A company’s culture is one of the biggest factors in any programmer’s decision to stay with their team for the long haul, which makes it key for workplaces to understand the dynamics that help employees thrive.
It’s hard to sift through any tech-based news feed or RSS without wading past at least two dozen think pieces on the impact of company culture on workers and workplaces. Which, even for all the fluff, is no bad thing – there’s an increasing awareness that “soft” factors like culture, emotional intelligence and communication are anything but soft. They’re the elements that make up the “aquariums” where we live and work, and they have a major impact on well-being and performance.
Which makes it all the more important for software engineers (and the managers who love them) to figure out what kinds of culture pay to their unique strengths and allow them to thrive, as well as which ones, well, do precisely the opposite.
That kind of awareness comes after much reflection, of course, as well as after becoming better informed about the different traits that define a company’s culture. Which is why we at UpTeam have made a list of factors that inform various kinds of work culture, along with the pros and cons that come with them.
But don’t worry – we’re not here to tell you what to think. Imagine this as a map helping you to get to know the contours of the conversation so as to make better, more informed decisions about your work life.
We’ve only got one piece of advice: tone down, for a moment, that part of your gut that normally tries to label factors like these as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Some factors work better for some than for others. Preconceived judgments of different cultural styles may prevent you from discovering something that would otherwise prove majorly helpful.
Cultures defined by leadership
Leadership-defined workplace cultures can’t be placed into different groupings so much as along a spectrum between collaborative and hierarchical styles (also known as horizontal or vertical). Companies that lean hard to one side or another are concerned with the ways power manifests itself or contributes to work processes.
Collaborative styles, at least judging by your average programmer’s news feed, are rather popular these days. They provide opportunities to develop products faster, for example, because more ideas have the chance to influence product features. They can also create environments where responsibility for product quality is distributed among employees who are then expected to invest more in the proceedings. Horizontal processes also involve more employees in the full cycle of design, optimization and implementation, which can help develop the professional skills of everyone involved.
This style might not work best, though, in cases where teams don’t have the necessary initiative and self-organization to keep the ball rolling in the absence of a more obvious guiding hand. This is where elements of hierarchy can be helpful: formal or informal leaders can take quick decisions that don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic consensus processes, which is helpful when trying to meet a clearly-defined client deadline. When deciding whether a team or company is right for you, it’s helpful to assess your preferred degree of independence or guidance before checking to see if this matches the workplace involved.
Cultures defined by “who comes first”
Rather than operating on a spectrum, like with leadership styles, workplace cultures that position themselves as dedicated to particular priorities often get divided into clusters.
A “popular-first” company culture defines itself as putting customers first, prioritizing quick feedback loops and product tweaks aimed at keeping a constant finger on the pulse of what’s popular. This kind of culture works best for workers who love innovation and spontaneous change but may come as a challenge to those who wish for more stability and less perpetual course-correction.
Some companies, idealistic and otherwise, position themselves as purpose-first. Purpose-driven cultures can appear in smaller companies looking to combine social impact with profit, or in larger corporations looking to offset (or appear to offset) their corporate impact. These cultures can create a meaningful environment for employees personally invested in the values the company projects, but can also become, at best, annoying, and, at worst, hypocritical in the eyes of employees who care more about projects than stated idealisms. Make sure your values line up with the company or team you’re looking to join, and try to take a peek behind the curtain to see if they even really do practice what they preach.
Then we have companies who are team-first. These are invested in the idea that the more cohesive (and happy) the team is, the better they will perform. This can manifest itself in a hiring process that weighs personality and cultural fit as much as experience and ability. This kind of culture can be a great fit for workers looking for a warm atmosphere, attentive managerial feedback and social activities. On the downside, this type of culture is not well-suited for larger companies, nor for employees looking to keep their personal and their professional lives separate. Not everyone wants to make friends at work, after all, and that’s okay.
Cultures defined by ultimate focus
Similar to companies that define themselves by “who comes first,” these workplaces root their culture in a particular value that is prioritized when structuring processes or making decisions. This enriches these companies’ experiences in some aspects while potentially leaving room for improvement in others.
Role-oriented cultures place a large emphasis on precisely who is doing what. This means there will be, in all likelihood, clearly-defined roles as well as a precise structure of accountability. Everyone will know what they are supposed to be doing, which may lead to a downside: if a task falls outside the purview of someone’s position, they may feel reluctant to address the issue. On the other side of the spectrum, task-oriented cultures emphasize the things to be done over rigid ideas of who needs to necessarily be doing them. While this can be a boon for employees who value flexibility when solving tasks, it can be a stress for those who crave stable expectations for what they’re going to be asked to do.
Another popular dichotomy is being process-oriented or result-oriented. Figuring out the differences between the two isn’t rocket science: one values the way in which a result is obtained (especially if the process taught the team something new, which is similar to being learning-oriented) while the other is more concerned about the end result than on how precisely the team got there. Prospective team members more inclined to experiment may prefer process-oriented companies, while those who derive more satisfaction from a completed product (especially before moving on to something else) may prefer result-oriented environments.
Finding out more about the culture animating a company or team is only the first step. In order to really benefit from workplace culture, workers can also ask themselves how a given set of common values are embodied rather than merely declared. Some team members find it incredibly fulfilling being part of the process that shapes, creates or resurrects a local culture, while others are satisfied being part of something that’s long been established. There’s no right way to go about it, other than what’s right for the teams involved
The main thing is, when we get the chance, to remain intentional about what we do, to find the real value in a culture (for example, the ways it informs our daily rhythms) rather than put on airs. Where you go from there is entirely up to you.