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Transcript: The Culture of Remote Working (EP49)

 

Intro (with music): Welcome to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. This is a podcast where we talk all things, culture, leadership and teamwork across business and sport.

 

Brendan: Hello and welcome to The Culture of Things podcast. I’m your host, Brendan Rogers, and this is episode 49. Today I’m talking with Brett Putter. Brett is an expert in company culture development. He’s consulted by companies and leaders worldwide to help design, develop, and build high-performing cultures. Brett is the CEO of CultureGene, a culture leadership software, and service platform. Prior to founding CultureGene, Brett spent 16 years as a managing partner of a leading executive search firm based in London working with startups and high-growth companies in the UK, Europe, and the USA.

In 2018, he published his first book, Culture Decks Decoded, and his second book, Own Your Culture: How to Define, Embed and Manage Your Company Culture in September 2020. After interviewing and conducting eight months of research into companies like GitLab, Basecamp, Hotjar, Zapier, Buffer, Toptal, Automattic, and others to understand how they operate, Brett found that there are nine fundamental best practices that these companies focus on.

The focus of our conversation today is these nine best practices that need to be implemented in order for companies to manage the challenges that come with running remote and hybrid work environments. Brett, welcome to the Culture of Things podcast.

Brett: Brendan, thanks very much. I'm excited to join you.

Brendan: Mate, it's an absolute pleasure again. Even though you are originally from the UK, you're living in Portugal. It sounds like a pretty cool place to live, mate.

Brett: Yeah, it's not bad. Although at the moment it's full lockdown, I may as well be on the moon. When we arrived here, we had a month of bliss and then lockdown. We feel the weather's better, the wine's cheaper. I found the right steak, so we're all good. Everything's good.

Brendan: Sorry to hear about that, but I’m sure things will get back to normal, hopefully soon. I also wanted to ask you, I always find this stuff pretty interesting. Years and years ago, when you left school, went to university, got a degree, that was the thing to do. Nowadays, you need to leave school not only to get one degree, you need to do two, three, and four degrees and a master’s or whatever to stand out. You've taken that from the book perspective. You've not just written one book, you've written two. Why did you take up the challenge of writing a second, mate?

Brett: Well, it wasn't deliberate. It was a little bit by mistake. Own Your Culture has been a painful labor of love. I interviewed over 50 CEOs of high-growth companies, blogged about those interviews, and then decided to take the content from the blog and write the book. The first version of the book I asked my wife to review. Having had a look at it, she said, do you really want my opinion? When a Romanian woman asks you that, you need to maybe just run, hide, and cry.

Ultimately, what had happened is I just hit a wall where I just couldn't see the words for the trees. I decided to write an ebook. It was a marketing book on culture decks because I’d written this blog post that still to this day is the most read blog post on a monthly basis because people are really interested in the subject of culture decks and how to write a culture deck. So I decided to just write a marketing ebook, and it scaled and scaled and I enjoyed writing it because it was me commenting on slides that I’d chosen from over a hundred decks. The best decks that I felt were relevant and these slides are the best. I found it much easier to write and I really enjoyed it.

I actually finished the second book first and then went to the first book second, and it was like writing Culture Decks Decoded had cleared the cache. I relatively enjoyed finishing Own Your Culture because I had a fresh mindset, fresh start to it. None of this was planned. It's really the result of multiple failures.

Brendan: Like many great things. You got a plan for a third?

Brett: I do, but wow, I’m going to have to pull all the 10 fingernails and toenails out of my body before I go there. Own Your Culture broke me and my wife in the end because it was really hard work getting it done.

Brendan: Well, it sounds like you better take a break, mate. You don't want to have that sort of impact. So Brett, the focus of our conversation today, as we said in the introduction, is understanding the nine principles through your own research that can really help leaders with working remotely and some hybrid challenges there as well. It's actually the focus of chapter 12 in your book, Own Your Culture. We're not going to review the whole book, we're going to focus on that area because it's really topical at the moment.

But before we go into that level of detail, what challenges have you seen with the clients that you're working with around the world that got disrupted? That word COVID came in, all of a sudden organizations that maybe really didn't embrace working remotely had no choice, they had to work remotely. Tell us a little bit about those challenges you saw particularly for leaders.

Brett: I think there are two very clear challenges or two roots of challenges. The first one is companies that had worked on their culture and invested pre-COVID found this hard to do but not as hard as companies that hadn't because they had values. There were things that they could lean on that were real pre-COVID and are still real today. They can look at that north star and go, our mission is still the same, our vision is still the same. Our values may have to adapt a little bit, but we're still there.

