The Hard Thing About Soft Skills

We often talk about culture like it's something with a fixed solution, as if it's based on hard skills that we can learn and easily apply at any organization. But that's not exactly how it works, because culture is really about the soft skills. 

The challenging thing about describing it that way is that people fluff off the idea of softs kills. "Soft skills" don't sound powerful, or like they'd convert effectively when it comes to measuring ROI. But don't let that fool you. Soft skills are the most powerful and important part of building a strong culture. 

They're also harder to learn because the rules for effectiveness change with every scenario—they change with every different company, with every different person. 

Developing a culture grounded in values requires a high level of EQ. It requires strong communication skills. It requires a growth mindset, genuine curiosity, and patience. It requires coaching skills, the ability to deal with different personalities, and relationship-building skills. 

Whether you call them soft or not, these skills are incredibly valuable, and core components of some of the happiest, strongest, and most productive company cultures in the world. 

Can a Culture Really Be "Good" or "Bad"?

Can we really declare a culture "good" or "bad"? Or is it more subjective, in the same way that we can't all agree on what comprises good food, music, or an ideal partner? 

There is a lot of literature circulating the media on toxic or sick workplace cultures. There's just as many with checklists on what makes a progressiveremarkable, or successful company culture. But are those fair statements? 

While we could likely agree on traits that fit into the extremes of either category of good and bad, they'd likely be the same traits we see as making any human unethical: ego-centric, manipulative, racist, sexist, rude -- or virtuous: honest, empathetic, non-judgemental, supportive, fair.

Then again, personal values are also subjective. Where one person might value profit over all else, another might value creativity, another social impact, another authentic human connection. Is it really fair to say one person's value set is good or bad? 

Better terminology than good/healthy or bad/sick culture might lay in more descriptive verbiage, as in, they have "a culture of ______." For example, a culture of courage, caring, or transparency. Those are not only more specific, but they're more tangible too. They actually mean something. They're something you can easily apply. 

When aspiring to build a "great" culture, ask yourselves -- and your team -- what the great virtues are that you value, and aspire to have more of in your company. Are they something like transparency, purpose, open communication, lack of hierarchy, autonomy, contribution, or personal development? Then make those your goals. Not just to be great.

The challenge with putting companies in good or bad is that they'll inevitably receive critique under either lens. This is one of the things that comes up constantly. Praise any company culture -- even with heralded with remarkable cultural initiatves like Airbnb -- and you'll inevitably stumble across another article poking holes into their model to prove imperfections.

But if we didn't use sweeping black and white blanket statements? These debates might be a lot less hostile, and the commendations much more concrete.

What does it mean when we say “HR is dead”?

Guest post by Sydney Goodfellow, Community Manager at Rise

In a recent Motherboard article, “HR Comes Last as Startups and Women Pay the Price,” author Julianne Tveten argues that startups have devalued and eliminated their HR departments at great cost to their female colleagues. She’s right.

HR does come last at many startups, and that’s more than problematic: it’s tragic. When you get rid of HR altogether or make light of serious workplace problems, you face compliance issues at best and blatant harassment and discrimination charges at worst. But the declaration that “HR is Dead” is in no way a challenge to the necessity of the Human Resources industry as a whole, as Tveten’s article seems to suggest. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. It’s a call to action to businesses of every size, in every industry, to realize that HR should come first. Always. It’s just that we shouldn’t call it HR anymore.

As the Motherboard article states, “40 percent of women in tech are afraid to even mention their families at work.” And the problems don’t stop at the tech industry. In 2015, there were only 24 female CEOs in all of the Fortune 500. That’s five percent. And of the top five leadership positions, only 14.2 percent are held by women.

“It’s a pipeline problem,” some say. “It’s a tech problem,” others assert. “It’s a cultural problem or an education problem or a political problem or a biology problem.” “It’s an HR problem.” These are just some of countless stories we tell ourselves in order to understand the terrifying gender problem in businesses across North America. It’s not just a gender problem, either. It’s a race problem and an ageism problem, too.

HR is designed to address these kinds of things, and it’s been trying to do just that for more than 100 years. And yet here we are, coming to the end of our second decade in our second millennium and we’re still facing so much discrimination. Women are afraid to take maternity leave. Their salaries, on average, are approximately 20 percent less than what men in equivalent positions make. And these are not just problems that tech startups with no HR departments face (although the problems have been particularly bad in that industry, I’ll admit).

This is not just HR’s failure. It’s not just the tech industry’s failure. I don’t really know whose failure this is, to be honest, but we simply cannot keep doing things the way we've always done them and expect the results to be different.

Businesses need to stop thinking about HR as a glorified babysitter that their forward-thinking millennials don’t need and their “corporate values” can replace. The tech industry needs to look at human resources for what it is: one of the most important function of any business. It’s so important that it deserves a C-suite position. This is a bold claim, sure, but hear me out: people are the most important part of any business, and HR is the department that serves, protects, engages, and empowers those people. But in order for businesses to see that, we can’t call it HR anymore.

No, human resources is not dead, in the same way that no one thought marketing was dead, even when Harvard Business Review and Forbes asserted that it was. Rather, HR is changing. It’s undergoing a much-needed rebrand, one that we hope will take it from the back room, un-sexy department that many startups see it as to the vital force for good that it continues to be.

But it’s this very rebrand that causes problems, Tveten seems to argue. It’s too sexy, and not functional enough. She critiques the “work hard, play hard” mentality that many startups adopt when they use perks and “culture” to justify increasing demands on their employee’s personal lives (it may be easy for a childless twenty-something to hobnob with the bosses after hours, but that kind of experience simply isn’t possible for parents).

“To call the ‘work hard, play hard’ atmosphere inhospitable to women who are pregnant or have families to come home to is a gross understatement,” Tveten says, adding that the ethos of “disruption” that many startups adopt can “color startup founders’ perceptions of traditional business organization.” The first piece of traditional business organization to go? HR. And with it, inclusion, equality, and even the safety and well-being of female employees.

In the Motherboard article, “Jen,” a startup software developer, sums it up best: “I think one of the biggest problems about not having HR was there was no oversight in terms of support for career growth and making our workplace more diverse.”

