What science can learn from the Netflix culture

By today it is exactly 480 days that I have worked for Netflix.

480 exciting days of learning, constant change and contributing to something that influences hundreds of millions around the globe. 480 days of challenges and accomplishment. 1 years, 3 months and 23 days that I am grateful for. I’m grateful for my overwhelmingly positive and knowledgeable colleagues, the unique experiences and possibilities to grow. And also I’m proud of my work, it’s quality and impact. But I’m mostly proud about how I feel about myself. That I know my values, my needs, my goals.

That sounds very romantic. I totally see that. Like someone would write about a newly awakened love, wearing rose-colored glasses. There is probably some truth to it. But I think the relationship someone has with a job is somewhat like in a romantic relationship. The fact that I’m feeling so grateful stems not only from the happiness of finding a good match, but also from the disappointing experience of living with the wrong match for 3.5 years before, when I was working in a science career at a German university.

3.5 years is a very long time when being in the mid-20s. Back then I was a PhD student and research assistant and from the start perhaps a bit overexcited, but my performance was declining with every semester that passed. I was drained and I felt sick. I felt like I was constantly running, trying to get further, to succeed. But I was on a treadmill. It didn’t matter how fast I ran, how hard I tried or how I changed my steps. I could never get further. Whatever I did – I wasn’t moving. Everything was wrong. 

This feeling can make one sick, and it will make one sick who experiences it for years. Many people working in science know that, as this shocking blog Voices of Academia, or the #IchbinHanna campaign show.

So that’s maybe why my gratitude for the last months is so enormous, and why I feel the need to look at my personal experiences in the German science system through my Netflix glasses that I am so happy to wear at this point of my life. While being a PhD student I had a tough time, seriously, and it took me a while to get my thoughts clear about why I was feeling so sick during these years – and what makes the difference to how I feel and who I am now. Actually I still don’t know completely. 

This article is an attempt to better understand what made working in science so hard for me while feeling so grateful at Netflix.

When talking about the science system, there are always the big things to blame at first, like the high performing environment and the low job security. But Netflix is known to be like that as well. When I applied, I learned that it’s not the place to be if I seek maximum security and want to keep my work average. So that wasn’t it. And it wasn’t hard work either. We work hard at Netflix all the time. The people I know work so hard and they burn for it. They don’t burn out from it. 

From my experience, I identified that the differences which affected my wellbeing are systematic, rooted in the cultures. The way Netflix employees do their work is written down in the Netflix culture – the most important piece to know and be aligned with when working for Netflix. Similarly to Netflix, also science has a culture – it’s not written down (as far as I know), and I believe in many cases, due to science’s hierarchical, and person-centered competitive system, it can be practiced in a way that can be harmful to its subjects.

In this article I want to zoom in and tell some stories from both work environments and link back my experiences to differences in cultures. I want to get away from blaming individuals, but spot on culture, showing that there is an opportunity to make work at a university an empowering experience instead of a potentially harmful one. I won’t omit a chance to point that out. At least I’ll try. I’m in my holidays. My brain is actually in relaxation mode.

I want to spot on 3 aspects of working culture both in Netflix and the scientific workfield that seem to be practiced in an entirely different way:

  1. High performance
  2. Teamwork
  3. Feedback

Let’s go for it.

1 High Performance

Back in my time at the university, I remember sitting in team meetings and talking with my colleagues about time off periods. We had 30 days of holiday a year. We were planning when we were going to take it, and chatting about what we were going to do. It was very common when taking time off to point out to the others that we will use that time to work on our dissertation or another research project we didn’t have time for yet. Some took just a little bit of their holidays for work, some took the time off only to work. Me for example. I spent so many of my holidays working on my PhD, and I constantly told my colleagues about it.

