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People questions we’re looking at

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the culture work we’re doing at Vanti. I’ve shared the framework we’re working with, our strengths and the big challenges we’re facing. 

In this post, I look at the questions we’re working with connected with the people side of things. The next post will be about system-based stuff (obviously, people vs systems is a false dichotomy, but it helps me to break up this long list so it’s easier to digest…)

How do we care about our jobs, each other and ourselves?

We hire people who care a lot about their jobs, a lot about each other, but don’t always know how to balance that care with care for themselves and their home lives. In fact, in the definition of the Vanti ‘Care’ value, there is only mention of caring for clients and each other, not for ourselves. Basically, there can be a lot of burnout that comes from not being able to switch off in people who want/need to do an excellent job. When circumstances conspire to mean that someone can’t do an excellent job, there is severe internal dissonance.

Things we’re doing: There are lots of levels at which we are sorting this. The first is to have conversations about self-care, how to switch off, and how to set boundaries without all the hard stuff falling on a few people. We’re also exploring how we might implement a more formalised system of people supporting each other, which would help with this.

How do we maintain a friendly environment and still allow for dissension and conflict?

Because Vanti is so good at hiring nice, caring people, conflict is not part of our culture. It’s hard to disagree, it’s hard to ask someone to change the way they do something and so things build up. Side conversations are used as a pressure release valve, but frank discussion of emotional topics doesn’t often happen.

Things we’re doing: We’ve introduced concepts like the Ladder of Inference and Impact vs Intention into the lexicon here. It helps to have the language to spot patterns, which has allowed the defusing of tense situations and has led to adult/adult, as opposed to parent/child, conversations happening. I’m running regular workshops on courageous conversations (including a pretty comprehensive video for people who can’t make the workshop right now) and we’re introducing more tools as we go.

How do we create an environment that is equitable for multiply-marginalised people and still hire the best person for the job?

As is the case for any organisation that doesn’t do significant ongoing work in this area, most people at Vanti are white, most of them are men (particularly in the technical roles), most of them are non-trans, most of them are straight. We’re not totally at the beginning, but we have a way to go in terms of even ‘diversity’, let alone a truly inclusive and equitable organisation.

Things we’re doing: We’ve started the long process of talking about the different types of privilege we hold or don’t hold, and made a commitment to continuing those conversations in the long haul. We’ve also begun to think about where we’re at on the neutral/diversity/inclusion/equity/justice scale and what our next steps are.

Becoming an inclusive and equitable organisation is long-term culture change work and won’t be shifted with a couple of unconscious bias workshops. The good thing is everyone who has attended the initial workshops has been really open to learning and being challenged. As a queer, trans person who co-founded an anti-racism consultancy, this is very close to my heart and it’s amazing to be able to work with a company really willing to do the work. 

How do we keep smart people engaged and feeling like they are progressing without the aid of job titles?

We’re working on creating an environment where everyone is empowered to make changes in the company, and where responsibility and accountability are distributed across the organisation. We’re a small team. Jobs roles are… diffuse. Traditional development opportunities (like becoming a ‘team leader’ or something) aren’t part of the way we do things.

Things we’re doing: We’ve created an Asana board for people to manage their own development, and have plans to train people up as peer coaches. We’ll be holding some conversations about how to bring coaching skills into peer relationships, and encouraging people to map out their next steps, in combination with the feedback of people around them, so that there are no external barriers to them developing in the way that supports them and Vanti at the same time. As we implement a more decentralised method of making decisions, this will become more familiar to people.

How do we support each person to have a human-sized workload?

We know we could be better at scoping jobs, especially when things can be quite unpredictable. In addition, project size has grown faster than recruitment, which necessarily lags behind demand, especially when hiring people with very specific skills. The end result can, unfortunately, be extremely overworked and burnt-out people.

Things we’re doing: We’re tackling this from several directions right now. We’re doing some comprehensive Project Reflection sessions to learn lessons from the big projects we’ve been working on. Part of that review will involve looking at scoping. We’re supporting staff in developing sustainable work habits (so far, just a workshop and a how-to video). We’re also co-creating a structure for receiving delegated tasks. When priorities are clear, you can see what you need to do and more easily balance it with the other demands of your job. At a strategic level, the leadership team spent some time looking at what the criteria are more generally in projects (Happy clients? Happy team? Cash? Profit? Perfect code?) so again we can be aligned in what we give priority.

How do we feel like one team when some people work mainly on-site and some people work mainly in the office?

This is a big ol’ problem. At various times, up to three-quarters of the company can be on-site, with sometimes just a few people from Service and Central Services in the office. Yes, we have Slack and phones, but inevitably it is easier to communicate with people you’re near, and you understand what’s happening around you easier than what is happening at a distance. Add into the mix the fact that some sites have terrible data reception and it creates some challenges.

Things we’re doing: One thought is to clarify what the work/culture differences are when on-site and off-site so that it’s clear what the expectations and challenges are when people transfer one way or the other. More asynchronous methods of capturing learning and development content and decision making is going to be important, plus more use of video conferencing etc. Even just making this a non-taboo topic helps, but we’re nowhere near sorting this out, to be frank. Suggestions (as with all of this) welcome!


So those some of the people-based questions we’re working on. Next up: System-based questions…