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InfoQ Homepage Articles How to Rebuild Tech Culture for Those Who Survived the Layoffs

How to Rebuild Tech Culture for Those Who Survived the Layoffs

Key Takeaways

  • The top three areas in 2023 to rebuild culture in tech teams are team freedom, remote or hybrid working, and protecting diversity.
  • Get your motivation back by focusing on building culture within your immediate team, and not across the company.
  • Invest in yourself; don’t wait for your company to give you learning opportunities.
  • The true culture of a company can be seen in how they off-board employees and treat their ex-employee network. An ex-employee is a stronger future employee.
  • Don’t feel the pressure to be an advocate of your company, but rather be an advocate of your team.

At QCon San Francisco 2022 and QCon Plus December 2022, I talked about the software industry learning to adjust to a new global reality after the pandemic and its impact on flow metrics. My talk was called, "How to win as a tech team in a new reality that feels like a Mad Max movie?" I had shared some quick tips to help tech leaders build culture for hybrid and remote teams as the world tried to return to normalcy. I had emphasised post-covid needs to retain female tech employees, and why it was important to include culture building as a new metric within the flow framework.

Since that talk, a wave of layoffs hit the software industry and changed the definition of tech culture.

It was brutal to see the non-human approach taken by some companies while others truly surprised me by going the extra mile to support leaving employees. Many will juggle feeling lucky and relieved to have their jobs while being guilt-ridden for the suffering of former colleagues.

In 2020, Harvard Business Review compared this to survivor’s guilt where one would question,

"Why did I make it but they didn’t? How am I going to face friends who were laid off when struggling financially while I’m still employed? Will the employer do another round of layoffs and treat me the same as they did them?"

Trust in employers will be a hard-earned reward for many companies in the coming years.

Since then, I’ve taken extra steps to understand this situation across multiple tech companies, and the diverse choices made to support employees who survived, and those they had to say good-bye to.

In this article, I will focus on those of us who have stayed behind, and how to rebuild culture in our tech teams.

How to find your motivation again after experiencing your colleagues being let go?

Is it even possible when you’re experiencing very low trust in your employer?

The answer doesn’t lie in another company, but rather what you can do in your current workplace.

It’s easy to think that a new workplace will solve for some of the cultural misfits in your existing team. In Microsoft’s 2022 New Future of Work report, they mentioned the top culture-related reasons for finding a new job are disrespect, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive elements.  In my experience, it’s been hard to judge such elements with star-studded employer branding and a few interviews where hiring managers feel the pressure to show the best side of the company. So our best chance as an employee to find culture-fit is to improve our existing "team" culture.

I’m emphasising "team" over company. I would take the parallel of helping people be well-fed in your neighbourhood to solving world hunger. Scale and scope is critical to the success of building good culture in tech teams. You can still sleep peacefully knowing your neighbourhood is healthy while there are larger problems to solve for the country.

So recognize your sphere of influence within the scope of your immediate team. If you’re an engineering manager or engineer, keep the focus on your squad including PMs and designers. If you’re in a functional team setup like Architecture, then keep the focus on the team around the manager and direct reports. If you’re a manager of managers, like a Sr director of engineering, then again keep the focus on your immediate direct reports while asking them to replicate the framework for their teams. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to build culture simultaneously for multiple teams.

Now that you’ve reduced pressure on yourself and your team by reducing the scope, start to understand if you:

  • Trust your team members
  • Can have a good laugh with them
  • Agree on common concerns within the team, and
  • Can imagine working at least one calendar year with them?

If the answer to any of these questions is a yes, then you’ve found your safety net in this Mad Max movie. You have a team with whom you can work to improve psychological safety and rebuild the broken culture left behind from the layoffs. For many of us, work and life are interconnected, and we develop close friendships within these spaces. Losing a colleague, who was like a friend, may have triggered guilt, anger, denial, regret and much more. So start here. Give yourself and your team members enough room to talk about "how they’re feeling".

If you were in a managerial position during the layoffs, it becomes important that you establish your sincerity before attempting this. For example, an engineering manager who had exited some tenured freelancers over an email for company cost saving, will see very little response from their team when attempting to run an engagement survey or trying to talk about team culture. With their email-exit approach, they’re no longer seen as a person under pressure by their team, but as a title. Subconsciously, the engineering manager has set the message that "I see my team as resources and not people. I didn’t care enough to even have a conversation before letting go of my team members." So the team will avoid any attempts from the engineering manager to build a connection till they can prove their care for the team is genuine.

The Microsoft report also stated that employees who feel cared for at work are 3.2x more likely to be happy at work. This doesn’t have to be through the employer and many employees will find any such efforts to be fake after experiencing their approach in the layoffs. But what can be genuine is the care that you get from your immediate team members.

Focus your level of energy, commitment, persistence and creativity within your own team. You will see your motivation rise without needing to fake your commitment to the company. Don’t feel the pressure to be an advocate of your company, but be an advocate of your team.

What are the top three focus areas for rebuilding culture in affected tech teams?

Team culture is not a bunch of frameworks put together, but a comfortable space where your team can feel connected to each other, mourn, heal and celebrate.

