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Workplace culture is about cultivating behaviors, not beanbags

To really do DevOps, organizations will have to address and cultivate more effective workflows. It's not as easy as bringing in beanbags and pingpong tables.

In a previous article, I talked about the culture of DevOps workplaces. In particular, I said, culture is how we deal with work, not how many beanbag chairs we have.

I'd like to return to that idea.

Workplace culture refers to how your organization deals with work -- not how swish and high tech your office is and not how many open plan spaces you have. In the workplace, culture is primarily how we deal with work.

What we mean when we say culture

I am a fan of looking at the etymology of words. It can give one insight into the original -- and sometimes true and unaltered -- meaning of the word. The etymology of culture is obviously of interest to this discussion. According to Merriam-Webster, the origin of the word has to do with agriculture, and its first known use dated back to 1510, "Middle English, cultivated land, cultivation."

There's the key word : cultivate.

In his article entitled "The Meanings of Culture," Arthur Berger explained that the word culture comes from the Latin cultus, which means care, as well as from the French colere , which means to till.

So when we talk about workplace culture, we have to ask: What behavior do we cultivate?

Let's compare the workplace culture of two hypothetical companies, looking at how behavior patterns are cultivated.

Company 1: Beanbags are cool

This company is doing DevOps because it's what everyone else is doing and apparently it helps you deliver faster and make more money.

This organization wants to attract the younger DevOps crowd, so it creates a colorful workspace with pingpong tables and beanbag chairs. One of the ways to encourage your employees to stay longer is to create fun workspaces -- maybe even provide some meals.

On the surface, this seems like a desirable employer. But scratch the surface of this workplace culture, and you'll find a company with high staff turnover .

beanbags
Beanbag chairs won't give your organization a DevOps culture.

This company's developers are blamed for bugs they deploy. Operations engineers are the only ones up at all hours dealing with preventable bugs. QAs are routinely required to work weekends as the bottleneck for urgent big releases. Again, the security pros are the last to find out about new deployments. Managers, who are incentivized to meet deadlines, adopt heavy-handed tactics. Staffers aren't honest with their managers about issues they face, and, across the organization, staff and managers duck tough conversations.

Beanbags do not remedy a broken workplace culture. 

Company 2: Workers first

The place may not be beautiful. There may or may not be free snacks. But what stands out about this company is how it deals with work and treats its people.

This company does DevOps because it truly understands the long-term benefits of fast feedback, continuous improvement, reducing wasteful work activities, automation and sharing. This company encourages and teaches technical excellence, and it looks for more helpful and efficient working patterns. Because the staff is more productive, it's a happier place to work.

This organization goes about tough conversations with tact. Managers possess emotional intelligence. They know how to accept feedback from staff and how to discuss tough messages respectfully. Team members learn continuously from each other, and they share that knowledge .

Beanbags do not remedy a broken workplace culture.

At this company, DevOps results in mutual ownership, maintainable systems and improved skills.

The net result is a staff that's happier and instinctively puts more effort and integrity into their work. Staff members stay with the company longer than a few months or a year.

DevOps culture in the workplace

Beanbags don't make a company good or bad, but superficial items will not improve your workplace culture. Those things won't help employees do their work. If you want to give your employees these toys, only do so in addition to improving and cultivating work behaviors.

Personally, I have fulfilling workdays when I'm productive and actually enjoy the work. I remember a really productive day when I head home -- preferably on time -- far more fondly than I do one when we did not get much done but played a lot of games.

Doing DevOps in this workplace makes me -- and likely other knowledge workers -- happier, more productive and more loyal.

This was last published in July 2018

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