In this pandemic era, why a “people-first” work culture is more important than ever.
John Gu, Founder & CEO, AlphaLab Capital, first published on e27
In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores and disrupted life as we knew it. With a series of lockdowns and worldwide travel restrictions, it seemed like the global workforce was forced to participate in a mass “experiment” of sorts. Existing operational processes were put to the test, and companies had to grapple with new measures implemented on the fly.
Before the pandemic, the “work smarter not harder” mantra led by the world’s biggest tech companies saw free lunches, open-concept offices and additional days of childcare leave as the gold standard for an innovative workplace. With most of these office perks removed, work went back to the core: people. Studies have shown that happier employees work better to achieve organisational goals. Engaged and happy employees who feel that they belong excel in their work and positively impact the company’s performance.
I learnt this first-hand as my company, AlphaLab Capital, evolved. With no outside investment, my co-founder Michal Krasnodebski and I had the freedom to build a company and culture based on the core values we believe in – a workplace where people can work, and have fun doing so. We made it a point to cultivate a workplace where each employee can contribute, grow and outperform and create an environment where we would want to work.
When news of the pandemic broke and working from home became the default arrangement for non-essential businesses, we took steps to transit amid the uncertainties and rapidly evolving situation. However, the processes that we set in place prior to the pandemic helped us greatly in maintaining productivity, reducing disruption and keeping our company going.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing a people-first culture, so having tried many ways to figure out the best way to work together, here’s what we’ve learned:
Building a conducive environment
It is no secret that the environment – both physical and mental – contributes significantly to employee productivity. On the physical front, we have witnessed in this century a phenomenal shift from the use of individualised cubicle workstations to the use of “open concept” workspaces. Whether the purpose for this shift is an attempt to save costs or boost collaboration and productivity, does an open-plan office really benefit everyone? And now, with more companies implementing hybrid work arrangements due to the pandemic, how can offices be reimagined to provide a safe, conducive yet collaborative environment for all?
In a tech environment, especially in software development, an open-plan concept may counterintuitively do more harm than good. While providing employees easier access to one another may make it seem easier for collaboration, individual contributors may find it more distracting than helpful. AlphaLab’s office, designed especially for software engineers, accommodates the best of both worlds – a meeting and socialisation zone invites information collaboration, while dedicated workstation rooms allow employees to work away from distractions.
During Michal’s prior stint at Shutterstock, his internal study found that 61% of over 10,000 meetings were made up of pairs and small groups. Drawing inspiration from that experience, we analysed two years’ worth of meetings to help the company design the new office and meeting rooms. We have done away with large, underused boardrooms; instead, small meeting rooms allow for quicker, more focused discussion, and the larger spaces are dedicated to our software engineers to spread out and work in peace.
Empowering employees with open communication and ownership
As remote and hybrid work arrangements become a norm, it is more important than ever to have open workplace communication and keep genuine feedback flowing. By creating a supportive environment to encourage employees to speak up, you can help your team members remain engaged and valued. According to Google’s Project Aristotle research, which studied 180 teams across the company, psychological safety is the most important factor in achieving successful teamwork. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
At AlphaLab, we espouse this through monthly agile retrospectives, where everyone on the team is encouraged to share feedback and propose ideas or suggestions, regardless of roles or hierarchy (Figure 1). These exercises help uncover valuable insights about management, work processes and even solutions, which lets us address issues effectively. These meetings have seen cross-pollination of ideas – as more ideas mean better ideas – and even transformed our planning process.
Open communication goes beyond our monthly “all hands” meetings as we constantly seek feedback from all employees on all matters. Our employees are empowered to state hard truths and process unvarnished feedback with an improvement mindset away from blame; this is crucial in developing a learning environment that drives progress and constant improvements.
We also strongly value self-direction and encourage employees to take ownership of their ideas and breakthroughs. Instead of a top-down management structure, our employees are wholly responsible for delivering their own results. With decentralised planning meetings, our staff own their responsibilities and backlogs, and how and when they do work is entirely up to them. We also entrust our staff with unlimited vacation days – although this is currently underutilised due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. This helps promote a culture of accountability, and employees feel empowered and trusted at work.
Beyond operational processes, we also encourage self-direction and ownership in the company. We take pride in giving all employees broad exposure to all parts of the business – infrastructure, core trading technology and even in strategy development. By taking on fluid roles and responsibilities and working directly with a diverse team, everyone, even the interns, is empowered to discover their interests and unlock potential areas of growth. We have two colleagues who were initially hired as engineers but have since transitioned to becoming quants because they were allowed to work on different aspects of the business and developed interest and aptitude for quantitative trading.
Investing in future generations
COVID or not, the industry is still charging forward. A people-first approach doesn’t just stand us in good stead for the present; it also lays the groundwork for the future. We saw the importance of investing in the future generation of engineers to ensure growth while the economy recovers. In a time when other organisations began cancelling their internship programmes, AlphaLab took the opposite approach and hired an outsized team of interns. We currently have eight interns (including a high-school graduate) who are well supported and contribute greatly to our team.
More than just boosting our recruitment pipeline, our internship programme is driven by the belief that education and opportunities have the power to change lives. Our interns benefit from hands-on practical experience that will give them a leg-up in the career paths they wish to undertake, whether continuing with us or not. In the bigger picture, the training and experience for engineers-to-be – students pursuing their passions – is our way of investing in Singapore’s future and contributing to a growing industry: a rising tide lifts all boats.
In a fast-paced industry where technological advancements can serve as either a creative or destructive force for companies, upskilling is important. Employees are encouraged to pursue upskilling opportunities, and we support them in their development. Since they control their schedule, they can take time off during the workday to attend class and fit their education around deliverables. We are proud to note that several of our employees have since embarked on such academic endeavours during their stint with us – from earning a Machine Learning degree to embarking on a Master’s programme.
These various methods of fostering ownership and employee engagement in the workplace have proven beneficial amid the new norm. Productivity and the sharing of knowledge have remained at an all-time high, and this shows that physical proximity isn’t everything – employee empowerment is.
We strive to provide every employee with the right environment to feed their instinct for innovation and have fun at work. While we’re proud to have recently earned the Great Place to Work® Certification™, our people-first culture reflects that when staff thrive, so does the company that works hard to nurture them.