If you work in tech, you've probably heard that "team culture" is the most important thing for a successful organization. Camaraderie, trust, passion... a good team should have all that. And it's hard to deny that loving the team you work with will make you more successful, but how do we build that? There's no AWS product called TeamFront and it's not sold on Amazon. How can we take camaraderie from elusive to undeniable?
Coming from a service industry background, I had no idea what to expect when I took a job in tech. And wow, was it different! Even though my role as an operations team member and general job function remained the same across the kitchen, retail, and restaurant scenes, the environment at Stackery was clearly very different.
In my former positions, there was an overflow of loud and obvious camaraderie. People were extroverted, talkative and freely shared stories about their weekends, hobbies, children, and lives. It had always been rather obvious to me how my coworkers gelled--- and didn't.
Immediately, the tech world was different. First off, employees at Stackery are very focused on their work. They are diligent, meticulous, and there are long stretches of silence in our open floor plan office. I was even told during onboarding that the engineers are usually working on a complex problem for many users and any small interruption could potentially distract them from where they left off. The suggestion was to check in via Slack before walking over if someone looked focused. But everyone looked focused all the time!
"Now what?" I thought.
For a natural extrovert like me, this advice was hard to follow and the layout of our office made it all the more confusing. The first few weeks of work, it was so quiet that I felt like I was in a library! I didn't do much talking, which I'm sure my colleagues can now attest, is a rarity.
I was desperate to know who the people behind these computers, sitting across and next to me truly were. Moreover, I really wanted to know how to work well with them and make their day better. How could I find the best way to interact, human to human? How could I unlock apparent camaraderie at Stackery?
We hear so much about work culture: in Forbes articles, LinkedIn posts, and from public HR "experts". Companies put a lot of time and resources into this topic alone. The hardest part is that you can't just make a list, and go out and get it. Companies often believe this is the case and fail. Camaraderie isn't tangible and you either have it or you don't... right?
In my time at Stackery thus far, I've tasked myself with the pleasure (and challenge) of trying to figure out how to tease rapport out of our team. One of the primary things I've learned is that my approach to sociability and workplace connections is built on a very different cultural context than others who have worked in tech for years. Neither approach is better or worse and just because an office is quieter and staffed with more introverts, that doesn't mean rapport isn't there. Some of the work ahead of me was in reframing the dynamics I saw playing out.
All the same, I saw it as important to dive in and challenge my teammates to open up a bit more with those they spend 8-9 hours of their day with. I saw this as especially important when new employees come to Stackery: even if they aren't particularly talkative people, it's always good to see a bunch of new faces that have an obvious positive dynamic.
Here are some of the best shortcuts to building camaraderie on any tech team:
1) Embrace Slack But tweak your approach. It turned out that my colleagues were communicating! They were just doing it via Slack and IM. Though I had used the platform before in my other jobs, we used it a bit differently. At first, I saw it as a bit austere, but it turns out Slack is a good way for developers to ask a quick question without needing to interrupt another's workflow. It's also not as though there are ONLY work conversations going on in Slack. I have some funny, quick-witted coworkers! Jokes/gifs/ "Reactions" abound on Slack.
With that being said, I had a hard time relying on Slack for my main source of team rapport. I saw it as a way to talk without actually talking. And coding, infrastructure, stacks, deployment... I had no idea what any of that meant. Could I contribute and politely interrupt with questions in the same natural way I could in face-to-face conversations? How could I start to feel like part of the team?
One small thing I started doing was saying good morning to each of my coworkers. This was something I could do via Slack,or in-person (I bet you know which one I prefer!) We are still a small startup of just under 20 people so doing this is still feasible. Let's say you are in a much larger office, with many many employees. When someone puts something on Slack such as "I'm leaving at 3 PM for a doctor's appointment", I let them know that I read it by putting an emoji next to it or a comment, so they knew someone out there is listening. Isn't it nice to know we are being heard? No one likes to feel ghosted. If a colleague writes "working from home today" on our #office channel, I'll react with a thumbs-up or ok-sign emoji.
This is such a small thing, but it has really helped me to feel connected and part of the team, even though our roles are so different. We also have Slack channels for fun things too, like the books we are reading, pictures of our furry friends, plants, and podcasts we are into.
2) Look For Patterns If we all work independently but remain part of the same team, how can someone like me feel connected to everyone? I set out to observe small things about my team's behavior. Is so & so wearing headphones at their desk? If so, this is probably code for, "let me focus on my task at hand." On the flip side, is someone extra gregarious on a particular day? Ask them what they did over the weekend or what is coming up! Maybe they are excited about an upcoming plan and want someone to ask about it! Everyone has a different work style. Look around, take note, and mirror it if you are trying to establish a relationship.
