At Occupation: People, we wanted to explore how innovative companies build and maintain their culture. Kirstin Furber, former Chief People Officer at ClearScore, ZeShaan Shamsi, Director of Talent at Onfido, and Katrina Zlateva-Bowles, Director of People and Talent at Opensignal, joined our panel to share their insights on building company cultures.
Q1: How do you take culture into account in your hiring processes?
ZeShaan: When we interview, as well as technical skills and competencies, we look for examples of similar belief systems to the ones that we have. This doesn’t dictate whether they are right or wrong for the role, but it helps us identify the situation that will allow them to flourish. We’ve created a competency framework which objectively tells us what bad, okay, good and great looks like for each of our values. The interviewer’s role is to ask open questions and then probe to get as much objective evidence as they can, apply it to the framework and have other people assess that with them so that they can be challenged on their assumptions. It really helps us to go in-depth and it adds objectivity to what is often a subjective gut-feel.
Kirstin: Sometimes the challenge can be our unconscious bias, so the training and the process that ZeShaan spoke of is absolutely critical. One thing I was told a couple of years ago by a Chief of Marketing around how you hire while thinking about your culture, is essentially you are building your brand inside-out. Often interviewees will look for stories, tweets, LinkedIn or Glassdoor when investigating an organisation and they’ll look through their connections and ask people what it’s really like. It’s really important that what you say on your website is what actually happens at the organisation.
Katrina: I’m currently heavily involved in the culture-fit interview process. In the past, I’ve asked the leadership team to do the Harvard implicit bias test, not to share what their unconscious biases were, but just to raise awareness as that’s the first step to eliminating bias. We'll be starting to embed values-based interview questions tailored toward what it’s like to work at Opensignal. These are based on scenarios, asking what the interviewee would do in certain situations or what they’ve learnt from a similar situation in the past. I also share the challenges we’ve faced at our company because we have a pretty open, transparent culture. Sometimes having that conversation with people will mean that they walk away but that’s a good thing because they’re not the right people for the company right now. I also share things like our maternity and parental policies—things that may normally be either too awkward to ask about when they’re signing a contract or they don’t find out until after they join.
"Think of interviews not as hurdles, but as gaining multiple perspectives"
ZeShaan: When I first joined Onfido, we had a few of the People team conduct the culture interview. I remember I was training some of our engineers and one of them said “I don’t really want you to be in the culture-fit interview when hiring members of our team”. I found this intriguing so I asked him why and he said “you’re probably going to say no because you’re not one of us and vice-versa”. It turns out there was the mentality of looking at the recruiting stages as a hurdle race and there was frustration that they’d get a candidate to the final stage and then one of the People team would do the culture-fit interview and would say “no”. They’d then have to go back to their team and tell them the candidate they liked is not right. This sparked the question of who should the hiring decision come down to? We used to do it by democracy but now the hiring manager is the decision-maker so they are ultimately accountable. If you think of all of those individual interviews, not as hurdles but as gaining multiple perspectives you can get a more rounded picture which then informs the hiring manager’s decision.
Q2: What have you found that’s worked when building cultures? Do you have any measures of success?
Kirstin: What has worked is simply when people listen to each other. For example, if you join an organisation that has been going for a while, it’s important to respect people who started it, respect why it's worked and ask questions but also be able to welcome new ideas and thoughts. When you're trying to scale or evolve a culture, you know it's worked when everyone is saying it off their own backs. If you’re hearing normalised conversations from your team rather than through corporate structured conversations, that's the test. It's not necessarily the engagement survey that gives you the real indication of success.
Katrina: I think taking into account and getting the buy-in from the leadership team is important but also not forgetting your people. There are so many times you see organisations thinking that they know what the values are or what the behaviour should be and they forget that their veterans have probably been there longer than most of your leadership team. They are really solid people to call on when you want to have a discussion around how you scale your culture. We use Peakon internally as an engagement platform to get feedback and useful insights. It's important this doesn't replace face-to-face conversation, so our managers have their own social budget to have at least a quarterly event outside of the office after which they funnel ideas back up and see whether we can try it somewhere else.
