Culture: where is it, and how do I improve it?

So delicate and misunderstood: My thoughts

When we come down to it, workplace culture is a fickle mistress, indeed. It takes work and effort to build it up, but one lousy occurrence or two can send it tumbling down like a house of cards if left unaddressed. Workplace culture is the heart of your team, the heart of your company, and the heart of your success.

In an IT environment, expressive personalities are often more subdued than you would see with other departments, so your IT team members might be tougher nuts to crack, but don’t think there aren’t any concerns that lie underneath their stoic exterior. They may not express themselves as openly, but you may notice that something’s off in other ways.

Productivity and quality

In a strained culture, you will get the bare minimum from your employees, while a highly engaged team will go above and beyond, bouncing ideas off of each other and solving problems. You’ll also note differences in accountability, where a well-engaged team member takes ownership of their task, while a disengaged person will leave all decisions to others without taking charge.

My Fix: The buzz word is ENGAGEMENT

So how do you know the state of your workplace culture? Better yet – how can you change it for better? Why is this important? Let’s explore some hard statistics and direct benefits to your organization that comes from increased engagement, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace.

  • 51% of workers are actively seeking another job.
  • Engaged employees are 17% more productive in their jobs.
  • Engaged employees create increased profitability.
  • Highly engaged businesses realize a 41% reduction in absenteeism.

Is anyone adding numbers in their heads at this very moment, or is it just me?

Start with some measurements

We at Lighthouse love measurements to document our success and find areas for improvement, and so should you. You need some baseline numbers to get started. With those, you can record your progress for signs of change.

Productivity measures

You really don’t need some vast orchestrated event to gather this data, because it already exists.  Remember that engaged employees are more productive.

  • How much new functionality (story points, SLOCs, or Function Points) is written during each sprint?
  • What percent of our effort is on adding new functionality vs. fixing bugs?
  • How about your retention rate?

All of these can be easily captured and recorded.

Note: Other peripherals are more on the behavioral spectrum and more challenging to measure, such as when a barrier is discovered, is it addressed head-on, or passed to someone else to resolve? Set these aside for now because the results are more anecdotal than statistical.

Engagement surveys

Here is a way to get your team to put their unspoken feelings into words. Strong cultures use these surveys as a tool to test the pulse of the company each year. Engagement surveys ask targeted questions to your employees to identify opportunities to gain significant improvements across the team or enterprise-wide. Google the term ‘engagement surveys,’ and you will find a massive list of options to get you started. Survey Monkey offers a template specifically for engagement surveys that you can customize to be more specific to your company’s operations. 

Before you roll your eyes like you’ve been there and done that, be reminded that these are only measures. Nothing gets fixed until leadership acts upon their findings. That being said, never pump out an engagement survey without being prepared to accept, report, and act on the findings and trends you discover.

The bare-bones results – what your employees want

If your survey questions are precise, then you will get more specific answers. Most employee wishes revolve around three categories:

  • Employees want to feel valued and appreciated.
  • Employees desire a sense of satisfaction with their work and life.
  • Employees wish to feel secure with their future in the company.

Tips for engaging your employees – change starts with one step

Let’s start first by saying that there is no hot button, no quick fix, and no ultimate solution to complete for total harmony. Do not let your heart be troubled, however. Take it one step at a time. Each step in raising engagement is improving upon your entire culture, so hold on tight! An engaged workforce is the result of rich employee-centered culture and not just one or two items.

Start small

Remember when I said don’t aspire to survey without being expected to act on the results? It’s time to do some dancing, and that starts now. Just like with a SWOT analysis as a corporate strategy, you probably lack the time and resources to attack everything that comes up. What you can do is look for trends that are most popular and what we call “quick wins” that require very little to make a significant improvement (we LOVE those!) Next, pick one or two at a time to initiate changes.

Talk your talk

Report back to your employees what discoveries were realized from the survey results. The next thing they will be waiting to hear is what commitments is the company ready to exercise to initiate positive changes. Be sure not to give them one without the other. The reader who rolled his eyes when he read the words “engagement survey” can tell you why. He’s been there, done that, and nobody got him a t-shirt, either.  In one of our early surveys, employees clearly stated that our chairs were old, noisy, and generally uncomfortable.  I had no idea!  So, we offered to purchase a new chair for anyone who wanted one.  It turns out that some folks wanted a much more expensive chair that we planned to buy, so I made a deal with them.  They make up the difference in price (it was north of $100), and they would own the chair.