The companies that didn't do any work pre-COVID because they were lazy, because they had an office that did a lot of the work for them are really finding it a struggle now. They're finding a case of people who don't know why they're actually doing what they're doing. Yes, they are happy to have a job, and yes, they are working really hard, but the real engagement, the real commitment, that core element that happened in an office because of the vibe in an office is no longer there and so their cultures are degrading really quickly daily because people are forgetting what it was like to be in an office. They don't have any glue, they don't have any of that culture glue. That's really the fundamental difference between the two.

I’m finding that companies that are adapting quickly, in other words saying, what are we going to do now to take (a) advantage and (b) shore up where we are, are the companies that actually invariably worked on their culture pre-COVID.

Brendan: Have you noticed any changes or adaptations that organizations and leaders have made through those initial, oh wow, what do we do here, or some of that culture is eroded? Are there one or two things that people have done to learn from the process and adapt? Because some of these countries, again, like Portuguese, you said you guys are in lockdown. They're still working through this now and their workplaces are still very, very different from what we're experiencing in Australia. A lot of our places are looking at the hybrid situation and going back into the workplace at least a couple of times a week, sometimes more often.

Brett: I’m seeing the opposite at the moment. I’m seeing a lot of companies have leaders who have their heads in the sand. They're hoping that this goes back to normal. They're hoping that when we go hybrid, we're going to run hybrid the way we ran our previous business or the business pre-COVID. They're going to run it in a way that we don't have to change much, we just now have a percentage of our employees working somewhere else. That's actually a concern for me.

The concern is that you think, as a leader, you don't have to adapt how you lead an organization now that you're in a hybrid situation because it feels like, yes, we're going to be in the office more. But actually, what we're seeing is even though you have an office, people are in the office less.

On the other hand, what people are doing is almost a gut instinct level is a social connection because if you don't get social connection right, it leads to loneliness. The next step from loneliness is ultimately burnout or mental health issues.

What happened in the first lockdown was, okay, let's try a bunch of stuff that didn't work. Now let's work out what really connects with our people. Let's work out how to really get a sense of understanding of this is going to be different, and we have to—as an organization, as a company—adapt. It's not just the leadership team's responsibility to make these changes and let's try this or let's try that. It's the whole company's responsibility to adapt to this new way of working and the new way of being socially connected.

Brendan: I have to say, it's very, very concerning from my side to hear you say that some leaders have got their heads in the sand and maybe they're just in denial. Are you seeing that denial, let's say, at various levels of the organization, is it just maybe with the mid to lower management, or are you seeing it with very, very senior managers in organizations?

Brett: I’m seeing it at the CEO level and down. Actually, one of my clients, we did an exercise with the senior leadership team to have a discussion about what that hybrid work looks like. He said once the offices are back open, I don't think we necessarily need to think about this as hard as we are because people are going to come into the office. I said, okay, I’m not going to argue with you. Let's do a survey of your 75-person company, and across the board, everybody said we will not be in the office more than two days a week.

He was absolutely shocked, absolutely shocked by this because he thought once the office is back—because he actually is a people person. He likes the cut and thrust, he likes the vibe, he likes that thing. But actually, it turns out, no.

In his situation, engineering is not coming back, they're now going to be fully remote. Professional services are going to come in once a month. Marketing is coming twice a week. Sales, their SDR is going to come in four days a week. Account execs are going to come in two days a week. He actually came to me and said, first of all, I’m shocked by this, but secondly, how do I manage this? How do I control my culture? I said you don't. You're now going to adapt to this.

This is a client who actually was paying me to do this, and I was quite surprised by his response to this. But I’m seeing this time and time again where I talk to leaders and they go, what do I need to understand about remote work best practices if we're going to go hybrid?

Brendan: You mentioned the survey you've done with that leader, and there was a survey on a television show I watched only in the last few days actually so it was really coincidental given the preparation I did for this interview. I don't know the survey numbers, the sample size, but it talked about back to work and workers’ preferences remote versus face-to-face and 10% said that they preferred face-to-face, 16% preferred remote, and 75% preferred a combination so that hybrid model. Some pretty amazing numbers there.

Brett: Yeah, I think the cat's out of the bag. What did happen is a lot of people thought I would like to work from home, I’d like to spend more time with my family, or I’d like to spend less time traveling, but leaders said no. Now leaders have been forced to realize it. I’m seeing a bunch of leaders who are just saying, I was one of those. I just said, no, I have to be able to control the environment. Now I realize my people are productive.

I do think there's a moment that we're going through a moment of false productivity though. I don't think the productivity that forced remote environments are experiencing is real.

Brendan: What do you mean by that?

