Perks, team culture, and the tango in between

I miss those days when a few pizzas and coffees were enough. It was less about all the slang (WFH, IRL, hybrid, T-shape) and more about doing meaningful work while having a bit of fun. It became harder to follow my North Star. The sky is more crowded than ever, but I think I discovered a better way to look towards the horizon.

March 17, 2021
Reading time 9 – 14 minutes

I wear multiple hats at Pixelgrade. I’m a storyteller, community builder, Chief People Officer, business partner, and glue. It’s not a badge of honor; it is what it is. I’m well aware that this is one of the costs I’m paying to keep the ship going on my side. And hey, I’m not the only one, so don’t try to pity me. You can send a few coffees, instead. I would gladly accept.

Since everyone understands slightly different things regarding what a Chief People Officer’s role implies, here’s my sharp viewpoint:

I’m the gal in charge of nurturing a team aligned with our values.

The how is a different story, so I’ll stick to that for the moment.

In the last three+ years since I’m leading Pixelgrade’s squad as CPO, many things happened and changed. Some are with an internal echo, such as the fact that we gained more clarity about how we want to keep running this ship. Some are external, such as the pandemic, but both leave marks on our team, individually and collectively. I have no doubts about that.

Just recently, it became crystal clear that the perks we’ve been offering turned into a mismatch for the current reality. Not all of them, but most of them.

We’re a small team with folks who have a lot of experience inside Pixelgrade, which is, in itself, significant and valuable. From Mădălin and Alex, who came aboard almost three years ago, to Alin and Răzvan, who are veterans, already counting seven and nine years, respectively.

This is relevant because it impacts the team’s dynamic and perception. While the culture and the values are written in stone, and we still make decisions governed by them (excellence, care, and gratitude), the rest of the benefits should evolve accordingly.

But before hitting conclusions, I feel the need to put things into perspective.

Two years ago, on the 19th of July 2019, I wrote a piece (it’s in my Evernote) titled—How cultural habits can get back at you. An in-depth attempt to reflect on how tough it is to keep a sane balance when it comes to expectations concerning perks at the office.

This is a passage of the article that was never published:

We live in a world where the pressure of alignment is enormous. On the one hand, we intensely promote individuality and what makes us unique; on the other, we feel the tension of following global trends. As a company, you can’t navigate these murky waters unless you have the guts to reshape the puzzle.

I’m not overreacting when I say that I was the one challenging the status-quo of our organization. I did that not because I like firing up things and looking for struggles, but mostly because it’s been hard for me to do my job as a people-person first and now as a CPO (Chief People Person).

Due to the international scale that we operate at Pixelgrade and all the fuss within the IT sector, these perks jumped from something amazing to something almost ordinary. It’s like dooh, of course we have these perks at our fingertips, everyone does.

First of all, no, not everyone does. Go outside your small bubble, and start asking people about their work conditions. You don’t have to visit factories to expand your perspective, talk with your buddies who work in slightly different industries. You will be amazed by their reactions.

Second of all, taking them for granted shows the complete reverse of our core values: gratitude. Therefore, if someone thinks that this is just the way it should be, the normality, the conventional sense, I invite you to ask yourself how do you manifest gratitude in the first place?

I still resonate with these thoughts, even though the current squad manifests gratitude, for which I’m profoundly proud. Thank you!

The article finishes in a nostalgic tone that vibrates to this day:

I’m not blaming anyone for the fact that some cultural habits got back at us, and now we’re all paying a lot in return. All these perks appeared from a place of care and generosity, in a company where people are treated as complex human beings.

I’m getting closer to the conclusion that Vlad, George, and I, as leaders, need to reshape the puzzle and tailor everything to our set of values and beliefs. No more Silicon Valley, no more startup mantras, no mare comparisons with big IT players out there.

It’s time to embrace the challenging path of zigging when most of the companies out there are zagging and be brave enough to follow our authenticity and put together a company that makes us, us.

What does the above introspection have to do with today’s landscape? Well, a lot. Keep reading to discover how getting to the next layers of the onion brought progress and a bit of serenity, even though it’s just the beginning of the adventure.

The Silicon Valley ripples touched us

Playing in an international league and having role models such as Basecamp (mixed feelings these days) became contrasting and made things fuzzy in the tranches, day by day.

On the one hand, it was natural to cheery pick things from the companies living in the Silicon Valley. From playing FIFA at the office (not anymore) to having shelves with alcohol at hand, everything felt like something ordinary.

On the other hand, the guys at Basecamp are on the opposite side of the spectrum concerning how they approach business and people in general. They are super vocal when it comes to investment, marketing, sales, and such. Guess what? That’s an attitude that we share and resonate with.

Being young and naive made us ambiguous but well-intended.

We offered whatever we thought matches the culture and the trends we followed at that moment. FIFA time? Sure! Lunch? Of course! Coffees for those who came early? My pleasure, mate! A red sofa to relax and chill? We got you covered! Money to go to the gym? OFC!

For that particular moment in time, with that specific team, it (somehow) made sense.

However, we’re not the same folks anymore. Even though some of us are still part of the gang, we evolved, matured, found meaning in other areas. 

