Flexibility is the greatest perk

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Growth
Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash.

Where we are

Given that technology talent is in significant demand, and given that salaries can only go so high before they fail to become a meaningful differentiator, companies need to find new ways to attract and retain staff.

As a manager of engineers, aside from making sure that I am paying market rate, I’ve found that the most impactful workplace perk that I can give staff is flexibility over the time and location of their work.

Typically this means:

  • The ability for my staff to work from home (or elsewhere) when they need, either for productivity reasons or for any other life reason.
  • No strict start and end of the day, since we’re not a factory.

This perk costs you pretty much nothing, but the effect on employee happiness can be something quite special.

It can give someone the ability to do all of their children’s school runs. It can save thousands on peak time public transport costs. It can allow someone to care better for a dependent in need. It can take the pressure off of a partner working full-time with no flexibility of their own. It can allow someone to visit their family for two weeks whilst also getting their work done remotely and not using any vacation time.

Doubling your salary will not allow you to buy these freedoms.

We’ve come a long way from free Coke

Ten years ago, a Google-esque perks list that included foosball, free snacks and drinks and a quirky office on top of interesting work will have been unique enough to attract staff away from duller corporate environments.

However, I would argue that these benefits have become a hygiene factor for most technology companies. My cynical side could point out that companies that try to make their office “cool”, whilst still being in the cultural and technological dark ages, have a lot to fix before worrying about where to optimally place their Kegerator.

A positive shift happening in our industry is a move towards increased trust and flexibility in the full-time contract between the employer and the employee.

In my experience, senior staff couldn’t give a damn about how good your table tennis table is. They want to do meaningful work, for a decent wage, but most importantly, they want to be trusted, autonomous, and be able to manage their time like an adult.

This means working from home when they feel that it makes them more productive, leaving early each day so that they can do the school run, and having a flexible vacation policy so that they don’t have to sacrifice time off this year so they can carry over enough days into the following year to go and see their family for a meaningful amount of time in another continent.

I am a fervent supporter of this flexibility for all of my employees. It makes a vast difference, especially with the cost and unreliability of transport.

Age as a catalyst of change

In the early stages of my career, most of my time and energy was channeled into my work and self-development. I worked obsessively hard on my Ph.D. and in my first few years of work. I certainly do not regret this. There is a time and a place for blinkered laser-focus, but it is certainly not all of the time.

The most important thing in life to my current self isn’t my job. (Sorry folks.) It’s everything else as well. It’s my family, dog, friends, mental and physical health, my hobbies, and also my job. I want to bring my best state of mind to all of those aspects of my brief existence without one being detrimental to the other.

If my job is leaving me so tired and time poor that I don’t want to cook and enjoy a nice meal as a family, or it makes me unable to read or watch a movie without falling asleep, nor leaves me with the creative energy to engage in my hobbies, then what’s the point of doing it in the first place? I could easily get a different job. Work should support and enable lives, rather than claim them.

Given that we don’t need to clock in and clock out of a building to operate machinery to build software, I want the flexibility to be able to manage my time as appropriate, work from my nice desk at home to birdsong when it is most beneficial for my productivity and my home life, and generally feel like an autonomous, trusted adult. If you give me that, interesting work and a decent salary, I’ll give you my best.

I’ve managed to arrive at this position over the years, but I appreciate that not everybody else in the technology world has, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes workplaces simply do not allow it and require bums to be on seats between 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM regardless of the tendency of employees to converge towards sinecure to pad the time, or sometimes there are hurdles of internal, anxious social workplace pressure to conform.

“I must be in the office early! What will they think of me if I am not?”

But why not?

If you are a manager and your workplace does not offer this kind of flexibility, then do not immediately lose hope. You could make it happen. You can look to pitch it to your own manager as an experiment. You could light the fire that begins to spread.

It obviously helps if you and your team are already performing well in the first place, but I have the feeling that if you’re actively researching how to introduce more flexibility, then you’re a few steps ahead of most managers out there.

