by Sarah K. White

Don’t let stress and a crazy pace kill your culture

Jun 27, 2016
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Whether it's a cool new startup or a well-established tech giant, culture is a huge part of success in the tech industry,. But there are common problems with company culture that span the entire industry -- and it's hurting productivity.

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Tech companies have a reputation of being high pressure and fast-paced — especially startups. That culture can quickly erode morale as employees begin to feel the strain of the long hours and rapid, and sometimes confusing, change.

A 2015 study from VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, interviewed 827 tech employees, to look at how culture affects performance in tech companies. The study identified some key ideas around culture and how it can positively or negatively affect the overall performance of the company.

David Maxfield, New York Times bestselling author and vice president of research at VitalSmarts, has been conducting social science research around Fortune 500 companies for the past 30 years. Based on his research, he offer these suggestions on what needs to change in the tech world, and how to change it. But if you think improving work-place culture in tech is about building a cutting edge office or offering the best benefits, you’re probably wrong.

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Staying cool

The research shows that employees want to work for businesses that are perceived as cool, but that means more than free snacks or a nap room in the office. Rather, your company’s status often depends on less tangible benefits, such as innovation, growth and having a positive impact on society, says Maxfield. Employees reported caring less about the perks and more about working for companies or startups that give them a “sense of meaning.”

And sometimes that sense of meaning can be derived from a sense of urgency to remain innovative or to release a quality product to your customers as soon as possible. Maxfield gives the example of Facebook in early 2012. The company knew it needed to embrace mobile. “The reinvention became both a burning platform and an urgent opportunity. The teams that could contribute to this reinvention quickly became the cool teams,” he says. By getting employees excited about a new initiative, and emphasizing its impact, will further encourage productivity and engagement with the project, he says.

Businesses can maintain a good image by encouraging growth in the company, and showing employees how a new project can elevate their careers. If there’s a new project that will take up much of their time, or require over time, it’s important to acknowledge the added burden, and to emphasize how the project will benefit their careers. Maxfield also says the research shows that connecting your projects to social values will be a key factor for keeping your employees happy and productive. Employees want to feel a sense of purpose, and you can create that by encouraging them to work on new projects in meaningful ways.

“Make the link between your team or project and the positive impact it has on customers, society, and the world. This strategy has great power. For example, during the Arab Spring, employees within Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube suddenly became agents of social change — and also cool,” he says.

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Create consistency

Maxfield says that while every tech company wants to say that it’s unique, in reality most are driven by the same principals. “Tech’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, and interdependence among rivals is unmatched. Dense geographic concentrations in regions such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, and Bangalore foster even more cultural idiosyncrasies,” he says.

The culture of the entire industry includes high-stress and fast-paced environment, so businesses need to consider how to avoid burnout, low morale and turnover. Maxfield suggests putting in safeguards to avoid overlapping assignments, unclear ownership and changing priorities. If you can avoid these common traps, it not only means happier employees, but it also makes for less work, wasted time and confusion or frustration.

One common thread the researchers discovered was that, especially for the tech industry, businesses need to make efforts to avoid “scope creep.” That means, leaders need to consider add-ons or new instructions that might take the team off course. To stay on track, it’s important to be realistic about the expectations and delivery on assignments.

The biggest problems with scope creep pops up in cultures of silence, where employees aren’t comfortable speaking up and voicing their opinion. If employees know they won’t be able to deliver a quality product on time with all the add-ons and changes requested, you want them to feel comfortable speaking up. In the end, how you handle scope creep will ultimately affect the quality of your products and customer satisfaction.

“To safeguard against this in the inevitable messiness of a fast-paced tech world, tech leaders must create a norm where people speak up about unrealistic deadlines and informal compromises to priorities,” he says.

He also recommends creating a culture that allows for adjusting priorities, but to avoid relying on another project management system. Instead, work on discovering and eliminating ambiguities through open and honest dialogue in the company. Create a culture that supports employees who find inconsistencies in products and solve problems through constructive dialogue.

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Changing the tech world

The problems that exist in the tech world — primarily stressful working environments, ambiguity and fast paced change — aren’t any one person’s fault, says Maxfield. And he suggests that businesses avoid viewing these issues as “problems to be fixed,” but rather as realities of the industry. They can’t necessarily be solved, but with the right manager and employees, you can create a culture that allows them to thrive, and that will help your business grow.

The responsibility falls on everyone in the company to help improve the overall culture, not just on upper management or HR. Leaders in the company should focus on fostering innovation, alleviating and acknowledging the pressure employees are under, supporting constructive dialogue and creating a safe environment for employees to speak up. It’s about understanding your employees, acknowledging their hard work and creating a sense of purpose, says Maxfield. For employees, alleviating these issues will involve focusing on the best parts of your job and connect it to your values. He also suggests speaking up when your plate is too full, bringing attention to any inconsistencies you find in the workplace and to avoid engaging in a culture of silence.

“The best employees and the best leaders find ways to do more than survive these challenges. They figure out how to thrive — to turn these challenges into advantages for themselves and their teams,” says Maxfield.

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