A business’s culture is a delicate balance between its people, its ethos, its networks, its history and its vision. It is a constantly moveable miasma, an iterative digression of action and reaction that adds personality to the process and empathy to the evolution; it informs the team how to act, when to strike, with whom to collaborate. And it requires almost constant care. Without culture, a business may be efficient but it will not be effective; innovation requires process and people. This goes some way to explain why our technology leaders have been as interested in culture as their HR counterparts over the last decade.
And just as some tailwind was felt in curating the ideal culture, pandemic-induced lockdown forced us to experiment with remote working. In a matter of days even the most internationally recognized brands had to allow its business, transactions, meetings, relationships—its culture—to play out in living and bedrooms, amid rioting children and unstructured spaces. Poof: office culture was dismantled in the tap of a key.
As we look to 2021, what have technology leaders learned about their own teams and culture to help them rebuild it for a remote or hybrid working world?
Our cultural future
John Bailey is Dell Technologies’ Director Higher Education and Research Institutions, UK Public Sector. It seemed fitting for him to start the debate as the technology leader most in tune with the solutions in the market.
“I believe we as a team were prepared [for remote working] from a technology perspective, but more interesting is the cultural side,” he said. “Getting the right devices for the right people, in a secure way, that can be used whilst working from home, is a balance.”
Finding that balance is hard, he continued, because “culturally-led organizations care about their employees” and don’t stop when the job is perceived done. Especially at a time when there’s still so much we don’t know about our ways of working, it’s important to stay focused on the prize of sound team spirit.
Bailey concluded on his focus for 2021.
“Productivity, trust and safety are the three things I care about. Making sure the space they call work is best fitted to help them work, making sure their end-point security is suitable for trusted interactions and lastly, how we safely get people back to the office, eventually.”
If it sounds remotely like a call to arms, that’s because technology leaders are in constant battle to keep productivity, innovation, even morale, high today. Jacqui Lipinski of Imperial College London knows this well. As its Head of Products she has an eye on the technology landscape, ensuring her team and business have the best available solutions to work, learn or continue research. Yet even she found 2020 a challenge:
“Preparing all the teams within the business was hard: my team was set up for remote working, but others weren’t so my first priority was getting everyone else to our level.
“Culture of course was the bigger challenge. The expectation that everyone could work well from home was wrong so it fell to employers to help home working environments. You know, we’ve spent the last few decades worrying about health and safety in the office…how do we do that for the home?”
Questions for tomorrow
It’s just one of the fundamental questions driving leaders into 2021 and into a hybrid working future. It slots easily alongside, ‘how do we balance online meetings with off- and online people?’, ‘who comes into work and who doesn’t—and why?’, and ‘how can a disparate team feel part of the same company and culture?’
Lipinski and her team, she reported to the roundtable, have thought of these questions and started work on answering them. Meeting design, re-organizing the working day and emotional wellbeing have been moved to the top of her agenda, as has the benefits of informal discussions between different sets of colleagues to recreate watercooler conversations.
“In a way”, she added wryly, “one of the benefits to remote working is that we see more of the business than before.”
The same can be said for Sweden and its eponymous clothing brand Tiger of Sweden. Its CIO Rod Kilgour agreed with Lipinski and has been strict on what he calls “online meeting disciplines”:
“We set objectives and expectations before each meeting and put a time limit of 40 minutes on so people don’t get trapped in endless calls. It gives them back flexibility in their day,” he said.
What’s interesting him, he explained, was the reorganization of the office now they’ve had a chance to test remote working. Was there anything to learn by how his team worked together, apart, that can help them when going back to the office?
Joanna Drake, The Hut Group’s CIO, seemed to think so. Her indirect answer was to build “strong relationships”, something her “young team” could rely on in 2020 to help the business grow and acquire more brands for its e-commerce platform and IPO. Not bad, considering the difficulties this year has put on the industry.
The debate moved often from problem and experience, to solution or consideration. It’s always fascinating when leaders come together to get their head around a common problem, but this is more than a common problem, it’s a collective one. Possibly for the first time, brands across all sectors and regions are having to solve for the same thing.
For Correy Voo, General Partner at 01 Ventures, the one thing he hasn’t heard much debate on is education alongside experimentation, or, “learn and adapt as we grow”. In fact, he said he’s spent most of his 2020 “educating managers to spot issues with employees [remotely]”
“Without physical contact it’s hard to see any issues when relying solely on videos to give you that interaction,” he said. “I’ve been training them to run better meetings and use better online tools. Lots of technology exists that can substitute the physicality of the workspace.”
That seemed to be the central tenet of the debate: the technology is already there, we just need to activate it with people and with culture. The roundtable all agreed a hybrid working world is the future and that this year has taught them more about themselves and their teams than they thought possible. And whether your dev-ops teams are more productive or your creatives are feeling cut-off, the question around building a single culture for a remote workforce is still to be answered— yet the confidence of this debate could lead some to disclose that it’s proving to be an exciting challenge for these technology leaders as they begin to rebuild their cultures.