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Sustaining staff

Squiz employees get to enjoy rush hour

The words ‘Web development’ and ‘work/life balance’ don’t seem to fit together. To make their magic, most web developers work the occasional all-nighter. Crazy hours seem to be par for the course in most high-tech roles.

Unless you work for Wellington-based Squiz New Zealand, that is. The company discourages regular long hours and rewards the occasional crazy weekend with time off in lieu or additional leave. Squiz welcomes children in the office and lets staff work from home. If that weren’t enough, it has introduced a wellness programme with free flu injections, eye tests and annual health checkup.

Company directors Patrick Fitzgerald and Kathy Olsen wanted to build a business that is genuinely sustainable. “Our thinking about work/life balance was shaped by thinking about sustainability,” says Fitzgerald. In other words, people, not just the planet, need looking after. “From a business perspective it makes sense to do what we can to ensure our working environment is positive and conducive to doing good work.”

It may be years until Squiz New Zealand sees the measurable results of its environmental sustainability efforts, but it’s easier to see the results of their sustainable approach to staffing. In the last two years no technical staff have left the company and it has attracted four well-qualified new employees.

Fitzgerald puts forward five reasons Squiz attracts the staff it wants.

1. Culture

Squiz’s company culture wasn’t cooked up in a brainstorming session; it’s evolved over time, and remains a work in progress. “It’s taken us a while to articulate who we are and what people we to work with us,” says Fitzgerald. “We want capability, not just skills.”

Those capabilities bring together technical savvy with an awareness of business issues, a willingness to learn, problem-solving and communication abilities. “They don’t have to agree with our view of the world, but we do make a judgement on chemistry that potential employees will fit into the team,” says Fitzgerald.

2. Open communication

Squiz staff have a say on everything that affects them, and Fitzgerald and Olsen encourage a collaborative, honest approach to work.

“It’s easier to say ‘Bugger, I stuffed up, how do I go about fixing it’,” says Fitzgerald. “That way we get fewer problems in the first place, and projects go through more smoothly, with better quality, less re-work and happier customers.”

3. Flexibility

Fitzgerald dismisses the received wisdom about what Generation X wants versus Generation Y. “I think the differences between individuals and their interests, priorities and life stages are greater that those alleged between generations,” says Fitzgerald. “One of the ways we make it individual is giving people a choice if they work overtime between time off in lieu or accumulating leave. People are so different about what they value. If you’re saving for a house, money’s more important; if you’ve just left uni, maybe time is more important.”

4. Values

To ensure sustainability is not just thrown around as a buzzword, Squiz rewards planet-friendly behaviour. It pays up to $100 per year per staff member towards public transport.

The company also has a number of other environmental initiatives in place, like a worm farm for organic waste. Unfortunately, the only suitable place for the worm farm was in the shared shower facility (Squiz has been working from a house and is currently looking for slightly flasher premises). Mark that one down to experience.

5. Learning Opportunities

Because Squiz’s main product is open source, it is constantly developing and changing, so the Squiz team needs to be adaptable and fast-learning. “A lot of the work we do is about understanding what the customer really wants, and working to provide a solution that meets their specific needs,” says Fitzgerald.

Pitfalls?

Whenever you try something new, you’ll make mistakes, and Fitzgerald spells out some of the potential downsides of creating a people-friendly workplace. “There does need to be a structure for people to work in,” he says. “Flexible work arrangements are potentially inefficient or prone to abuse. They also need greater attention to perceived equity, so benefits are seen as fair.”

He also warns that, while a positive environment usually leads to good work, structures do need to be in place to address bad performance or underperformance.

It’s about the individual

Fitzgerald’s strongest message is to find out the needs of each individual staff member. “We try to understand what each individual team member values most in terms of the conditions and benefits around their jobs, and then try to fulfil that individual’s needs as best as possible,” he says.

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