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As the world cautiously calms down from the pandemic, we feel wiser. We feel like we learned a valuable lesson about what is possible at work. They myth of the requirement of being in person, in the office, five days a week is over.
And after a short stint of remote work, most CEOs and leaders assume that the future is hybrid. “Let’s just take the best of both worlds!”
But that’s not nearly as easy as it seems. Hybrid workplaces are neither completely remote not completely in the office, and they are a third thing that most companies aren’t ready for.
Brett Putter is the CEO of CultureGene and the author of two books, ‘Culture Decks Decoded’ and ‘Own Your Culture’
Pushing the envelope on culture
Through his research, Brett says tech companies have taken strides in talking about culture. Companies in the tech bubble, especially ones aiming to grow rapidly, have to invest in their cultures early.
Brett says there are no terrible cultures. “There’s only strong cultures or functional cultures and weak cultures or dysfunctional cultures.” Companies may be great places to work but the culture may still be dysfunctional. Or the opposite may be true—there are companies with strong functional cultures that may not be ideal workplaces.
Being intentional about culture while remote
Brett says hybrid work cultures are harder to sustain. While remote, there is a uniformity in the way employees experience company culture. But in a hybrid workplace, there is a disparity in how remote workers and those in the office experience work—camaraderie, social interaction, communication, etc., are all different.
Remote workers, Brett says may often feel ignored. They may even feel like they have to be more vocal about their accomplishments to feel included. This worked fine in the past with very few remote workplaces. But in the present, with everyone shifting to hybrid or virtual, companies need to be intentional about their culture or risk losing talent.
Synchronous communication requires a person to be available and prevents them from engaging with anything else. And asynchronous communication is when the responder is not expected to be available to reply. Brett says there is a third style of communication—a hybrid of the two where the responder may or may not be available to check their messages and respond immediately. He calls this semi-synchronous communication. Tools like Slack, Teams, Skype are semi-synchronous tools. Email, he adds, is largely seen as an asynchronous tool but people use it semi-synchronously.
Brett explains that employees often engage with others synchronously when they can be satisfying the same need asynchronously. “We’re designed for synchronicity. We’re not designed to talk and then wait for an hour and a half to get somebody to respond.”
10:48 – “Hybrid is actually harder to lead. Because when we were working remote, as we are now, we’re all in this together. We’re experiencing the same things in the same ways. As soon as you move to hybrid, you are threatened with an ‘us versus them’ situation. ‘Us’ in the office, ‘them’ working remotely.”
11:59 – “Your remote people feel like second class citizens. And this was okay for remote and flexible workers, because there were only a handful of really good remote companies. But now there are literally thousands of new hybrid companies and remote companies that are developing their culture and demonstrating it. And those remote or hybrid companies will happily recruit your best and brightest”
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Brett Putter. He is the CEO of CultureGene and the author of two books, ‘Culture Decks Decoded’ and ‘Own Your Culture’. Hey Brett, how are you doing today?
Neil I’m very good. Thanks for having me on the show.
Yeah, I’m excited. You have travelled on the same journey as a lot of us but quite further on and interviewed a lot of cool people. So, before we get into your background, one thing we do is we do a check-in round question that kind of a capture to prove your humanity here okay. So, I haven’t prepared you for this. But I want you to think about, from your videos I know that you have children. So, my question for you is, what would your kids say is your best quality?
I would hope, I hope my children said that my best quality is my ability to listen and then communicate. To listen and then explain. So, I’ve got a one-year-old and a three-year-old, and I try and spend a lot of time explaining why he shouldn’t put his finger in the plug.
Yeah, which is not easy to do with young kids.
No, it’s definitely not.
Yeah, yeah. If kids describe you as a good listener, I think that’s a big one. I have school aged kids and I would really hope that they would describe me as a little bit goofy, I guess. I don’t want my kids to feel like I was too serious, but I was able to be childlike with them and get into that world. Sometimes I do that better than other days but that’s probably what I aspire to at least.
Yeah, that’s a good thought for me. Actually, I’m probably a little bit too serious. I need to bring a little bit of child likeness into the game.
Yeah. It’s when they come home from school, I feel like that’s also my time to be like, okay, let’s be a kid for at least an hour, 30 minutes a day and see what that’s like and don’t forget that which is important for our own humanity too, I think.