The HR department has long been the steward of diversity and inclusion in an organization, providing that “oversight” that Jen’s startup lacked. Trained in sensitivity, empathy, safety, communication, and leadership, the HR department is intended to ensure that organizations steer clear of the challenges that Jen and Tveten describe, and thousands of women and minorities face.

But in the last few decades, HR has been the butt of jokes (think Toby Flenderson on The Office), the disliked “bad-cops” you go to when you want to tattle on someone, or the people who mandate regular team-building activities and trust-falls.

To reference an over-referenced stat, we spend roughly 90,000 hours at work in our lifetime. To spend those in an organization that only pays lip-service to professional development, to diversity, or to their core values, is a travesty. Bad leadership, by any other name, is still bad leadership.

Transforming HR is not about offering increasingly stellar perks in exchange for people’s personal lives. It’s about changing our perception of HR, in all industries. And not for PR value, but because the title “HR” doesn’t do justice to the value of this department anymore.

When we say we want to rebrand HR, we don’t mean we want everyone to become Google, buy a ping pong table, and start hiring for “culture fit.” And although company culture matters a great deal to the employee experience, hiring for culture fit can easily tip into culture bias territory.

This is, to be sure, a massive issue. But to say, “Tech startups need HR to save them from sexism,” is akin to saying Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio can save us from global warming. Certainly, they are the faces of change and can inspire us all to action, but to really change the narrative around women in tech, it’s going to take all of us working together.

We need to change the way we educate HR and business professionals alike. Like Tveten and her colleagues at Motherboard, we need to write articles challenging businesses to change their sexist and outdated practices. We need to transform the way the world looks at HR. That’s why HR is dead. That’s why companies like Airbnb are proudly changing their HR titles, scrapping the term “resources” in favour of terms like People & Culture and Employee Experience. It’s not because they’re de-valuing HR, it’s because they’re putting more value into it than ever before. It’s because they recognize there’s a problem, and they’re doing something about it, one step at a time.

Before it was HR, we called it “personnel management.” Before that, it was “welfare management.” HR is not dead, but the terminology is. We need a better name for this department, which is transforming into its latest iteration: one to address the challenges of today’s workforce, which, unfortunately, still includes sexism.

Connect with Sydney Goodfellow on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Companies Like Nike Are Offering Menstrual Leave

Period leave—increased work flexibility around the time of menstruation—sounds like a radical notion, doesn't it? Women across industries have been able to work around the month for decades, so why should they get special treatment now?

Perhaps because, in a work world that was previously dominated by men, we are still breaking through barriers that hold women back, because we haven't fully acknowledged our differences. If we could optimize the workplace so we can all contribute our best, it makes sense that we could build more empowered workforces, and stronger companies as a result, doesn't it? 

The Independent recently wrote a fascinating piece on paid menstrual leave, which noted that Nike had already integrated a menstrual leave policy back in 2007. 

As Bex Baxter, a director at UK company Coexist, told The Independent, "This is not about employees taking more time off but working more flexibly and efficiently around their menstrual cycle and encouraging a work-life balance."

It's clear that a policy like this would raise a lot of eyebrows, and perhaps even rouse concern or anger from members of both genders. It's something that could lend itself to critiques of gender favouristism, or discrimination. 

It also opens the question of policy abuse—does period leave make it easier for women to get out of work when they're just not feeling it? Not necessarily. If a woman doesn't get debilitating cramps, or menstrual migraines, or doesn't menstruate at all for that matter, it would be just as unethical for her to take advantage of period leave as someone who uses sick leave when they're actually feeling pretty darn great. And that's always been a possibility. We generally trust people when they call in sick, so why would this be any different?

While every company will have its own stance on menstrual leave, the topic surfaces interesting questions around health and wellness as it pertains to the future of work. If we instate period leave, we must also consider other circumstances in which any gender can take time off to look after their physical or mental needs. The period conversation just opens that door.

Over to you

What are your thoughts on period policies—whether that's increased flexibility around the time of menstruation, or fully paid time off? We'd love to hear your comments below, or email them to Let's start this dialogue.

A Taste of Digital Nomad Culture at Roam in Bali

I'm writing this from an Eames office chair at a shaded outdoor work station on a rooftop in Bali. I'm in a town called Ubud at the original location of Roam, a global co-living startup geared at location-independent workers that's been drumming up press in publications ranging from Fast Company, to TechCrunch, to Vogue

As the company described itself on Medium, "Roam is an experimental community about the future of work, travel and life adventure." 

As someone not just interested in writing about the future of work, but actually living it, being at Roam for a week has been fascinating. I expected it to be dominated by tech founders, but that hasn't been the case. Yes, I'm working alongside a Google employee, but there's also an independent graphic designer, a yoga teacher, an executive coach, and the founder of a jewelry company.

Past "Roamies" here have included an ecological researcher, a children's book illustrator, a founder of a co-working space, and several developers and marketers. As Roam's founder, Bruno Haid, told Fast Company, "It's not just for the young single freelancer. It's for the couple in their late 30s who are going to have kids and want to downsize for a year or two. Or the empty-nesters who say the kids are in college, let's travel the world for two or three years."

Essentially it's a glimpse into a new era of work in which early adopters are designing their careers to align with their larger values and life priorities. 

"With Internet access from anywhere, where we live and where we work are colliding in unpredictable and intriguing ways. Adventure doesn't have to wait until you quit your job or you retire." (Roam)

A lease that lets you live around the world

Roam offers flexible access to international co-living spaces priced at USD $500 weekly, or USD $1,800 monthly, which includes all utility costs, including their "battle-tested wifi." That price includes a fully furnished room with a private bathroom, and access to communal spaces that include a co-working area with plenty of outlets, a kitchen, and laundry room. 

An event at Roam's Bali location featuring up-and-coming Indonesian chef, Harry Budihardjo.

An event at Roam's Bali location featuring up-and-coming Indonesian chef, Harry Budihardjo.

Roam's locations offer a unique combination of privacy, comfort, and instant community, which can be hard to create when you're new to a place, especially if you're working full-time.

To help facilitate a sense of belonging and connectivity, Roam offers classes that range from yoga to cooking, and hosts events to draw in the surrounding community as well. Each location has plenty of social areas, whether that's a long table to plug in alongside other roaming professionals, a kitchen to cook meals, or a patio cafe.

