Including inclusion (and why it’s key to growing your business)

When you’re a startup, everything you do is geared towards driving growth — and understandably so.

Product development; funnel optimisation; rapid recruitment — a focus on the tangible, measurable outcomes that grow your business and increase your top line makes complete sense.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2020 it’s that we can’t take anything for granted any more. At Futureplay, as in many other flat and low hierarchy organisations, it’s led us to be even more mindful of the ways we work together, how we treat each other, and how we look out for one another.

In fact, developing our culture together is something we’ve been working on for a while. In mid-2019 we launched Futurefuel our collective focus on articulating our ways of working together into tangible, concrete behaviours that would support and guide us as we grow.

Collaborating to build our company values at Futurefuel last year (a time before face masks)

As part of Futurefuel, at the beginning of the year we set ourselves the company-wide goal of improving how we communicate internally. And in the past twelve months we’ve learned a lot — whether it’s been workshops on our values, externally-led sessions on giving and receiving feedback (thanks Miltton), or presentations on special topics such as empathic communication and leadership.

Futurefuel has brought with it challenging, complex, and often contentious topics that raise key questions about the purpose of our company (beyond making mobile games), what we stand for as a community, and how we be proactive on important issues such as diversity and inclusion.

Figuring out the answers out as a collective and staying true to our flatness is tough — especially as we increase in number. Often times it feels as though it’d be easier to adopt a more traditional, structured approach, but if one thing’s for sure we want to maintain our organic structure dearly. Being part of Futureplay is more than just work — it’s about belonging — and we never want to lose sight of that.

Now, we’re growing faster than ever thanks to the success of our latest game Merge Gardens. And with that, we’re determined that each of us retains a strong voice on both project and company matters — even when we’re not sharing the same physical space.

That’s meant continuing to build on our ways of working to foster a sustainable, inclusive working environment that we not only enjoy being part of, but thrive under.

How does that take shape exactly? It’s certainly a challenge considering there’s almost 40 of us now split across multiple functions and projects. If communication is hard, inclusion is even harder.

And when the data shows that employees who feel their voice gets heard are almost 5 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work, it’s clear that inclusion doesn’t just concern people — it concerns business too.

What is inclusion?

On a very basic level (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary) inclusion should be about giving equal opportunities and resources to people who might not otherwise get them, be it because they’re from a traditionally marginalised or excluded background, an under-represented minority group, or any other reason.

In approaching inclusion at Futureplay, we’ve taken a broad view that it encompasses something like the following:

Our approach to inclusion at Futureplay.

Words on slides are one thing. Steps and actions to get there are another. Enter Pluuro Inclusion Development and the brilliant Laura Smith. We’ve known Laura for a while (we’ve been part of her work on organisational development in the past) so when the opportunity came up to collaborate in a more concrete manner on something as topical to us as inclusion, we couldn’t turn it down.

Through Pluuro, we’ve solidified three inclusion development areas we’re focusing on as a company:

  • Feedback: How can we build an inclusive feedback giving/receiving culture?
  • Inclusive decision making (without having to have everyone in a meeting)
  • How to make remote work feel less lonely

Breaking it down, here are some things we’re doing about each of them:

Feedback

Steve Jobs demanded fearless feedback from all his employees. This internal Netflix culture doc highlights the weight of importance they place on feedback, too.

But feedback is complex. And as humans we tend to steer clear of seeking out complexity. That’s in spite of the fact that getting more inputs and opinions is vital for seeing the bigger picture and understanding a wider range of points of view, even if it is more cognitively demanding. We’re trying to be mindful of this as we build our feedback and decision-making culture at Futureplay.

With that in mind and as part of our theme year on communication, feedback has become a strong area of focus for us. And in a flat organisation, feedback is particularly challenging. When nobody has strict titles, how do we know who should be giving feedback on what? With no regular, structured feedback forums, when is the right time to give feedback?

Our work with Miltton has equipped us with some valuable tools of giving and receiving feedback — the most resonating of which for me being to view it as a gift and as a sign of care, rather than as a complaint or criticism.

We’re also working out that it’s as incumbent on each of us individually to ask for feedback from each other than it is to give it in the first place. Take this as an example, from our company-wide Slack just last week:

Taking matters into our own hands by asking for feedback (redacted for anonymity)

The conversation is continuing on a higher level, too — here’s an internal overview of the kind of discussions we’re having on the topic right now (and a very open window into life at Futureplay).

And we want to keep that conversation going until feedback is integrated so deeply into our culture that giving and receiving it — on any kind of level — feels like a natural part of our workday. That’s a concrete step towards an inclusive environment.