ZeShaan: When Onfido was about 25 people, they took everyone off site and started to codify exactly what those behaviours were that they saw that were so great in each other and then iterated those to become the values. There wasn't a transformation programme or a top-down consultancy, it was something that was authentic and organic. There was automatic engagement as those 25 people were actually referring others to come and join the business and that's the validation—where people love where they work so much so that they actively think about other people that can join the team. You have to get that authenticity and we have to continue not taking it for granted.
Q3: Is there anything you’ve seen that hasn’t worked when building or scaling cultures? Are there any common practices that we need to stop?
ZeShaan: We need to stop treating people like they're pieces on a chessboard regardless of whether you're in a big bureaucratic corporate environment or whether you're in a start-up. We need to respect that these are people who have contributed and given their time, energy and effort. Even if you have to give bad news at least have the integrity to tell them what's going on. The connections that we have with people are the things that actually resonate. People will forget what you did and they’ll forget what you said but they'll never forget how you made them feel. It’s a fact of life that people get made redundant, projects change, money runs out etc., but if they know that you had the decency to treat them like a human being then that impression will last.
Kirstin: My main thing that we need to stop would be reliance on PowerPoint. I've seen a lot of organisations who have presentations showing their ‘six behaviours’, they'll go through the slides and that’s it. They won't go into how they actually use this, how their culture works in practice, how people are making decisions on hiring or promotions or what money to put into training programs. It’s there where you see your values put into practice, not these six values on a PowerPoint slide. That takes a couple of years to really embed it to the point where you are getting people talking about it with a real sense of pride.
Katrina: I’ve found that when companies scale there’s often a breakdown in communication. When you scale often there’s an assumption in the leadership team that everyone else on the ground still knows what's going on. It’s compounded by leadership meetings held behind closed doors where they chat for hours about all this important stuff and it doesn't actually get communicated to the rest of the company. To combat that, we’ve introduced a monthly internal newsletter with updates from each part of the business and then a “Life at OpenSignal” section where we welcome new joiners and include fun facts about them. We also need to stop trying to implement stuff just because other companies do it. Leaders will often read a book, for example, by Google, and then think, “I'm going to implement this in our company because we want to be like Google”. I worked for a company where the founder decided he wanted to implement 10% time where you can spend 10% of your week learning with the idea being that people develop new skills that they can then share with the organisation. That purpose wasn't really shared and managers didn't work with their teams to allocate 10% of their workday to be able to spend it on learning so what ended up happening was that the time was used as overspill from meetings. 10% time wasn't right for the company for the stage they were at.
"My job as a leader is not to tell you what to do and how to do it but to find out whether you think we can do it"
ZeShaan: I’ve experienced that too and what I would do differently is try taking people with you on that journey. I would take that book to somebody ask them to read it and to think about whether we can implement it here or not and ask what they generally think about the idea. My job as a leader is not to tell you what to do and how to do it but to find out whether you think we can do it. If not, then my role is to clear the blocks out of your way so that we could potentially do it in the future. Everyone reads stuff and we need to stop chucking it at others without necessarily taking them on that journey. Essentially the objective is the same but the difference is in the approach of taking people with you and letting them discover and be part of the decision-making process.
Q4: We’re seeing the workplace evolving globally with practices such as remote work, the four-day week, flexible hours or unlimited holiday being more widely accepted. How do you see these practices affecting workplace culture?
Kirstin: We've always had those challenges but I think it's more accepted now in terms of flexible working. I think if you've got a clear purpose and everyone knows what they need to be doing you can actually do anything as long as you're working on the right stuff. What's important is that we're going to be more virtual and we have the technology now to connect—gone are the days when we had to do everything with telephone calls. However, I do think it's really important that we connect in a human way and that we celebrate together. That doesn't mean that we are doing it every day or every week but there are set pieces when a global organisation absolutely has to come together. I know that's really challenging when you're 2000+ people but I do think it gives people a stronger sense of purpose and belonging.