The yoga deck at Roam in Bali

The yoga deck at Roam in Bali

The location in Ubud, Bali was Roam's original site. Reliable wifi can be tough to find in this part of the world, so it's an ideal solution for digital nomads who need to maintain productivity. 

Roam's second location was in Miami, and they're opening a third in Madrid in June. They recently raised a significant funding round, which they're using to expand to another 8-10 locations in 2017, starting with London and Buenos Aires. 

Each location will have its own unique features. As an example, Roam Ubud has a pool, expansive yoga deck, restaurant and bar, and outdoor projector for movie nights in the jungle. 

Roam sweet home

Co-living spaces like Roam are sure to keep popping up in various forms as more professionals of all ages seize the flexible opportunities the digital world provides. They're an antidote for working remotely but retaining a sense of community. They're also rich in resources, and offer the opportunity to learn from other individuals and teams from around the world. Imagine struggling with a creative problem and being to turn to a designer from Apple on your left, then work through a leadership challenge with a seasoned CEO on your right, from a patio in paradise.

The future of work will have many faces and introduce countless new ways of getting things done. Global co-living is just one of them, and while it still has the quirks and challenges of anything new, we're using our diverse backgrounds, skills, and perspectives to figure them out together.

We're crowdsourcing solutions to getting work done better and faster, while also enhancing our happiness, wellbeing, and sense of belonging. Now that's a future I'm into.

You Don’t Have to Default to Radical Transparency

Over the last few years, radical transparency has become a much-discussed benchmark for a healthy company culture. While it’s true that increasing transparency from the business norms of the past is becoming a crucial factor to the modern workplace, radical transparency isn’t something you should automatically default to.

If it aligns with your values, as it did for Buffer, and you’ve thought through the implications, go for it. But if through thoughtful consideration you realize, as Google did, that transparency is important to your company yet you also value privacy, you might default to a level of transparency that’s less radical.

In Work Rules!, author and SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock, cites the proven effectiveness of transparency on performance and productivity. He uses the example of hospitals in New York State, which, after being required to report deaths from coronary artery bypass surgery, saw these surgery-related deaths fall by 41% over the next four years. Just from sharing data.

Bock cites another example of Bridgewater Associates, which advocates for radical transparency to help reduce ego barriers, increase integrity, and more rapidly learn from mistakes. Among their practices is recording almost every meeting so any relevant people can review what happened verbatim, and form their own opinions. 

While Bock acknowledges the merits of this sort of extreme openness, he notes that “that level of transparency is further than Google has gone. In part that’s because we feel strongly that privacy is an individual right. For example, user data is fiercely protected.”

Google does help ensure that, internally, information is widely available to employees. They also make a strong effort to prevent toxic internal politics. Bock recalls a memory from his early days at Google when he had complained about someone to his manager, and the manager promptly CCed that person so they could deal with their conflict directly.

Buffer, on the other hand, has adopted a more extreme varietal of transparency. Their second core value is “default to transparency,” and is something strongly embedded in their culture. From publicly sharing every employee’s salaries and equity, to their exact revenue and pricing breakdown, to sharing candid blog posts on cultural experiments and failures (like when they offered unlimited vacation time), Buffer applies this value not just to their employees, but anyone who takes an interest.

Like these two companies, the level of transparency your company opts for should be in alignment with your company values, otherwise it could lead to significant ethical conflict down the road. That said, you should flex your comfort zone in the area of transparency. Push a little further than you want to—that’s where growth happens—but not so far that it causes you to breach other core values.

To sum it up in Bock’s words:

“Fundamentally, if you’re an organization that says, ‘Our people are our greatest asset’ (as most do), and you mean it, you must default to open. Otherwise, you’re lying to your people and to yourself. You’re saying people matter but treating them like they don’t. Openness demonstrates to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy and have good judgment. And giving them more context about what is happening (and how and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively and contribute in ways a top-down manager couldn’t anticipate.”



The Power of Seeing the Impact of Your Work

In Work Rules, Laszlo Bock, the SVP, People Operations at Google, talks about the powerful impact of seeing how your work affects your customers, and how greatly this ties into intrinsic motivation. 

Bock references Adam Grant's book, Give and Take, which explores the psychological phenomenon that when we feel a sense of purpose, it not only makes us happier, but more productive. That's because we're actually bought into the mission of our work. We care about the results from an emotional level, and feel a sense of social responsibility and impact.

In studies involving a fundraising call centre, a group of lifeguards, and editors, Grant recognized that when these individuals connected with the people who were impacted by their work—through reading emotional letters from scholarship recipients, reading stories about rescued swimmers, and meeting the authors—their engagement increased exponentially. They fundraised more, rescued more swimmers, and invested more time editing papers. 

Bock tested the same theory at Google. He wanted to know if meeting real customers would make an impact on the motivation of Google's employees. If the AdWords sales team met a business owner they were selling to, would the Googlers feel more invested in his success? And if they saw that a skill set (setting up ad campaigns) that came easily to them, but was difficult for the customer—yet critical to his success—would it fuel their motivation to serve him better?   

The answer was a resounding yes. 

Seeing the human impact of our work profoundly influences how, and why, we work

In Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux explores a similar phenomenon. The book is centred on self-organizing companies and Teal organizations, which are strongly driven by a sense of purpose. One of Laloux's case studies is on Buurtzorg, a neighborhood nursing company in the Netherlands. Whereas many traditional nurses are treated like machines on tightly times schedules with "efficient" systems like frequent rotations, Buurtzorg values a high-touch, high-care environment. 

Instead of going through impersonal, timed-to-the-minute rotations, nurses at Buurtzorg actually sit with patients and make an effort to get to them beyond their medical charts. They take time to have coffee with them, to learn about their life stories, interests, preferences, and even get to know their family members.

Beyond providing medical care, Buurtzorg aims to make patients' lives meaningful, and to help return them to autonomous living. Essentially, Buurtzorg strives to recognize the humanity of their patients, and in doing so, their nurses feel a deeper sense of purpose, leading to greater fulfillment, happiness, and astounding productivity. 

