What Your Workplace May Be Missing: Humanity

Infusing more humanity into engineering teams would benefit the entire tech industry.

Written by David Vandegrift
Published on Dec. 09, 2020
What Your Workplace May Be Missing: Humanity
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My favorite part of every workweek is Friday morning when the full team gets together (on Zoom these days) to share gratitude and talk about how their week went. It’s a retrospective of sorts: We’re sharing (mostly positive) feedback with others on the team and communicating how we’re doing. These sessions aren’t my favorite because they’re fun (they are) or because they’re all positive (they’re not). Instead, I look forward to them because they feel so ... human. I’m getting a chance to really know about my co-workers — the ups, the downs, and everything in between.

The modern workplace isn’t exactly known for its wealth of humanity. Rather, you’re supposed to live your personal life at home and live some kind of subhuman subsistence life at work — doing what you need to get done to get your paycheck and then clocking out for real human time. While startups are a little more known for “bring your whole self to work” policies, by and large, this lack of humanity is the rule. And there’s nowhere within startups and tech communities that features less humanity across the industry than in engineering organizations.

Engineering teams are often defined by masculine energy, overt competitiveness, and permeated by a “this is how it’s done” attitude. And to be fair, this classic approach to engineering culture does work — but not nearly as well as it could. The industry is suffering from the lack of humanity infused into engineering culture and it’s high time that founders and business leaders work to fix that.

 

Show Compassion for Time Away From Work

One of the most obvious ways to bring humanity into work is the acknowledgment that work is not life; everyone has some balance of non-work-related reality that they cannot focus on at the same time as coding away or sitting in meetings. This includes time with family, sleeping, taking care of their health, dealing with emergencies, and any other of a host of critically important non-work activities.

It feels like it should go without saying that companies should respect the need for their employees to do things other than work. But it doesn’t. Standard vacation policies (typically two weeks) in the United States are criminally low in comparison to other developed nations. Many startups instead use an unlimited PTO policy, but that comes with its own downsides. If the culture of the workplace doesn’t match the ethos of the policy, then employees may end up taking even less time away from work.

There’s no substitute for simply acknowledging that people have things they need to do outside of work and that they should prioritize taking the time to do so. And that kind of culture must be created intentionally by the company’s leadership and management through role modeling and clear communication.

 

Deal With Mistakes and Learning Better

Another area of work that has an obvious need for more humanity is how management and senior engineers deal with mistakes. Software engineering has a steep learning curve. Mistakes can and will happen — and not just with junior engineers. I’ve never met an engineer at any level who didn’t make mistakes of some sort on a virtually daily basis.

Engineering culture tends to have an element of elitism or gatekeeping: There is an idea of a “master” engineer who knows everything and executes their code perfectly. Whenever an engineer doesn’t measure up to this ideal, some workplaces will punish them either directly or through undeserved criticism. The problem is that this ideal master engineer doesn’t exist. Again, everyone makes mistakes.

The problem with this lack of empathy for mistakes being made is that it directly negatively impacts the business. It incentivizes engineers at all levels to not take risks and to hide mistakes when they do invariably happen. The code suffers, the product suffers, and the users suffer.

Instead of criticism when reality doesn’t match the ideal, companies can show compassion for the learning journey (particularly when it involves failure). Acknowledge that no one knows everything, particularly senior engineers. Recognize that junior people may make more mistakes early on in their journey. Reward risk-taking. Bring attention to mistakes without laying personalized blame.

 

Incorporate User Perspective

While compassion for time away and for mistakes are more internally focused, the reality is that humanity in your engineering team should take an external perspective as well. Specifically, respect for the end user is a critical component of a high performing engineering team. It is also incredibly rare.

Stereotypical engineering culture is almost defined by a level of hubris — that the team knows better than the user how to build the product. And this mindset is doubly dangerous because it’s almost always true: The team really does know how to build a better product than someone who doesn’t spend all day thinking about it. The problem is that the mindset is taken too far, resulting in a lack of respect for the input that users provide, which the team cannot determine without them.

In this case, humanity means respect for others and their perspectives. Specifically, the team should respect the user and their perspective and experience with the product. The more humanity there is, the more respect the team will have for the user and the more valuable perspective you’ll get to drive prioritization and design.

 

Foster Community

This last push for humanity in engineering is perhaps the most nebulous. Modern society has been defined by an erosion of the feeling of belonging or community. That is just as true at work as it is in our cities and neighborhoods. The damage is clear. Lack of belonging means that employees don’t stick around as long and are less engaged with their work while they’re around. The problem is: What does “community” even mean?

The previous three elements of humanity are all good ways to foster a sense of community at work. The more you can bring more respect for workers and for everyone around your business, the more people are going to gravitate toward it and feel happy with what they’re doing. But those three efforts probably aren’t enough on their own to create strong feelings of community on their own.

One important aspect of community is the artifact: the peculiar traditions, events, and inside jokes that your team shares. These help define for your employees what makes your company your company. They also foster camaraderie, provide some fun, and bring everyone closer together.

Another way to foster community is — perhaps counterintuitively — ensuring that there is some kind of team connection outside of work. The more your employees can get to know each other as real humans outside of their work roles, the more they’ll come to like and respect each other. Out of that respect comes closer bonds, more engagement, and therefore more community.

 

Humanity at Work

The benefits of more humanity at work and in the engineering team are clear: more engagement, more retention, and better product. But even if these benefits weren’t obvious, I would argue that introducing more humanity to your workplace is just the right thing to do. It feels better, it makes others happier, and it helps bring a sense of belonging and positivity to a place where you have to spend a huge chunk of your waking life.

Read More From David VandegriftWhen Should Quality Replace Speed?

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