In this episode, we were joined by Bretton Putter, the founder and CEO of CultureGene. Brett sits down with host John Hollon to discuss the future of remote work in the post-pandemic era, and the viability of both a remote or hybrid workforce. He shares his passion for culture development, and why building strong company culture is key.
In this conversation, we cover employee retention, successful transitions to remote work, the death of the Mon-Fri office life, and the difference between ad-hoc and designed communication processes.
Bretton Putter is a leading expert on startup and high-growth company culture. He interviews founders and CEOs of successful high-growth start-ups to better understand how they defined, developed and implemented their company’s culture. He has interviewed more than 5,000 senior executives over the past 16 years. Connect with Bretton on LinkedIn, Twitter @BrettonPutter or at https://www.culturegene.ai.
For more insightful conversations, visit www.talentexperiencepodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the Talent Experience podcast!
John Hollon 00:26
Hello, I'm John Hollon and welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast. Today's guest is Bretton Putter. Brett is an expert on company culture development. He's the founder and CEO of CultureGene, a company culture development company helping organisations build strong functional cultures. While transitioning to a remote or hybrid work model. Brett has written two books on the subject of company culture, Culture Decks Decoded was published in 2018. And Own Your Culture, how to define embed and manage your company culture was published back in September 2020. He writes a popular blog on culture driven companies and is a sought after speaker. I bet he is because this is a great topic. Hey, Brett, how are things going for you?
Brett Putter 01:17
Very well, John, thanks for having me on the show. It's been a good, good day today. It's about 8pm here in Portugal, but the children are in bed, hopefully, and um yeah ready to have a great show.
John Hollon 01:30
Great. I'm excited to have you on the podcast because I believe that one of the great workplace challenges we face these days is how to build a strong company culture in the age of remote work. So let's get to it. The subtitle of your book on Culture Decks Decoded is transform your culture into a visible conscious and tangible asset. How much more challenging is that today with so many more people working remotely?
Brett Putter 02:01
Yeah, it's a it's a it's a great question and it's incredibly, it's really a lot more challenging. Most companies, to be honest, have done very little about developing, defining, embedding their culture. And so those those companies going into the pandemic had mostly this amorphous culture that sort of happened by default. And coming through the pandemic, leaders have realised how critically important it is to define culture and embed it and and really reinforce it. But that's been a much harder exercise. And I think, whether companies go back to hybrid, or whether companies go fully remote they need is still going to find this to be a difficult, a difficult thing to do.
John Hollon 02:55
You know, I worked in an office for many years, and got used to the routine of getting up and driving to the office and, you know, going and getting a cup of coffee doing those things, but I've been working from home for about the last 10 years. And what I find I missed the most are the ad hoc can't plan them interactions, when you're getting a cup of coffee in the coffee room and you start chatting about something, and it goes a certain way. And you didn't expect it, it's somebody putting their head in your office or your cube to ask you a question on one thing, and you ask them something else. And suddenly, you're solving a problem that you have been been working on. Those I have found are the most difficult things. When you're at home working remotely that you miss from the office, how do you deal with those things, because in my way of thinking, those are kind of key to a culture, you know, people being able to have sort of spontaneous, I would call them creative conversations.
Brett Putter 04:03
They were key to the office space culture, because the office space culture was not designed. So required informal communication and required those random moments that required those ad hoc experiences. And, and that informal communication, then rippled through the organisation to one another degree, if you look at the way companies like GitLab or Buffer or Hotjar, these companies that have been fully remote for five plus years, they are incredibly creative. They are incredibly effective. I mean, GitLab went from less than 100 people in 2016 to over 1300 people in the organisation globally last year. And then executing, and operating in a fully remote environment. So what they've actually done is they've create systems. And they've created processes that allow for the communication to work in a way that doesn't require that informal ad hoc nature. And it doesn't require random, almost lucky instances, they are much more deliberate about what needs to happen in their organisations, they're much more deliberate about process around structure around how to ensure that a product gets built and released in the right way. So it's, it's really horses for courses because they didn't have they couldn't be lazy about their culture, they've, they've overcome those issues by actually just building better cultures, I believe,
John Hollon 05:55
Do companies like that feel any need to sort of try to replicate those conversations at all? Or they just sort of said, we're going to set up a structure that sort of works beyond that.
Brett Putter 06:09
There are some, some companies do try certain things, you know, they'll have random coffee chats, or they will get people together in a different time. So a company like Hotjar, everybody gets a 2000, I think, a 2000 Euro annual budget to go and work with colleagues in different cities, which was pre COVID, obviously. And so you would maybe go to Barcelona hook up with a piece of people in Barcelona, other people would fly in from other places in the world. And you would create that, you would create a system, you would create a situation where there was that face to face moment, but they didn't need the ad hoc creativity to happen, because they designed that in.
