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

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

 

Free the office slaves

Mar 29, 2016

Free the office slaves: No more working day.

The 9-5 working day has come to signify office slavery.

In actual fact though, most knowledge workers work longer than 8 hours a day. A 2011 survey (ASHE) suggests that the average manager in the UK works over 9 hours per day, while extreme hours among certain groups (bankers and lawyers in particular) regularly involved sustained periods of working up to 120 hours a week.

What do set working hours signify?

Extreme hours hurt us. A study by Alexandra Michael, published in 2012, followed investment bankers over a 9 year period. The report concluded that people suffered physical, mental and emotional problems, including depression, a greater number of sick days and relationship breakdown.

Even normal hours often hurt us though. Studies suggest that those in the office spend a large proportion of their time unproductively. They might be checking personal emails or social media sites, or simply carrying out their basic work in a very un-productive fashion. Anyone spent ages staring at a spreadsheet unable to make head or tail of it? Ever fallen asleep in a meeting when supposed to be coming up with ground-breaking new ideas?

The energy cycle

Energy, creativity and brilliance rarely arrive on demand. Instead, human beings work in cycles. We can focus for limited amounts of time. After that we need rest in order to recover.

ultradian

The ‘ultradian’ pattern, as it is known, normally depends on working in cycles of 90 minutes, with energy troughs in between – normally of about 20-30 minutes. The working day takes no notice of this, however.

Sometimes of course, we enter that wonderful state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as ‘flow’ – where we are hardly aware of the passing of time because we are so absorbed by what we are doing. When we manage to achieve this, the idea of cutting it off with a commute home or a lunch hour seems crazy.

Manage energy, not time

Radical companies understand the need to manage energy, not time. Sometimes that means that workers can work far in excess of the normal working day – developer stories of being so absorbed in a problem they didn’t leave the office until 3am are common. At other times it means workers do far less than the traditional 8 hours and in a different way – starting late, for example, leaving early to pick up children; taking a walk.

No working day means that life and work are more closely blended. It’s not unusual for radical managers to answer emails late at night or to come up with ideas as they sit on a beach with their family. They are not oppressed by this (“oh no! the phone is beeping again!”), partly because they are just as capable of taking a nap when they feel like it or running errands in the middle of what others would call the ‘working day’.

Being Radical

Leo Widrich is a co-founder of Buffer, a company which allows people to manage multiple social media accounts more easily. He manages his own day by splitting it into 90-minute windows and then achieving a certain number of tasks – one per window. A side benefit is that this helps increase focus on just one task at a time, eliminating much of the cost of task-switching. He then tries to plan his rest periods. Instead of allowing these to be filled up with emails or meetings, he goes out for a snack or reads a book. This ensures genuine downtime that allows the brain to recharge and creative ideas to swim up from the subconscious.

So what should we do?

It’s simple really – set people free to work as much as they want, when they want.

There’s no need to say ‘do you mind if I leave early today because blah blah blah’. Just go. It can help to share with others what you’re doing and how to get hold of you so they can co-ordinate with you, but there’s no need to ask permission.

Nor is there any need for that irritating parade of being the last to leave the office, or the first to get there. If someone is emailing late at night it’s because she had a thought and wanted to communicate it, not to demonstrate how dedicated she is.

Some managers might start sweating in light anxiety. How do you know the person won’t bunk off, won’t take advantage, won’t drop their productivity etc.? The answer is that regardless of hours put in people know if someone isn’t pulling their weight or isn’t performing. You can still ask poorly performing people to buck up or get out. But most people want to do well and want the company to do well so they work hard, but you’ve created an environment that helps them work effectively.

You can just trust them.

And just that one piece of advice – trust – frees up a lot of your own time in or out of the working day.

By: Helen Walton from Gamevy

Self selection – How to restructure your team for greater autonomy.

May 16, 2016

One of our largest departments within Ocado Technology recently undertook a revolutionary self-selecting restructuring exercise, changing the entire structure of the department whilst allowing all team members to choose which team they would like to work in going forward. The need came about because multiple teams were stretched, working across two major business propositions and context switching between them. The goal was that following the restructure there would be a clear split between teams working on two different business propositions, such that each of those teams could really focus on that product.

ukteamsanonymous-

The overall aim of this restructure was to achieve greater alignment, autonomy and purpose.

Following the principle that a collaborative and distributed approach is often the best way to solve a complex optimisation problem, we decided to take a full day as a whole department to stop work and have a facilitated event to negotiate the moves amongst the five new teams. We did a lot of thinking and preparation prior to this day and the teams used a set of constraints around team size and experience levels to guide their decisions.

The plan going into the event was shared well ahead of time to allow people to get their questions in (and added to a shared FAQ forum) and to be sure the concepts were clear going into the day. Alongside this, we ran multiple “townhall” sessions where people could air their concerns and ask their questions openly. We hoped that at the end of the process we would have well-rounded, committed teams ready to face the new challenge.

There was a certain amount of ad-libbing and practical adjustments on the day, but on the whole it unfolded according to the plan:

– First, a pitch for each team by the Product Owner, covering the vision/roadmap and why the team is super cool and awesome. There was also a set of target criteria for each team as a guide for what we were looking to achieve in each area.

– Next, multiple iterations where we:

1. Assigned or moved ourselves/each other between teams until we’ve addressed any identified issues in         the previous iteration.

2. See if we had met the pre-defined criteria for each team.

3. Repeat until we run out of time or we meet all of the requirements and everybody is happy and                       committed to the team that they are in.

Fuelled by 18 pizzas, we completed three exhausting rounds of moves and peer voting. At the end of each round, we (everyone, including Product Owners and Team Leads) voted on the viability of each team. From this we measured two scores: an intra-team score (the people in that team scoring the viability of the team), and an inter-team score (the rest of the people scoring the viability of that team). This lead to a few interesting dynamics, for example one of the teams gave themselves a high intra-team score, but scored low on the inter-team vote. They then gave a pitch justifying their viability as a team, and were able to dramatically increase their inter-team score in the next round.

The first round was deliberately obviously suboptimal, so that everyone was motivated to suggest changes and improvements and become comfortable with doing so in a very “safe” way. Naturally, this configuration had dramatically lower scores! This encouraged a large amount of movement in the following rounds, as we had hoped.

votingresultsanonymous

Essential to finding a viable solution was an appreciation from all of the ‘greater good’ of Ocado Technology. On the day, some people chose to make some really big compromises in order to serve the greater good and allow us to form balanced teams that are all capable of smashing out quality software.

After the final round of voting we then took a quick anonymous happiness reading by each dropping a green, yellow or red lego piece into a box. Although they were not perfect, we were extremely pleased the results, considering that our original goals was “at least 50% happy”.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 1.23.46 AM

The very next morning we did a big-bang desk move:

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We’ve since kept a close eye on the impact of the shuffle-up by measuring the things that matter most to us: throughput and team happiness. There was an expected initial dip in throughput as many people got up to speed on new products they had not worked on before and as new teams gelled and got to know each other. But the throughput three months on has risen higher than before the change and still rising. Improvements in team happiness (measured before and after by Spotify’s “health-checks”) were noteworthy from straight after the restructure.

In terms of the solution itself: we are delighted. Every team has a reasonable level of experience whilst a healthy number of people have chosen to change domain. It is a vastly better result than we could have hoped for had we chosen a top-down approach and the sense of autonomy it has created is invaluable. It seems that teams and individuals have a stronger sense of ownership than ever before and that they are taking quality more seriously than ever before. This did have an up-front cost in terms of short term throughput, but the long term benefits certainly justify it.

James Lohr, Ocado Tech Department Head