Our office is closing! We can do better than just despairing

Jun 02, 2016 by lsmit@wemanity.com in  Blog

 

 

In March 2015 we received the bombshell from our U.S executives that our office in Oxford was to close as part of a long-term global consolidation of sites with some staff being offered relocation and the others made redundant. The products needed to continue, but how could we avoid the remaining time just being miserable?

Staff were asked to complete their current work and assist with knowledge transfer to the remaining development offices in the USA and India. The previous few years had seen good progress with agile and lean software development, customer satisfaction had steadily risen and staff turnover had been extremely low. So the closure announcement was a body blow. The chance of the announcement being taken badly was all too real with the risk of the situation disintegrating into a depressing mess.

The Oxford management team had the difficult task of trying to make the best of the situation and get the best outcomes for both staff and the company. One year on, the results so far have been remarkably positive. We can therefore make some recommendations for anyone else in this situation, some of which are also worth considering for companies during normal operations.

Actions taken

  1.  Long notice period – We managed to agree 18 months’ notice of the final closure.   This was necessary to complete current work and have an effective handover so that the complex medical imaging software products could continue. However, it was a very long time to hope that people would stay so other measures were needed.
  2.  Generous redundancy packages.   These were agreed at a level which impressed staff. With their tax-free nature, this gave people confidence that even if they didn’t find another job immediately, they would not have any financial worries for a few months.
  3.  Relocation support – Real commitment was shown to staff to find them other places within Siemens. This included generous relocation packages, funded exploratory visits for staff and families, advice from locals and flexible move dates. This was not cheap, but the cost was much less than hiring and training somebody new.
  4.  Voluntary end dates – Rather than imposing end dates, staff were asked to openly express whether they wanted to stay 6, 12 or 18 months.   It’s very hard to predict how people will react so it was better to try to align individual’s needs with business needs. Almost 100% of people got they end date they wanted, most opted for the longer duration and the company had adequate cover.
  5.  Keeping a training budget – Staff were given encouragement to still do training and qualifications.  The company would still get some benefit from the training in the short-term, it would help staff with finding a new position, but mostly it helped reassure staff that they could stay and still develop themselves.
  6.  A larger entertainment budget – It was important for people to socialise and support each other so there was an increase in company-funded drinks, lunches and a bigger-than- normal Christmas party.
  7.  Help with job-hunting – Staff were allowed to take some time for interviews and encouraged to have an open discussion on opportunities with support given to try to accommodate people’s wishes where possible.   External consultants were available to advise on interview techniques, CV-writing and job hunting.
  8.  Effective use of employee representatives – Rather than just fulfilling a legal requirement, a real effort was made to engage with the elected employee representatives, create a detailed FAQ for staff and share all information on the intranet.
  9.  Continued staff recognition.   The office was required to operate properly for an extended period so it was only fair that staff should be treated normally and retain the opportunity to still achieve an above-target bonus and the opportunity for promotion.
  10.  Management care – The managers have been very open, honest and helpful to the staff and shown genuine care and empathy for people and their circumstances.  This probably made the biggest difference and enabled so many of the positive results.  A site closure can be viewed by staff as a big breach of trust, so asking staff to believe promises about arrangements during the remaining period is a challenge and requires lots of reinforcement, consistency and ensuring that was is said is done.