"Clients and nurses love Buurtzorg. Only eight years after its founding, its market share has reached 60 percent. Financially, the results are stellar, too. One 2009 study found that Buurtzorg requires, on average, only 40 percent of the care hours needed by a more conventional approach, because patients become self-sufficient much faster. Emergency hospital admissions have been cut by a third, and the average hospital stay of a Buurtzorg patient is shorter. It’s estimated that the Dutch social security system would save $2 billion per year if the entire home-care industry adopted Buurtzorg’s operations model." - strategy + business

While Buurtzorg models many remarkable approaches to management and culture, it's the values of human care and connection that act as the common thread. Not only are their patients and nurses more emotionally fulfilled, but they're also reaching their joint goal of empowerment more quickly and cost-effectively than the more soul-less, systemized models we're used to. 

Essentially any company can implement the high-touch, humane theories of work that Bock, Grant and Laloux have proven effective.

How could your company connect your team with your customers to help them experience the humanity of their work efforts? 

Your solution could range from having your team read customer letters, to interviewing customers on the phone, to sitting down with them in their day-to-day environments and experiencing how your product or service enhances their lives.

It might sound like a time investment, but if Bock, Grant and Laloux are right, it should result in a strong qualitative and quantitative ROI. 

The "connection generation" is more than just Millennials

Guest post by Rocky Ozaki, VP People & Culture at Rise

In my previous post I attempted to bring a unified definition to “HR is Dead.” Next on my list is the “connected generation.” While this term may not be spoken as often as HR is dead, it’s one that I feel strongly about, and hope more people will recognize the value in looking beyond just one generation’s influence on the future of work.

So what—and who—is the connected generation?

I believe this term was first coined by marketing professionals some five or more years ago, and like “HRisDead”, has been used as a catchphrase by countless people, professions and business sectors ever since.

From a marketing lens, I’ve learned the connected generation is, “willing and open to communications, building relationships and [they] ultimately make buying decisions based on digital content and interactions" (thanks, Ryan Hanley). Notice there is no fixation on just Millennials? All ages, if you are digitally active, can be lured by the powerful forces of content marketing.

In the People & Culture (HR) world, the connected generation—at least in my opinion—comprises individuals that expect a vastly differently workplace than what generally prevails today. This generation will ultimately make career decisions based on how authentically a company can live the characteristics of the Future of Work. Again, it’s not just about Millennials.

I stress this point because if we focus only on estimations that Millennials will comprise 50%+ of the workforce by 2025, we are neglecting the reality that talent from Gen Z and Gen X are expecting much of the same workplace demands.

I’m in Gen X and I can adamantly say that my peers and I have completely bought into the Future of Work (I’ll define that in my next post). When you combine the three generations, they could collectively comprise 75%+ of the workforce in the next decade. And I think that’s conservative.

If these numbers are in the ballpark you are willing to accept, imagine how powerful a voice the connected generation will have in shaping the workplace of tomorrow (or today, if you work in a forward thinking company or any startup). And if you are not one of these companies? You’ve already fallen way behind.

My intent is not to inform businesses on how they should lead multigenerational workplaces, or unpack the uniquenesses of the connected generation, but rather to shed light on its massive population, and to socialize the idea that Millennials alone are not changing the world.

As anchor points, I would suggest that this cohort distinguishes itself by their technological prowess, a desire to innovate and essentially debunk every legacy industry and way of living and working that existed in the previous generations, their enthusiastic embrace of the sharing economy, and their high expectations of collaboration, transparency, and purpose-driven work.

So, if you asked me to define the connected generation from the People and Culture lens, here goes:

Connected Generation

/ kəˈnekt ed /ˌjenəˈrāSH(ə)n /

  1. A blend of people from every generation in the collective workforce, who expect a vastly differently workplace than what generally prevails today, and will ultimately make career decisions based on how authentically a company can live the characteristics of the Future of Work;

  2. Altruistic innovators and disruptors who are dependent on technology;

  3. They are not just Millennials.

This is the second in a three part series. I’ll define the, “future of work” next because that definition becomes incredibly important if I’m accurate on my assumptions of the connected generation.

Let’s connect. Find me on LinkedIn or Twitter at @rockyozaki.

How Quietly created a people-focused culture

We've featured a lot of large companies on our blog—culture profiles on Airbnb, Zappos, Google, Evernote, among others—but it's important to us to recognize smaller companies doing significant things on the culture front as well. 

One company I really admire is a startup based in Vancouver, BC called Quietly. They're a content marketing solution for brands and publishers, and their team of 20 is as passionate about producing world-class editorial content as they are about building an exceptional culture. 

I recently sat in on their Monday all-hands meeting, and their positive, energetic, and supportive vibe was immediately apparent. The team was all gathered in the kitchen, some standing, others sitting, and the first question they all answered was about the highlight of their weekends. It quickly became clear that this was a company with a family feel—a company that values the soul, interests and personality each person brings to the office. 

After multiple conversations with Quietly's Co-Founder, Sean Tyson, I realized that this was a company culture that deserves attention. Tyson's profound care for his employees, and his genuine interest in their development was something I hadn't seen before in a startup environment. Startup founders are usually pulled in a million directions, and spread so thin that the number one critique they receive is that they aren't able to offer enough time to employees (often a catalyst for turnover). Not so at Quietly.

The Q&A below gets into the details of Quietly's people-focused culture, and dives into the why and how they've been able to scale it as they grow. 

Q&A With Sean Tyson, Co-Founder of Quietly

The word culture is ubiquitous in the startup world, and its definition is increasingly subjective. What does company culture mean to you?

Company culture, to me, is a representation of the people who work for the company and the values they embody. Put another way, it is a manifestation of the interactions between the employees inside and outside the office. On the other hand, culture is absolutely not about the artifacts in the office (e.g. foosball, beer keg, etc) as those tend to be a bastardized form of generosity towards employees.

Sean Tyson opening up the shades in the boardroom to show off their Gastown view

Sean Tyson opening up the shades in the boardroom to show off their Gastown view

In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe Quietly's culture?

Unassuming, genuine, weird, fun, hardworking and professional. We take the work very seriously, but we never, ever take ourselves too seriously.

Did Quietly have any formal processes to establish its culture?

