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Want to change your Company Culture? Make sure to consider the people you have

We cannot introduce a new culture without first considering how it will work for the people we have

“The giraffe is actually a cat.” by PaulS34

2020 has been an interesting year for many companies. And 2021 is shaping up to be much of the same.

Depending on where you are and what industry you are in, the impact on our work has ranged from losing jobs to working from home for long stretches. Redbubble was and is no different. To this day most of our employees work from home. Only in safe locations (like Australia), we see some people returning to the office.

But there are companies out there that have worked fully remote for a long time. They managed to spread employees across the globe and tend to have very few meetings. And they still run a successful business.

Can any company become as efficient in asynchronous working as they did in a co-located setting?

Netflix is famous for its culture. They have been very outspoken about how they run their business and what they care about. And they have been successful — whether that is due to their culture or not.

Last year, co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings released a book detailing a lot of their values and internal processes. It almost reads like a playbook to follow if you want to be like Netflix.

For example, Netflix has an open book policy. All financial data is shared with all employees. They also talk about big, complex situations — like a company re-organisation — in public channels.

Can any company be as transparent as Netflix and run a successful business?

Just Make It Work

For a long time, my answer to the two questions above was a resounding yes.

If we want to — and with determination, the right messaging, structure, and support — every company can be awesome at asynchronous working. And of course, we can all adopt the openness and candor of Netflix and be more transparent. Or anything else for that matter, whether it is the type of relationships we encourage or the approach to meetings.

In the early days of COVID, I was trying to make us more remote-friendly. To write down more and have fewer meetings. To be OK with not getting an answer in seconds or minutes, but letting people prioritise their day without getting interrupted. In some teams, this worked quite well. But not everybody was willing to jump in headfirst.

This frustrated me. I felt we missed an opportunity to become more efficient and open up for people working remotely.

I had a similar experience on the transparency topic. For years I have been nudging people on this and trying to figure out how we can be more open. I have even overdone it a couple of times by pushing too hard in a public forum.

And once again, I got frustrated.

Why is it so hard for us to all work remotely and be super transparent?

People Matter

A year and a bit into the pandemic, it was time to reflect on my thinking. Why is it not possible to make those things happen?

The answer to me was simple and a bit of a lightbulb moment: It is all about the people.

Yes, there are companies out there that are amazing at remote working. Some were set up this way straight from the beginning and they hired people to match their philosophy. But if we want to transition a business to be remote-first, it takes a lot of training and support. It does not happen overnight and without any struggles. And we have to be prepared to have more than a few people leave.

Same with Netflix’s transparency. Every company could open up the books and share this information in public. But not every person wants to know about these things. Some might be very uncomfortable and either get used to it or find a company that works differently.

Finding a Balance

I love the concept of balances. And once again this comes back to finding that sweet spot and being aware of the trade-offs.

Culture is not only stated and guided by the leadership, it is the behaviours employees show every day. They either get rewarded for it (by peers and leaders) or it aligns with their values and beliefs.

If the desired culture strays too far from a person’s values, either they have to adjust the behaviour or will look for a place that aligns better.

That why it is so hard to introduce these sweeping changes into an established company and workforce. And why it takes lots of time, effort, and turnover. People need to either adjust to the new direction or leave and get replaced with someone that is a better match.

Whether it is about the level of remote working or transparency.

Sometimes it is required to go big accept some fall out. But a more gentle option is to move gradually: Take small steps with the bigger picture in mind.

At Redbubble, we are opening up our offices again where it is safe. But we do not expect people to be coming in for the majority of their time. We will not be a remote-first company, but we are moving in the direction and we could iterate on this further down the track.

Another example is the way we approach giving feedback. As we changed as a company it got less manageable to have public debates about issues and topics. But we did not want to lose our culture of giving feedback and being honest with each other. So we encouraged to move the giving of feedback and debates into smaller groups.

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Tom Sommer

Tom Sommer

Writing about Leadership and Personal Development. Director of Engineering @ Redbubble.