So, assuming that your team performs well, and assuming that offering more flexibility is something that both you and your staff will benefit from, pitch the following to your own manager:

  • That you are going to allow more flexibility in working hours and office presence from this point onwards. You may want to define this more formally, or just let it unfold naturally. If your team isn’t used to this, then I’d recommend starting with perhaps 1 or 2 days maximum working from home a week, and defining some core office hours, such as 10 AM to 3 PM for those physically present in the office.
  • That you will run flexible working as a trial for a fixed period of time. 90 days is a good timeframe to start with, as that can coincide with a decent amount of work being done that you can collectively measure.
  • That, as a reminder, you are ultimately responsible for your team’s performance. You will grant and revoke more or less flexibility if it is or isn’t working out for individuals on your terms, based on the productivity and team harmony that you see, rather than what outside observers may think.
  • That it will be done privately and without wider announcement. In order to cause as little disruption – and potentially jealousy – in other areas of the company, the trial will be done in stealth and not publicized. After all, if increased flexibility is beneficial to employee happiness and productivity, then the quality of work and interactions with the team should remain at least as good as it was before.
  • That you’ll all report back after the trial. Collect the opinions of the team and of those that regularly work with them. Did any aspect of the team’s work suffer as a result of this increased flexibility, or did morale and productivity improve? Did those that interact frequently with the team find them harder to get hold of, or did it not matter?

If the trial goes well, you can probably extend it indefinitely. If your manager is supportive, you could use it as a vehicle to start the conversation with the wider company about flexible working, which could bring meaningful change for everybody.

Flexible working will prevent your staff from leaving. Get them off of the rails. You won’t regret it.

Management bugs: 18 months later

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Growth
Photo by michael podger on Unsplash.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article on an initiative called “management bugs” that I had introduced into our Engineering department at Brandwatch. If you’re not familiar with the concept, then I go into a fair amount of detail in the previous article.

However, in summary:

  • The management of the engineering department have their own JIRA backlog that staff can raise “bugs” into if something isn’t working quite right.
  • Anyone can raise bugs, regardless of role or tenure, and anyone can view or comment on them.
  • There is a designated person (me) who receives, triages and dishes out bugs to the relevant people in order to solve the issues.
  • Typically the bugs become part of the agenda at our management meetings, and are taken away as actions.
  • Once resolved, a summary is written of the outcome and emailed around to the department mailing list.

This week, I was invited to give a talk about the management bugs initiative at The Lead Developer Meetup which was hosted at Intercom’s office in London. In my talk, I introduced the concept and walked through some of the things that had changed in our department as a result.

In preparation for the talk, I revisited the management bugs scheme by reviewing all of the bugs that had been raised and closed. We’ve been running the scheme since summer 2017.

Here’s what I learned:

  • In 18 months, we’ve completed 48 management bugs, with 5 currently in progress. So that’s a new bug every week and a bit. Although, it has to be said that the average number of bugs is skewed by a deluge coming in at the beginning of the initiative, and it has lessened with time, hopefully because we’re getting things fixed!
  • An overwhelming majority of bugs were opened by non-managers. This is great, as it shows that our staff feel empowered to raise their concerns openly with their names attached.
  • The typical length of time that a bug was open for ranged from 5 minutes to 1 year! Some issues were extremely simple to solve, and some were not even necessarily solvable.

I sifted through the bugs to get some examples of issues of different sizes.

Here are some examples of small, quickly solved issues:

  • What do the VPs do? As a VP, this one hit slightly close to home! However, it was a good example of us failing to regularly share the location of our career tracks document, which details the roles and responsibilities for the individual contributor and management tracks.
  • New starters aren’t getting introduced! And indeed, they weren’t. We now make sure that every new member of staff has an introduction sent to the department from their manager detailing their name, what they’re working on, a picture of what they look like, and any self-declared interests and facts to help break the ice.
  • Is there a budget for books and courses? Well, yes, there was, but we had never really documented it. So we did.
  • New staff outside the UK aren’t getting dialed into induction meetings. Oops! That doesn’t happen any more, and all calendar invites now have proper video call links.
  • New roles aren’t being advertised internally. Often opportunities would arise in teams and the outside world would know more than our internal staff who might be interested in working on something new. We make sure that we publicize roles internally now also.

How about some of the medium sized issues?

  • Why aren’t we getting faster as we’re getting bigger? That classic debate. It had a whole bunch of fascinating input from people in a variety of roles in the department. I wrote up a fairly in-depth summary about productivity per head decreasing as you grow, including mention of the Mythical Man Month, speed of decision-making, and the Innovator’s Dilemma, and how we could keep this in mind as we go forward.
  • Why do we not advertise roles as part-time? Well, after a bunch of discussions, we now do, and we have part-time staff that we have hired into our department. So that was a success.
  • When are we going to rewrite the frontend? We’re not, but this did help instigate further discussion about architectural and technical debt work that we needed to tackle, and we now have a permanent stream of work to address it.

