Translating Your Culture to a Home Environment
Video recorded on March 30, 2020
The necessity of swiftly switching to a fully remote work environment was one of the biggest disruptions faced by early-stage businesses during Covid-19. In many cases, it was less about the tech requirements and much more about maintaining a strong company culture.
Ollen Douglass, managing director of Motley Fool Ventures, and Autumn Manning, entrepreneur-in-residence with Motley Fool Ventures, shared their perspectives on how best to translate existing cultural practices to a work-from-home environment.
We invite you to watch the video or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Ollen Douglass: Hi, this is Ollen Douglas, Managing Director of Motley Fool Ventures, and I’m happy to be here today with Autumn Manning. She is our entrepreneur in residence, a former CEO of a company called YouEarnedIt, which The Motley Fool used and still uses. Once YouEarnedIt was sold, we were so impressed by Autumn and the work that she did that we asked her to come and join us on the Venture team. So welcome Autumn.
Autumn Manning: Thank you. I’m excited to talk about this.
Ollen Douglass: Yeah, that’s great. Now we’re here today to kind of talk about culture. And really when you think about today, there’s two conversations that we could have had if there wasn’t like it is today, which is how to manage a fully remote workforce and then also how to deal with culture in a crisis. But today, this crisis has really brought both of those conversations together. So I thought it’d be a good opportunity to talk to Autumn about her experiences. And I did mention this before, but YouEarnedIt was an application designed to help facilitate a positive and effective culture throughout organizations. So what she did was very relevant to what we have now.
So Autumn, let’s start by kind of defining culture. And by that I mean what are some of the elements of a great culture?
Autumn Manning: Awesome. So it’s a broad question, but I think it’s an appropriately broad question for us to then dive in and really add something of value hopefully to leaders who are going through this totally different time right now and having to adapt their cultures and just their operating practices period. And the time obviously, the call to go fully remote because of Coronavirus and everything associated with it has forced companies and CEOs and leadership to really step back and go, “How am I going to manage a culture fully remote?” And the irony is people are really struggling to figure out how to build a great culture period. And now we’ve got this added element of just change and just all these different things happening on top of it.
So when I think about culture, I think for me the simplest way I encourage people to think about it is, it is your core operating system of people, which that definition might scare some people. I found for me as a CEO or when I’m talking to CEOs or even working today, if you sit back and you think about culture that way and you say “It is how we operate, it’s what we think, it’s what we value,” and it’s kind of a feel and the energy of the place. So it can be all sorts of things. So really if you think about it as the core operating system and the procedures around that, that’s personally how I think about culture.
Recognizing that’s very broad, then I would kind of double click into that and say a critical element for any culture, especially now. Again, had this not happened, it was a really critical element before, but it’s doubly important now is this notion of a culture of trust and to some degree a culture of transparency. And it can be varying degrees based on how comfortable executives are with certain pieces of transparency. But, the culture of trust is really important because we’re now talking about building a workforce where you can’t see people necessarily, you can’t micromanage everything they’re doing, how they’re doing it, if they’re doing it well.
So that would suggest that you have to proactively build a culture of trust to know that you can have people engaged, productive, happy and want to be there even though their world is just completely changed. And frankly, you relatively sane, so you know that you can continue running a business with people who are working in all sorts of different locations with so many different factors hitting them. So this culture of trust I think is really important.
Ollen Douglass: And does it go both ways? Because as a manager you can’t see your employees. But then there’s some employees, the ones who enjoy and thrive in having that constant feedback loop, that’s gone as well. So how do you solve both ends of that challenge?
Autumn Manning: Yeah. So related to this trust and this feedback loop you mentioned, if you step back and think about the necessity of communication, and when you can’t see people and you can’t figure out, if someone’s not answering you on Slack or on email, “How do I know that they’re doing their job or how do I know that they’re doing what they should be doing?” And vice versa. If an employee is sitting at home completely [inaudible] from their team, we’ve got an obligation to make sure that they have a framework through which to operate that helps them be productive and helps them engage. And so I would look at something that I always step back and think about is this notion of how much connectedness you have in the company and how much communication you have in the company both ways.
So if you sit back and think about “What are my pathways of connection? And what are my pathways of communication?” And this is kind of a simple hack I think about in my mind a lot. I think about it on three planes, I guess. The connection from the company or leadership to everybody. So one to all connection, from leadership to everybody. How much of that is happening and what forums is that happening in? So kind of audit those things. The connection and communication with your core leadership team and back up again. And then finally the connection and communication employee to employee.