We never really set out to “establish” culture, per se, and that’s because, in my opinion, culture is simply a reflection of the values of the people in the organization more than a set of things prescribed by leadership.

When the company started we were small, and it was easy to allow things to develop organically; however, we did go out of our way to create an environment that was accessible and would let anyone flourish. In that sense, we intentionally created a setting that would encourage people who shared our values, and then we actively hired people who shared those same values. That didn’t mean hiring people who think the same way as us (more on that later), but rather, hiring people who had the same inherent value set and spirit. It’s also worth noting that we were careful to avoid hiring people who did not share those values. In other words, it’s all about reciprocal trust and loyalty, and it starts with the leadership and their values.

That said, after a certain point in time—probably when we got to 10 people or more—we realized we needed to articulate our values more clearly, so we ended up doing a values jam with the whole team (cheesy name, I know).

The values jam was great for two reasons. One, it allowed the team to share and discuss the values collectively. This is important because it ensures the culture is an embodiment of everyone, not just the leadership. The team had the opportunity to shape the pillars we were living by, and in turn, the direction of the company. That is a big deal, and as you can imagine, it was an exciting session. The second benefit was that we shed light on completely new values. Obviously this exercise helped us reinforce the core values that attracted us all to Quietly in the first place, but it also helped clarify beliefs that were perhaps more abstract or totally unique. It was enlightening for everyone.

Once we landed on key statements or slogans, we had our designer bring them to life as large illustrations and we put them up on the wall. We get lots of compliments on them when people are in our office, but eventually they'll also end up on our website (for recruiting purposes).

The last comment I want to make is that we will continue to revisit our values as the organization grows. We’re enriched by the output of our peers, so as the organization shifts and evolves, so too will our values. Obviously our core values will continue to be the linchpin of our corporate culture, and as leaders we'll strive to ensure they're upheld, but it’s important that the team has an opportunity to regularly (re)state them because we always want our values to remain relevant.

Tyson talks to the team at their weekly Monday morning meeting.

Tyson talks to the team at their weekly Monday morning meeting.

Quietly is big on feedback and regular reviews. What does your process look like?

We're big on feedback, and our ability to listen to each other is not just demonstrated through daily interactions, but through more formal touch points as well.

We do semi-annual performance reviews with everyone. These are formal and we take them very seriously, but we also schedule recurring monthly meetings because I find that the semi-annual (or even quarterly) cadence is not enough. Young people want more frequent touch points, so every month, I do a 1-hour coffee with every employee. They’re called “Professional Development chats” and we always go off-site because it needs to feel safe for them.

This is all about me listening, and about them being honest, candid, and critical. Basically, I’m giving them an opportunity to “empty their cup” so it doesn’t fill up and boil over when they’re stressed. They need to be able to vent—albeit constructively—so we can manage to the issue instead of the rule. We’re a fast-paced, growing company so it’s important that we talk about the changes and challenges we face. After all, it’s “growing pains” not “growing pleasures.”

The biggest thing about these meetings is the agenda. They need to come prepared and communicate their thoughts in a succinct manner so we use the following framework:

  1. Current roles and responsibilities
  2. Career path and aspirations
  3. Life, love, rock 'n’ roll

The first section is all about identifying things that we can improve on a day-to-day level. They have to come with solutions, options, and recommendations for how they would fix it themselves. I then add my ideas to the mix and we net out with an agreed upon next step. It’s therapeutic. Good stuff always comes out of these meetings, and we work very hard to act on challenges so we can show measurable progress in those next 30 days. For example, a telling question is, “What is your favourite—or least favourite—meeting and why?”.

The second section is more aspirational. Here we remind each other about the goals we’ve set out in our (formal) semi-annual reviews. We see how we’re tracking, what things they need in order to be successful, and what things are blockers (and how we can remove them). Basically I’m saying “what career do you want?” and we discuss how I can help them get there. It’s fun and it’s important. For example, a conversation here may focus on helping them “elevate and delegate” in order to really progress.

The third is more about their personal life. At Quietly we’re extremely good at separating the personal from the professional, but I do also want to know how things are going outside of work. Are they happy, healthy, etc. Is their family all good? I expect them to deliver as a professional regardless, but we’re very sensitive to our employee's lives outside of work. If someone’s personal life is out of whack, I need to know. As we say, family is always first and if someone’s work starts to compromise their personal life, then we need to talk.

This meeting framework is great because it ensures we’re making the most of the time. Without it I find the person will spend the first 40 mins waxing poetic because they’re just putting off what they actually want to talk about (maybe they’re nervous or anxious) and by the time they get to the serious stuff, we only have 10 minutes to dig into it. Also, the agenda they prepare tells me a lot about where their head is and what’s bothering them.

It’s all about being proactive and keeping our finger on the pulse of our people. They are our biggest assets, so we pay close attention to their needs and situations.

How do you screen for culture-fit when hiring?

The first thing I stress is that every little interaction is a test. For example, in the initial emails confirming the date/time/location of the interview, was the person resourceful, or did they ask lazy questions? The last thing I want to do is reply with a let me Google that for you.

The second is that we’re immediately looking for signals that indicate the values and spirit I talked about earlier. Did the person stand up to shake my hand? Did they offer to open the door and/or stand in line with me? Did they offer to pay? Of course I would never let them pay, but these little manners are telling.

From a non-technical standpoint I’m looking at things like intellectual curiosity, critical thought, hunger, maturity, modesty, and their ability to listen. I also love people with a good sense of humour because to me, humour is the greatest barometer of emotional intelligence. Of course, we’ll talk about professional experience, but again I’m skewing to bedside manners over milestones, and I’m keen to see how they describe former colleagues and employers.

For designers, I’m less interested in their portfolio of work and more in the C.R.A.P.* that surrounded it. That means, how did they handle criticism, rejection, assholes, and pressure? If they can walk me through their process, approach, and share some war stories, then we’re cooking with gas. Of course I’m looking for raw talent, but I’ll always hire for attitude and train for skill rather than the other way around. Lastly, I’m looking to see if they're passionate about our product, our mission, and our industry. If they don’t like what we’re building, they’re not going to have much fun.

[*You can thank Richard St. John for that; he uses that acronym in his TED talk.]