Brett: It's really in terms of, yes, it's happening right now, but I don't think it's going to last. Just think about it. I get out of bed, I have a shower, I walk into my office, and I start working. Because I’m not interrupted, I get lunch—maybe I don't have it in my office—I come back to my office, and I work for four or five hours. I have dinner, I’ve got nothing to do, I’ve got nowhere to go because I’m in a place in Portugal where I can go to the supermarket and that's it. Then I work until 9:00 PM or 1000 PM.

I’m not getting hammered. I’m not recovering from a hangover. I’m not going to see my friends. I’m not going to watch a movie. I’m not going to go to the gym. I’m giving 12, 14, 15 hours to work. It's completely false. It's a false sense of productivity.

When the rest of the world, when we all go back to whatever the new normal is, I believe that there's going to be a productivity collapse because people are going to be going, first of all, okay well now I can go and see my friends and I want to go and have a good time. I’m not as committed to you as you thought I was.

I’m also going to be looking at this going, okay, well I don't like the way I’ve been treated in the last period. There may be a company that'll pay me the same amount of money but creates an environment where I feel like a first-class citizen rather than a second-class citizen. I believe that we're in a false sense of productivity at the moment.

Brendan: I really like that angle, and it's not an angle I’ve considered myself but I can see where that can happen, particularly around disciplines and people. Historically, people are not always great with discipline over the long term. Just need to set the standard, I suppose. I probably made a few assumptions. Can you just give a real basic definition around what's the difference between remote work, so that 100% remote, versus a hybrid model of work?

Brett: Yeah. Remote is fully remote where there is no office at all. One of your perks may be going to work in a coworking space, but there's no headquarters that you will go to.

A hybrid work is a real soup. There's no real definition of hybrid other than to say some people will work in an office and there's some sort of a head office, and some people will not. Some people may work in a coworking space in between that, some people may choose to be in the office all the time, some people may choose to come in and out of the office on different days, but there is this hybrid model where you've got the challenges. You have a central location or a location where people can congregate that people could ultimately work there every day. You have another situation where people could be fully remote all the time and never go into the office.

It's a very multi-dimensional situation—hybrid. Some companies I’ve heard are saying that they will insist that people come in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—the whole company, and then there are other companies like the example I gave earlier where it's a smorgasbord of fully remote engineering team to the sales SDR, sales team coming in four days a week. But it's the needs of the individual team or the needs of the individual. Younger people want to be in an office because they learn by osmosis. They need the vibe, they need that being in a cool city blah, blah, blah.

For me, hybrid is this mix between an office where you could work or fully remote and something in between there.

Brendan: Let's go into these the nine best practices that you've identified through your research in working with various companies. My understanding is it was more focused on the best practices of remote work, but do these apply equally to hybrid situations, or are there various changes to this list?

Brett: When I talk about remote, I am implicitly talking about hybrid. The reason I am doing that is because if you have a hybrid organization, you will always have a small, medium, or large percentage of your company working remotely at some time. If you have a small percentage or a large percentage of your organization working remotely, you need to be thinking about what those people need to operate effectively. These nine best practices are applicable to fully remote organizations and hybrid organizations, and actually, hybrid organizations are harder to lead.

Brendan: So with that, hybrid organizations are harder to lead, in what respects?

Brett: If you think about it, if you have a remote organization, we're all experiencing this in the same way. We're all working from where we’re from. There's no headquarters, there's nowhere to congregate—we're all dispersed. But if you're in a hybrid situation, you could have a group of people working in the office and the rest of the people working in a remote environment.

What happens in an office situation versus the remote situation is the people working remotely feel like they do not experience work or the culture in the same way. They feel excluded from decisions and communication. They feel they need to advocate more for their work, for who they are, and what they are. They don't feel like they're considered for promotions and progress in the same way that people who are in the office are. They do not appreciate working in the way that the synchronous work communication style that happens in an office versus the asynchronous communication style that is preferred and better for a remote work environment.

When this comes to pass, they ultimately feel like second-class citizens. They don't feel like they are considered in the same way that the people working in an office are. Once we're in a more fluid environment, they will leave their second-class citizen status and find a first-class citizen status for themselves.

Brendan: Well, mate, I have to say that I’ve experienced firsthand that feeling of a second-class citizen. I have to say ashamedly that I’ve also been a leader where I’ve probably made people feel like a second-class citizen, not necessarily deliberately, but just through my actions and lack of ability to manage those remote environments.

