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So, you’ve started a company…
Let’s talk about HR in a start-up.
What is “good” communication, and how does a team act transparent between each other? Well if you look it up on Google, long articles from specialists in HR and HRM will definitely appear. And in reading those, you will quickly figure out that there is no clear answer. It very often boils down to ‘whatever works for you and your team’.
But what if your team consists of people who are also friends outside of work? How do you balance the fun of friendship with the seriousness of work? And what unique problems does this relationship introduce? Perhaps especially, when the going gets tough and the needs of your start-up begins to create conflict?
In today’s post, we are taking a look at how we at Digital Devotion Games as a start-up are using communication tools to overcome internal difficulties and challenges. Our team members stem from various backgrounds, but we have grown to be friends (a key part of our culture). And even in a small development business of eight participants like ours, HR came to be a very important tool for improvement.
Christian ‘Crally’ Pedersen
Cooking up some HR
My name is Christian “Crally” Pedersen, and I am the latest addition to the Digital Devotion team. It’s a game development studio, so it’s filled with creative work that needs to be of good quality, but also have the artists’ personal touch. As a person who has six years of experience working as a chef in different restaurants, I know the feeling of being judged on several premises. A dish of food does not only need to taste good, but also look good and be made in a timely manner. In a kitchen, like so many other workplaces, it is a shared effort to uphold each other to the shared standard of delivery. I have followed the team for almost a year and as of June this year, was hired for the roles as Project Manager and Lead QA.
But wait a minute, wasn’t this supposed to be about HR for a start-up full of friends? Well, as the team grew accustomed to my work ethics and personality, it quickly became apparent that I could adorn the mantle of HR. Through my affinities for active listening, saying things outright, and good HR practices, I could help mediate the unique problems a start-up like ours didn’t know we would face at first.
Putting HR on the agenda
As a team, Digital Devotion Games strives to be a communicative and transparent team, both outwards and inwards. We’ve always felt that transparency is one of the keys to a healthy work environment. Everyone has a voice, and it should be heard.
However, with a team of specialists coming from varying backgrounds, but still very development-focused ones, we found we needed specific tools to help us. It’s near impossible to cater to every members desire of what the ideal workplace would look like. But we wanted to be better at managing the human aspects of developing a workplace and work culture.
Also, just so you know, co-founder conflict is a major ‘killer’ of start-ups. And once money starts to enter the picture, it can quickly escalate small frustrations into major conflicts. But if everyone’s worries or disagreements are brought up and acknowledged as they appear, then you minimize them evolving into (potentially nasty) clashes.
It has been one of my main objectives since I was given the HR role to establish: what do we need and how should we utilize existing tools in a way so that it benefits us as a team.
Our employees’ happiness is very important to us.
One of the biggest takeaways in this case is that implementing HR in the organization puts communication on the agenda. It has enabled more listening to the team, more assessing of their needs and behaviours, and more informed actions to take. Honesty is one of the most important tools for finding solutions via compromises, especially when working with 7 co-founders. If a co-founder feels that they have less “influence” than the rest, as in feeling overheard or brushed off, then it is of utmost importance that HR notices these moments and takes action. All co-founders have stake and interest in the companies well-being. For example, things like office-behavior guidebooks or other ‘rules’ for the company must never be made without input from the team. Involvement leads to more satisfaction AND people actually follow the rules they helped create.
Bringing in an outsider
In the early days of Digital Devotions short life-span, the team was approached by a student who had great interest in understanding the dynamics of a newly started company. Specifically, the dynamics of being several co-founders and creating a workplace suited for themselves. Stefan quickly became a friend of the company and followed the early development of Digital Devotion, while writing his Bachelor thesis about the company.
The benefits of having a non-participant has been great. Stefan brought with him an outside perspective and experience in human aspects of a working environment. It proved beneficial for, not only me as HR, but the team in its entirety.
Stefan now runs his own publishing and event company, where they make human experiences that bring people together. Read more here (be careful though, it’s in danish!)
One thing which has become more and more apparent through Stefans mentorship and over the years of developing games, is that communication can be misunderstood. No matter how precise it might seem from your perspective. Therefore we found that one of the most important transparency tools is how a sentence is started:
Is it from a personal point of view? Are you giving feedback? Presenting an indisputable fact? Are you giving an executive order as a Lead, or is it a question open for discussion?