Katrina: Similarly, every six months we fly everyone over for a company away retreat. It’s a great way for new joiners to get to know our global teams. It’s also one of the ways we make sure we don't become too HQ-centric and we're inclusive of our global teams. We have newsletters and monthly town halls via Zoom and we put everything on our intranet so everyone can see the recordings and we can share them with new joiners. The critical thing is trust, which needs to be two-way—if you don't have trust none of these things work. Employees are adults and they have their own minds. As long as they have clear expectations and they have support from a manager then it doesn't matter where you’re working, whether in the office or remotely. In our HQ offices in London, 65% of our people are not from the UK so we said that over the Christmas period to New Year everyone can work from home or abroad without taking time from their holiday allowance.
"Each team has their own cadence and there's no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach"
ZeShaan: What we’ve realised is each team has its own cadence to its own workflow and there's no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that works for every single team across every location and across every function. In managing my team, I tell them ‘I fully trust you, until you give me a reason not to’ and if you need to work from home for whatever reason, even if it's last minute, all you need to do is message me. This helps, for example, if I know one of my team is working from home, if someone asks about contacting them, I can proactively say they’re working from home today for this reason and I can manage how and when other people get in contact and it’s organised and professional. It's all about communication. In one of our training sessions we said that we don't judge each other on our intentions we judge each other on our actions so be proactive with your communication and almost over-communicate. I have to say, in terms of unlimited holiday policies, there's been studies done on different companies that have that and they found that people don't actually take the minimum of their allowance because it's difficult to draw the line. It's actually counterproductive, people don't want to out-holiday each other and you end up with presenteeism, people claiming they’re ‘too busy’ or they’ve only taken 3 days of holiday this year—it just becomes ineffective.
Q5: Since 2004, culture-fit has been a buzzword but we’ve come to realise that hiring more of the same doesn’t necessarily benefit your company. Now we’re hearing culture-add which aims to champion diversity and inclusion. How do you see the conversation around culture evolving in the next 15 years?
Kirstin: In the next 15 years who knows what that's going to be like because the world is changing so fast and in flux but I do think that we have more options to have individual ways of being able to work and there isn't one set template for how we should work as a team. We should have individual choices about how we do it so I see that moving forward. I think it’s really exciting that culture is being taken more and more seriously. I do think in terms of hiring we’ll be hiring more on potential as we will be needing new skills that might not exist right now. I think we’ll also be focusing on those human, softer skills over the next 10 to 15 years. As technology and artificial intelligence comes to the forefront, that's where human qualities will need a bigger role and I think the challenges are how we target that potential through the use of metrics.
"Cultural connectedness will be the next big thing"
ZeShaan: I think in the next 10 to 15 years many of our jobs are going to be redundant because of technology, AI, machine learning and all this potential, so the challenge will be how to up-skill and how to recruit for the future. This is a question I’ve thought long and hard about and I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen. Going forward, you just have to be cognizant about the fact that things will change. If you're not willing to change, if you're fearful of it and not willing to embrace it then you going to be in a very difficult place. You can either put yourself in the position where new technologies will help you or you can stay on the outside and wait for these technologies to dictate how we should work. However, nothing beats face-to-face. You can use Zoom and what-not to supplement it but unless that supports an actual conversation it's not going to have much value.
Katrina: I think I've heard the words already from the other panelists but cultural-connectedness I think will be the next thing. We live in a digital world, more people are suffering from mental health issues, we have children who are suffering from anxiety and the social expectations that are on them from a young age. We're not really teaching young people coming into a workplace how to connect as humans and I think what we're going to start seeing is actually more things like retreats and festivals. We should be getting all of our employees together and try to guide them in staying connected as humans.
Across the discussion there were recurring themes of trust, communication and creating bespoke cultures. Trust and communication need to work both ways, particularly as non-traditional forms of working become more commonplace. We also need to be mindful that every workplace culture is unique and comes with it’s own individual needs and challenges. Therefore, rather than thinking of cultural trends, people practitioners need to make intelligent decisions bespoke to their company.
This event posed the question “Culture-add: just a fad?” and the answer to that seems to be ‘not necessarily’. As people and culture specialists, we need to be aware of the trends, fads and buzzwords, but we also need to be mindful of our company’s unique cultures and ensure we have buy-in from everyone when bringing about cultural changes.
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