The Secret to Workplace Morale May Very Well Be DevOps
It turns out that empowered employees are happy employees.
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Does the above video hit just a little too close to home? (You haven’t watched it yet? Sigh. Ok, I’ll wait.)
As I was saying, if watching the clip of what has to be one of the most dysfunctional workplaces imaginable feels like déjà vu for you, first of all I would like to say, “I’m sorry.” And second of all, I would like to share with you that you are absolutely not alone. According to this piece from TED’s The Way We Work series, 60 percent of people worldwide are unhappy at work. Sixty percent. That’s more people than actually live in the United States of America. That’s higher than the percentage of Americans who voted in the last presidential election. That is an obscene amount of people.
It’s also an extremely expensive problem: A Gallup report from a few years back estimates that unhappy workers cost US employers alone somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 billion dollars in lost productivity each year. Yikes.
While there are plenty of companies out there offering perks of all colors, shapes, and sizes in an attempt to reverse this disastrous situation, a lot of them are unfortunately missing the mark. Don’t get me wrong; massages, dog walking services, and ping pong tables are nice and all, but as the TED piece points out, this isn’t what workplace engagement ultimately comes down to: “It’s all about how [employees] are treated by their leaders and the people they work with.”
But all of this is no big secret to quite a few software development teams, at least the ones who practice DevOps. As the Harvard Business Review’s Competitive Advantage Through DevOps report explains, DevOps is “an approach to develop and run IT services faster and with higher quality through the adoption of agile and lean practices as well as automation.” While this definition is certainly useful for a base understanding of a fairly complex process, it doesn’t quite say enough, though, because it doesn’t get to the heart of what really makes DevOps work: intelligent, hard-working people driven to succeed, and a leadership culture that sets clear goals and then gets out of the way.
This type of work environment is what consistently lands companies on compilations like Glassdoor’s annual Best Places to Work list. "What we see in each of the companies on the list,” says Allison Berry, public relations specialist at Glassdoor, “are common themes like employees that feel valued, that feel they are working towards a clear, shared vision and mission, [and] that they are working with other incredibly smart people.”
In a DevOps environment, which involves not only unprecedented speed but also an intricate interworking of multiple departments, all of these commonalities are not just desirable, they’re required. In order for the whole system to work, employees have to be granted the autonomy to be creative and make critical decisions on the fly. “DevOps is about genuine distributed ownership,” says Korn Ferry’s Melissa Swift. “Participants feel like owners and are empowered to act like owners.” When a problem arises, there simply isn’t the time for a team member to hold back and wait for someone else to fix it. They have to believe in their own competence to make the right decision, and then act accordingly.
But they also have to know that it’s OK to speak up when they don’t have the answer, which just so happens to be another integral facet of the DevOps philosophy. “We’re working with super-intelligent people,” says the senior program manager at an enterprise software company. “We need to give them permission to step back and say, ‘I don’t know what that means,’ to create a safe space for asking real questions without questioning their expertise.” A business technology director at a large US-based utility company also echoed this sentiment: “[Developers] have to trust that it’s safe to go work in this new way.”
And when they do, that’s when the magic happens. Companies that have switched over to a DevOps methodology have reported dramatically improved speed to market, employee innovation, and product quality. “Letting teams experiment and find their own solutions drives strong outcomes,” says Nicole Forsgren, CEO and chief scientist at DORA. But, as she explains, this can’t happen without the right input from leadership. “Giving them visibility into what the customer wants, what the customer needs, and if possible to the customer themselves drives good outcomes. We see that setting clear goals and objectives and then letting the teams use their expertise drives good outcomes.”
But as this piece from CIO points out, “The reality is that most companies won't make the jump [to DevOps] – at least in the near term. Adoption rates for DevOps will remain under 25 percent through 2023, according to Gartner. The researcher says that roughly 75 percent of employees will either actively resist the move or will only be swayed to move by a ‘watershed moment’ that helps them see the upside.”
Change is hard, and most corporate cultures – as evidenced by those stunning numbers I referenced in the beginning – have certainly not made employee empowerment a priority. Who’s to say, though, that these C-levels won’t have a change of heart when they consider what a DevOps approach can do for their bottom line. Better yet, perhaps they will start to see things the way Google’s vice president of engineering does: “There’s something magical,” she wrote recently, “about understanding what makes people productive, collaborating with them, and then empowering them to deliver value.”
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