What stands out in my mind—I’ve been on both sides of this scale, but even at a basic let's say an old teleconference, a phone conference you'd have. You might have seven people in the room and you might have two or three of them remotely. If you're the remote person, how often are you forgetting that you're actually on the phone and the seven people are just having this conversation between themselves? You definitely feel like a second-class citizen.

Brett: Yeah, and it happens in lots of little ways that all add up to really frustrate, annoy you, and make you feel less in this environment. I can see now, there are a bunch of companies in Silicon Valley [...], Twitter, and others who are saying we are basically going to be a remote-first hybrid environment. In other words, we're going to work in a remote manner, but you can work from an office or you can work from home—you can choose.

We're going to build a system around that, which is really signaling to the market that if you are frustrated in your current role because you're getting burnt out by too many Zoom calls or people expecting you to be synchronously available, that actually we're going to build a culture that makes sense for you.

Brendan: All right, mate. We've kept people long enough. The nine best practices, mate. I know the nine, I’ve got the nine in front of me. I’ve read the nine through the chapter of the book. Is there a particular one or two to start with that you believe through your research and interactions with these organizations that are just most important?

Brett: For me, the most important thing right now and actually moving forward will be being deliberate about your culture. Your culture is the glue, and it's degrading every day if you aren't working on it, so culture is one.

Process sizing your business. In other words, if you ask yourself, your leadership team, and your organization what percentage of our processes are defined and written down versus in people's heads. The answer typically is around 30%, 40% of processes are documented in companies. That means that you have a human bottleneck potential where I don't know what the process is to work with this team or with you so I’ve got to call you. I’ve got to have a Skype, Zoom, or whatever call with you to understand how this works versus this process being defined and documented.

And then the third point is documentation, and moving from a speak first to a write first mentality is a really big challenge for most companies because we are designed for synchronicity. I would say culture, process, documentation, and then probably the last one would be a social connection because the social connection is so critical to us as human beings. Those are the ones that, for me, are front of mind for most companies.

Brendan: I’m going to go to the first one about being deliberate about culture. It seems pretty sensible to talk about given the nature of our podcast. How can, as leaders, we be deliberate about our culture? What do we need to do?

Brett: Let's assume that we had worked on our culture pre-pandemic. The thing to realize now is that a lot of the work that was being done around culture was a result of having offices. Osmosis, informal communication, visibility, availability, being able to read the room, informal feedback, formal feedback, informal recognition, et cetera all happened in this weird state. So now, you've got to double down on these things.

You've got to overemphasize your mission and your vision. You've got to overemphasize your values and the behaviors associated with those values. You've got to recognize and reward more. I believe that if you want to say something to your entire company, you have to say it three or four times—exactly the same thing but in different ways. Because in this environment—whether it's hybrid or fully remote—people are not engaged as they were in the room. They're not listening in the same way. My one-year-old could be crying now and I’m not fully engaged.

When it comes to culture, assuming you've been working on your culture, it's doubling down on it and tripling downwards on it, talking about it, mentioning it, and coming up with ways to slip the mission in, the vision, and the values to your conversation. Then building on an employee of the month or building on how you award, reward, and recognize, how you train, mentor, and educate. It’s almost like whatever you did previously, triple it. Talk about it three times more.

Brendan: What I’m really taking from that, Brett, is that as you said, if organizations are being deliberate previous to the pandemic, then that's great. But they need to really double down, triple down on that, and be really specific about the time and energy they put into it, and carving out space in their workday to make sure that happens. Because previous working in the office, some of those things just happened naturally so maybe you didn't need to be as deliberate about it. But if you don't take that effort and really carve out—it's almost like time blocking time to make sure you're connecting with people and having certain types of meetings because if you don't do that, it's just going to fade away to oblivion.

Brett: Absolutely. It’s spot on. It’s being very intentional and deliberate about it.

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Reading some of the great work you've put out there and you obviously do a lot of research and that's your wheelhouse. I want to go to one of the last ones you mentioned, at least in the top four, about building social connections because I read some of the flavors through some of your stuff. You seem quite passionate about and the impact more so of if we're not having those regular social connections, how that can impact on people. Can you talk about that a little bit for us?

Brett: One of the challenges that are happening right now is we are Zoomed out. At the end of the day, the last thing we want to do is have another call. Go and look at remote companies. Remote companies work asynchronously so they deliberately avoid meetings. They avoid this experience because for this to happen, I need to be available and present, and you need to be available and present, which means that we actually can't work.

We can't do the work we need to do when we're on this call. If you do eight hours of calls because things are not documented, et cetera, then if somebody says to you let's do a 'drinks call' for your ninth hour of that day, you're like going, I don't want to do this. I’ve just been staring at these faces on the screen all day. The last thing I want to do is do a quiz, a this, or a that.