Cool. Well, Brett, tell us a little bit about your work and what you do.
So, CultureGene is a culture development platform. It’s a combination of human expertise and software. I built a software platform that replicates the process. I take companies to help them define, embed, and manage their culture. And I set the business up four years ago now. Before that, I ran an executive search firm. And essentially, it’s my passion. I love it, I eat, sleep, dream about it. It’s the thing that I’m going to do until one day, maybe in a long time, I will pass on to the ‘culture in the sky’.
Nice. That’s a good way to think about it. Now in the process of your books and everything, you’ve done a lot of research and talked to a lot of companies. So, give us some background about what that experience has been like? How long of a process was that? Who are some of the people you enjoyed talking to the most?
Yes. So, the book took longer to write for two reasons. ‘Own Your Culture’ really took it out of me. I’m not a very good writer. And the second reason was because I had to speak to a lot more companies to find companies that actually had a well-defined culture. I actually ended up speaking to 500 and only interviewing just over 50. So, one out of 10 companies has a well-defined embedded culture. Most of the leaders I spoke to were a joy to speak with, because for some reason they just wanted to share and they are really proud of their culture. So, I spoke with a guy named Mark Organ, highly successful entrepreneur based out of Canada. He founded Influitive, and before that sold Eloqua to Oracle. And we spent three and a half hours on two different calls. And he said, “If you need more, just let me know”, which is amazing to get that out of a CEO. So, I really enjoyed speaking with all of the people that I spent time with.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I just finished the ‘No Rules Rules’ from Netflix. And I think there was a similar experience there with the coauthor, Erin Meyer. She was amazed at how accessible Reed Hastings was during that time, which I think is just also part of the culture. If you’re able to create something like that then the CEO can spend time on things or projects like this that really help other people out as well that goes through. One trend I saw that mostly the companies you interviewed were tech companies that came through. So, do you feel like that’s just where we are right now? And that tech companies have pushed the or certain tech companies have pushed the discussion about culture farther than others or what do you think about that?
I think more tech companies have done more in culture. And the tech companies I focused on are mainly high growth, more earlier stage companies. And I did that deliberately for the book to be more tactical, not strategic. But really good tech companies that do scale well have to invest in their culture early. And so, more tech companies are talking about it, more tech companies are sharing what they do, etc, etc. So, I just think that tech bubble is more aware of culture. They don’t do, nine out of 10 companies don’t do a great job of it. But the ones that do, do a really good job.
Yeah, I think it’s important to say like, just because a company is a tech company doesn’t mean it has a great culture. A lot of them have terrible cultures that are out there.
There’s no such thing as a great culture or a terrible culture.
Oh, okay. What do you say?
There’s only a strong culture, a functional culture or a weak culture or dysfunctional culture. A great company may be a great company for you to work in, or a terrible culture for you to work in. But it could be, you know, you could actually have a strong functional culture. That is a place that I wouldn’t want to work. But there are a lot of companies that claim to have a well-defined culture, but it’s all surface. There’s some values and mission and vision. But actually, as soon as you scratch a little bit below the surface, there’s an autocratic or very controlling CEO who’s driving the business forward the way they want to drive.
So, would you say strong and well-defined are synonymous for you when you’re talking about culture?
Yeah. So, strong and well defined and functional, where the way the company operates increases the speed and velocity of the business. So, to give an example of the opposite of that, if your business is full of people who are backstabbing and political, that is a dysfunctional culture that will slow your business down. It won’t accelerate it. A functional culture will be one where there is feedback, communication, transparency, and no politics, no backstab.
Is it possible? I’m just thinking out, could you have a culture where you said, hey, look, we are an autocratic culture. We got a grandfather here that’s calling all the shots and we just do what he says and that’s our culture book. Would you still define that as a strong culture?
I would describe it as a strong culture if it was defined. In other words, you’ve joined the mafia. This is how we work. Very strong culture. One I wouldn’t want to work in but, you know, different strokes for different folks.
Nice. I like that. Well, let’s get into a few of the topics. You have nine rules, or I don’t really say rules or not, but nine things that remote work is part of. How do you frame that discussion?
