The tech sector is not famed for its culture. Despite most tech-based companies’ efforts to portray laidback working environments filled with gaming activities, free food, and breakout rooms to relax, the reality is that many tech organisations battle a continuous churn in employees seeking a better work-life balance and more inclusive environments.
Figures from Mthree, a talent and skills provider, found that more than half of young people working in tech have either left the industry or thought about leaving it because of poor company culture.
The constant battle CEOs, founders and senior leadership teams find themselves in to create a productive and enthusiastic environment to stay ahead of competition, often results in challenging workplaces where employees no longer feel engaged in the vision of the business. For most start-ups and young tech businesses, identifying these problems while navigating rapid growth and investor pressure can be difficult.
What’s more, when culture problems are identified, it can be a hard pill to swallow for company founders who have invested so much of themselves into growing their business from the ground up.
Our own challenges
Like many businesses, we have faced our own challenges over the years at SMART. Several years ago, a collection of issues led us to facing one of the most challenging times our business had ever encountered. Morale was low (as measured by an annual engagement survey) and employee feedback told us we needed to change.
2016 was the year that the senior leadership team at SMART committed to addressing and improving our culture.
With input from our employees, we identified, built and followed through on action plans for the problems that were causing employee disengagement at a critical time and were able to make fundamental differences to the way we operated.
Engage the team
While there are many important elements to building positive company culture, if I had to isolate one single key to success in improving engagement, it would be to engage the full team to own and solve challenges from the grass-roots level.
Don’t assume the executive or senior leadership team has the answers to improving culture! Critical to our approach to improving our culture was having open conversations with our employees, being receptive to their ideas and acting on the employee feedback from our company-wide survey with approaches that leaned into this full team concept.
For example, transparency and communication was identified as a significant issue, which we addressed by forming a collaborative team of employees from different departments who volunteered to help address the issue. This led to new initiatives and programs such as a shared corporate scorecard, ‘what’s on your mind’ forums with opportunities for authentic questions and discussion, and ongoing open houses around a variety of pertinent topics.
Another major impediment to engagement were the silos we had in our business – a common complaint in many organisations. “I love my team, but I’m not sure what other teams are doing” was a regular sentiment in employee feedback. To counter this, we took the bold step to move away from silo working and combined our sales, marketing and service teams around customer roles in their journey.
That led to the birth of the ‘Unified Commercial Engine’, a disruptive and effective way to re-look at sales and marketing that was recently featured in Harvard Business Review.
Eliminating silos ultimately saw our year-on-year sales growth increase significantly even during the challenges of a global pandemic, and saw a significant jump in job satisfaction amongst our team as a result. This move away from silo working was adopted geographically too. As a global business with bases in Europe and North America as well as many remote colleagues, making sure our people learn from and with colleagues in different locations was key to improving our overall culture.
Values matter. Behaviours matter even more.
Throughout all of this work, the idea that ‘your culture is the worst behaviour you tolerate’ became a rallying cry at SMART. We asked ourselves, what are the values and behaviours we want to model and maintain? What are we no longer willing to tolerate?
Another cross-functional team refined our shared corporate values and worked with an even broader team to thoughtfully define tangible behaviours for each of them. We then rolled out this framework and ensured that everyone had a shared understanding of how we would act and treat one another – and what it looked like when we didn’t.
With this framework and a new cross-functional team in place, the behavioural framework moved quickly from ideological into practice, with many of our most focused on behaviours becoming ‘water cooler’ phrases that were easy to connect with, and exhibit. For example, to ‘pass the baton’ became synonymous with effective and accountable project management and support.
But please don’t think of this ‘Behavioural Framework’ as just a poster on the wall or a few catch phrases. We have incorporated it into our key people processes such as performance reviews, so that all employees are now rated equally on how they perform against their objectives (what they do) and how they behave aligned to our Values behaviours (how they do it).
In summary, all of these combined efforts have seen our employee engagement increase by almost double over the last seven years, and SMART Technologies is now listed as a ‘best in class’ company both globally and across all industries by Mercer Sirota, an independent employee engagement survey.
Commitment to culture
It’s important to note, however, that these are things that all companies can do. What it requires is a commitment to culture from senior leaders as well as individual contributors. And the provision of a safe space to speak up about how and when challenges and misalignments need to be addressed.
As a business, we were fortunate that we identified the problems early on. This meant we had the time to turn things around before it was too late and the damage to our company was too great. This ability to identify issues early on is key for tech startups. While it’s easy to get lost in the financials and growing customer acquisition, making sure your company’s culture is strong and sustainable is equally as important for the continued success of a business – particularly with the ongoing disruption caused to businesses from The Great Resignation.
Good people with talent AND soft skills are increasingly hard to come by and a strong company culture is one of the key differentiators between employees remaining loyal or jumping to a competitor.
While the tech sector may not have been known for its strong culture in the past, we shouldn’t let the same mistakes dictate our future. At SMART Technologies, we have learnt from our trials and tribulations and have built a company that we are all proud of.
We know that the hard work doesn’t stop here, to sustain the momentum, we need to continue our commitment to this critical topic and spend time and energy on it across the company. It’s time the tech sector as a whole did the same.