Lastly, what about some of the issues that took a very long time to resolve?

  • What is our technical vision for the department? Tricky to define, as it cross-cuts so many different skill sets and areas, such as what our cloud strategy is (we run both cloud and hardware for different parts of the system), how we migrate towards Kubernetes everywhere, whether or not we should standardize the storage and deployment technologies in all teams, and so on. We made a fair bit of progress, but then we went through a merger, so this is all up for further debate again…
  • Why don’t we sign up for StackOverflow for teams? We made the decision very quickly that we’d like to, and we ran a trial that was very well received. It just took a long time to secure the budget. Sometimes it isn’t always the consensus that takes the time.

All in all, I’ve been really happy with our management bugs initiative. I hope that it has made everyone empowered to make change, regardless of their seniority or tenure in the department. It’s also allowed myself and others to get involved in discussions with individuals that we otherwise would rarely talk to.

The challenge that I set the audience of the meetup was that they should go away and do something similar in their own Engineering department. Will you?

Let’s make a space for developers

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Growth
“You’re going to love this.” Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Lisa and Ben are standing in the middle of a cavernous empty office. It smells damp.

“Well, I guess this could be nice,” says Ben, looking at the peeling corners of the carpet tiles beneath his feet and the adjacent coffee stain that possibly predates Y2K.

Lisa looks at the wires hanging from the ceiling. “Before or after we set fire to it?”

“C’mon, Lisa. Imagine the possibilities.”

Ben makes a wide gesture with his arms and motions towards the space in front of him.

“We could have our team sitting right by that window over there. It’s a great view.”

“Of Tesco.”

“We could even have our own coffee machine, and maybe a screen on the wall, and…”

Thump.

Mia shoves the front door open too hard and the handle collides loudly with the adjoining wall. She announces her presence, although she’s already done that quite successfully.

“Yoo-hoo! Develoooooopers!”

The developers in question exchange glances.

“We’re data scientists,” exclaims Lisa.

Ben looks dubious. “Oh no, she has company.”

Mia is followed by three identically dressed men with  matching brown brogues, black trench coats, and black oversized spectacles.

Lisa looks twice in surprise as they file in, one after the other.

She whispers quietly to Ben. “Is this a glitch in the Matrix?”

The group approach, with hands outstretched, ready to greet. Mia introduces them.

“Lisa, Ben; meet the agency is who is going to turn this old office into a masterpiece for us: Ashley, Ashley and Ashley.”

The first man speaks. “Thank you Mia. We really enjoyed meeting your sales team earlier.”

They all shake hands in turn.

“Hey, I’m Reuben Ashley.”

Next.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Reese Ashley.”

Next.

“Hello. I’m Ramon.”

“Ramon Ashley?” enquires Ben.

“No, Ramon Martínez Simón.”

“OK.”

“Well it’s nice to meet you too,” says Lisa, relinquishing their firm handshake grip.


The group walk across the tatty floor towards the few remaining pieces of furniture from the previous occupiers. They sit down.

“Ashley, Ashley and Ashley have been working on some ideas for how we’re going to turn this space into something fantastic,” declares Mia.

Reuben nods.

“Yes, yes, we have. We’ve brought some initial designs along with us today. Mia informed us that you are two of the longest serving developers here, so you’d have a good idea about what you’d want in your ideal workspace.”

“We’re data scientists,” replies Ben.

“Data what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” says Lisa. “We really appreciate you getting our opinion on it! What sort of ideas did you already have in mind?”

She looks around at the empty room.

“This place is huge, so it could be really amazing.”

Reuben reaches down into his leather folio and extracts a thick stack of colorful card.

“I think you’re going to like what we’ve been ideating on here.”

He turns the first drawing towards them.

Ben and Lisa scoot their chairs closer. Ben’s wobbly chair leg gets stuck on a tacky pink substance left on the carpet and he wiggles it free, leaving a rope of slime behind.

He looks at the mess. “Gross.”

“OK, let’s go through these,” says Reuben.

The initial drawing is a cacophony of color. Red sofas, green beanbags, yellow carpet; all drawing attention to the beautiful, long, translucent acrylic reception desk.

Reese makes an open-handed gesture in front of the stack of cards. “We wanted the entrance of the office to look inviting and fun. Clients will want to visit you here. Interviewees will want to work here the moment they come through the door.”