Yeah, these are the nine best practices that remote companies over-index on in comparison to co-located or office-based environments. And I came about these nine, because when I started building my software, the seed for it was where I was approached by two remote companies at the same time almost. And I couldn’t do the work they wanted me to do because they were remote, and I did all my work in person. And so, I realized I needed it. I thought it was going to be big at some stage and it would be worthwhile me turning my process into a digital process anyway. So, I then decided I needed to understand why remote companies did what they did because I was following GitLab, I was following Buffer, I was following companies like Hotjar. I also interviewed a bunch of these companies for the book and for my blog. And I just realized there was something really different.
And so, my research is actually ongoing now. But I continue to just dig down deep into these companies. And I don’t know if I’ve read 2000 pages of the 8000-page GitLab manual, but I’ve read a lot of them. And really the nine best practices are: they deliberate about their culture because they have to be. They focus on communication. They process-ize the business. They customize the recruitment and onboarding. They work very hard on building, enhancing, and demonstrating trust through transparency invariably. They focus on results and outcomes. It’s not about hours. They work really, really hard on developing social connection because loneliness is the first step towards burnout or mental health issues. They end on a structure into the day and into the week and try to bring more structure into how people work. And they are very, very disciplined about documentation. Those nine best practices are what companies like GitLab, Buffer, Zapier, Toptal, Hotjar, and many others really, really focus on.
You have some great videos that I’ve been watching on YouTube that we’re going to link to in the show notes so people can see those. Because I think the things that you’ve come up with are very similar to what we are seeing and discussions we’re having. I’d like to focus on intentionality. I feel like that’s a big difference between remote cultures and ones that are office-based. It’s that you just have to take stuff seriously. You have to do it on purpose as it comes through. Where I want to start our discussion right now is in terms of where a lot of leaders and CEOs find themselves. We feel like we’ve passed the peak of the pandemic. Now, we might look back on this moment and just laugh at ourselves and be like, ‘Oh, you had no idea what was coming’. But for a lot of people vaccines are starting to come out. We’re starting to get the sense of, ‘Okay, we’re going to get back to some kind of normal’. Things have changed forever, for sure. But it’s going to be different, but it’s going to be similar to how it was. So, I think there’s a lot of leaders out there that think, okay, we’re going to get back into the office. But now our eyes have been opened. We can do more of a hybrid type model where we can have a little bit of this, a little bit of that and it’s going to be great. Why is that a dangerous thought to be going into the season?
It’s a terrible thought for a number of reasons. The work I’ve done, I’ve realized, and the interviews I’ve done, I’ve realized that hybrid is actually harder to lead. Because when we were working remote, as we are now, we’re all in this together. We’re experiencing the same things in the same ways. As soon as you move to hybrid, you are threatened with an ‘us versus them’ situation. ‘Us’ in the office, ‘them’ working remotely. And ‘us’ in the office experience work differently, we experience the culture differently, we experience the camaraderie differently, the social interaction differently, the communication is different. The people who are working remote feel like they are often ignored. They’re not included. They don’t experience the culture in the same way. Sometimes, and it’s just human nature, you know, you’ll have a conversation with somebody in the office and go, ‘Let’s do that’. But actually, you should have spoken to Jack who is our remote colleague, because Jack needs some input on it. But it’s too late now, because now you’re going to go ahead and do it.
And so, the people who are working remote also feel like they have to advocate for themselves more, and they feel like they are not considered in the same way that, for promotion, in the same way that the people working in their office for. And the ultimate outcome of this is your remote people feeling like second class citizens. And this was kind of okay for remote and flexible workers, because there were only a handful of really good remote companies, and they weren’t all going to poach your people at the same time. But now there are 1000s, literally 1000s of new hybrid companies and remote companies that are going to focus hard on developing their culture and demonstrating that culture. And those remote or hybrid companies will happily recruit your best and brightest, if they feel like they’ve been treated like second class citizens. It’s a really dangerous place to be.
I think that that’s very accurate when we think we’re going to get back to the office. And if people want the option of working remote, we can give that option. But if you haven’t, again, coming back intentionally planned for what that’s going to look like, to make that feel like an equal footing, that’s a problem. So, how would you recommend for companies that are looking to make this transition to say, okay, we don’t want to lose our office space because we still feel like that could be an asset for us and it could augment the work experience. What are some good models you’ve seen of how companies can do that? Still have a remote first mindset but bring in some of these real-world concepts as well.