For engineers it’s more involved and we use a multistage process. (Many candidates tell us our interviewing/testing is the best they’ve experienced, even when they don’t end up being selected, so I’m particularly proud of this, especially because we're a product company and technical talent is mission critical to what we do and where we’re going.)

—First we start with a casual chat where I’m looking for cultural cues and a sense of shared values. I want to know about them as a person more than a programmer. From there we’ll get into frameworks, languages, etc., and see if there's compatibility and interest with our tech stack.

Assuming all is good, we’ll then bring them in to meet the rest of the team for interview #2. This is really for both sides to interview each other and talk more shop. Then, if we think there's a cultural fit, we send them to our Tech advisor who puts them through an extremely challenging algorithmic tech test. If they pass that, then we engage them for a small paid project. This is the most important component because we actually get to see their work ethic and skills in action, but we’re really looking to see how they communicate and how they handle adversity (we intentionally leave some questions unanswered). From a values point of view, you’d be surprised what you see when you have to do a group project with them.

Quietly's office has multiple work areas, including couches, standing desks, board rooms, and barstools in the kitchen so employees can move around and sit wherever they work best.

Quietly's office has multiple work areas, including couches, standing desks, board rooms, and barstools in the kitchen so employees can move around and sit wherever they work best.

How has your culture evolved as you've grown?

We’re small enough to notice that it changes with every new employee, so in that sense, our culture has been in constant evolution since we started. We were also in a co-working space when we started, so our culture was very much informed by our surroundings. That said, I would say we more actively promote accessibility since the group is becoming even more diverse.

Practically that means extracurricular activities become less niche, and more about providing an experience that each person can make their own. For example, not everyone drinks, so it’s not just about partying after work. We also have people who have longer commutes and/or have to get home to take care of a young child, so we’re more mindful when we coordinate activities as a team.

Any tips on scaling culture as a company grows?

I was with someone the other day who was surprised I spend 20 hours a month meeting with each of our employees for professional development. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it from an “hours” point of view, but they basically said they don’t have time for that anymore—implying that they used to do it when the company was smaller, but now they’re just too busy.

I just said, “Listen, if people are your most important asset, why wouldn’t you prioritize your time accordingly?” I went on to compare this person’s company to a high-performance engine, stating that the employees deserved high octane fuel and regular visits from the mechanic. They sheepishly conceded.

Now, obviously I can’t personally meet with everyone if we continue to grow at this rate, but the point I was making is that the relationships with staff are paramount and require constant nurturing. As a result, as our span of control increases, I expect my managers to invest the same amount of time with their people as I invest with them. As my dad says, “it’s all about managing with your hands in your pockets.”

This brings up another good point: as the company grows, the coaching of managers becomes equally (if not more) important since it has a knock-on effect. Some younger managers can find it hard to ‘delegate and elevate’, let alone know how to effectively mentor or coach, so these one-on-ones become critical as they take on additional roles and responsibilities. Sometimes they’re up to their neck, and other times they’re simply in over their head, but at the end of the day we’re helping them navigate things so they can learn to nurture themselves and their team.

In terms of scaling culture with company growth, I think it’s about empowering others to apply the same level of effort down the line, and coaching them to be coaches themselves.

Quietly's private rooftop patio offers a place for employees to catch fresh air, reset, or share a beer.

Quietly's private rooftop patio offers a place for employees to catch fresh air, reset, or share a beer.

You let your team work remotely from time to time. How did you implement that policy, and what have been the positive/negative implications of doing so?

We have a very high trust environment at Quietly, so it makes it a lot easier to manage a remote working situation because we implicitly believe in each other. For us, it’s all about results, not hours, and it’s certainly not about office hours, so implementing this policy felt fairly natural because we wanted people to work when and where they’re most efficient.

Having established protocols and centralized communication and project management tools is important too (we use on Gmail, Google Docs, Trello, and Slack). For example, we always let each other know when we’re working from home ahead of time, even if it’s a recurring day/time.

Lastly, we ensure we’re all in the office for key meetings—and meetings are strategically scheduled for this reason. At the end of the day it’s all about common sense and mutual respect.

On the other hand, we’ve invested in a nice office because we wanted our staff to be excited to come into work, and we’ve done our best to create environments where everyone can find their focus. And that’s important because culture is the sum total of collaboration between kindred spirits, loving what we do, but also loving where we do it.

Which companies do you think have great (or interesting) cultures, and why?

Invoke Media, because it was one of the few companies that I’ve worked at that truly felt like a family. It was full of people who shared the same values, and where everyone had an enormous amount of integrity and passion. And, when people left to pursue other adventures, it was always a genuine celebration. As a result, Invokers have gone on to do incredible things and remain closely connected as proud alumni. So in that sense I like Invoke because the culture transcends their current team. It has continued to grow on a larger level and touch people outside of those four walls.

If HR is dead, we need to agree on some definitions

Guest post by Rocky Ozaki, VP People & Culture at Rise

“HR is Dead.” The “Connected Generation.” The “Future of Work.” I hear and use these terms as often as a seagull forages for food. And it’s happening more and more.

While I love these terms, they're still lacking in a unified definition. With that said, here's what they mean to me.

HR is Dead

Admittedly, this is one of my go-to sayings because it often kickstarts an otherwise mellow conversation. I’ve seen many long practicing HR professionals get quite upset, while others hug and thank me for validating their inner beliefs. Interestingly, in most conversations I don’t get challenged on the spirit behind the statement.

So here’s my take. I’m adamant that “HR is Dead” is not meant to be literal. Rather it’s a notion that the role of the HR department is evolving rapidly to align with the future of work (there's that phrase again).

Technology is automating much of traditional HR administration, and analytics are guiding many of our most important decisions. For the functions that remain—strategy, people planning, recruiting, onboarding, learning, performance management, total rewards, and, of course, engagement—the best practices (in forward-thinking companies) are almost unrecognizable when compared to what was occurring just 5 years ago.

Post-secondary curriculums are also struggling to keep up. The HR certification’s value is in question, and the open-source sharing of innovative practices is exploding. Further to this, many HR functions are finally being co-authored and co-owned by managers and team members across the company, not just siloed in the HR department.