Remote work companies are very good at moving synchronous work which requires this interaction to asynchronous work which doesn't require this interaction. What I see in remote companies is they are very focused on social connection and how they do the social connection.

Zapier, for example, has 100 #fun Slack channels because they believe that micro-communities build the soul community. Hotjar designed social into the working week for the entire company of over 100 people.

There are different ways of doing it, but they're very deliberate about it because they understand that in a remote work environment, it's harder to read how people are feeling. It's harder to get the informal pulse of the company. You don't have proximity. You don't have visibility. You can't manage by walking around. You don't recognize if somebody is unusually withdrawn, depressed, or unhappy. These things are hard to read and they're happening in all of our companies right now.

Remote companies design this [...] where they create environments of psychological safety, and they build it so that the organization is mainly asynchronous. If you do actually have a video call with 20 other people or the entire company, you're actually super pumped about it because you haven't been on video the whole day. It's not a big deal to be on a video call with 20 other people or 30 other people because you want to see everybody. You haven't actually spoken to these people for a while.

They create this psychologically safe environment where you can talk about issues, but they also create a work environment where you can experience social connection in a way that's not a burden to you.

Brendan: You said earlier about you guys are in lockdown, and we spoke earlier about how you spend a fair bit of time on Zoom, not as much today. I just really should thank you for spending some time online and on Zoom with us today as well and not saying, no, that's the last thing I want to do.

Brett: I had a good night's sleep last night and very few calls, so it's an absolute pleasure.

Brendan: Good on you, mate. Thank you. One of the other things in the nine that we speak about. We've gone through the first four, focus on communication because you touched on that as well and the importance of communicating, communicating, communicating. Tell us a bit about that one.

Brett: Companies that are transitioning from office to hybrid or remote are learning to move away from these in-person meetings. This situation where we expect an immediate response and need to be actually learning how to move towards asynchronous or semi-synchronous communication. It's not easy to do because as human beings, synchronicity is our thing because we want an immediate response and we want to be able to talk to people immediately and respond immediately. But if you design this really well, then as a leadership team you can focus on communicating and including, first of all, how your communication architecture should look.

There are companies that say we do not use Slack. There are companies that say we only use Slack, we do not use email. Email is only external. There are companies that design this way of working so that we don't have Asana on Monday and Trello, we only use one of these things, and we use it for this form of communication because that wasn't necessary for an office environment.

In an office environment, we would lean over and have a chat, or say, can we quickly meet after lunch and just sort this bit out. But now, you need to have a much better-structured system around communication, communication architecture. Leadership needs to be thinking about this in terms of how many times should I repeat this, and how do I repeat it so that it doesn't feel repetitive?

Communication for me is the oxygen of a remote environment. If you get it right, as a leader, you are making sure that people understand what's required of you, of them, down to almost a task-based level. This is the project, what's the task? Are we in communication? Yes. Can I leave you alone to get on with this? Do you understand how to do the task? Yes. Okay, I’m out of here. Contact me when you need me. I will build this environment where you can fulfill your potential and where you can do your best work. I will not micromanage you. I will not over-monitor you unless you need it.

For me, communication is just this critical element that we took a lot for granted in office-based environments.

Brendan: Based on what you're saying, it sounds like a lot, or maybe all of these nines are really part of the one system here. You should never look at each of these in isolation because that last bit, one of the nine best practices, is to focus on output and results. That's sort of what you just alluded to there through the communication and not micromanaging, is that right?

Brett: Yeah, that's exactly right. Essentially, actually, all of this falls under the umbrella of culture. It ultimately comes down to culture, but you're completely right. If you are communicating effectively and you are communicating transparently, then you are building trust and you are building psychological safety. If you have trust, you will rely on your people to deliver the outcomes. You can see that it all weaves together.

This is actually one of the challenges for leaders is for a lot of companies, this is going to become a really big transformation because you can't just do one of them and go, okay, we're good here. We've done communication because there are knock-on dominoes that you need to deal with once you deliver on that.

Brendan: As you alluded to, I mean, that is culture. What I really love about these nine best practices, it just gives people some sort of security that they can follow something because I think there's often a question like what is culture really? Culture for me is those behaviors in an organization that we accept. Sometimes they can be good behaviors, sometimes they can be not good behaviors. If we don't address them, then that's a culture you're setting. But this does give people something to really follow.

But I probably should also put a premise on this, and you can tell me if I’m wrong or right here, that just because one of the best practices is process size the business or become delivered about culture, what that looks like in your organization could be very different or would be very different to the next organization. It's not just a cookie-cutter thing. You have to have deliberate conversations around this stuff.