Because even though we’re remote, that feeling of belonging and connection and a sense of purpose and this collective thing we’re all going after together really impacts culture and it very much impacts how we achieve our goals. And so if you just start with more connection, more of the right types of connection up and down and sideways, it’s a pretty good, very simple…but, I think simple is better sometimes model to go, “Okay, do I have the right pathways built, the right roads of connection built to then suggest that I could have a highly trusting or a highly productive and engaged culture even when everyone’s working from everywhere else but the same room together?”
Ollen Douglass: Right. And that’s very interesting. You’re talking about the connections or communications and those pathways. So I’m CEO of another company and I want to have a great culture. So do I do lots of perks? Do I put a foosball table in the lobby? Is that the way to start the culture? Does that work? Is it as simple as that?
Autumn Manning: You’d think that we all think so with how the trends when we look at HR spend. And so I’m a CEO and I want to have a great culture, right? I think I would first start with, so yes, perks are important. And if again, if we step back and look at culture, there’s so many factors. It’s how excited am I? What is the energy I bring to my job? Am I really aligned to where we’re going and how we’re going to get there? Do I love the people I work with? Do I enjoy them? So there’s so many factors of what it actually means. I wouldn’t start with just perks and… Well, I don’t know what the equivalent of virtual foosball would be these days, but there’s got to be something.
I would first start with how many mechanisms of connectedness and alignment do I have in place? So for example, to kind of take it out of the clouds and bring it down to reality. The organization I’m currently with, we stepped back as soon as we went to this fully remote and we already had lots of… We had All Hands in place as a company. We know that we told our managers to be having one on ones with their employees. We ate lunch as a team, we catered in lunch, we did quarterly parties, so we did all sorts of stuff. But as soon as we went fully remote, we looked at all of that again and we said, “Okay, what mechanisms are we making sure there’s full alignment across the company?” So we’ve increased our cadence of All Hands to three a week instead of one a week, but we’ve made them much shorter. Because that gives me an opportunity to talk about “Here’s what matters right now, here’s what’s happening, and here’s where we’re going.”
So if nothing else, if your people can answer what are we doing, why are we doing it and how are we going to get there? That’s a big part of making sure you have a culture of alignment and people moving in the same direction together, which really impacts engagement and productivity and all of that. So I would start there before I start throwing… And then you add on and you go, “Great.” I feel like the foundational pieces of Are we communicating with our people? Are we giving them a pathway to communicate back to us? If they have things on their mind, what mechanisms do we have in place where they could tell us? We’re not asking, but do they still feel like they could tell us? So that’s when I say audit those communication pathways back and forth. And then if you have those, then you start thinking of the things that are inevitably on their mind that impact their day to day.
Am I going to be safe? “I’m really worried, I’m watching the news all day and it seems like crazy things are happening.” And so, that’s when you can kind of start to layer in the types of perks. And I’m air quoting because a perk for company A does not necessarily mean it’s the same perk that would work for company B. You should certainly match the DNA of the employees. And so if I know my employees right now are very stressed out, that might be where we implement a perk, which we actually just did at the company I’m with, you know, morning meditations, 10 minutes a day…you can call in and you can virtually meditate with the team. You stream in yoga. But we did that because we knew that would have a direct benefit on what was happening with the employees today.
Ollen Douglass: And so it sounds like the way that you’re using it are perks are really a tool to kind of promote the culture that you want to have that as opposed to perks being the culture itself. And I remember at The Motley Fool, something similar thinking about the idea of what are things that we do for them? You want to make sure they have a purpose, that they’re somehow tied in to a goal. And I think giving that purpose around the perks kind of helps it a lot. And when you think about, while we’re on this topic of the tools of culture, how do you think about the spectrum of having things where it’s mandatory that people attend or things that are optional? You talked about the morning meditation, it’s optional. How do you bring everyone together to make sure that people are getting messages when nothing is mandatory?
Autumn Manning: This is an interesting one because I’ve gone back and forth on this a lot over my career on which ones should be mandatory and which ones are elective, if you will. And I do think that forcing people to show up to things that may or may not benefit them kind of seems to be wasted effort. If you start with the things that we know people need to do their job well, and things that we know people need to just function better. And that’s where my definition of culture tends to be much broader and there’s a much bigger purpose to it than some definitions, which is I don’t think that employees can show up at work. And again, showing up at work might be dialing in from their kitchen table.