Speaking of the HR department, I’m seeing a trend towards building teams around marketers, social media experts, and data specialists. Many of the senior HR leaders today are amazing leaders who may have earned their stripes in operations or marketing, for example. If you can contribute to building and empowering amazing cultures, you’re in.

That leaves, in my estimation, compliance and labour relations. I’ve been out of the LR world for years but have colleagues telling me that it’s also changing with the times. Compliance is hugely important, but in short, it does not require more than even one HR professional for companies even as large as 500 team members, IMHO.

So is HR really dead then?

If you are seeing, living or projecting what I’ve described, it’s hard to deny that the HR profession is in the midst of a seismic shift. Does that necessarily mean HR is dead? No. Core HR functions like compliance, payroll, benefits and privacy are table stakes for any disciplined company.

But there is powerful symbolism in taking down the HR title. For decades, HR professionals haves fought the stigma of being seen as nothing more than bureaucratic policy makers. We’re finally at a point where we can shift that point of view, by changing our name and the way we contribute. To further reinforce this, look at how many companies are adopting lexicons such as People & Culture, People Operations, or simply Talent to replace HR.

Many decades ago we could have said, “Personnel is dead” and that would have stirred the pot. Yesterday we used “Human Resources.” Today we’re using “People” and “Talent”, and tomorrow… who knows? In the end, the department, regardless what it’s called, will be an advocate of the people, the company culture, and legal compliance—but all in line with the state of the labour market (soon to be owned by the connected generation) and their career expectations (the future of work).

I understand the emotional attachment to the term HR and I’m personally a vocal proponent of the profession. But I’m also a realist and optimist.

So, if you asked me to define HR is Dead, here goes:

HR is Dead - see also “the future of work”


  1. The belief that we must embrace the connected generation, technology and a sharing economy, as they are fundamentally (and rapidly) innovating the way we attract and engage our people;

  2. The acknowledgement that HR will benefit from a new brand identity;

  3. It does not suggest that core HR functions are no longer valued or required.  

This is the first in a three-part series. I’ll take a stab at defining the “connected generation” and the “future of work” next.

Let’s connect. Find me on LinkedIn, or on Twitter @rockyozaki

The rise of the Chief Heart Officer

Last week, entrepreneur and investor Gary Vaynerchuk published a piece in which he attributed the success of VaynerMedia to the fact that it's a "human-based company." Over the last 7 years as the company grew from 20 to 600+ employees, Vaynerchuk says that focusing on culture was his number one priority. Specifically, he was focused on getting to know and empower his people.

"Despite the movies and the media portrayals, having endless snacks and espresso bars aren’t what creates great corporate culture. You don’t get to claim that you have great culture just because you have an unlimited vacation day policy or an open floor plan.
"Company culture stems from the top. That’s why I like to say that I am an HR-driven CEO—I am the head of HR as much as I am the CEO of VaynerMedia. It’s the best way I can communicate how strongly I care about my employees and how much I believe that a strong internal culture is the key to a company’s success."

Although I wish he'd said "culture-driven" instead of "HR-driven," I love the point he's making. Successful business today requires that we treat people well, and that we recognize them as unique individuals, with unique aspirations, personalities, and dreams.

As Vaynerchuk says, "You can’t put everybody in the same box—everyone is driven by different goals and aspirations. I recognize that my team of more than 600 people is driven by 600+ individuals who each have their own specific wants and needs."

Focusing on culture and people-development has become a non-negotiable for those who want to attract, engage, and develop word class talent. Sadly, that's not yet a mainstream belief, but hearing it from the mouth of a thought leader with a massive global is a powerful step in the right direction. Hearing it from a management consultant or reading it in an HBR article helps, but there's nothing like social proof from someone with a lot of street cred.

"I care about what they care about. Why? Because life’s a value exchange—when you care about your employees, it translates into value they can give back to your company."

Say hello to the Chief Heart Officer

While I was nodding along excitedly as I read Vaynerchuk's article, the part that put a full-on toothy smile on my face was this: 

"At the beginning of April, I created the Chief Heart Officer (CHO) position at VaynerMedia—the second-most important position at my company (aside from CEO). It’s my next step in scaling my goal of having everyone believe in this strategy. I know Claude Silver, our CHO, fully believes in it and I’m excited to have her on board."

I'll leave you with this closing thought from Vaynerchuk: 

"When it comes down to it, you need to make sure that each employee is happy with where they are. When you help make your employees happy, it gives them a reason to be excited to be a part of your company."  

Why giving feedback right now is more compassionate & effective

Annual performance reviews, quarterly checkins, and even monthly or weekly one-on-ones are great, but they cannot replace the impact and importance of continuos, ad hoc feedback. 

Too many managers and leaders wait until scheduled appointments with employees to deliver feedback. If you aspire to create a workplace that values empowerment and growth, these scheduled time slots should be reserved for checking in with employees on their goals, career development, and wellbeing, and serve as an opportunity for them to bring up any issues, solutions or ideas they want to share. 

Positive and constructive feedback, on the other hand, should be given pro-actively and as close to in-the-moment as possible. Not only is it the best way for learning to take place, but it also ensures issues don't snowball, and that employees don't start to feel resentful or taken for granted.  

A compassionate 3-part monthly check-in formula

Once you've committed to giving feedback as you go, your scheduled checkins can become a lot more effective. One company that does an excellent job at this is Quietly, a Vancouver-based content marketing company. Once a month, their co-founder, Sean Tyson, sits down with every person at the company. 

"Young people want more frequent touch points, so every month, I do a 1-hour coffee with every employee," Tyson explains. "They’re called 'Professional Development chats' and we always go off-site because it needs to feel safe for them.

"This is all about me listening, and about them being honest, candid, and critical. Basically, I’m giving them an opportunity to 'empty their cup' so it doesn’t fill up and boil over when they’re stressed. They need to be able to vent—albeit constructively—so we can manage to the issue instead of the rule. We’re a fast-paced, growing company so it’s important that we talk about the changes and challenges we face. After all, it’s 'growing pains' not 'growing pleasures.'

Before each meeting, each employee needs to email answers that address the following: 

  1. Current roles and responsibilities
  2. Career path and aspirations
  3. Life, love, rock 'n’ roll

"The first section is all about identifying things we can improve on a day-to-day level," Tyson says. "They have to come with solutions, options, and recommendations for how they would fix it themselves. I then add my ideas to the mix and we net out with an agreed upon next step.

