In 2013, I wrote a lengthy rant about culture in tech workplaces. It was a symptom of larger problems I was experiencing at the time—I was a woman of color drowning in a tech bro’s paradise. Constant rumors and bullying caused people to form cliques; alcohol was the only escape most employees had from the hostility. It was impossible for me to be productive, and I wanted to understand why.
The only answer was culture. I couldn’t change culture at this company, so I wrote about it then left as soon as possible. Nonetheless, the experience stayed with me. How do companies, I continued to wonder, design workplace cultures that retain employees? I spent the next few years learning from my time at other companies. Now, I would like to share some of those learnings with you.
Culture is often defined as the customs, beliefs and other manifestations that differentiate one group of people from another. In terms of corporate entities, culture is the bond that ensures employee retention. It affects employees’ moods and determines whether they are productive or distressed. Psychology Today states that “happy employees have lower medical costs, work more efficiently and have less absenteeism.” This means corporate culture is directly tied to the overall performance of a company—if executed poorly, it can lead to diminished returns.
Recently, “culture” has become a buzzword in tech. Free beer, ping pong tables, and other material perks such as endless snacks and sleeping rooms are often paraded as reasons for prospective employees to join. I was swayed by these kinds of benefits at a few points in my career. Each time, I found myself burned out, overworked, and undervalued after the honeymoon period passed.
Fancy offices and alcohol-laden parties, it appears, can’t replace a lack of direction. Organizational culture is about more than materialism. Harvard Business Review states that there are six components of a strong corporate culture: vision, values, practices, people, narrative, and place. A large amount of introspection is required to define these components. Writing down a concrete mission statement and identifying a set of guiding principles can lead to a more supportive, collaborative environment. Refusing to do so can lead to a void that results in negative – or even hostile – workplace conditions.
Unfortunately, many companies don’t define their organizational culture when they are formed. It’s not too late, though, to make a change. Here are several ways you can gauge how your company is doing as well as quick methods for improvement.
What three words would you use to describe the company? What are its three core values, and how can the company’s principles be carried out in realistic ways? If formal versions of these these do not exist, your employees are imagining their own and acting upon those.
How would you describe the company’s employee retention rate? Most people in tech aim to work at companies for at least two years. If employees are called veterans after six months, there are likely organizational issues that cause employees to vacate shortly after being hired. Identify those issues as quickly as possible and remedy them – even if it means firing a high-performing employee. A person is not worth retaining if they cause others to leave.
Are employees pressured to compete against each other? Has anyone at the company withheld information from someone else to gain higher footing? Like Susan J. Fowler wrote about Uber, political games often result in less productivity: “projects were abandoned left and right … nobody knew what our organizational priorities would be one day to the next, and very little ever got done.”
Are employees with different skills encouraged to work together? For example, do designers act like agents-for-hire at the company, and are they allowed to pursue subjects outside their direct expertise? I have worked at places where people with different roles hardly communicated, even when they worked on projects together. Producing good work as a product development team was impossible because the designers, product owners, and engineers all felt like they were smarter than each other.
The presence of alcohol
Do employees stop working early to drink and/or attend happy hours several times per week? Are company gatherings centered around alcohol? Does a new incident occur at each holiday party? Corporate alcoholism is dangerous not only because it can marginalize employees who do not partake in drinking, but also because lawsuits can result from negative incidents such as harassment or assault.
Comfort of marginalized employees
Is the company accessible for people with alternate abilities? Are there intersectional support mechanisms for marginalized people such as LGBTQIA+ people, women, and people of color at your company? One example of a support mechanism is employee resource groups, or ERGs. According to MIT, ERGs lead to a more inclusive workplace by “creating an open forum for staff who share common interests/concerns to meet and support one another.” It also helps diversify recruiting efforts and increase retention. During my time at both SoundCloud and Etsy, I witnessed ERGs such as WINE (Women IN Engineering) and BridgE (Black Resource & Identity Group at Etsy) give marginalized employees the space to be themselves and contribute to the betterment of their respective companies.
Does your company offer good healthcare and parental leave? Are employees penalized for taking vacations or staying home when sick? Is overtime work required to launch projects on time? People who are pressured to work constantly tend to burn out faster than those who are encouraged to practice self care, recharge their energy on nights and weekends, and spend time with their families.
Once you’ve written down answers to the above questions, take a moment to consider them. What is the company doing well, and what are areas of improvement? Identify cultural goals based on what you’d like your answers to be in one year as well as three years from now. Treat these goals like any other key performance indicator and make sure to review progress each quarter.
Unfortunately, many tech companies lack positive organizational cultures. Groups like Good for PoC exist because finding inclusive places to work proves challenging for marginalized people. Every day, however, more organizations realize that employee happiness equates to financial value. I strongly believe that women of color like me – and all people in tech – will find it increasingly easier to locate positive places to work as the years progress. Give workplace culture a seat at the table. It’s already working behind the scenes, anyway.
Catt is a product designer, game maker, and developer. She is currently making awesome things at Etsy. She started programming interactive games around the age of 10 and has been going ever since. In her spare time, Catt organizes events with Good for PoC and launches games with Brooklyn Gamery. You can follow her @cattsmall on Twitter and view her work at www.cattsmall.com.