Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Creating and Fostering Communities at Work

Some days I feel that the most valuable thing I’ve done at MongoDB has been to create slack channels. 


I know that may sound absurd to those who know me professionally (I have done a lot at MongoDB, for example, developing our performance testing infrastructure and changing the way we spot performance changes in our testing environment), but bear with me for a moment. I have started a lot of slack channels, such as: #fountainpens, #greatoutdoors, #cookie-club, #staffplusengineering, #academic-research, #writing, #performance. And I spend time on those channels sharing pictures and stories with colleagues as well as talking shop.  My wife has said she wants to join MongoDB just so she can join the slack channels. However, the channels themselves aren’t important – what’s important is creating and fostering communities. 

Two Challenges at Work

Before addressing why work communities are important (including Cookie Club), let me discuss two work challenges that corporate executives spend a lot of time thinking about: knowledge silos and employee engagement. Knowledge silos exist when knowledge gets localized in specific teams and people don’t talk across teams. Employee engagement is directly related to both employee productivity and retention. They both relate to communication. 

Communication at work

If you are like me, you likely talk to many people during a normal work day. You talk to the members of your team frequently and know them quite well. I have daily meetings with my team and we chat on our team slack channel frequently. You probably  talk to the members of sibling teams regularly and know them, but not as well as the members of your own team. I have a weekly meeting with my parent team and we have regular social events such as team lunches. 
It may get fuzzy and distant beyond your sibling teams. Your work may bring you into contact with people on more distant teams from time to time, and there may be large numbers of people you recognize but don’t know in the office. If you only do your job, these are the people you likely know at work. 

If those are the only people you know at work, there are some problems that arise. If these are the only people most people at your work know, there are bigger problems. Those problems can be grouped into two overarching problems. First, it’s lonely. Most of us want to feel a sense of connection and purpose, and it’s hard to feel connection and purpose when your social connections are so limited. Second, this pattern of communication leads to knowledge silos at work: One group doesn’t do what the next group is doing. Both of these problems are important. 

The first problem ties directly to employee engagement. A lot has been said about employee engagement and companies care deeply about it. Engagement is tied to both retention and productivity. MongoDB cares enough about employee engagement to run twice annual employee surveys to measure employee engagement and continually improve it. The second problem (knowledge silos) is a huge area of research and discussion, as well as a source of much fretting by senior executives at most companies. 
When teams are siloed, work gets duplicated and teams work to cross purposes. Even if you manage to get all the right people in a room together, you still have a problem: no one knows each other. They don’t have working relationships. It takes time and effort to build a good working relationship, so, before any productive work is done, the work of team building and connection building has to be done.
I work on performance, which is a cross-cutting concern. I need to know which projects will impact performance, and how and why they will impact performance. More importantly, I need to know which interactions between projects will impact performance. I’ve invested time and effort into building relationships across the engineering organization so that I can do my job. As a result, I often find myself also providing guidance to others for whom to go talk to for various things, helping others break down silos as well.  

My claim is that communities at work help address both of these challenges: silos and engagement. 

Communities

A community is any group of people that come together for some shared interest and have some sense of shared identity. I split work based communities into work focused and non-work focused groups.

Work Focused Groups

Just as they sound, work focused groups are focused on some aspect of work at the company. Beyond the basic teams people belong to, work focused groups include peer groups, technical interest groups, and more. 


Peer groups connect people with similar backgrounds. They may be at the same stages of their career or be in similar roles. Spending time with these people can be very energizing and motivating. I greatly value the time I get to spend with my peers in our staff plus peer group, which is focused on senior IC (individual contributor) engineers (title of staff engineer or higher). We are focused on issues that impact the senior but non-management leaders in engineering in our company. As with any peer group, these are people trying to push the company in the same direction as myself and share a sense of purpose with me. Additionally, we can learn from each other, making ourselves better at our jobs and pushing that shared purpose forward. Strong stuff. 


Similarly, technical interest groups align people who may be in different parts of the company, but with similar technical interests. Technical interest groups help improve everyone’s skills by widely sharing learnings and best practices. It can also be motivating for members to see others across the company who care about the same technical topics as themselves. I have benefited from our performance interest group, with its speaker series and discussions in slack. I know more about performance engineering in general and performance engineering at MongoDB in particular, because of this group. 


Both kinds of groups directly help employees do their jobs better. They are worthwhile based on that value alone. The groups also foster a sense of belonging and establish connections across the company, both of which may be more valuable than the direct benefits. More on both of those later. 