Very early in my career at Netflix it happened that I was working on a Saturday. My manager reached out to me on the Monday after. She noticed that I worked on the project on the weekend and we had a conversation about that. At Netflix, we follow the principle of Freedom & Responsibility. I can work whenever, but I was reminded that I am also responsible for my health and that weekends have a very important function: regeneration.

“High vitality employees can overcome the resource constraints to sustainable work performance over time. They can perform sustainably because high effort expenditure does not drain their resources but is likely to protect and help employees to regenerate them” (Dorenbosch, 2014).

The same is true for longer periods of time off. At Netflix, we have no fixed days of holidays. We are responsible for ourselves, and leaders are advised to be good role models by taking longer periods off – and coming back recharged and inspired. Not only leaders, but also colleagues act as role models. If they don’t take time off, I might wonder: Maybe I shouldn’t either, even though I am exhausted?

Only real time off makes ones work sustainably, and high performance is not equal to long working hours. But I didn’t see it during my PhD. It made me feel tired and exhausted all the time. While I would have needed someone to tell me to keep away, it was often the other way around: working long hours or during time off actually was appreciated, even though it was just acknowledged by an approving nod. While I would feel approved to do the right thing, colleagues might feel guilty asking themselves: Should I really take the plane to Spain or should I stay behind my computer?

I would have needed someone – or actually everyone – asking me: “Are you really okay working on your days off? Don’t you need some time to calm down?” I had days in the office when I was just staring at my computer, unable to do the smallest piece of work. That’s nothing I really could tell anyone, because I felt like I would be blamed for being lazy. A lazy,  bad employee. Not at Netflix. If I have a time that I can’t manage to work, I should take that time I need to come back when ready – recharged, competent and productive. I am constantly asked how I am, and never felt like I could not give an honest answer.

Moreover, I check in with others. I ask my colleagues how they are doing and offer my help when I believe there’s something going on. We keep an eye on each other and support regenerative periods. We don’t proudly point out that we work during holidays, or until 10 PM every night. That doesn’t mean that one can’t work that much, but we don’t make others feel an unnecessary pressure if that’s not their way. We are a team. A sick member makes us all weak.

2 Teamwork

The university department I was working for was just new. The professor just was appointed and the four PhD candidates came right from university. We started as a team. Or let’s say, the idea was to start as a team. However, I can say clearly now: apparently none of us really knew what that meant, or couldn’t actively exercise it within our department. In a system where it matters most how many papers one publishs and that the own name is the first on a paper, there is little space for teamwork. It is driven by competition between individuals. In one very memorable team meeting, our professor let us know that she wouldn’t have enough money to pay all of us and at some point, the weakest person needs to be let go – no matter if without the degree. The definition of weakest person wasn’t perfectly clear, but it was implied that it was somehow defined by the amount of scientific output.

Thinking back to this situation it actually still puts me in a bit of a shock, and it was the moment I realized I needed to leave as soon as possible. But more relevant, it describes that teamwork is not what was happening.

Teamwork is to work together for success. At Netflix, we work as teams on our outputs – some are the leads, some are supporters by reviewing, by giving ideas, by simply being there to have a chat. People take different roles within a team and by combining us as individuals, we all can perform at our highest level.

This being said, Netflix is a huge globally oriented company and people are let go. They are let go if they don’t find their place in the team. They are not let go for being the weakest member, because there is no such thing. There are weaknesses. But a team supports improving weaknesses instead of taking them as criteria to exert pressure. The culture memo states:

“Our version of the great workplace is a dream team in pursuit of ambitious common goals, for which we spend heavily. It is on such a team that you learn the most, perform your best work, improve the fastest, and have the most fun.”

No doubt that competition for a company like Netflix is huge, no, tremendous. But this competition is focused on other companies, less within a team. That makes a huge difference when it comes to work attitude and mental health. It creates a positive mindset and the feeling of accomplishing the very best as a team. It makes me proud of myself in a similar way I am proud of my teammates, keeps me engaged, motivated and creative. But it’s so hard to have this in a culture that measures work success by the amount of publications and how often ones name is the first in the author list. To be able to say: “I have more publications than you which is why I perform better” makes working as a team almost impossible since it doesn’t allow different roles to play out. When everyone works to have most first author publications, it is a detriment to team-work and -spirit  because there can only be one first author each time.