John Hollon 06:56
I really love the ad hoc notion that you're pointing out if it meant I could go to Barcelona a bit more. You know, there's something else we talked about, we talked about earlier, there was a recent story in the Wall Street Journal with the headline, if you thought working from home was messy, here comes hybrid work. And one of the things the story gets into is the great difficulty so many companies are having and getting people back into the office. And some companies that are hiring can't find knowledge workers are willing to come into the office five days a week, what's sort of your take in view on all of that.
Brett Putter 07:33
Yeah, that five days a week thing is gone, that cats out of the bag, that horse’s bolted. It's a very rare company that's going to be able to enforce that, I believe, because maybe if you do, ultimately your people will leave because we've realised now that actually, we are we can be productive, working from home. We don't need to be in an office five days a week, we don't need the micromanagement that is associated with that. But actually, hybrid is harder to manage than remote, because in a hybrid environment, you get an us versus them. There are the people in the office and there are people working remotely, and the people in the office communicate synchronously, mostly. So they, they expect you to be able to respond immediately, and they expect you to to be available and be present. In a in an environment where remote work is preferred, they work asynchronously. So in a hybrid environment, you've got people who are working remotely preferring to communicate asynchronously. People working in the office are communicating synchronously, and they are going to annoy one another. Because, you know, if I'm, if I'm looking after my daughter this morning, because my wife has to go to the dentist, I can't respond immediately. And my daughter is really important to me, so I can't just drop her and respond to your lame email that requires something that I could come back to you in 24 hours about. And so you've got this challenge coming down the line where hybrid work is going to be you know, people are going to feel, they're going to experience the culture differently to the people in the office. They're gonna experience work differently, they won't be included in all the conversations that they would like to be, they will be forgotten, and that's just human nature, to whatever, forget about something or someone and not communicate that something to them. So actually, leaders are going to have to over index on hybrid leadership, they can't just go back to leading a business the way they did pre-COVID.
John Hollon 09:36
What almost sounds like that the hybrid model may be more trouble than it's worth.
Brett Putter 09:43
Well, it's, it's I think it's actually the only real option because you can't, I don't believe companies are going to go back to five days a week. Because that's, you know, most people are just gonna say no, I don't want to spend that amount of time travelling. I've proven to you that I can work, and if you force me to, ultimately I will leave because there are now 1000s more companies that are looking to build hybrid cultures. Cultures that respect the fact that I want to spend time with my family, or I want to spend time doing what I enjoy doing. I will still deliver the outcomes you require, but I'm going to do it my way. So actually, if your choice is between hybrid and remote work, not everybody wants fully remote. Not everybody likes that people want to bond and want to connect and want to spend time together, especially younger people who are learning on the job. They can't, they don't have the osmosis, as much osmosis in a hybrid environment, and they have no osmosis in a remote environment. So I think this is going to be a really tough couple of years for a lot of companies.
John Hollon 10:49
Well, you know, I was thinking, the hybrid model is very appealing to someone like me, who worked in an office for a long time. Because even though I've worked at home for a while, I kind of still miss a little bit of the interactions from like the office. And maybe they weren't as productive as I remember them to be, but be that as it may, you know, a work model where I worked at home three or four days a week and went into the office, one or two would be like appealing. What sort of, what does the hybrid model look like for most organisations?
Brett Putter 11:25
Making a hybrid model now, for most organisations looks like a bit of a mess, because they, they're struggling to work out what the system is. So one of my clients is a 70 person software business, and the engineering team just said flat out to the CEO, we're not coming back. That's it done. And then the CEO realised, gosh, okay, we've got this huge office in London, that's really expensive. How are we going to use it? And then he went out to the rest of the organisation and said, How do you guys want to work? And marketing said, we're going to come in twice a week, professional services said, we're going to come in once every two weeks. The sales team, the business development, people said four days a week, the account exec said three days a week, and it's not the same three days, it's not the same two days, right? I've got other clients who are trying to create a Monday, Friday in the office, but people don't like that either. So it's not easy. The most important thing, if I was a hybrid leader right now, I would be studying remote work companies. So understand what it is these people do well with people who are working remote.
John Hollon 12:36
Well, it sounds like something that makes you want to pull your hair out. Because it's hard to manage. Really hard.
Brett Putter 12:44
Yeah, yeah, very hard to manage, especially for people who relied on the office for the structure of their culture.
John Hollon 12:51
You know, I saw something online about a discussion you had a few months back that focused on just how invested most organisations are in their culture. And I thought it was a really interesting question, because most people just blindly assume that company culture now as we sort of come out of the pandemic and the lockdowns is still incredibly important for most organisations. As somebody who looks at it closely, and sort of does this as a career. Is that still the case? Is that still what you're seeing, especially now, given how difficult and challenging the past year has been?
