People management: Four ways to create an organisation that your team loves

From developing a feeling of autonomy to creating a strong sense of purpose, here’s how successful tech chiefs keep their staff happy and productive.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The past 12 months – with the challenging working conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic – have proven the importance of keeping people engaged and supported. So, what's the best way to build an IT organisation that people love working for in the longer term? Four digital leaders give us their top tips.

1. Give your staff a sense of autonomy

Tarah Lourens, chief product and technology officer at Rightmove, says the key to creating an organisation employees love is ensuring that the right building blocks are in place for success. First and foremost, that means giving people the autonomy to do their roles effectively, while also having the influence to go beyond their day-to-day tasks.

"The team are empowered and enabled to do what they feel. Nobody in the business is saying 'you must do it this way'. It's up to us to help shape the right approach. We work very closely with everyone across the business – and everyone's got an opinion that's valued," she says, referring to the way her IT organisation works alongside the rest of the business.

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"As a tech team, we're a big part of driving the experiences that you have as a customer, which for a technology organisation is super-exciting – and something that I believe not a lot of companies can genuinely say."

Lourens says there are a couple of other elements that help ensure workers are satisfied. She says these factors – which focus on environment and purpose – are often "hygiene factors" for executives looking to keep their talent onside. However, that doesn't mean the delivery of these elements should be taken for granted.

"You need to offer things like a really nice office, really informal environment, really low hierarchy, and low politics; we don't overdo it on structure and process. And then the other thing that's important is to have a real purpose as a company and to create a philosophy that people can get behind," she says.

2. Find novel ways to boost communication

Boots UK CIO Rich Corbridge's techniques for fostering engagement have been developed through his IT leadership career. He says businesses must continually focus on their employees: "Treat them as people, keep them engaged, keep communicating."

Corbridge uses a range of techniques. Every Friday, he runs a session called 'can you give me two minutes?'. He sends out a note prior to these meetings that asks, 'What have you done this week, what are you doing next week, and what's happening?'.

"It's all about celebrating success and giving people a view of what we do in IT – some videos, some written context and some guest speakers," he says, explaining how recent speakers have included the global CIO of Boots UK's parent company, Walgreen Boots Allliance, the firm's chief of staff, and the global head of Microsoft Retail.

Corbridge uses another technique – known as golden time – that was developed during the pandemic, but which could also continue in the post-pandemic new normal. During this hour, employees get to spend quality time with their peers.

"They do whatever they want: go for a walk virtually with a colleague, have a beer later on with a colleague, but they do something with colleagues and try to ban work chat being the thing they talk about. It's about trying to create that 'anybody want to go to the pub?' conversation," he says.

3. Look to continually improve ways of working

Gary Delooze, CIO at Nationwide, says his organisation focuses on psychological safety, which is about building a recognition amongst employees that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, concerns or mistakes.

"The ability for people to feel like they have a voice is really, really important, because not only does it make them more motivated to be an active contributor to the team, but it also means that they feel like they can contribute more broadly into the wider business agenda," he says.

Delooze says his organisation has been working with business agility practitioner Jonathan Smart around how to implement some of his ideas around a concept known as Better Value Sooner Safer Happier (BVSSH), which is an outcome-oriented approach with the aim of continuously improving ways of working.

He says this approach helps Nationwide's IT professionals to feel that the work they do individually is connected to the broader purpose of the organisation. Delooze says that if you can create that connection, then it becomes much easier to make people feel engaged and empowered.

"This is really about how do you bring all of these ideas together, such as Agile or bringing run and change together," says Delooze. "One of the components of that work is that if you do this stuff then the pressure and the stress comes off teams because they reach a cadence that allows them to work well and successfully."

4. Make sure people know their work matters

Chris Porter, vice-president for talent acquisition and matching at BP, says the setup and structure of a company is crucial to creating a sense of wellbeing and belonging.

Porter believes BP's recent corporate reorganisation – and it's ongoing transition to becoming a net-zero business by 2050 or sooner – has helped to reduce segmentation and to bring people across the business closer together.

"I think that focusing on our purpose is very important, so we've got our ambition and driving toward that as a collective is very powerful. I think there's something important about having a shared goal, and the collective vision," he says.

Porter says another crucial element to building an organisation that people love is making sure the business gives people the right tools and then empowers employees to perform in a meaningful way: "How can we get out of their way, so they can show us exactly what they can do."

Finally, Porter says great leadership is an essential factor when you're trying to create a happy and successful organisation. "You're only ever as good as your leader is," he says.

"I think we really need to focus on that within BP – and we have been, and we will continue to do that. And it's not just leaders who manage people, it's everyone; everyone is a leader, it's about 'how can you really help us shape our future?' And I think with that shared vision and purpose we have now, that becomes a little bit easier."

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