Unless we’ve done a good job of a company of removing the worries that we know impact their productivity. Unless we’ve done a good job at the company of answering questions that maybe they don’t know how to ask, but we know are questions running through their mind that impact their engagement. And so to the extent that you think the thing that you’re doing, the perk that you’ve put in place, the event, the meeting, whatever it is you put in place does directly benefit those things, we make them mandatory. So the All Hands, they’re absolutely mandatory. The one on ones with managers with video on and no just calling it in from mobile as much as you can help it, mandatory. The morning meditations is one, for example, and I know I’m getting tactical. Where, listen, we don’t make it mandatory because it just might not be your thing. It is heavily marketed and heavily encouraged. And I think that’s the other thing is these things, just like anything else, we wouldn’t put on a webinar for our customers and expect us to announce it one time on Twitter and then people show up.
We would heavily market it across the channels that those customers are spending their time. For some reason I see that that’s kind of a forgotten thing when it comes to culture. So if it’s the right thing, then you marketing it to your employees and helping them understand why it’s valuable and what’s in it for them, people tend to show up. You tend not to have to make it mandatory. The people who need it show up, but that means that there’s more work on the company to do that, which I think is a fair ask of a company.
Ollen Douglass: That’s interesting you think about that in the ask. So let’s say that I’m the CEO of a company. I want to have a great culture, but I realize that I don’t have it. There’s disconnect between what I want and what I am seeing. How would you approach that situation? What would you do to kind of help analyze that and help me be the person I want to be instead of the person I am?
Autumn Manning: This is a hard one because saying “I want to have a great culture, but I realize I don’t,” first is a big deal. It’s rare to meet a founder or CEO who has that level of awareness. But when I do, it’s really admirable. It’s admirable. And the reality is, even if you’re the best leader and you know everything about culture, you’re constantly adjusting it for it to be better and for it to work. And you’re trying new things. So this is assuming someone has decided “This isn’t the culture that I know we need and I don’t know how to get there.”
This answer seems really simple, but I really believe in it. It has a lot to do with knowing to ask for help and knowing to listen. And this is a big one for me that people feel like they do. So we do engagement surveys. We being the collective leaders everywhere, do engagement surveys. Or they have open forums where people can come and bring questions or if you say what’s on your mind, another thing that we have is called an AMA session: Ask Me Anything.
Sometimes I find that leadership spends more time defending things that are in place instead of just genuinely hearing the needs of the employees. And I think the most important thing, tactic, to have in place, is a true genuine mechanism for asking and getting the answer. And not defending. And that’s hard, because most people have good intentions on the culture that they put in place. But when you hear that it’s not working for employees, you have to be willing to believe that, you have to be willing to believe the answer they give you, and adjust. So I know that’s not an actual answer, but that’s the answer I have, I think.
Ollen Douglass: That’s great. And so just thinking about today, now I’ve built what I believe is a good culture. And I’m getting back to this. I’ve been thrown for a loop by the COVID-19, and I need to adjust my workforce. How do I go about that in a way that’s sensitive to the culture and preserves it?
Autumn Manning: In this case, I think a really important leadership quality there is honesty. It always works better when you’ve already fostered a culture of transparency and trust and open communication, but if you don’t, and that’s okay, sometimes you find that you haven’t enough, especially for the shift that’s being required of business leaders today. And the place I would start would be making sure that you’ve done a good job communicating to your employees the need and the reason for that need. Because there’s lots of business leaders that are faced with tough decisions right now. And they come in all shapes and sizes.
Some of them might be changes in the workforce. It might be, “Hey, I’m finding that I have to do pay cuts across the board, but I’ve still got to retain culture. That’s tough. How do I do that?” And I am a firm believer of when you allow your employees to understand what’s happening, to understand where we’re going collectively as a company, and to do a good job of communicating that, most of the majority of employees get onboard.
If you have a few exceptions then you handle a few exceptions, but most people collectively want to achieve the greatness together. And I said it like that because therein lies, I think an important piece of communication from the company when you’re dealing with things like this, is where are we going together? It’s very cheesy how I call it, but in my head a lot of times if I’m faced with communicating to a company during times of crisis or driving change that I know is not going to be pleasant, I think of “What is this vision of a better place that we are all trying to get to together? What is that? And have I communicated that to them?”