Results

  1.  Staff morale – This went through the inevitable rollercoaster of shock, anger, worry then acceptance.   People were annoyed or upset at the decision, but overall viewed the offers as fair and professional.   Staff who had been through a redundancy before thought that the way this was handled was much better. Although losing colleagues is unavoidably sad, people have been positive about making the best of the situation.
  2.  Staff stayed until their agreed date – The long notice period and generous packages meant that most people were fairly relaxed about finding a new position and happy to leave serious job hunting until a few months before their agreed end date.  Whilst, it’s an imposed change for everyone, in some cases, staff have appreciated having the “luxury” of having an extended period with a financial cushion during which to calmly think about what alternative job they would really like to do in future. Staff have been open about their hunting and have discussed mutually agreeable end-dates before accepting offers.
  3.  Results still achieved. Work on products continued at a good level.  Inevitably people weren’t going the extra mile in quite the same way as they used to but were professional and productive.   Staff have been helpful in ramping up new recruits in India and continue to take pride in their products.  There have been no surprise, early, resignations or disciplinary issues.
  4.  A surprising number relocated. 25% of people relocated to the USA which was a lot higher than anyone originally expected since people liked being in Oxford.
  5.  Additional social events – The activity in the office “community” if anything picked up since the news with whisky tasting, a pool tournament, team nights out, a group cycle ride around town etc.
  6.  Peer-to- peer training – Staff have shown a great desire to support each other and proactively run open seminars for others in the office to share their knowledge with others (e.g. Sharepoint, Data Science, Android Programming, Arduino programming, Linux etc)
  7.  More cakes – We’ve always provided cakes on a Friday but the number of spontaneous cakes being brought into the office on other days has gone up.

Overall it has been a much more positive experience it could have been. The office morale is still good and the staff have received outstanding praise for their continued professionalism and dedication.

The results has been good for the company as there is a smooth handover taking place while ensuring that people are taken care of.   The actions above have not been cheap for the company in the short-term, but are ultimately delivering better long-term value than the alternative of instant site closure followed by disorder and a long period of rebuilding a new team from scratch.

Suggestions relevant for companies not closing

Whilst some of the topics are only relevant to a site closure, some things could be beneficial anytime.

  1. Management openness is always a good thing. It’s easy to forget the importance of explaining plans and listening to feedback. Make sure there’s time for group meetings, 1 to 1 sessions and occasional surveys.
  2. Peer-to- peer training is always very cost-effective so time and support should be given for this. Staff have a lot of varied knowledge and it’s motivating for both the trainer and attendees.
  3. Creative entertainment. It can be an easy area to cut, but pays back a lot. If people have a good social relationship with colleagues, they are much more committed to them and hence also the company. The entertainment does not necessarily have to be lavish e.g. a pool table and     tournament, an indoor mini-golf area made out of office accessories and text books, a pancake- tossing event on Shrove Tuesday etc. Something a bit different every few months keeps things fresh. Cakes, are always good.
  4. Look for the best outcome for both staff and the company given the circumstances. Arrangements with staff have to be fair to get the best results in the long-term.

By: Stephen Wells, Siemens Molecular Imaging, Oxford

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Nine things I didn’t know nine years ago

May 19, 2016

 

Image from page 400 of “The Palm of Alpha Tau Omega” (1880)

It’s coming up on nine years since I first started slinging code in a professional setting. Professional here meaning with a salary, in an office, with other engineers, decent coffee and unreasonable deadlines.

Back then I was barely newly minted from school, and what I lacked in understanding I certainly carried in hubris. I remember being vaguely offended not to be on the list of Sweden’s top coders that year. No idea how they would’ve found me, but I still remember being annoyed by it.

What I’ve lost in hubris in the last nine years, I’ve gained in experience. I thought it’d be useful to punch down a few things that it would have been nice to know nine years ago — maybe it can help you, if you’re just about to take your first steps out of school.

In no particular order, here are nine things I wish I’d known when I started out:

  1. Experience counts for something. This is obvious, and maybe a bit condescending. But I remember the first time I saw a colleague in a live, heated situation pull up YourKit and hone in on the fact that we’d have two ServerInstanceFactories, not one, and that caused the entire app to go belly up. Or when I got literally smacked on the fingers for not using two-phased locking correctly. And a thousand other things. My first two years of working, what I mainly learned was that I basically didn’t know shit.
  2. People are messy. I’d love to know how many hours humanity as a total spends every day mediating between two or more angry 40-year old men. Most of the time, you’ll find reasonable people that don’t share your point of view on things, and you are not obviously right. There are tradeoffs. And sometimes people hold on to stupid ideas longer than they should, simply because they’re people. It’s a great irony that software development demands literal, logical, unambiguous reasoning while being complicated enough that you need to collaborate with ornate, arbitrary, ambiguous humans.
  3. You’re not logical, you’re biased. If there was one thing I was certain of was that I reasoned with logic and soundness and that I thought things because they were true. Things such as — we hire people only because of merit. Obviously. What I’ve learned is that any point can be argued from many angles, and who I am, where I was raised, what I studied and who my friends are all influence what I think is obviously true. I’ve also learned that I’ll likely never be Spock, and that the only reasonable defense is to invite different points of view, and accept that reasoning from different premises can lead to different conclusions, and still be logical and sound.
  4. You can use engineering for other stuff. As a flipside to above, I’ve also learned that the method of engineering that you learn in school and hone over the years is useful for a ton of other stuff than just programming. What engineering is to me is a way to define, decompose and reduce a problem space, and from that reason a solution under balanced constraints. Really, figuring out what you’re asking, and then answering that. And turns out that anything from sales, marketing, finance, design to analytics are super-susceptible to this. Don’t be afraid to dive in. It’s usually pretty simple to get stuck in.
  5. Users are not stupid. This one is a big one. When users complain about your product, it’s usually not because they’re stupid. Your dad, uncle or whatever that don’t really understand Facebook are not stupid. They just know other shit, and they haven’t learned this stuff yet. And that’s Facebook. They have literally hundreds of user researchers making Facebook simple. When your uncle doesn’t understand your app, it’s probably because it’s pretty unusable. Don’t blame users for that.
  6. Engineers have professional responsibilities. If you work with software in a company that makes money, chances are you have users. Even if you’re building Spotify, not a pacemaker, you still have a responsibility to your users. They’ve chosen your product, and if it sucks, they’re suffering and it’s your fault. This means that if you’re out chugging beer, the systems you maintain go down, and no one else can pick them up, you get a cab home and fix it. Obviously, don’t let a company take advantage of this responsibility. You should get reasonably compensated. But it’s still a responsibility. You can’t laugh off service disruption.
  7. Inverting a tree is useful, but not in the way you think it is. I’ve always been a strong believer in academic knowledge, and I loved taking the hardest courses. Particle filtering, non-linear signal processing, abstract algebra, advanced algorithms, etc. If it looked hard I wanted to know it. However, the point of Red-Black trees is not Red-Black trees. The point of graph traversal is not graph traversal. The point is, the tools you have shape how you solve problems. And the deeper the understanding of graphs you have, the easier it will be for you to see that a problem is a graph problem. Just like if you know enough economics, you can see business problems as market problems. And so on.
  8. Integrating early is always better. This is really mundane compared to all the other grand advice, but if you’re a bunch of people working on a piece of code, avoid branches and avoid submodules as much as possible. It’s really not better to work on your own branch until all is nice and then merge back. Merge early. Merge often. Otherwise you’ll spend a month merging. I promise. Like, I really, really promise … and actually, I guess there is grand life advice here as well. If you and someone you depend on disagree on something fundamental, don’t hold a grudge. Hash it out, as early as possible. Make sure you see eye to eye. The process and the product will be all the better for it.
  9. Simpler is literally always better. I saw someone write something like “Software engineers spend their first two years building complexity, and the rest of their careers managing it”. This is true. Really true. If you can avoid it, never write a dispatcher. Never write an orchestration framework. Don’t use Java if a bash script will do. Solve the problem you have now, not the problem you might have later. Nothing makes you feel as smart as a well architected, abstract framework for solving really complicated, general problems. Nothing makes you feel as stupid as not understanding how to debug it.

Anyway. This is my list. The nine things I wish I knew nine years ago. It strikes me now that current me would love to see the list Nine Things I Wish I’ll Remember In Nine Years. What stuff have I forgotten that would warp my perspective? I’d love to hear your take on either this, or what I missed on this list.

