A good working culture is essential for a functional company and a positive workspace for employees. In engineering firms, where hundreds of ideas are exchanged every minute and collaboration is key, if the communication channels are not optimal, the work won’t be top-notch. Companies that are known to promote a healthy engineering culture also attract top talent within the field and can retain them for longer than average. Recruitment and retention are critical for an engineering organisation to be able to drive long-term success.
Silicon Roundabout, Europe’s largest Tech community interviewed Kindred’s Veronica Wall, Head of Technology Business Delivery and Sören Thörnlund, Head of Development to find out what are the components of a healthy engineering work culture.
Importance of innovation
At the heart of all engineering endeavours is innovation. If the innovators are tied down by rigid work culture practices, they won’t be able to make great products. In fact, this is what Veronica stresses when she says that even as companies develop and grow, they must have the “startup feel and the autonomy that you have as a team even as the challenges grow larger”.
Every big company was once a startup, and most entrepreneurs know that one of the key factors that lead to breakout success is the ability to do something different than what others in the space have already done before. That flair for thinking out of the box doesn’t come if senior management is constantly breathing down your neck and pushing you to do things a certain way, rather than allowing the “doers” to have creative freedom.
Contrary to popular belief, ping-pong tables and nap-pods in the working space do not magically make offices feel more homely. Neither do posters with smiling people in suits pointing towards motivational quotes on every wall of every cubicle. Work culture is a living thing that requires careful nurturing by the management so that the fruits don’t turn sour.
Encouraging creative freedom
The need to give engineers creative freedom over the products that they are making is crucial for any tech culture to thrive. Some might think that this is not important and even counterproductive. If the marketing and sales executives have a clearer idea about what the customers want, why not just enforce those directives upon the engineering team? Why do engineers need freedom and autonomy?
Sören Thörnlund has a brilliant answer to this question. He acknowledges that while the senior management might have more knowledge about customer demands, “they are not the experts at how we build systems.” He believes the role of a manager is to set “visions and guidelines and strategies and roadmaps,” but it’s the “super-skill” doers, the “developers and testers and engineers,” who are the foundation for everything that a company builds. Engineers should be given the creative freedom to not only design for the short-term but also set long-term goals such that they can own and live with the products that they make.
This is not to say that boundaries aren’t important. Every company has a certain set of guidelines and quality-control measures that they must abide by. What is important is how they are enforced. According to Sören, automation is the ideal way.
Kindred, which is in the business of gambling, is bound by certain external regulatory boundaries. The way that the company enforces this is by “being as hands-off as possible.” They have automated processes in place where if a developer has written a code that needs to be pushed to production, they can just “click a button, and all the bureaucratic processes are handled for you by software systems.” No manual oversight is needed.
Breaking status quo
This belief in the system stems from a deeper awareness of making engineering teams as self-sufficient as possible. To promote this idea, Kindred believes in hosting frequent collaborative forums that are driven by the various engineering teams, with a goal to “align across and learn from each other.” This includes geek sessions, where teams share the best practices within their group, and other such initiatives as a “Java club” or a book forum, all organized with minimal oversight from senior management.
Veronica calls this a horizontal approach to management. She believes that this encourages teams to be daring enough to challenge and innovate on their own.
The benefits of this horizontal approach are easy to see. In contrast to a top-down managerial approach, where the client and the engineering teams are kept apart from each other, the horizontal approach seeks to unite them. It also does not penalize failure and encourages engineers to be daring enough to innovate and break the status quo. In turn, the engineers begin to form a more holistic view of their work and the sacrifices they need to make in case of an emergency.
Well-being as a top priority
The final thing that any company must take care of is the mental health of their employees. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many companies to shift towards remote work, but the transition has not been smooth for everyone. Several people have reported increased stress levels from being isolated or simply out of fear for their loved ones. In times like this, it is important that companies take the initiative to keep their employees’ spirits high so that productivity remains untainted.
Kindred has been recognised as the top workplace in Tech by Great Place to Work. According to Veronica, “if we don’t have a workforce that’s not happy and healthy, then we have nothing.” Companies must integrate practices within their culture that promote self-care. Kindred is frequently visited by experts and speakers who specialise in mental health and anxiety. The company also organises initiatives, such as an “awareness month” for their employees’ well-being.
Another important practice within Kindred is ensuring that every employee receives the “same managerial experience”, regardless of who they happen to be working under. Often, in large companies, a bad team leader can sour the company experience for an employee. Kindred’s work culture does not face this problem. In Veronica’s words, “work-life balance is something they (top executives) live and breed every day themselves, so the culture comes from within, and it has been like that for a number of years.”
A good working culture defines an engineering company. The way an organisation takes care of its employees is more important than any salary or perk that they can offer. Kindred’s model is one that others should learn to keep their employees better engaged and happy while also letting their ideas flow.
This interview was also recorded as Podcast, available to listen here.