Brett: When I work with my clients, we sit down and do a SWOT analysis on each of the nine. We basically do the SWOT analysis and we go, okay, in this project, what are the low-hanging fruit that we can demonstrate progress really quickly? We may decide on social connections and then we'll build initiatives around that. What's going to be harder to do? What's going to take longer to do? And then we'll build processes and initiatives around that. But once you understand where your organization is stronger or weaker, and you will have different strengths in different areas of this.

If you have a big engineering team, their documentation will probably be better than the rest of the organization. Atlassian is an Australian company. You may be able to take what they're doing in Jira, move it over to Confluence, get everybody over to Confluence, and that may not be such a hard transition. Versus going and saying, okay, now we're going to go completely asynchronous and everybody's going, oh my word. What does this mean and how do we do it?  Each company is going to have a different requirement in these nine best practices.

Brendan: Right. Thank you for clarifying. There's one other I want to ask you to explain and then there's the final two. I’ve deliberately left these final two last because I think they're meaty topics, and I think you can definitely offer huge value in how we can help leaders there. Add structure, that's one of the nine best practices. What does that mean?

Brett: We shouldn't expect our people to know or understand how to work in this new environment. Yes, they're adapting, but actually, if we give them some structure, we give them guidelines, we give them a little bit of stability in this really unstable environment, in this volatile environment.

Companies like Hotjar—a fully remote company—say Monday is their get the week going day. It's about planning. Tuesday is focus day. They limit chat, they limit comms to a minimum—only to critical stuff. Wednesdays are meeting-free days. Thursdays are leadership planning, monthly meetings, and company meetings. Friday is one-to-ones, final interviews (if you're interviewing anybody), and then demos around new products.

They say that if you work at Hotjar, you will be available between 2:00 PM Central European time and 5:00 PM your Central European time. Obviously, you will work during the day, but those are the hours that you will be online. This gives a great structure to people. In other words, I can work within this environment now.

Not all companies can go to the extent of Hotjar where they say, okay, this is your week, but this kind of structure gives an anxious environment just a little bit of stability. Wednesday is no meeting day. Don't try and book a meeting on Wednesday. I can do deep focused work on Wednesday. People underestimate the value of small things around structure.

Brendan: I have to say, I’m with you 100%. I’m a structure sort of guy. What would you say to people out there that they think structure inhibits their ability to create? But my belief, and I think it sounds like yours, is that structure actually allows people the space for creativity.

Brett: First of all, say I’m sorry to pop the bubble but most businesses don't require creativity. Fundamentally, at the moment, they require execution. Actually, execution requires process, discipline, and structure.

If you are in a creative environment and you are now in a hybrid or fully remote environment, you can't just walk into the boardroom now and start brainstorming because the boardroom gave you your structure. Now you have to work out how do you do this where you've got three people in the boardroom and four people working from home. Are you using a mirror board or what are you using? You still need some structure so I would say nonsense or another word.

Brendan: The last two, develop trust and accountability. How do you develop trust and accountability when you've got all these remote working situations happening?

Brett: Trust, essentially, if you look at the remote companies, and all remote companies are like this, they either are fully transparent or they are leaning towards transparency because transparency means that I have nothing to hide. You know exactly the color of my underwear, that's it. There's nothing to hide here. If I have nothing to hide, you can trust me.

In a remote environment, if you don't have transparency, if you don't lean towards transparency as far as you can, then there is doubt which then builds distrust. Every single remote company I’ve interviewed and every single remote company I’ve studied uses transparency as an asset, as a tool because it’s just normal.

I believe that if your company involves remote workers in any way, your success is going to be contingent on codifying what transparency means to your company and then promoting the policies and behaviors that uphold this.

There's another element of this, which is around psychological safety. Google did this research project into high-performing teams and what the high-performing behaviors were. They spent about two years slicing and dicing everything they could. It was called Project Aristotle. They cut PhDs, diversity inclusive teams, whatever. The one thing that all high-performing teams had in common with psychological safety, and psychological safety is the belief and trust that you won't be punished when you make a mistake, fundamentally.

If you build psychological safety where I can be who I want to be and be who I am, then I can trust you. You build this trust around it. Psychological safety is around demonstrating fallibility. It's about demonstrating humility. It's about demonstrating humanity because if this trust is missing, then managers try to micromanage, then employees try to prove that they're working, and they end up burning out. For me, trust is just fundamental to what's required in a hybrid or remote working environment. You build that through transparency and psychological safety.

Brendan: On that, what impact does a leader have on building that trust and that transparency and the behaviors that they show that could impact that in a positive and or a negative way that you've seen?