By: Marcus Frödin from Spotify

https://medium.com/@marcusf/nine-things-i-didn-t-know-nine-years-ago-fcbc757b268b#.9xksp8f8t

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Brace yourself Spark the change is coming..To France!

Nov 22, 2017

 

 


Also published on Medium.

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Gig Economy

May 27, 2016

You could drive yourself steadily insane compiling a list of all the trends that were supposed to fundamentally reshape business. Once upon a time we were all “flexi” workers, then “mobile learners”. Both terms seem antiquated now, the corporate equivalent of a Segway – perfectly sensible in principle but somehow faintly ridiculous in reality.

What makes the “gig economy” – the legion of individuals taking on piecemeal work, enabled by online talent platforms – feel different is that it’s being driven not by hip early adopters in co-working spaces (though there are plenty of them involved too) but by genuine need, both in the “real” economy and, crucially, in boardrooms.

If you were staffing a major new project from scratch today, it would seem an act of faint lunacy to bring in a raft of full-time employees with cumbersome overheads (and personal taxes) when you could go online and find experienced, verifiable individuals you could pay by the hour and dispose of when required. Similarly, if you were a coder, IT contractor or other technical specialist, why would you harness yourself to one organisation when you could enjoy both variety and a more lucrative income hopping from gig to gig (along with the attendant tax advantages of being self-employed)?

So many businesses are waking up to this recalibration that 450,000 people with full-time jobs now have second jobs, many of them via TaskRabbit, Elance or their multitude of competitors. PwC has tried to cut out the middleman by setting up its own talent “market” of registered suppliers its offices can bid on. There are individuals in greater London making a handsome living assembling flat pack furniture on a piecemeal basis for an hourly rate – an occupation that would have been almost logistically impossible just a couple of years ago.

You can understand the appeal of living by the gig, beyond the financial benefits. The conventional career has been an awkward fit for many people over the years, and few jobs are capable of maximising all our skills and intelligences. Besides, most work is boring, which is why those lucky enough ever to have had a job for life employed the conversational repertoire of the prison system (“putting in hard graft”, “serving your time”) to describe it.

Gigs, by contrast, are exciting and ever-changing, even though they ask some deep questions of the psychological contract (why would I exercise discretionary effort for a business that only employs me for a matter of days? Can I trust someone who could work for my biggest rival tomorrow?). But they aren’t an untrammelled good, either. For every actuarial scientist earning a small fortune for a short-term job, there’s a hotel chambermaid who is now being paid by the room rather than the day. The huge rise in self-employment in the UK has as much to do with businesses shifting such workers – we should include the small army of couriers and delivery drivers in this calculation – off their books as it does people discovering new freedoms. Palpably, none of them are enjoying the benefits of the gig economy, not least because they cannot practically control where and how they work. They are left, instead, to feed on scraps.

Uber, the erroneously attributed poster child of the gig economy, faces a legal challenge over whether its drivers are technically employees. It maintains they are self-employed. This is a vital point for the courts to consider – cycle couriers and plumbers are engaged in similar cases – but in Uber’s case we should also note that it controls the supply of drivers into the market, and their pricing. This is assuredly not the “freedom” gig economy enthusiasts speak of.

Governments will have to decide the legal and ethical boundaries of such behaviours, not least because if gigs take off, their tax revenues will rapidly vanish. Already, there is serious talk of the need for a third kind of classification, between “employee” and “self-employed” which recognises the shared responsibilities (both financial and relating to holidays, sick pay and other benefits) between giggers and those they work for.

Pioneers like Wingham Rowan, who runs the Beyond Jobs consultancy, are trying to imagine a market that will ensure the gig economy brings mutual benefits and conveniences without being open to abuse. Businesses who want to enjoy the flexibility such arrangements provide should not absent themselves from such discussions – but neither should they fear this will turn out to be just another fad.

By: Robert Jeffery, Editor of People Management magazine

http://www.cipd.co.uk/pm

 

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