Looking at these scenarios from the cultural perspective makes sense: Professors are afraid to not gain enough output and forfeit reputation. Employees are afraid to not have the publications they need for their PhD, or to get a follow-up contract. A culture of fearing failure defines the atmosphere. Mental health also suffers from using the number of publications as a measure for ones self-value.

At Netflix, we work for the same goal but collaborative: every output from whoever should be at it’s best. Last quarter I did not lead any project. It confused me and I reached out to my manager. I felt like I had done something wrong. These are always moments for me when I get taught new life lessons. “Susi”, she said, “we did great research together this quarter and it’s not only about who leads and who doesn’t. We are a team. But if you want to lead a project again, sure, I can help you with that.

She was right, we did great projects together, and I did a great job supporting others by reviewing, by giving ideas, by being there to chat. Knowing this also is a “measurement” of great performance makes me feel safe, and Netflix a fearless space.

3 Feedback

Feedback. That’s seriously my favorite topic so I’ll give my best to keep it short. I love feedback. Especially for young employees, it is vital to get good quality feedback. If one doesn’t know yet what is actually good or bad, there is no chance to learn it. Feedback is the one thing that can make one grow. But feedback can also be scary and very uncomfortable, especially for those young and a bit less experienced. There are many pitfalls when giving feedback; the most important is being only able to give critical feedback without a good mixture of positives and negatives. This might seem like an open door; in practice this appears to be one of the harder parts of good feedback to many people. 

When I started to work at the university I already knew myself quite well. I was used to working two jobs next to my Master thesis – one as a student research assistant and one as a freelance journalist – and they were fantastic experiences, mainly because both jobs truly empowered me by complimenting my work. Afterwards a bit too much. There was much potential for more constructive feedback. But I learned about myself that positive feedback engages me greatly. When I know I do a great job, I want to do it even better.

When I did my PhD, I didn’t receive positive feedback. I noticed that I was missing it and I decided to ask for it. Here’s what I’ve heard: “I don’t have time for positive feedback. You should have intrinsic motivation, you shouldn’t work for external approval. That’s not my job.”

In my first weeks at Netflix I was asked several questions on how I work best. I mentioned the same: I will be really good if you can give me positive feedback. The answer was “Alright”. When I get back memos from reviews, I always get lots of constructive feedback together with countless comments saying “that’s great”, “perfect!”, and “good job!”. That makes me work so much harder, and I feel good about it.

I’m now staring at these very different reactions to my same request. It’s intense and clearly it has to do with different management styles. While parts of it are most likely individual, others are also systematic or cultural: From what I know, in the scientific system, professors are appointed because they are great researchers – but they don’t get much education in leadership. On top of that, most professors never really worked in a company, because it is somehow perceived as negative if one leaves the science system. For me it makes sense that not many professors know that the time spent for positive feedback will pay back:

“People have been shown to cope with negative feedback by disputing it, lowering their goals, reducing commitment, misremembering or reinterpreting the feedback to be more positive, and engaging in self-esteem repair, none of which are likely to motivate efforts to do a better job next time” (Gnepp, Klayman,Williamson & Barlas, 2020).

The “most effec­tive type of feed­back is the kind that focus­es on employ­ees’ strengths, suc­cess­es, ideas and accom­plished goals. It turns out that pos­i­tive feed­back is the most pow­er­ful tool for employ­ee motivation.” (Hearn, 2018)

Taking the time to write positive comments on a manuscript might seem like a waste of time, but those compliments actually save lots of time in the long-run, as the one’s receiving the feedback won’t need to spend lots of time on self-esteem repair. Not only receiving but also giving positive feedback has a great side effect as well: Asking myself actively what I like in someone’s work makes me more aware of how many great thoughts and insights this person has to offer. It makes me more engaged in other projects and more willing to push my colleagues to uncover their hidden strengths and abilities and then apply those skills in our projects.