Therefore, we changed the benefits we were offering, or we put them in a nuanced context. For instance, we did not cover all the costs when we went to WordCamp Europe, only 75% of them. We’re still offering lunch, but now, we have a local chef who’s cooking for us to eat healthier and avoid food waste.

We found a balance. Our balance.

The Romanian identity’s echo is loud

We’re still in touch with the global ecosystem, no matter if we’re talking about software, economy, politics if you want, but we filter everything through our DNA.

We’re Romanians, and this comes with baggage. As Daniel David, a famous psychologist who’s teaching both here and in the USA, we’re more influenced about our identity than we like to believe.

We’ve been under the communist block for 40+ years, so we have plenty of marks on our skin and brain. One effect that’s visible at every corner is the lack of individual initiative and responsibility

The communist regime trained us to shut up, follow directions, keep our heads under the water, be suspicious, and not trust anyone.

It’s not our fault per se, but it is what it is. The ripples are still here, so we need to face them and learn to swim through these waves, not against them.

I have been investing a lot of time, energy, and money in understanding this reality and trying to find solutions according to how we want to nurture the team. It’s still work in progress, but we’re more confident than ever that we can’t hide our history. It’s part of our identity.

Perks tailored to the culture, not otherwise

Since the pandemic kicked off, companies have been throwing many cookie-cutter tactics to keep their teams happy and engaged. While the goal itself is noble, there’s way too little coherent dialogue around people in their wholeness.

It’s either “we need to please them because they will leave” kind of attitude or “fuck it, put them to work even harder, we need to recover the losses” belief. For me, as a Chief People Officer who aims to keep building a squad where people fulfill their potential, both sound delusional.

Companies miss a bunch of nuances because they’re in a hurry to cut corners and duplicate what others are already doing.

I don’t have the magic potion to spread it out here, neither I had any Evrika moment in the last year. However, I have something that helps me more: Pixelgrade’s culture and its values. 

It is the only place I keep returning to whenever things are blurry, the ground is shaking, or the pressure is too high and confusing.

In the last couple of weeks, I started an internal process of questioning the current list of perks we’re offering to our team. As I almost always do, I kicked-off with one teammate, then expanded the process across the board, and fine-tuned it along the way.

The final list is not ready yet, and I guess it will never be since we’re in a constant move, but I’m on the final lap. My goal is to gather the team, walk them through the journey, and ask for improvement, feedback, and contribution.

Until then, I think it’s relevant to share are a few takeaways I gathered during the process.

 1. If people don’t remember it, it’s not a perk

If a benefit you’re offering is not in the back of your teammates’ minds, then you should consider eliminating it. How do you know it? Just ask them. By remembering, I’m not referring to a memory test, but an honest answer to this question—that’s it.

2. If the basic stuff is not covered, forget about the rest

Ensure you offer the bare minimum of what your folks need to accomplish their goals and get the desired outcomes. In the end, you’re a company, and they’re here for a reason. Give them the tools to get the job done first.

3. If you offer access to the gym and they need recognition, you’re missing the point

Don’t try to cover the unmet needs with things or experiences because it will only worsen. People need acceptance, praise, or a simple yet curious “You’re okay?” more than they need the gym, vegetables, and flowers.

4. If you facilitate access to self-development and nobody taps into it, you have other challenges to face first

Way too many people (leaders and employees together) underestimate the power of soft skills and communication. However, both make our days harder. If both sides of the table do not invest in personal development, make sure you know what hidden costs will appear on the bill (short and long term).

5. There’s no one-size-fits-all scenario

During this investigation I’ve been through, I realized that there’s no recipe out there. And hey, I talked with the entire crew, two ex-employees, a trainer of non-violent communication, my mentor, and a friend who’s a creative entrepreneur.

The same perks in two different companies could mean various things. Everyone fine-tunes their playground as they wish, and that’s okay.

The needs, though, are universal, and the tactics to reach them are particular. We all need access to healthcare, we all need to belong, we all need recognition and appreciation, we all need to know where we’re heading (be it a very fragile horizon), we all need freedom, we all need to be respected, and so on.

As in any other relationship, no company can and should cover all your needs. It would be rather dangerous, unhealthy, and not sustainable. But from 0 to 1 is a long road full of opportunities. Let’s talk more about them.

Leaders need to look in the mirror and be brave enough to admit that not knowing it’s okay. The wisdom lies in the willingness to find out.

I did it, and it wasn’t a walk in the park, trust my word. Even though therapy and coaching helped me identify which fights worth carrying, it’s still challenging. I must confess it felt eerie when I noticed how many of the perks we’re offering bring too little for the team.

Thankfully, I’m here to acknowledge and change that.

I’m still a keen believer in creating sustainable relationships at work and treat people in their complexity. It means to accept the guy in front of you with the intricacies he represents: anxieties, ambitions, fears, dreams, flaws, blessings, powers, strengths, and so on.

Sometimes, I forget this raw truth along the way, but that’s okay. As long as I came back at the drawing board that equals wearing the Chief People Officer hat more often, I know that the game is still playing.

P.S. If you’re having struggles about adjusting the perks to your company’s personality, or you want me to walk you through my journey, feel free to reach me out at [email protected]. I will gladly lend a hand.

Photo by Katerina Nedelcu at Pixelgrade’s office.

A question by Oana, author of this article:
Which perks are valuable for you, and how do you put them into good use?

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