Being clear about where your perspective is coming from is a tool which has lead to fewer misunderstandings than almost anything else.
So remember when giving feedback that creative work is often charged with worries from the artist who made it. These worries can quickly turn into defensiveness if e.g. critique feels unwarranted or facetious. This can be avoided with less judgemental wording and upfront intention of your feedback.
On the other hand, try to cultivate a team-wide mindset of professionalism, so that your iterative processes are more effective – in other words, leave your ego at the door! If anyone shows dissatisfaction in your work, it is from a professional perspective 99% of the time. It is very rarely an attack on you as a person, and therefore shouldn’t be defended as such. Even after a long, heated workday, we can all sit down afterwards, have a beer and enjoy our time together as friends.
Expect the unexpected and predict the unknown
As HR, one of the things I like to put my focus on, is preventing situations from boiling over. I have with time learned to understand my team and its participants. And when you’re working with passionate entrepreneurs, you’ll often find that feelings get involved. On top of that, with friends, there’s less of a ‘filter’ on. By keeping an eye on the teams ‘pulse’, I can help keep arguments and discussions from becoming personal and thus destructive. It might not feel ‘destructive’ in the moment, but getting personal can build up over time.
I found using One-on-One HR conversations to get the temperature of the participants to be a great tool. All companies have more or less active and passive employees. And in open forum, the more active people tend to dominate the conversation. But in one-on-one meeting, you’ll find that everyone is willing to talk and share their perspective. Especially in times of organizational transformation, where people don’t want to go against the (perhaps only perceived) majority by airing their worries. But in an one-to-one meeting, they can bring up their worries in confidentiality. HR can then act upon it with much more insight.
One-on-one meetings help me decide when to have organizational talks, when to lighten the mood with games and beers on Fridays, when to bring up more personal subjects, and when to use anonymous examples of how participants feel we can improve our work environment.
Sometimes, you need more extreme measures. You didn’t expect these pictures, did you?
How to avoid becoming the workplace garbage-can
How to not only be the bearer of bad news and a place where people can dump their negativity
And no I don’t mean literally.
The other day I had a long conversation with my dear father, who shows a lot of interest in Digital Devotion. My dad has been CEO of companies with 100 times as many employees as ours. He therefore likes to share his knowledge and experiences with me and is a great source of inspiration when it comes to handling people-problems.
He told me “Don’t become the garbage-can of the workplace”. That might sound cryptic, but the message was very simple. If HR is a place for everyone to dump their “trash”, I will automatically become the bearer of bad news. And every time something HR related is brought up, it will be received as something negative.
Don’t underestimate the importance of being a facilitator of both the bad AND the good. As HR, it is also my responsibility to make sure that we remember how we constantly improve, become better as a team and as humans.
It can be compared to a term from the music business, the “Hype man”, where echoing the good stuff is the main goal. An example of this would be our bi-weekly game-Fridays. We gather around a boardgame and talk about the good stuff. Like, how we are improving as a team. And as HR, I lead the vibes in the right direction by being the “Hype man”!
Valuable life lessons and Human Relations
You’ve come this far, but I can hear you think: “But HR is so systematic and corporate. Human ‘Resources’ makes it all about “optimizing humans” for work and profit.” But as Immanuel Kant argued: human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else. And following that reasoning will result in what’s best for the company, anyway.
That’s why myself and many other HR would much rather coin the term ‘Human Relations’. A lot of the knowledge about the field is directly translatable to other subjects in life. How to balance a healthy work environment is not so far from balancing a healthy relationship. Understanding each other, making compromises, reaching common goals, working in unison, and reaching common understandings are key values that can lead us far.
So to summarize on the whole HR in a start-up:
Feel free to copy-paste this picture, drop it in your company’s Slack, or whatever.
And of course lastly, a pro tip from yours truly:
- Hire a cook to do your HR 😉
I will leave you at that, hope you learned a little bit about human beings, startups, and communication through this window into my work and learning journey into the world of HR.
Interested in more blogs like these? We write on game development, running a startup, and designing for the social human.
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See you ’round the block!
Christian “Crally” Pedersen, Project Manager, QA Lead & HR