3) Consider the Coffee Machine Embrace the coffeemaker for more than just the promise of caffenation. The kitchen is a perfect place to start a conversation. Not sure how? I made it a goal to start a conversation with each team member. There was a colleague I worked with that always went to the kitchen for their afternoon tea. I also enjoy an afternoon pick-me-up, so while we were in the kitchen, I just started asking questions. It can be something work related like "what in the heck is this GraphQL I keep hearing about?" In this type of environment, I didn't feel dumb asking those questions. In fact, I say ASK the dumb questions! If anywhere is a safe place, it's the kitchen!
Or why not initiate a genuine human to human connection? A simple "did you grow up around here?" or "what do you love about writing code?" works wonders. I just started asking lots of questions. Guess what happened? They lit up! As my new connections spoke, they became animated. I heard more inflection and their mannerisms changed. They started coming to life and this simply couldn't happen as effectively from behind a screen. I was able to connect with them, human-to-human which made me so incredibly happy and I was able to see it happening between others as well. This type of connection promotes camaraderie, helping improve a healthy work environment for collaborating, which doesn't always come easy to everyone.
4) Provide Professional Development and Education When I first started here, I assumed I was the only one who wasn't a seasoned software developer. Turns out, I certainly wasn't alone and there were others who were also hungry to learn more about serverless. After voicing this, our CEO was quick to set up a 2-hour block of his day to sit down and go over an entire demo of our product and answer any questions I had. He did this approachably and with patience.
Having a human-to-human connection with the CEO and co-founder of the company you work for is a real treat and something that also helps set the tone for your employment. Is your CEO willing/available to answer questions and hear your point of view? At Stackery, the answer is yes. There was a true ripple effect from this one afternoon: I got to know the team who sat in on demo with me better and I was able to put my knowledge of our service into context.
Because of this one meeting, another individual saw that I was interested in learning and set me up with recommended online courses. When I set up my GitHub account, it was met with encouragement from everyone.
We make a point to celebrate the little and the big things here at Stackery. When the company was nominated and honored with winning an Emerging Tech Company of the Year Award recently, we couldn't wait to see the photos from the event on our Slack feed the next day. What's more, our team was invited to be present at the ceremony, which was a networking opportunity for those who attended. These demonstrations of confidence matter because they prove the company truly respects us. In turn, we notice and our team wants to engage with one another and upper leadership.
5) Hold a Weekly Retrospective Every Friday, we have a weekly retrospective meeting. This is something everyone actually looks forward to, which might sound strange (an all-hands on a Friday?!) I think one of the reasons we like the meeting is that it eliminates the need for all those little one-offs that can take up so much of our time during the week. It's also a place where everyone can be heard if they choose to be. We share some of the challenges we are working on, and it's also a time to get privy to our team wins. This is really fascinating to see at the end of each week--- we are all running point on so many different projects and it's natural to get buried in our own tasks. I love learning who the "support hero" was for our customers each week, and it's even better discovering this from a customer interaction being highlighted at the meeting.
It's also great to hear about team members solving a big problem that had been plaguing others for weeks. When others contribute to this conversation on Fridays, it reminds us that we're all truly working toward the same goal. And isn't that the definition of camaraderie?
The thing I have learned in my adventure through the looking glass (i.e. the tech industry) is that my goal in any workplace shouldn't necessarily be about building friendships or making plans outside of work. Instead, we should all place more value on creating a smooth, cohesive, and yes, enjoyable workplace.
Do you want to look forward to going to work? If there is camaraderie, you will. Performance and collaboration become more successful. The product could stay the same, but the experience in creating it can be a different, satisfying, fulfilling one. This will help with retention rates, improve the ability to work as a team, helps individual performance, and simply build a space worth returning to five days a week.
The company culture at Stackery was already strong when I arrived but I see it improving every day. I feel that my colleagues really and truly care about one another and they are a good time, to boot! Best of all, this evolving camaraderie allows people like me to feel comfortable asking questions about the product our engineers are working on. My team's ability and desire to communicate technical details in a kind, humble, and approachable way not only benefits us internally, but also betters our company's communication with the rest of the world.
Want to challenge Stackery's engineers with your own questions? Join one of our upcoming weekly livestreams where you'll see Stackery's amazing features in action. You'll also get to e-meet my fantastic colleagues Abner and Nuatu and occasionally, guest hosts like James Beswick and Richard Boyd!