Let’s start with the #1 ask from tech teams when it comes to work satisfaction - freedom

Since the Flintstones and before the layoffs, product x tech x business would often intersect with a disagreement. Many companies came up with pages of solid prioritisation frameworks and techniques. But prioritisation always came at the cost of some team feeling constrained. So we could never truly balance great prioritisation with well-rounded work satisfaction. I have seen amazing features driving very strong retention numbers, but the team behind it feeling those were not the right things to work on.

So how do we develop a greater sense of freedom within the team without getting burned out by priorities that we can’t influence (especially due to current difficult market conditions)?

Find time to do a round of trash talking about the priority in your team. Once you get the pressure/ stress out of your system, you will find that there is still immense freedom within such priorities. I worked with a team once who were put under immense pressure to completely redesign their entire product "asap". We went through the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

When we hit the acceptance stage, magic happened. The team found purpose in working together on this initiative and found their freedom to think differently about the product. But the negativity of the request coming top-down had taken away their ability to be creative earlier. In the current market conditions and reactive nature of companies, top-down priorities are only going to increase.

As a result, a team can start with acceptance and find their freedom to be creative earlier - or - like the other team, go through the five stages of grief to reach the same state later.

#2 ask is for remote or work from home to continue

While adhering to company policy on remote or hybrid work, each team can create flexibility for their individual team members on working from a non-office location. Have your own rituals to support each other through work-life balance, especially for primary caregivers.

Teams can always advise their HR to not put in fixed days to work from the office but give employees the option to choose the days based on the needs of their team. I’m seeing many HR teams already recognising this and supporting employees in deciding what’s best for their team. But if your HR team is still undecided, then hold your ground as a team. The only reason to push all employees to work fixed days from the office is ivory tower thinking that it will boost company culture.

Don’t let go of your hybrid work-from-home routine in an effort to increase your visibility/ worth due to fear of job loss. We cannot let anyone undo the progress made in having a stronger work-life balance, especially from fears triggered by the mass layoffs. Instead, increase your visibility by improving your online communication skills within your team and outside.

 A few things that worked for me:

  • Use every email as a chance to introduce yourself: In tech, we often write internal emails when we have to explain large concepts or align a large group on a decision. Use it as a chance to let the receivers know who you are and why they should listen to you.

  • Be an empath by balancing detail with clarity: I had read in an article many years ago which said that "the only thing worse than listening to someone when you’ve no idea what they’re talking about is listening to them ramble on." Always keep it simple and clarify upfront the expected outcome of your conversation. Ask them if they need to know more and don’t overwhelm them with too much technical information.

  • Confident and regular sharing for recall value: engineers often struggle to increase their visibility outside of their team. I learnt to be confident by observing news channel journalists and how they hold intense conversations with facts and the right tone. They taught me the art of having meaningful conversations that project confidence under pressure, and how to leave a room with impact. My advice is to find influencers who can help improve how-you-show-up, and start creating visibility for yourself in existing company virtual formats like team demos, all hands, townhall, stakeholder updates, etc. If it’s too hard for you to talk to a live audience, then create visibility on a channel where you find comfort, for example, writing regular tech articles and getting your company excited about it.

#3 is to protect diversity in your team

It’s been tough for many tech leaders to hire a diverse workforce. It’s been years of work in the making to strengthen diverse communities and connect them to tech roles. The recent layoffs eliminated those efforts within minutes. So many of us now hold the responsibility to protect the remaining diversity in our teams.

My own focus is to better understand how to improve psychological safety for female team members. The pandemic was especially difficult for women in tech, and the industry saw a huge drop in their retention. Many factors, including being primary caretaker, factored in their decision to either pause their careers or move away from it. Returning from maternity leave had already become difficult and now with the added complexity of mass layoffs, they’re not even sure if they’re returning to the same team.

Female tech workers are needing more support than ever, and it’s especially important we focus on more customised retention measures to support them. I’ve heard a story where a female tech employee got an email of being laid off while she was in labour and read the full details minutes after she delivered her baby. She had worked for this Fortune Top 5 company for 9 years. We cannot allow this kind of precedent to be set up by any company, in any country. Period. As a female tech leader, I cannot accept such behaviour from any company.

I’m reacting to this reality by taking on more responsibility to ensure safeguarding the interests of women in tech. And I am happy to see many of my industry female peers take on similar responsibility towards our community.

I leave you with the thought that company culture is no longer a sum of individual team cultures. There won’t be a causal link between higher team eNPS and company eNPS. Employers who tried to make this layoff exercise simpler for themselves have unleashed a side effect of mistrust in the tech industry that will stay with us for a long time, and which will  impact the way work is being done. For a sustainable future workplace, it will be crucial for these companies to give space to each team to lead the rebuilding of their culture.

Some employees will enthusiastically participate, but it will take time for others to rebuild healthy working relationships. It will be time-consuming, challenging, and prone to setbacks. However, it will be done at the team's pace and on a more solid ground of trust. And in the end, you'll not only help your team recover from this event, but will  also create a healthier, more effective company.

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