Decision making

Understanding how and why decisions are made, and who makes them, is crucial to creating an inclusive working culture. And it works both ways — decision makers need to know who to turn to to consult and seek advice from, and those affected by decisions need to know who’s responsible for making them so they can seek involvement, challenge, give feedback, and of course, praise.

As we’ve matured we’ve found that although our flat hierarchy brings a great deal of efficiency when making decisions on a project level, there can sometimes be ambiguity around the topic on a company level.

Take these two survey results that were carried out as part of our Futurefuel circle on decision making as a case-in-point:

85% of us agreed or strongly agreed that decision-making works on a team-level.
Less than half of us agreed or strongly agreed that decision-making works on a company level. Almost 1 in 5 of us disagreed.

It’s far from a disaster, but it’s clear that there’s work to be done to bring the same level of clarity to company-level decision making as there is on a team level.

And lots we do in this area tends to take shape on a team level first, before then being carried over to the company. As an example, we recently held an externally-facilitated ‘blue sky dream day’ on the Merge Gardens team with the very professional folk at Grape People. It was superbly run — we learned a lot — and there’s already plans afoot to run a similar session on a company level early next year regarding the decision making topic.

The goal is that more clarity over our decision-making processes on a company level will bring with it a greater culture of inclusion on an individual level.

Remote work

Like many companies, we’ve always been open to remote work — but 2020 has propelled us into discovering and implementing new company-wide practices that make remote work accessible, manageable, and more productive than ever.

We want remote work to feel even better than coming to the office. We’re trying to ensure that our culture of caring and belonging transcends online as much as it does in person, even when we’re not seeing each other face to face, so that each of us feels included and empowered.

When remote times got into full swing, the company granted each of us a monetary benefit to invest in setting up our home office. That, plus prior office visits on optimal work ergonomics, started us off on the perfect footing.

Since then it’s been about being present for each other virtually, even when we can’t be there physically. And we’re learning that for many, life is actually much better this way.

Besides the obvious benefits of things like no more commuting, the increased interaction we’re enjoying as a by-product of collaboration at the click of a button has almost taken us by surprise.

For example, it seems easier than ever to drop into meetings and get a feel for what’s happening with a particular project or feature without any direct pressure to actively contribute, which is a big plus for staying in the know when there’s lots of moving parts.

This is in part thanks to our custom-designed virtual office (yes, it’s just like our real office — even the toilets are the same). Granted, regular video calls via Hangouts and Zoom are great, but where they fall down is perhaps their openness — it’s impossible to just drop into existing chats, and there’s no transparency over conversations that are happening at a given moment in time. With a virtual office space, this isn’t an issue at all.

Team rooms, toilets, breakout rooms, saunas — our remote office is just like our real office.

We’re noticing that conversations that weren’t possible when we were in a physical office are now taking place online—it’s almost as if we’re experiencing the democratisation of communication.

And then there’s the little things. The virtual morning coffees. The daily stretching challenges. The online lunch walks. The surprise packages sent home. We often find ourselves organically sharing tips and best practices on what works well for us and individuals. Whether it’s cold switching on/off your computer at the start/end of every day, changing your clothes, or something a bit more quirky (believe me, we’ve heard a few), being mindful in this way helps let one another know that we care.

It’s all part of contributing to a remote work rhythm that actually makes it easier to collaborate than before.

What’s next?

We’re still learning. Right now we’re experimenting with new online tools that will bring us even closer in 2021.

More than anything, we know we’re a unique company, and copy-pasting template approaches to inclusion from existing models likely won’t stick. We need to find our own ways of cracking this, and that’s a challenge we’re relishing taking on through more discussion, action, and reflection.

Our culture of flatness and organic ways of working means that each of us has to be open to learning more about the topic, and more culturally aware of our differences, as well as our similarities.

That ties into the understanding that although we have our shared company goals, each of us is driven by our own independent motives. With no formal hierarchy in place, we all need to be leaders and take responsibility for understanding why people perceive and experience things differently, and how this affects someone’s ability not only to do their best work, but become the best version of themselves.

How diversity & inclusion transcends in our values today

It feels like a good time to close with a concrete example from our recent Merge Gardens Dream Day.

On a scale of 1–10 (or hell vs. heaven) we each rated our own perceptions of current and target state for the health of our development team. And it was far from bad news — we’re mostly around the 7s and 8s — but there were a few 6s, and in our view, that’s a few too many.

One of our inclusion-related goals is to understand why those 6s aren’t 7s or 8s, and bring them up to the same level, or even better, beyond it. Because when someone’s experiences of being part of a team aren’t quite on par with the rest, it’s on everyone else to work to truly figure out why, create a culture of belonging for everyone, and communicate values of care and respect every single day.

And we’ll keep on going until we have a team full of tens.

Where we’re at right now. (There’s still much to be done…)

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