Walk the walk

Here is where the rubber hits the road. All that talk now needs to turn into actions. Treat each initiative as a project to make sure it is accomplished from start to finish, just like your software development projects.

Start at the beginning

Did you know that structured onboarding programs boast a 58% retention rate over three years? Onboarding is the first demonstration of the value in what new employees bring to the organization. What does your onboarding look like? How long does it take for a new developer or tester to become productive on the team, especially at the same level as their colleagues? At the team level, structured onboarding also creates a feeling of security to the new employee when it comes to their knowledge and ability to do the job they came on board to perform.

One technique that works exceptionally well with software developers is pairing the new developer with a strong one on the first day to co-develop. We’re not talking shadowing. This person already knows how to code. They need to familiarize themselves with your company’s processes and tools. Have them review their partner’s code, then swap roles, and they write. This is also a great way to commence cross-training between developers efficiently, broadening the knowledge base across the team without missing a beat on productivity.

Offer feedback regularly

Nobody accepts a job offer intending to aspire to lousy work. They need to know what they do well and where to improve. Otherwise, they may repeat the same little mistakes until it becomes a big problem.  Your Agile retrospectives are a great venue to offer constructive feedback to everyone without pointing a finger to anyone specific.  It’s also a great forum to get your employees engaged in finding ways to overcome some of these challenges.

Employees also want to know that they’re doing a good job, so forget the “no news is good news” perspective. There should be no surprises at quarterly or annual reviews. Millennials, especially crave regular feedback to keep working toward their (and your) goals. Monthly or weekly one-on-ones and frequent checking-in keep them interested, productive, and motivated.

Embrace the power of recognition

Recognition goes along with regular feedback, but worthy of mentioning by itself. Recognizing employees’ hard work makes them feel valued and appreciated. This sensation goes not only to the recipient but radiates throughout the team and starts to grow into a recognition culture between team members.

From my own experience, recognition is contagious. As we were encouraged to recognize all acts and people who go above and beyond, it became a very powerful tool in our organization. Celebrating each others’ successes created a great vibe that spreads across other teams. So I highly encourage you to use recognition as a tool for any behavior you wish to see repeated. You don’t even need a formal program to make this happen (but it helps grease the wheels, so to speak).

I recall an organization spread across eight different locations. Their leadership recognized the team that was the most productive each week and passed a traveling trophy their way. Once they lost their title, the trophy moved to the next winning team. One detail that was most amusing is that they had a “crying towel.” The team that lost their trophy was awarded the crying towel until the trophy moved again.

All they had was one trophy (and I think it was a bowling trophy out of someone’s basement) and a funny embroidered towel with a sad face.  The cost was minimal, but the pride and self-motivation were incredible with each team, and productivity soared.  Keep it light and fun!

Growth opportunities

A sign of a secure future with the company comes around opportunities to expand your skills and grow professionally. Allocate time and funds to help cross-train, expand skills, and allow your team to grow within the organization.

If you are lucky enough to have a few high performers on our team, set these rockstars up with new challenges and opportunities for new experiences with special projects or tasks to help them grow and prepare them for their next promotion.

Help them get that satisfaction

If you’ve gotten this far successfully, the above steps are already starting to elevate the level of satisfaction at the job. Think of other inexpensive ways you might contribute to enhancing their work-life balance, like flexible schedules, half a day off, or remote work for high performers.

Other successful moves are little perks like company lunch days and even a cool espresso machine. Those companies with slides, napping pods, and bean bag chairs are all-in with the perk concept. You may not need that slide to go downstairs, but find other ways to help them find enjoyment at work.

Is your testing team winning?

Another indicator of a strong culture is the feeling of success. Your team is motivated when they know that their work is making a difference, and are motivated when they see success coming alive. Lighthouse gets your testing team winning with our True North methodologies. How do we know? We use it ourselves with our own testing teams, and we help other organizations reach the same higher momentum.

With our True North Assessment, we identify what you’re doing exceptionally well and where you can improve, providing you with that guiding light of valuable feedback. We can also offer suggestions to get your testing team pointed True North, learn new techniques, and see their satisfaction and motivation elevate as they realize their potential. Would you like to learn more about True North? Let’s talk!

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