The employees are the ones who create the company culture
Interview with Elīna Branta, Member of the Board and Head of Product at Swisscom DevOps Center Latvia
Riga, Latvia — Pauls Siliņš, Co-Creator at Riga TechGirls interviewed Elīna Branta, Member of the Board and Head of Product at Swisscom DevOps Center Latvia for Riga TechGirls. For seven years Elīna worked at the Ministry of Economics of the Republic of Latvia in various roles and has been with Swisscom since 2020.
Pauls: Before we talk about inclusive workplace environments and internal company culture, could you please tell me a bit about your career before Swisscom?
Elīna: After my studies in London I returned to Latvia and started my career at the Ministry of Economics of the Republic of Latvia. I spent seven years there working with investment attraction and innovation development and grew from entry-level to a director position within those seven years. Before joining Swisscom that had been my only job experience.
Pauls: Why did you decide to make the change from the Ministry of Economics to Swisscom?
Elīna: Swisscom was one of the potential investors for whom I was presenting Latvia as a great place to expand their business to. Once Swisscom had made their decision about having their DevOps center in Latvia, they approached me and said: “Ok, we love your story and we love your passion. Come show us that everything you said was true.”
The reason why I agreed was the fact that these kinds of opportunities where you have the possibility to build a company from scratch in a new country come once in a lifetime. It’s like having a startup but one that is backed by a Swiss federation-owned company which means that the chance of you failing isn’t big. As I am into creating things I thought that it was a great opportunity.
Though it was a hard decision for me to make the change as I didn’t know how it would be to work anywhere else. But I’m very happy with my decision.
Pauls: Once you joined Swisscom, did you see a noticeable difference between the workplace environments at the Ministry of Economics and Swisscom? What were the major differences in workplace environments in both of these places?
Elīna: Of course, the environments are very different between the government and the private sector — a multinational corporation and a Ministry.
Although, the Ministry of Economics was implementing agile principles and allowing flexible work even before Covid. In that sense, as an institution, it was already rather modern.
But corporate culture is very different. Especially when building up a new company where you set a lot of rules, a lot of processes, a lot of standards for how things are going to be run. Unlike when you go to a Ministry where things have been operating for 30 years and there are rules for every single thing. Even though you can make changes, a lot of things are very static and you don’t have this flexibility that corporate work provides.
Pauls: Was this flexibility and the difference in environments something you were looking forward to?
Elīna: I didn’t know at the time that it would be so different and something that I would enjoy. It was not a target or a precondition in my life. I knew it was going to be different. As I mentioned — a hard decision. I didn’t know what “different” meant and what this change would mean for my professional career.
At that time it was not a precondition but now we live in a different world. This flexibility and being able to tailor your workday is, of course, a standard now.
Pauls: I would like to talk a bit about inclusive environments. How would you describe a workplace environment that is perfectly inclusive? Let’s say, a perfect scenario of an inclusive environment.
Elīna: I think it’s working in an open-minded culture where people listen to your ideas, hear your opinions, where you can express them and you don’t feel bad about doing so. It’s where your background, gender, race or political stance doesn’t matter.
I find that this perfect inclusivity is where you are judged on your abilities to do the job above anything else. All the other things don’t matter as long as you do your job and you do it well.
It’s a place where as many different people as possible come together and I think that’s where innovation is born. For me, working in such an environment is a must.
Pauls: Could you describe how Swisscom tackles inclusion at the workplace?
Elīna: Diversity is one of the strategic priorities for Swisscom. In Switzerland, we have a dedicated diversity team that on an everyday basis works with all levels of the company to foster diversity in all aspects and levels of Swisscom. And I think one of the most tangible ways you can see this in our daily business is in recruitment.
For example in Swisscom, during recruitment, every person is evaluated on their skills to fulfill their job. Race, gender, disabilities or sexual orientation does not matter. It just doesn’t get evaluated. You’re evaluated on how you can fulfill the role.