Brett: If you as a leader, in these times, do not show that you are struggling, there is nobody right now who isn't experiencing close to burnout or high anxiety trying to balance, juggle, and spin all of these plates at the same time.

With my team, I did this quite early on. I just put my hand up and I said, I have a one-year-old—at the time he was four-month-old, just a little bit older. I have a four-month-old and an almost three-year-old. I am not going to get eight hours of work done during the day. I’m going to work at night. I’m going to work between 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM. I’m not going to communicate between 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM. I’m not going to expect any communication at all. I’m getting three or four hours of joy with my children. I don't want that to stress me out that I’m not getting that work done. I’m going to make it up at night and just want to tell you. I want to tell you that because I’ve been stressing about it.

Actually, that opened up two of my other team members and went, actually, this is our situation. This is my situation. Thank you. It's a leader's responsibility to demonstrate it and to share what they're going through. It's a leader's responsibility to talk openly and respectfully about the challenges that we're feeling, the stresses that we're under, and then to create strategies to manage these anxieties and these issues.

Brendan: Very well said, Brett. Thank you for sharing, mate. We'll move you to the last one. You're almost out of the hot seat. Customize the recruitment and onboarding process. That's got to be a pretty tough situation given, I would imagine this circumstance. I know I’ve had some clients where they've recruited and they haven't really even met these people in the traditional sense face-to-face previously. Share a bit on that.

Brett: If you look at what remote companies do, they never had the in-person gut instinct thing to rely on. What they typically do is build systems, processes in their recruitment capabilities.

The first thing they do is they involve more of their team to work with the shortlisted candidates, not to interview, but to work with. Let's say we go from a broad group of candidates down to two or three that are potentially suitable, and then we design a task that has multiple interaction points and multiple channels of communication.

Let's say, for example, we're doing a product management search, we get product engineering and marketing together, and we build a task—something around the funnel and the leaking funnel. We say to these candidates, you can speak to somebody in product, you can speak to somebody in engineering, you can speak to somebody in marketing. At the end of the next two weeks, we want you to present a solution to this problem. This is your task. When you speak to product, you can only speak to them using voice, when you communicate with engineering you can only use video, and when you communicate with marketing you can only use the written word.

Now what we're doing is we're creating a task where you've got people expecting a call from two or three candidates or multiple calls from two or three candidates where they were all written word, Slack channel, voice, or video whereby they're now interacting with the candidates. They're actually working with a candidate over a period of two weeks.

A company like Hotjar actually pays these candidates for two days of consultancy. They say we respect your time. We're going to work with you to solve this. Actually, the person who comes out as the strongest. Now, this is where it gets different and really interesting.

It's not just about skills, experience, and our gut instinct. It's skills and experience, it's the ability to do the job, it's the quality of the work delivered, it's the behavior during the process, it's the verbal and written communication capabilities of the individual. If you've done a really good job of this, it's the fit for the values of the company that allows you to really analyze this candidate in the right way. If you've got three or four people giving you this feedback, you don't need to meet them. This is the beauty of it.

Interestingly enough, the outcome of this kind of process—using values fit evaluation—ultimately ends up with very diverse teams. Diversity happens as a product of a well-run interview process.

Brendan: I love that example. I’m a big fan myself in anything, whether it's recruitment or even from a sporting perspective and coaching. If we can set up real-life environments, they're so great for that learning process. Again the interaction, very difficult to hide behaviors that maybe are not the behaviors you're looking for when you're working in a real-life scenario. And really being challenged by real problems as opposed to setting up some fabricated interview environment, I suppose, is what a lot of them are.

Brett: Yeah.

Brendan: Mate, I will make sure that in our show notes and on some of the marketing stuff, we'll list out those nine points again so that the listeners can be very, very clear on what they are. I want to thank you for taking the time to explain those.

You've been in this space for a long time. As we spoke before we hit the record button, this is a passion of yours. I said, what do you do outside of this? You said, not much. I’m in lockdown. I’ve got young kids, but I just love this stuff. In all of your experience, what would be that single biggest bit of advice that you would like to pass on to leaders to help them on their journey, specifically around these remote working best practices, and how you think you can give them the advice to help them?

Brett: I’d say two things, have a conversation with your team and say things are never going to be the same again, but we, as an organization, as a team, have to work on this. It's not the leadership's responsibility, it's all of us. The second thing I would say is—and this requires a little bit of work, but actually company culture development and culture generally is the one sustainable competitive advantage that you as a leader have control over. If you start treating it like a function in your business—in other words, you dedicate time to it—the return on investment I can almost guarantee it.