Non-Work Focused Groups 

There are more groups beyond just the ones focused on work. These groups likely have no direct connection to the company beyond the fact that everyone in them works at the same company. I claim these groups are just as important (if not more) than the work focused ones. The groups can be organized around anything and they have many forms. 


Cookie Club is an example from my company: once a month we get together to bake something and share the results with each other. While Cookie Club meetings are tied to a physical location, they pull people from across functions of the company, including learning and development, engineering, education, etc. Additionally, the affiliated slack group connects people interested in baking across the company and the world. 
Plate with a selection of cookies and cake on it. Includes a chocolate cream puff, a snickerdoodle, a slice of pound cake, a square of corn bread and a cookie around the outside, with a smaller peanut butter cookie in the middle. The peanut butter cookie has visible flakes of salt on the top.
Assorted baked goods to be shared at a recent Cookie Club meeting 


I’ve been involved in other non-work focused groups organized around topics such as hiking, sustainability, fountain pens, reading, and more. And as many groups as I’ve been involved with, there are many more groups. For example, groups organized around exercise (tossing a kettle ball or doing planks near the elevators) or groups to explore different kinds of food near the office. 


The essential part of all of these groups is that they are organized around some shared interest that is independent of work and they connect people throughout the company. 

How Communities Make Work Better

As suggested above, communities help make work better by breaking down silos and improving engagement. Recall, work silos refers to knowledge being isolated in part of the company, and various parts of the company not knowing what each other are doing. Employee engagement is directly related to improved productivity and employee retention. 

Breaking down silos

The solution to silos is more connections across the organization. However, all to all communication isn’t possible in a large organization (see Dunbar’s Number). 


Thankfully, we don’t need everyone to know everyone, it is sufficient to have some connections between all the key company functions. These connections facilitate conversation. Since the point is to facilitate conversations (and provide a basis for trust for future collaborations), the connections do not need to be particularly deep. What is needed is that when an issue or opportunity comes up, someone should know someone to reach out to, and they should feel comfortable when they do reach out to them. 


Random connections across the organization go a long way to serve that need and shared interest communities are great for developing these random connections across the organization. Connections through work focused groups have high value as there is already a professional relationship. However, the non-work focused groups may have higher value since they create even more random connections throughout the organization. Or, put another way, work related groups create particularly useful random connections, while non-work related groups create more random connections, across more far flung portions of the company. Both help to break down the silos. 


For example, I’ve personally benefited from my connections at Cookie Club. After the most recent Cookie Club I had a great discussion with someone from the learning and development team (Jen) about development topics that impact me and the company. Previously, I’ve coordinated a training event for my team with Jen. My working relationship with Jen is strong in large part because we bake together. 

Building Engagement

Beyond bridging silos, communities cultivate a sense of belonging and shared purpose, leading to improved engagement. The work focused communities help employees see why their work matters, and how their work fits into the big picture. Work focused communities also help employees do their jobs better (improved skills and network) and better see the impact of their work and their improved skills. Our performance interest group shows me and others how MongoDB cares about performance across products and departments and the cumulative impact of all of our performance work.


The non-work focused groups also improve engagement. The non-work focused groups enable employees to put energy into things they care about, and share those experiences with co-workers. I have great shared experiences with colleagues across the company due to Cookie Club. I also see colleagues coming together to make MongoDB and the world a better place through supporting underrepresented groups in our Allies community. 


This leads to happier and more fulfilled workers. It also develops a larger sense of shared identity with colleagues. They have stronger relationships with their colleagues and a greater sense of belonging. Employees with a strong sense of belonging are engaged employees. 

Call to Action

As described above, communities at work help foster random connections throughout a company, improving employee engagement and breaking down knowledge silos. 


Yet the work to support and organize communities at work is often overlooked and undervalued. I hope my words make you think about work communities more and value them more highly. If I’ve succeeded at this, I would encourage you to participate more in the communities that interest you and possibly help organize or foster a small number of them. You will benefit, and so will your company. 


If you are in position of power at your company there are additional high impact actions I hope you  take: 

  1. Make it easy for your rank and file to organize and foster communities

  2. Reward and recognize the people who do so

 If you make it easy to organize and foster communities, your employees will do so. Making it easy can entail such things as making it easy to communicate (messaging, wikis, mailing lists), allowing time in the work day for activities, or providing funds. If you reward and recognize your employees who do so, those employees will keep at it and other employees will build on their efforts, ultimately building a stronger company. 



Special thanks to Rita Rodrigues for feedback on this post. Rita helped make this post better and makes our writing community a stronger community.