Brett Putter 13:30
Yeah, so what I'm seeing is that the companies that went into this pandemic, not having done any work on their culture, really, really struggled and are still struggling, because the glue is not there, the glue from the office is not there. So the companies that did invest, are you know, they've stalled, they've found it difficult. But they've, relatively speaking, found it easier because the glue from the culture was transitioned across into this new system, and the why, the purpose, the mission, the vision, the values, all of these things were embedded into their team. So it was it was hard, but they adapted better. What I'm finding is on both sides, culture is now critically, people realise how critically important it is. What's going to happen is companies that used to spend a lot of money on offices are going to now, are going to now have to spend money on creating work environments that people are not going to use. But actually they're going to have to invest heavily in building hybrid cultures, really heavily. Because if I come to your company for an interview, and I asked you, what kind of culture are you building, how are you helping me work asynchronously, and you can't answer that question, but somebody else can. I will probably join somebody else because I do not want to spend eight hours a day on zoom and then six hours a day catching up on work.
John Hollon 14:59
Do you find CEOs and senior executives are embracing this? Or are they just really, really struggling trying to figure out what the right model is for them as they try to move ahead.
Brett Putter 15:12
Most leaders are, in the second second category of just trying to work out what it is, like they're getting, you know, you've got to give credit where credit is due, they're being bombarded with many, you know, requests, and it's fighting fires, and it's running a business in a, in a new environment, new situation. So yes, it's hard, but the CEOs that are on top of this are thinking ahead, they are planning for this. They are, they already know how they're going to run their teams, they already know, you know, how they're going to adapt to meeting more documentation needing to have more processes defined, needing to be better around communication and collaboration, they they're thinking ahead of this.
John Hollon 15:59
What kind of advice do you give them when they come to you looking for help? And you sort of encounter all of these things that they're struggling with? What would you say to them as they're sort of reaching out? Maybe for some comfort on? How am I going to get my get my hands around this problem?
Brett Putter 16:16
Well, the comfort I'll give is that most CEOs have been through difficult times founding their business getting it going get it you know, they've been through ups and downs. And this is the essence of a serious down, but actually there is high probability that you will make it through if your business is not being completely wiped out by this pandemic. You should be able to get through, but that's actually not what most CEOs want. Most CEOs want to get not only get not only survive, but adapt and thrive. And so if you want to adapt and thrive, you've got to put yourself in the position of a leader of a 21st century post pandemic organisation. And a leader of a post pandemic organisation is one that is rarely aware of what their team require, from a cultural point of view, from a social point of view, from a office environment point of view, if you're going hybrid, or what you know, what your team require, to just operate successfully. And that's, that's, you know, my advice. My advice to most leaders, is define your culture or refine your culture. So work again on now your your values might be the same, but they probably they probably need some adaptation. If your mission and vision are still the same, that's great, but redefine those and talk about them to your team. Talk about them so that it reinforces the glue. And if you haven't done any work on values, and mission and vision and defining your culture, and then embedding your culture, now is the time to start. Now's the time to get everybody back on the on the same page and go, okay, we've survived this thing. Let's thrive.
John Hollon 18:02
That is great advice. If I were a CEO looking for help, I would come to you to help guide me, because clearly you have a good sense of this. And I wish we could keep talking about it, but as always, we run out of time, far earlier than we run out of questions so. But there is one question we ask everyone who comes on the Talent Experience Podcast, because we believe wholeheartedly, everyone should have a job that they are really passionate about. So Brett, what do you love about your job and what you do?
Brett Putter 18:33
Yeah so, I was lucky enough to find my passion. So I'm going to do this until the day I die. I love working with leaders who want to build great environments for their people to fulfil their potential. I love you know, I wake up every morning going, okay wow, you know, what's the next curveball that I'm going to face? How am I going to deal with it? But wow, what am I going to learn? How am I going to you know, culture is this, you know, I'm just a student of culture. And every day, there's a new curveball. There's a new interesting scenario. So yeah, it's just my passion. It's what I love doing. If you and I had five hours, you'd have to stop me and shut me up after five hours because I can talk about this all day. I love it. So that yeah, it's just I've been very fortunate to find the thing that I love doing.
John Hollon 19:29
Well, Brett, thanks so much for spending some time talking to us about those things. Here on the Talent Experience Podcast. I love talking about workplace culture. And I could do it all day. So it's been really wonderful to have you with us and to get your perspective and we just very much appreciate you being here. Great, and thanks again. For the Talent Experience Podcast, this is John Hollon. Thanks for listening.