By David Blair, CTO at Andela
Think back to the long-ago pre-pandemic days of 2019, when engineering leaders and hiring managers brainstormed the best ways to create supportive, inspiring team cultures. There were 1:1 check-ins over lunch. There were efforts to break down silos so everyone could share their knowledge. There were meetings where every voice could be heard in turn and everyone could share knowledge. And there were the offsites, where teams could forget about work for a little while and get to know one another as people.
Then the pandemic came and swept away many of our strategies for team-building. As the timeline for remote work stretched from weeks and months to years – and in many cases, a permanent hybrid work culture – engineering leaders have had to reinvent how to create culture. They’ve also had to address long-term trends impacting cultures, like employees working in many time zones, and the need to embrace cultural diversity.
The bottom line is that culture matters — more than ever — but what makes a strong culture has changed.
Remote work has upended team culture — but tech can help
Once engineers realized they didn’t need to live within commuting distance of an office anymore, they headed out across the United States, and even across oceans. They sought space for their children, moved closer to vulnerable parents and grandparents, or simply wanted to improve their quality of life by relocating to more affordable cities.
A year later, many workers wonder if it’s worth moving back to their former homes, especially if they’ve figured how to work efficiently and productively from home. Engineering managers worry that the distance between employees will weaken team culture. Without space for casual chatting among coworkers in hallways or lunchrooms, there’s little informal, off-the-cuff conversation.
Hiring leaders are bolstering their technology toolkits to find solutions that deliver remote collaboration. These tech investments should continue well into 2021: 72% of the executives in PwC’s Remote Work Survey said they plan to invest in tools for virtual collaboration, while 70% said they’ll invest in IT infrastructure that ensures virtual connectivity.
We’ve experienced this ourselves at Andela. Our teams have started experimenting with tools to show appreciation or to connect informally when forming new teams like Icebreaker.com for some lighthearted connection. As a business that supports engineering delivery, we have been building our own self-check-in tools at Andela to give talent a voice and to capture in a data-centric way to understand how they are doing, are blocked, or to understand if they are thriving. It’s a way to give engineers a voice in how they’re doing, so we can respond to their needs. As we like to say, happy engineers are better engineers.
Global, diverse talent will expect a strong and supportive culture
There’s good news and bad news for hiring managers seeking talent from around the world. The good news is that since hiring talent locally is no longer a requirement, there is a much larger and more diverse talent pool from which to source candidates. That’s a boost to both hiring, and diversity and inclusion efforts.
The challenge that needs to be overcome is that great candidates can also choose from a wider pool of potential employers. Now that organizations are competing on a global scale for talent, they will have to raise their game. Pay and benefits are part of the picture, but skilled candidates who can demand good money from anyone now want something more: culture, vision, and mission.
Of course, candidates ask about the problems we are solving and how well the company is doing, but when I speak with candidates these days, the most frequent question I get is, “Tell me about your mission.” Candidates want to know if a potential employer is doing some good in the world, and organizations must tell that story effectively.
Organizations also need to tell that story to the rest of the world, via branding and marketing campaigns. Especially in a world where social justice and equity are global and highly visible in the media, candidates will be just as interested (if not more so) in how an employer supports employees and communities as they are in benefits and perks.
How to Create a Sense of Mission
Creating a sense of mission is about being very clear about why the work matters. Sharing the entire picture of the product use case can help engineers get a better understanding of their role and the importance of their work. There is a parable of three bricklayers all working on the same project. It is the one who knows that they are helping to build a great cathedral who is most motivated and who has the most pride in their work. For your company, perhaps it is software that makes hospitals more efficient, or it reduces fraudulent advertising for publishers. Be clear and honest. For engineers, the story should be more than the website marketing speak, they want to truly understand the product function and purpose.
Your mission also needs to be grounded in how you work with and support the team. Having values well defined gives the context for your team to operate and to set expectations for working. At Andela, we have a set of values centered around Excellence, Passion, Integrity, and Collaboration. We call these our EPIC values and regularly review how they relate to the mission of the company and how each department interprets them for their own execution. Explaining how these values help focus and motivate the team on a daily basis can also help candidates understand that the team culture is important to everyone at the company, not just a few executives that produce meaningless values and let them languish.
Culture creates brilliant teams, no matter where teams work
Even if organizations don’t have the brown-bag lunches and the team outings, leaders are finding new ways to create strong and connected cultures during this era of remote and hybrid work. Organizations that have worked hard to create a culture that isn’t dependent on being in the same room together will carry these new approaches into the next phase, be it on-site, remote, or a hybrid of both. It’s worth it to put effort into managing team connection, engagement, and culture. Make a plan every quarter, deliberate and work at improving it. The reward will begin to emerge in the form of more motivated, loyal engineers across the entire team.