I think what also fosters inclusivity in the company is that we have flat hierarchies. Everyone is treated equally. Every person in Swisscom (20’000 employees) is encouraged to use the informal you when speaking, even if it’s your team leader or a higher-level executive. Any employee at Swisscom can message the CEO by writing something like: “Hey! Let’s grab a coffee, I want to discuss something.”. When you are treated as an equal, it also promotes inclusivity.
Another aspect at Swisscom is that we have flexible working hours as well as the hybrid work model. Our working hours are from six in the morning until eight in the evening. Within those, it doesn’t matter which eight hours you work. If you need to spend a few hours in the afternoon picking up your kids and bringing them to some after-school activities — you can do so.
I think this is what makes it inclusive — the ability to tailor the job to your needs, to be heard, to be on the same level with everyone, to be treated as an equal, and that you are judged only on your abilities to fulfill the job. This is how Swisscom tackles inclusivity.
Pauls: Why is the internal culture at a workplace important and what kind of culture does Swisscom have? You already mentioned certain things regarding the workplace culture at Swisscom but apart from that, why is it important, let’s say, to you?
Elīna: The internal culture of a company is the most important thing because it determines whether the employees will like working there or not. It doesn’t matter what industry you work in, and what cool technologies you work on — you could have the coolest technologies, but if your internal culture is not something that people enjoy and feel compatible with, they will not stay with you. So I think it’s the most important thing that either makes or breaks companies.
For Swisscom, our culture is built around our values which are: curious, committed and trustworthy. These are the characteristics we are also looking for when we hire new employees. The curiosity aspect is there because we work with technologies and innovation. There are always new things happening and you have to stay curious to keep up with the times.
As for being committed, that is towards our clients. We are always doing our best for our clients.
Whereas trustworthiness is important because we have a lot of individual independence at every single engineer’s level. Our engineers choose the tasks themselves. You don’t get an assigned task. A team gets assigned tasks but within the team, you choose the task you know is for your abilities and for your technical skillset — one that you know you can do well. So this is where trustworthiness also plays a role because you’re very autonomous in how you work and that’s why we need people whom we can trust.
A lot of culture in Swisscom also comes from working in an agile environment. Agile encourages continuous feedback culture. You’re always expected to give feedback and you always receive continuous feedback on your performance. I think this is a huge part of our culture.
Pauls: What do you think employees themselves can do to drive workplace inclusion and to make the internal culture better? A lot of times it comes from the top down and not always the employees themselves are heard. Feedback system certainly works but what are other ways how employees can drive change in certain workplaces?
Elīna: People shape the culture. Employees are the ones who create it. I think it doesn’t matter as much what the management board says what they want the culture to be as it’s going to be what the employees are going to create. We can only give them the tools and framework to do it.
From the employee perspective, what I think is important is that you are open-minded and flexible. You have to be able to work in this international and diverse team and listen to people with other experiences and opinions. You should hear and understand where they are coming from and take into account their ideas. I think this is what generates culture.
That’s why people who are curious, committed and open-minded are very important to us.
Pauls: Returning to the benefits for employees. You mentioned that Swisscom gives flexible hours and listens to your feedback. In this day and age, what is it that you think should be provided to everyone?
Elīna: Unfortunately we haven’t yet invented a new unicorn on this topic, but I think the standard is the flexibility of when and where you work. Personal and professional development opportunities have always been and will continue to be important. I’m not talking only about hierarchical development but also the development of one’s skills and abilities.
It’s also important to have this open culture where I can, as an employee, share my opinion, be heard and have my ideas taken into account. I think that matters more and more every day. Employees are not ready to just be machines who only come to do their job. They want to contribute more and have their voices heard.
I think this is what every company has to provide and I’m not even talking about the regular benefits that come with the IT and technology sector — extra vacation days, the possibility to work from abroad and so on. They are a must as well.
Pauls: Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us! Are there any lessons from your career that you’d like to share with our readers? Maybe there’s something you recently learned that could be valuable to others.
Elīna: Always stay curious and always be ready to learn. We live in such a changing world! What we know to be valuable today, might not be so in three or four years. My lesson would be that you always have to see the bigger picture. Look around and get interested in new things in order to stay relevant in your life.