we create more open and transparent communication across the company on vision, goals, and objectives? What is the culture we want to set and celebrate? How can we have a more inclusive and participatory operating model? So many questions to ponder and deliberate on?

It is logical to assume that if we align joy, purpose, individual pace & space together with the organization’s vision, then overall outcome is exponentially higher. Think about an employee’s path as a game and how they can cross each level at their own skill. The satisfaction of going through any challenge, solving it on your own and progressing, makes the task that much more gratifying, and a warm sense of accomplishment envelopes you.  You want that feeling as often as possible for all your team members.

Promoting the overall development of your employees can push them to achieve a balance that is currently missing in the work culture. Making the culture more inclusive and listening to your workforce is a pivotal step in finding the cultural sweet spot. We can incentivize employees, not just with remuneration but by making them feel valued, and instilling a sense of joy in what they are doing. This can spark a culture of innovation and surprising discoveries.

An asynchronous work culture isn’t a bad thing, it means we can take people together on the journey without under-utilizing their potential or getting out of breath trying to keep up. It isn’t something that will happen overnight, but we definitely need to walk toward that path. My own belief in bringing joy back into engineering inspires me to see if the IT industry can reinstate people on their own journey by breaking the silos that exist in the standardized work pattern. Unbridled moments to create something, irrespective of the speed or the task management tool and access to knowledge and support, can truly create an open culture where every human and his/her innovative spirit can thrive. Let’s find a way to allow our employees to choose their lane, or define new ones to reach our destinations or discover new ones.

Seven ways to encourage flexibility for employees
  1. Set deadlines, but don’t chase them every 5 seconds
  2. Enforce targets but discuss them first and make them realistic
  3. Have career conversations regularly
  4. Discuss mental health issues openly and offer options for support 
  5. Set aside time for members to do recreational activities – give them space to perform
  6. Promote autonomy and ownership of any and all tasks
  7. Have fun!

A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn, Oct. 18, 2021. 


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