The pandemic has flipped workplace culture on its head. It’s no longer satisfactory for employers to merely offer beautifully-designed spaces with fast internet. And after almost two years of stress and anxiety, employees want more: full-time remote-work, unlimited flexibility and career development, all on top of the typical demands, such as health benefits and high salaries. It’s a massive shift in work culture — and startups are taking it in stride.
Startups have always defined themselves as untraditional — fun and fast-paced alternatives that encourage employees to take on more responsibility and learn unexpected skills. Tech companies also pioneered now-common benefits, such as part-time work from home as well as in-house wellness studios and professional-development coaches.
If you’re interested in embracing a new style of work post-pandemic, and want to develop the kinds of entrepreneurial and technical skills that are necessary for success in the 21st century, working at a startup is hard to beat.
Plowing through email-chain vortexes isn’t so bad when done from a beach. This is the new reality of remote-work culture, what with nations like Barbados inviting restless digital nomads to ditch the concrete jungle for a year of island life, visa-free.
Precision Nutrition was well-ahead of the curve, as the Toronto-based startup of about 340 employees has been working remotely for more than a decade. Head of HR Aneka Abrahams believes the key to team success is rigorous hiring practices — not codified rules. “We are very honest and run our candidates through psychometric testing — we know which candidates can thrive in our setting,” Abrahams says. She remains convinced that working from anywhere is ideal for startups like hers, financially and ethically. (Any parent will tell you that flexibility is essential to work-life balance, pandemic or not.) “We trust our people to make their own schedule,” she says. “It’s what they want. It’s where the world is going.”
Still, Precision Nutrition has its limits that keep things running smoothly. All workers, for instance, must have a home address in Canada or the United States; in some cases, employees are responsible for processing extra paperwork; and if a personal move overseas is permanent, a full-timer may have to become a contractor.
Then there’s the example of Jaclyn Konzelmann, who currently works as a product manager at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Back in 2012, Konzelmann had a similar job at Microsoft. She’d been excited when she first arrived at the company’s Seattle offices, fresh out of Waterloo engineering school.
But Microsoft’s bureaucratic culture quickly began to wear her down, and she felt like her career was stagnating. “It finally dawned on me that instead of learning how to change the world, I was learning how to deal with crap,” Konzelmann wrote in a blog post at the time.
So she decided to take the plunge and enter the world of startups.
Konzelmann bounced around for a bit: first working a business development role at a startup in Toronto, before launching a startup of her own, which got accepted into the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program. After that company failed, she took a job at the San Francisco-based startup Weebly, where she says she got to grow into a fulfilling role on the company’s product team.
“I like to compare it to getting an MBA,” Konzelman says of those years moving from startup to startup. You’re learning valuable skills — how to pitch and be a better marketer, how to convince a team to align around a mission, and ultimately how to be an entrepreneur. “I grew in ways that I don’t think I could have done if I hadn’t left Microsoft.”
That experiment with startup life also taught Konzelmann a valuable lesson that she never would have learned if she’d stayed in the corporate world: how to deal with failure.
“I think the right way to approach startups and entrepreneurship is: I want the challenge, I want to learn,” she says. “There’s a chance you could be deeply successful and that’s amazing. But even if you’re not, there’s still a lot to be gained from that experience.”
She credits that brush with failure for giving her an edge in her role at Google.
“As a product manager, I spend a lot of time trying to be an effective storyteller. My ability to do well at Google — I owe a lot of it to the experience I had trying to do a startup,” she says.
When Dawn Ritchie first joined the Corel Corporation in Ottawa in 1995, the computer graphics company was on an upswing. Employee morale was high, the company was growing, and there were plenty of opportunities for career advancement.
Ritchie worked there for 20 years, first as a technician in the company’s prepress department, then as a manager of the department, then as a software tester. But at some point, the work became less fulfilling.
“I knew how to do my job. I knew how to do it blindfolded. Really it was just the same work over and over again,” she says.
Sensing that it was time for a new challenge, Ritchie jumped at an opportunity at You.i TV, a local Ottawa startup that makes apps for entertainment companies. She hasn’t looked back since. “I have daily challenges now,” says Ritchie.
“Learn how to code” might have become a bit of a punchline in recent years — a career panacea bandied around a little too eagerly by tech workers.
At the same time, the tech industry continues to face a shortage of skilled developers and other technology staff, and coding schools and bootcamps have never been more popular.
Learning technical skills and upgrading your career is a good idea even if you like your corporate job. And the best way to do that is land a technical role at a startup.
That’s the theory behind Toronto-based firm Hatchways, which aims to help career-shifters with nontraditional backgrounds find work in the tech industry as software engineers.
What exactly is a career-shifter? Hatchways co-founder Jaclyn Ling describes them as someone who’s eager to learn technical skills as a way to future-proof their career.
“They’re in a job and they don’t see that job existing 10 years from now,” says Ling. “They’re thinking about: what are the careers of the future, and how can I prepare myself for that?”
With files from Barry Chong. This article was originally published in February 2020, and was updated in September 2021.
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