So, your idea of a remote first mindset is almost quaint. Because most people don’t know what a remote first mindset is, what it looks like, or how to have one.
Yeah. Let’s start there. Okay.
I think the remote first mindset, really, the best way to think about this is to ask yourself two questions. How do we create a fulfilling, inclusive and equitable experience for all of our colleagues? The second question is, how do we create a scenario where there are no advantages or disadvantages to working remote or in the office? And those two questions encapsulate what remote first is. And there are really only five answers to this. Treat remote work as the default way of working. Bold remote work best practices into the way you do things, the DNA, and your culture. Make sure that remote employees feel a part of it, feel as much a part of it as everybody else. They must experience the culture and the work in the same way. And the last thing which most leaders don’t like when I say this is, leaders must not work from the office. Leaders must work remote. Because otherwise people ultimately congregate in the office with you and then you will end up with second class citizens and upset people because of the different cultures you’re developing. So, that remote first element is I think, is something that really needs a lot of work in terms of leaders getting their heads around exactly what that means.
Yeah, to assume that, first, everyone’s going to be working remotely. And to start with that assumption. And then to build back. I guess that’s my question. Because you said that there shouldn’t be any advantages or disadvantages to work in one way or the other. But there has to be like, there’s obviously going to be some no matter what. If you offer both options, people are going to choose in-office because they like being around people, they feel like they get more energy from that or something like that. So, it’s an advantage to them to be in the office as opposed to remote. And somebody who works remote says, you know, I like that flexibility. I need that time to be able to be there. I don’t like the commute. So that’s an advantage for them. So, explain more what you mean by there’s no advantage or disadvantage?
What you’re talking there is individual preference. And if the individual preference gains them an advantage for themselves, that’s fine. That’s their perception. It’s what they believe. And they want to be in the office all the time, that’s great. But when it’s across the board, in other words, if we hold a meeting, and the people who are remote are not considered. In other words, we all sit in the office together and the people remote are dialing in and they can’t hear what everybody’s saying, because there’s a lot of talk over and the mic is in the wrong place, and they don’t feel, they’re not included. They’re not getting an equal experience; they’re not getting work in the same way. So, see your processes and the systems in your business have to be designed so that when it is group wide, then it has to be equal. When its individual and preference space, knock yourselves out.
Sure. When it comes to meetings, I’ve seen some people advocate for, if one person is going to be on a video call, then really everyone should be on a video call, if even if you’re in the same room, just to get that sense of some equanimity and equality around that. Do you agree with that?
Completely. And you’ve got to, when you’re, for example, thinking of, let’s say social connection elements. You know, if you have pizza in the office, if you can make this happen, you get pizza delivered to their homes. To that level of thinking. It’s that level of detail so that you’ve got an equal playing field for everybody.
Yeah, I think these are deep questions. We just really scratched the surface when it comes to figuring out how to make that work. And just something we want to emphasize to all the leaders listening in. If that is the plan for you, is to say, ‘hey, let’s just do hybrid now that we see some advantages’, you’ve got to reorient yourself and start with these things. So, this is great. Brett, there’s one topic that I feel like you are as much or more of a geek than I am, which is about communication and asynchronous and synchronous communication. And you’ve used the term which I’ve played around with, but I’ve never seen anyone else say, which is semi-synchronous communication. So, for all the nerds out there that love to talk about these types of communication type styles, walk us through that. What do you mean by semi-synchronous?
So, the important thing for leaders to realize and think about is that remote companies default towards asynchronous communication and some companies actually exclude it completely unless it’s for emergency situations. But synchronous communication requires presence and availability. That means that we are now in synchronous communication. I cannot be doing anything else. And that means I actually can’t do my job, if you know, whatever my job is. So, the problem that companies are going through now is everybody is doing synchronous communication instead of reading documentation and then doing their jobs, which would be asynchronous communication. So, asynchronous communication is the situation whereby you do not expect somebody to be awake even or available to respond to your message and your business is designed in such a way that that’s okay. Semi-synchronous tools are things like chats, such as Slack, or Teams, or if you still use Skype, you know, messaging. That’s a semi-synchronous communication. Email falls into semi-synchronous communication, although really it should be asynchronous, but people still can use it. Six people still respond immediately to email.
