employee activism, strikes featured

The rise of employee activism

employee activism, strikes, striking

A mass employee walk out is a last resort that indicates an endemic ‘us and them’ attitude fundamentally at odds with both employee expectations and good management.

Attracting and retaining the good people with great skills essential to business success requires a strategic commitment to people management that is a world away from the hierarchical approach of the past. Zoe Cunningham, CEO, Softwire, explains the importance of nurturing employees, respecting their beliefs and actively seeking their input into tough business decisions.

Last Resort

The speed with which an apparently five star employer can lose employee credibility appears astonishing. How quickly the atmosphere within certain Silicon Valley firms has changed from a top rated employment destination to a workplace so toxic that employees feel compelled to stage a mass walk out. But is this really the case? Employee activism on this scale is a last resort, a desperate recognition that long standing internal efforts to effect change have failed.

For any employer the concept of activism is disconcerting. What does it say about a business that employees are so unhappy they want to make these very public statements?

This very public questioning of employers – from Google to Riot Games – about both ethics and commitment to creating a safe working environment, suggests a systemic lack of employee engagement. It indicates an ‘us and them’ divide between employer and employee that is out of step with both employee expectations and good employment practice.

Employee Value

Just consider the value of these employees: these intelligent, highly sought after experts with the world at their feet. They could work anywhere; join any business; find a company that not only rewards their skills but respects their opinions and beliefs.  And there is no doubt that many will have already done just that – rather than take a public stand they will have moved elsewhere.

With tech talent incredibly thin on the ground – in the UK as elsewhere globally – retaining top talent must be so much more than a line in the corporate strategy. As many companies are discovering, forget the salary and the perks. A lack of commitment to creating the right working environment and nurturing talent leads to employee haemorrhage which is actively hindering performance and growth.

Valuable individuals with hard to source skills are no longer just employees; they are part of the business. And, as such, they need not only to be kept informed about business change – and business challenges – but their opinions and ideas actively sought.  In practice this means including employees in the big decisions. It means sharing business troubles as well as celebrating success. It may go against the grain for managers raised in traditionally hierarchical business models but asking employee opinions on tough decisions - to choose between a ten per cent pay cut or a number of redundancies, for example - doesn’t undermine morale. It actually improves trust. It enhances their commitment to the business.

This open approach needs to be embedded within the entire business. An open door (or open diary for those without offices!) policy or dedicated times when employees are encouraged to speak to senior management, both in informal group environments and one to one, are invaluable. This is not just about providing a safe space for raising concerns and complaints – although that is of course essential.  It is about celebrating success, requesting new office facilities, prompting debate and discussion about dealing with clients, managing remote teams or embracing new market opportunities. Essentially, it is about fostering an open business environment that is a world away from the ‘us and them’ hierarchy of the past.

Employee walk outs make a very significant statement about the quality of experience within specific organisations. But in many companies the activism is subtle – it is the gentle drip of talent leaving, the constant cycle of recruitment and replacement.

People management takes time; but retaining and developing a committed and talented team is crucial to success. Companies cannot just pay lip service in a bid to attract highly valued tech talent. By actively engaging and empowering individuals to speak up and make changes to processes and values, companies can build the committed and engaged talent pool required to underpin long term success.

Zoe Cunningham featuredAbout the author

Zoe Cunningham is Managing Director of Softwire. Zoe has been at Softwire since 2000, in which time she has made it her mission to hold every role in the company – developer, project manager, consultant, sales, operations manager and now MD. Under Zoe’s leadership Softwire has placed in the top 25 of ‘The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For’ list consistently over the last seven years. Zoe is also a film and theatre actor and was the 2010 World Ladies Backgammon Champion. She has been named as one of the 100 most influential people in Tech City, selected by the BBC as the Brightest Woman in Britain and in 2013 she accompanied former Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his trade delegation to China.


Zoe Cunningham featured

Inspirational Woman: Zoe Cunningham | Managing Director, Softwire

 

Zoe Cunningham is Managing Director of Softwire.

Zoe has been at Softwire since 2000, in which time she has made it her mission to hold every role in the company – developer, project manager, consultant, sales, operations manager and now MD. Under Zoe’s leadership Softwire has placed in the top 25 of 'The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For’ list consistently over the last seven years. Zoe is also a film and theatre actor and was the 2010 World Ladies Backgammon Champion. She has been named as one of the 100 most influential people in Tech City, selected by the BBC as the Brightest Woman in Britain and in 2013 she accompanied former Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his trade delegation to China.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I studied a mathematics degree and then joined my current company Softwire as a graduate coder. I was the 9th team member to join and first female employee. As we were a small business I took the opportunity to work in lots of different roles, culminating in joining the business development team in 2009. This was way out of my comfort zone and consequently ended up being the biggest learning experience of my career. In 2012 I was appointed as Managing Director, reporting to the founders, and now I have broad responsibility across the whole company, which I love.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did! In 2007 I had an epiphany and started working much harder to achieve my career goals. A few years later I realised that I was becoming very successful and perhaps wasn’t setting large enough goals. I took a full Saturday morning to set myself a five year plan. I predicted what the company would look like in five years’ time and what roles would be needed and decided that I would want to be MD – we’d never had an MD prior to that!

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Once you get into management, it’s challenges all the way up! And they get harder as you go, since easier challenges are solved by the managers underneath you. My current challenge is learning how to enhance the sense of purpose in a company. There are lots of pieces written on this subject, but it is a complex area and actually (for me!) starts with a lot of self-discovery. What am I doing that enables or discourages this? How can I change my behaviour?

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

I would love to live in a world where everyone, including the women themselves, expects exactly the same drive and ability from both female and male employees.

How would you encourage more girls and young women into a career in STEM?

I think that the most effective solution that we have seen is role-modelling. If you can’t see someone who looks like you doing the job, then you don’t think it’s for you. There are two things that we can do here – make more noise about the fantastic women already working in STEM (in some cases for 40+ years!) and get more women directly into the workforce by retraining: we can’t change what women chose to study aged 13 but we can give them a new opportunity to learn the skills now.

 How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I’m often approached to mentor people and I’ve been lucky to have the support of a large number of great mentors. My biggest learning around mentorship is that all of the drive and determination needs to come from the mentee. If you go to a mentor or coach expecting them to wave a magic wand and fix your life for you, it’s not going to happen. On the other hand I am mentoring a fantastic woman right now and although she tells me that she gets a lot from our chats, I can see clearly that it is her hard work that is driving her change and all I am doing is giving her the confidence to keep going.

 What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Becoming Managing Director of Softwire was an incredible achievement for me. I forget this from time to time as I’ve got used to it, but it really changed my perspective on the world and my belief in what I can achieve.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Four years ago I started pursuing a second career (outside of my technology job) in acting. Completely different! It’s an interesting comparison since in technology demand is high and employees are scarce, whereas in acting it is the opposite! Over four years I’ve been lucky to play the lead role in a couple of great short films and I just played the lead role in my first independent feature film. My medium-long term goal is to either have a great part in a good film, or a good part in a great film, where the success of the film needs to be both in artistic quality and distribution – I want my friends and family to see me on the big screen!