Because if I communicated to them that vision of a better place and what it takes to get there. So again, there’s where we’re going, here’s what we’re faced with right now, and here’s how we’re thinking about solving that. Most people help you solve it come along with you and solve it together. Not everyone, and then you deal with the exception. So again, it all goes back to the communication and how much you’re communicating and how honestly and transparently you’re communicating. If you’re not honest or transparent, you don’t really have a lot to work with. So this is all under the assumption that there’s honesty and transparency and it’s not always the case, but that’s what I would encourage.
Ollen Douglass: Wow. Very nice. Oh, so this crisis that we’re in now, do you think it’s going to change, and particularly from kind of culture and communicates standpoint, do you think is going to change the way business is done going forward forever or will things go back to normal?
Autumn Manning: Oh gosh, I think about this so much. And I’ll start with like, “What the heck do I know?” But I will say-
Ollen Douglass: You know more than me.
Autumn Manning: I will say the interesting thing here is companies could have changed and adjusted and leaned into a lot of the flexibility in work. So there’s how work gets done and where it gets done from. And so those are things that companies, some did really well as early as they could. And some chose to not do it at all, and now they’re being forced to adapt. And I do think that will change forever. I do think some companies will now go, “Oh my gosh, this is possible.” And in fact, there are things that are harder, but there are things that are better. And there are some adjustments that will forever be made based on how work gets done and where it gets done from, which I think is a great thing.
We’re talking about, building diverse teams that outperform others, then you’re going have to have some sense of flexibility and adaptation based on the uniqueness of your company and your workforce. And that I think that should change forever and will change forever. So that’s one that I think, it took this forced mechanism to adapt that I think many companies won’t ever go back, or at least they’ll maybe come back and meet in the middle.
Where companies that weren’t so keen on flexible work environments to meet the needs of employees certainly now we’ll see that they actually can do it. The other thing I think that this does call into question, and some see it already but many don’t, is the importance of a high degree of communication around performance expectations. That one’s hard, and most companies don’t do it well. It’s really hard to have early and often communications around performance. What does A Plus performance look like? And how do you manage that when you can’t see someone?
That is where I would really encourage business leaders today to start leaning into more. How do people know how they’re doing? Do people know how they’re doing? Did you set that expectation pre hire? Did you communicate a lot during onboarding of how they’re doing? Because if that’s the culture you have then flexible work environment is a breeze. How people work, where they work from as much easier if you have high alignment on performance expectations and performance attainment. That’s the part that I would encourage people to lean into a lot more right now that’s not as obvious.
Ollen Douglass: Okay. Excellent. Well, this is really good. I just have actually one more question. If you could give a couple of tips for people, things that they can kind of take away and think about implementing now to kind of help them through the crisis. And also even if it’s not crisis wise, helping them to build a great culture. What would those tips be?
Autumn Manning: So one takeaway, one tip would be this audit that I mentioned earlier. It’s like this funny hack I do all the time mentally when I’m interacting with different companies. And I find that it just works so well is if you just step back and audit what are the communication mechanisms in place and what are the mechanisms in place that allow people to just connect with each other? And write them down because the more the better right now. And so how often are you, the CEO, addressing the whole company? Write it down. How often are you, the CEO, addressing key leadership together? Then you take it to the next level. How often are managers engaging with their teams? And back up again and the audit would include digital mechanisms and, well I was going to say in person, but yeah.
Ollen Douglass: That’s zero now.
Autumn Manning: Yeah. But if you think of Slack as a digital mechanism of communication, an All Hands where everyone shows up together and their videos on and they’re all talking, is kind of that “in-person” mechanism. So I would do that audit and really if that number is low employee to employee, company down to employee, I would work to increase that number. The second tip is you think about what is even on our minds, there are many leaders right now who are finding themselves in a unique situation with kids at home since schools are closed. They’re in a different work environment. So our schedules are different. Our productivity is ebbing and flowing based on if the kids are running in and out. So are you in the right workspace?
The extent to which companies can help their employees solve those and those employees don’t feel like they have to solve them on their own is better for the company and better for the employee. So I would think about if it’s bothering you, it’s bothering them. And that’s where those morning meditations or sending kits to employees to have a better office space. Some of those things, they sound like perks, but they started with a purpose of, “Gosh, I know our employees are really dealing with this because I am. And so how do we help them deal with it best?”
Ollen Douglass: All right. Well, very good Autumn. I really appreciate this. And my takeaway from all that is that improving culture starts with us working together. I mean, it’s not something that someone has to do to solve someone else’s suffering that we built together. Thank you very much for taking the time. If people enjoy these, maybe we’ll get together and do some more.