Lisa and Ben nod in agreement.

“Looks great,” says Lisa.

“Good,” says Reuben. He moves the next drawing to the front of the stack so they can see.

It details a breakout area complete with table tennis and air hockey tables, complimented with reclaimed wood furniture, metal café chairs in a kaleidoscope of colors, and oversized spherical white pendant lighting.

Reese continues. “Notice how we’ve created this central hub, accessible from all work areas, where most employees will visit throughout the day. We think that this will help colleagues connect and strike up interesting conversations.”

They nod again.

“Yeah, I like that. The breakout in our old office is such an awkward area to sit in. People tend to eat lunch at their desks,” says Lisa.

Ramon chuckles. “Of course, you developers aren’t really ones for talking to people are you?”

He continues to laugh. Ben raises his eyebrow.

“We’re data scientists,” states Lisa.

“Let’s not get too distracted, Ramon,” says Reuben, pushing his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose with his middle finger. Let’s take a look at some of the work areas.”

He moves the next thick piece of card to the front of the deck. It shows the main floor of the office, sprinkled with clusters of white desks, each paired with black Aeron chairs. The desk islands are flanked by colorful fabric dividers, intended to give teams their own private spaces.

“I like this,” says Ben, pointing at the dividers. “I know we can’t all have our own small offices, but this is a pretty good compromise. What’s that on the floor?”

“It’s astroturf.”

“Why astroturf?”

“Because it’s a team sport.”

“What’s a team sport?”

“Coding.”

“OK.”

Ben leans in closer to the drawing, squinting.

“Hang on, what are those little boxes at the back of the room?”

“Ah, well spotted. We’ve thought about some features to make this place really cool,” says Ramon.

On cue, Reuben moves the next drawing to the front of the stack. Lisa is lost for words.

“…are those… dog kennels?”

Mia smiles. “Love the kennels. Love them!”

“Why would there be human-sized dog kennels?” asks Ben.

“We wanted an innovative and playful solution to the lack of meeting room space,” explains Reuben.

“I’m just not sure if it sets the right…”

“Get the geeks in the doghouse! A-woooooo!”

Ramon just couldn’t control himself. He’s not alone.

“A-wooooo!” replies Mia with her head tilted back. “I love dogs. Love them! This is so fun!”

“Erm,” says Lisa with a hand on her chin. “Isn’t that a little offensive? We’re not dogs, after all. We’re professionals.”

Lisa and Ben meet eyes. Their eyebrows couldn’t get any higher.

“It’s playful, Lisa. Imagine how fun meetings would be in the kennels! There’s even little dog bowl coasters for your coffee,” states Reese.

“Hmm.”


“A-woooo!” Photo by brittgow on Flickr.

A number of inoffensive drawings that did not contain dog kennels have passed by. The next card comes to the front of the stack. Ramon looks up expectantly with a smile on his face.

“Well?”

“It’s a bed. Why is it a bed?” asks Ben.

“There have to be cool places to hang out.”

“But on a bed?”

“Yeah. Imagine: it’s laptop and chill. Did you ever see Paula Yates on the Big Breakfast? Amazing interviews from the bedroom. Such creativity. It sets such a different tone.”

“I’m not sure if I want to lie in a bed with my colleagues,” says Lisa.

Ramon laughs. “I want all of these socially awkward developers to come out of their shell! This will be brilliant! Imagine them asking to go to bed with one another, it’ll be hilarious! It’ll break down social barriers. Create new friendships.

And maybe more if you know what I mean!” shouts Mia. “I love it! A-wooooo!”

Ben and Lisa exchange glances. Lisa interrupts the laughing.

“Have HR seen these designs?”

Thump.

The front door opens, and it’s the CEO, Tim. Reuben stands up and waves.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” says Reese. “We’re just getting to the design of your new office.”

Tim sits down next to Lisa and Ben. He smiles. “Looks good so far, doesn’t it?”

“…yeah,” says Ben, through gritted teeth.

“OK, to your office, Tim,” says Reuben, once again adjusting his slipping glasses with his middle finger. “Tell me what you told all of your customers at your annual keynote last month.”

Tim beams and sits up straight.

“We’re going to turn the world of software upside down,” bellows Tim through his immaculately projected stage voice.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve put his desk on the ceiling,” says Lisa.

Reuben rotates the cards.

“We’ve put your desk on the ceiling,” says Ramon.

Ben’s shoe is stuck to the floor.