Brendan: Hear, hear. Fantastic advice. Mate, how can our listeners get hold of Brett Putter?

Brett: I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter. My website is www.culturegene.ai. I take 20%–25% of my time and spend it learning about culture because really I’m a student of culture. If any of your listeners, the audience would like to talk to me about their culture, they can reach out directly at Brett@culturegene.ai. I do a 5:45 AM walk every morning down to the beach. I actually have a call on Wednesday with somebody from Perth at 6:00 AM, that's an ideal time to connect with people down under. Happy to chat, happy to just learn and listen, and hopefully pay it forward and give some advice.

Brendan: Fantastic, mate. I love what you say about the students of culture. You said that off-camera as well, just always learning. There's so much to learn in this space, isn't it? It's always evolving. People are people, mate. We're pretty different at times.

Brett: People are beautifully dynamic is the best way to describe it.

Brendan: Beautifully dynamic, do you mind if I use that from time to time? I love that expression.

Brett: You can trademark it, I haven't.

Brendan: I won't take your thunder there, but I’ll certainly use it and I’ll credit you. Mate, before we really just close up and I say my thank you to you, I want to thank an organization that you utilize. I’ve experienced their service, Speak On Podcasts. We're talking about them earlier, but really fantastic service. That's how we met through their service, Speak On Podcasts, and they're helping people who have a really great story, really great experience, and really great knowledge to share like you do to help get people on podcasts. I want to say a shout-out to them. They do a fantastic job.

Mate, massive thanks to you today. I know it's late in Portugal, a tough place to be at the moment, but not normally. It's normally a very beautiful place when you get out, get on the beach, and you're not in lockdown.

Mate, thanks very much for your time, your knowledge, sharing those nine best practices. We'll make sure we put a plug to your book in the show notes and on all the marketing materials as well. Thanks again, mate. I really appreciate you coming on and being a guest on the Culture of Things podcast.

Brett: Brendan, my pleasure. Thanks very much for having me. Speak On Podcasts have been really, really, really great. I’ve been blown away by their work. Completely agree with you. Thanks for what you're doing. I really appreciate it, really appreciate your message and how you're getting out there and spreading the word.

Brendan: Thank you, my friend.

"People are beautifully dynamic." What a great quote from Brett. For me, it really sums up the perspective we should take in relation to culture. Culture is dynamic, because of this, it can be complex. It's always moving, always changing every day in small and subtle ways.

This is why as leaders, you should never take your finger off the culture button. If you do, culture can quickly become something you're not proud of. It's something you need to continually put effort into developing. Doubling down on culture is even more important when working remotely. These were my three key takeaways from my conversation with Brett.

My first key takeaway, leaders have full control over the culture. If a leader doesn't realize this, it's a problem. The words 'culture is a reflection of leadership' keep coming up. As a leader, if you see behavior that doesn't align with the culture you're working to create, look at yourself first. Ask the question, how have I enabled it? If you can do this honestly and make the changes needed, you will have full control over the culture.

My second key takeaway, leaders must focus on creating social connections. This is particularly important in a remote working environment. In a traditional office, the social connection happens without any real effort from the leader. People pass each other in the hallway. They have lunch together or simply greet each other in the morning when they arrive. Not having this social connection can make team members feel isolated, which will lead to reduced performance and potentially mental health-related issues. Leaders must be deliberate and focus on creating social connections.

My third key takeaway, delegation is even more critical in remote working environments. So many leaders talk about delegation and many do it, but not many do it effectively. The single biggest factor in effective delegation is being crystal clear on communicating what needs to be achieved and taking the time to ensure the person taking on the task is crystal clear on what's expected. The person managing the task should then have flexibility in deciding how they achieve it. If this is done well, team members will deliver high standards of work without the leader being over their shoulder.

So in summary, my three key takeaways were, leaders have full control over the culture, leaders must focus on creating social connection, and delegation is even more critical in remote working environments.

A massive thank you to Nick Bendel for his review on Apple Podcast. Nick has listened to the show since the start. He was also our guest on episode 37 where he shared his journey to have 500 lunches with strangers. Check it out if you haven't already. Thanks again, Nick. I appreciate you.

If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to leave a comment on the socials or send me a message at brendan@brendanrogers.com.au. Thank you for listening. Stay safe, until next time.

 

Outtro (music): Thank you for listening to The Culture of Things podcast with Brendan Rogers. Please visit brendanrogers.com.au to access the show notes. If you love The Culture of Things podcast, please subscribe, rate and give a review on Apple podcasts and remember a healthy culture is your competitive advantage.