Yeah, this is the great dynamic that I love. Because email was meant to be asynchronous, like, I’ll send you a message, and then when you get to it, you send it back to me. But somewhere along the way, we turned it into chat, we turned it into instant chat. I’m going to reply back, reply back, reply back, reply back. And so, the nature of the tool might lend itself towards one or the other. But humans have figured out how to gain that sometimes and hack into it and say, ‘No, I’m going to turn this into ‘instant synchronous’, and we tend to push that way. I feel like we tend to push towards synchronous instead of pulling back.
Well, we’re designed for synchronicity. We’re not designed to talk and then wait for an hour and a half to get somebody to respond. If I don’t respond really quickly, my wife gets very annoyed with me. So, semi-synchronous communication is chat like Slack or Teams. You’ve got forums like Twist or Discord. You’ve got project and task tools like Trello, or Figma, or GitHub. And then collaborative documentation is more of an asynchronous tool. So, Google Docs or Dropbox page, that sort of thing. But essentially, what’s happened is, companies have started to use these tools. And actually, ideally, they need to define what each tool is for and when you use it.
Absolutely. And that’s really where we land on when we talk about these communication things. We’ll link to an article that talks about the four main challenges that leaders today have to deal with that they didn’t have to worry about before. And one of those is response time. Because earlier in pre-digital days, response time was either, I’m right there in the same room with you, or I’m going to send a letter or an interoffice note or something like that, and it’s going to take a while to get back. But now we have all these levels of responses. Like do I need something responded back instantly? Or is it an hour or a half day or full day or a week? There are all these things that are there. What do you think about durability of the communication? How long does it need to last? Is this a chat message that if it goes away tomorrow, it’s fine? Or is it something that we need to refer back to a year from now even? So, there’s a ton of these issues that people need to take seriously for sure.
Yeah. I think about it in terms of low permanence and high permanence. So, high permanence is your documentation, your knowledge basis, your Wikis, your company handbook, where you know that almost everything that has been communicated becomes high permanence in a remote environment. Whereas pre-COVID, everything was low permanence. It was a call, it was a meeting and bumping somebody in the corridor, etc, etc. where that wasn’t recorded, it wasn’t noted, it wasn’t retained for the value of the organization. But yeah, there’s a lot of thinking that has to go into this.
Yep. Absolutely. Last quick question. Four-day work week. Where are you on that? What do you think?
So, Buffer, a couple of months ago, went four day because they were so concerned about the levels of stress. I’ve seen people try it and I’ve yet to see companies who really can come back and say, yeah, it’s really working for everybody and it’s all great. But these sorts of experiments, I think are good. Because it demonstrates that the leadership is aware, and they are prepared to explore and experiment to see what works. This is the critical thing. Because your culture is an iterative and being you know element, it’s just growing and developing and adding a four-day work week, if it works, great. Your people will feel better for it. If it doesn’t, pull it back and carry on with a five-day, seven-day, whatever it is you need to work.
Yeah, I’m totally in line. I feel like that’s where I love to see what we call level five workplaces, is that they’re running these experiments. Because the rest of us are watching and we’re wondering, like, where do we go next. And if you do have a high functioning, remote work culture, if you’re a high functioning digital workplace, man, we need you to take those experiments and to figure out what’s going on and what works. And it’s not going to work for everybody but getting that insight and that data is really going to help everyone else. Brett, this has been fun. Like I said, we can go on for a long time. But where should people go if they want to learn more about you and your work? And we didn’t even get into the software you run, but I’m sure it’s fascinating.
So, my website is www.culturegene.ai. I’m on LinkedIn at Bretton Putter. I’m on Twitter. And yeah, people can reach out on the website or LinkedIn. I budget 25% of my time to learn about company culture. So, I love talking to people about what they’re doing in their companies and what’s working, what’s not working, what they’re trying. So, I’m having to just shoot the breeze with leaders. So, please reach out.
Fantastic. Well, it’s great to get to know you. We are going to continue these conversations in many forums. So, we look forward to having you back sometime and talking more.
Really enjoyed it, Neil. Thanks for your time.
Brett Putter is the author of Culture Decks Decoded and Own Your Culture. He is the founder of Culturegene.ai