The approach of positive feedback should also not be misinterpreted as being non-critical. It is tough to get accepted at conferences and so much tougher to publish in scientific journals. There is hardly any space for mistakes. To support the work of fellow researchers one needs to point out every detail they believe can be done better. But does that really leave no time for complimenting on the good parts, or maybe to better plan how to communicate the feedback? 

I remember another moment from the very beginning of my time as a PhD candidate. My team wanted to apply for a grant within a very short timespan, for a small project. Being super engaged I decided that I wanted to try it – never having written anything like that before. In the short time I had, I spent many hours writing a first draft. My team looked over it, and they clearly didn’t like it. I was overrun by comments of all team members, only having a few days left to submit and felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do with all the feedback and only saw that my work was trash.

Whilst I don’t question that the comments were all reasonable, it was too much. I couldn’t find an actionable start, a way out of this in the time remaining. I simply saw no option on how to act. To my own shame, I decided I couldn’t finish this and to not submit it. I felt very bad about myself, incompetent, stupid. On top of that, my professor reacted strongly, understandably disappointed, tearing up the little yellow note that marked the project on our board of projects. This scenario led me to strong self-doubts.

Now I know that there could have been better options to give me feedback that would have engaged me, because I experience those situations at Netflix as well. When I’m not in a good place with a project yet  running short of remaining time, I still don’t lose the engagement to make it as good as possible, it doesn’t matter how much extra hours it needs. It’s the simple way of telling me that it can be great, why it can be great, and what is needed to get there. When I manage to reach this goal, I still feel engaged to go some extra miles to make sure that the project also gets to the best version from my perspective.

Feedback can be an opportunity to engage others to work harder on their own projects, but feedback can also diminish all trust in oneself. What power feedback has one only can learn by experience or leadership training. From my perspective, it wasn’t the mistake of my colleagues at the university that they overwhelmed me with their feedback. It was meant to help me. If they would have guessed my reaction, they clearly would have given me it in another way, but nobody taught them how. It’s hard for me to understand that at universities, there is such a big lack of training for these incredibly important skills.

Wrapping this up 

My holiday brain now spend quite some hours writing this. So I really want to wrap this up – even though there is so much more to say. I want to finish with stating the most profound learning of this critical view which is that everyone is playing their role in a system. The unhealthy hierarchy that I experienced at a German university where professors are impeachable in their roles as boss and supervisor, leads them to act like it, and employees feel not at all empowered to know about their values and needs. They want and maybe need to be liked and that might be why they do the job the way they are asked to do it – rather than what is a good job from their own perspective in order to get a consequent contract and the PhD.

I believe that most sources of stress and anxiety experienced by aspiring scientists are rooted in this structure. I don’t believe this is so much of a personal problem after all. My fellow PhD candidates are some of my closest friends who I love and I admire their work. But as said, it felt like there was no space to truly function as a team, to truly support without making huge sacrifices in one’s own work.

Netflix is probably not perfect, I’m just a bit of a fan at this moment of time, but I believe that science needs something similar like a cultural deck that defines how people want to work together in the best way to accomplish great scientific success. Probably this is also true for many companies, but I can’t tell, since I’ve never worked in another than Netflix (at least in the profession I learned). That would be a great beginning, but people also need to understand it’s value and act like it. I shared this to make people in every role in the science system aware that there is so much opportunity by changing little behaviours to contribute in making their department a healthier working place.

I’d love to point out these opportunities in more detail, but this piece of writing is already becoming way too long. I’m sure nobody made it up to this point anyway. Oh my Gosh and I spend so many hours on this! Feel free to leave a friendly comment to make me feel alive. 

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