"The second section is more aspirational. Here we remind each other about the goals we’ve set out in our (formal) semi-annual reviews. We see how we’re tracking, what things they need in order to be successful, and what things are blockers (and how we can remove them). Basically I’m saying 'what career do you want?' and we discuss how I can help them get there. 

"The third is more about their personal life. At Quietly we’re extremely good at separating the personal from the professional, but I do also want to know how things are going outside of work. Are they happy, healthy, etc. Is their family all good? I expect them to deliver as a professional regardless, but we’re very sensitive to our employee's lives outside of work. If someone’s personal life is out of whack, I need to know. As we say, family is always first and if someone’s work starts to compromise their personal life, then we need to talk."

Regular feedback & check-ins build trust

As you can imagine, having a boss who sits down with you over coffee once a month contributes to a huge level of mutual trust and respect. If an employee feels heard, and like the company genuinely cares about their personal and professional development, they'll be more inclined to bring their best to the company as well. 

Regular feedback fortifies this further, and alleviates the stress of more formal reviews. If feedback is ongoing, there's less anxiety around any impending negative feedback. If done effectively, regular feedback gives employees a barometer so they always know how they're doing, and gives them the opportunity to course-correct as they go. 

Not only is it the most compassionate way to give feedback, but it's also the most effective.

Culture & the importance of modelling

If you've instated progressive personal and professional development policies at your company, and if you're proactively working toward creating a happy, healthy culture, I commend you. But if you're not actively applying these things yourself as a leader—and if your founders aren't role modelling the things your company advocates for—it will do you little good. 

If you tell your people you want them to take vacation, for example, but your leadership team doesn't take regular vacations, it will make it difficult for other employees to feel safe taking time off. For this reason, Netflix's CEO, Reed Hastings, makes it a point to take six week of vacation every year. 

"I take a lot of vacation and I'm hoping that certainly sets an example," he told CNBC. "It is helpful. You often do your best thinking when you're off hiking in some mountain... You get a different perspective on things."

When we talked to Jason Fried about his belief that 40 hours a week is plenty, he emphasized that part of his responsibility as a CEO and leader is to model that behaviour himself.

"In general people follow the leader, so if they see you working late at night or on weekends, no matter what you say, they’re going to think there’s a quiet expectation that they should do the same. I think you need to set the example and be really firm about that, otherwise people are going to end up sliding down that slope, and end up working too many hours or late at night."

Integrity is critical to establishing a healthy culture

The bottom line when you're trying to instate any cultural practices is to do so with integrity. If you list off a bunch of values on a poster and slap it on your wall at work, it will mean absolutely nothing if even one of those values isn't upheld. 

If your company says it values transparency, but its leaders have tons of elusive meetings, fail to mention major challenges, or if employees learn more about the company from reading headlines than from internal sources, that value is just straight BS. And as soon as employees smell BS, trust diminishes, and culture takes a sharp downhill turn. 

If you're going to declare something a company value or philosophy, do everything in your power to uphold it. Talk about it, and live by those values.

And if you happen to slip up, own up—as quickly as possible—so your team knows it wasn't intentional, and that you'll do whatever you can to ensure it won't happen again. Mistakes happen (even the best CEOs are still just human beings), but a cultural fuck up isn't something you can sweep under the rug. 

Live your values, model your philosophies, and you'll strongly boosts the odds of them spreading throughout your culture. 

Sorry, but you can't automate culture

As tech infiltrates nearly everything we do, and as more of our jobs are done from a computer or apps on our phone, it's critical to remember that we are still human beings. We are still motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, and the avoidance of pain. We are still driven by emotion. We still have a yearning for true community, we still feel more connected when we hear the inflection in a voice, or see the sparkle in another's eye when we communicate. 

There is still, and always will be, tremendous value and power in true human connection. Ain't no Slackbot that can compete.

There are certain things that can't be automated, and one of them is culture. Yes, we can use technology to enhance our culture—there is some fantastic culture tech out there—but these tools need to be implemented with an empathetic, curious, and caring human touch. Fail to add that humanity—the followup questions, the dialogue to solve issues raised, the genuine ear—and your team will sniff right through it. Oh. How nice. They want to show they care how happy/fulfilled/motivated/engagement I am. Cool tool. Cold touch. This is so phoney. 

A healthy culture requires healthy communication

You can get an office foosball table, hand out beers on Fridays, host offsite "fun days", and serve cake on birthdays, but if no one feels like you genuinely care about them, or that you listen to them, they're not going to give two hoots about any of the razzle-dazzle. 

A healthy, happy, productive culture doesn't even require a big budget, fancy office, or extravagant outings. What it needs is functional, caring communication. It needs a core set of values, and a team that's committed to abiding by them. It needs leaders who ask supportive questions, and listen with their full attention.

While I hate the terminology, what a healthy culture needs are soft skills. It needs people skills. It needs a high overall EQ, or at least the commitment to getting there. 

It's the same reason Gary Vaynerchuck hired a Chief Heart Officer and called it the "second-most important position" at VaynerMedia: because investing in your people through your time, consideration, and genuine interest, is investing in the success of your business. 

You can buy all the office toys, supply all the food and drinks, and host all sorts of fun activities, and your best people will still leave if they don't feel appreciated and acknowledged. But if you show a true investment in your people—if you really care to get to know them, talk to them, listen to them, and help them reach their own goals—you better believe they'll stick around, pingpong or no pingpong at the office. 

Over to you: how do you invest in your people?

Beyond the external environment and physical rewards, how do you share your team that you're invested in them? What soft skills are celebrated and rewarded? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below. 

Basecamp's CEO on the art of hiring for culture-fit

Hiring for hard skills is pretty straightforward: look at a candidate's resume, past projects, maybe give him a skills test. But hiring for culture-fit? That's a whole other art form.  

I recently connected with the CEO of Basecamp, Jason Fried, and wanted to know how he hires for culture-fit, particularly because his company is entirely remote. I wanted to know what practices he relies on, or what queues he looks for when he can't meet a candidate face-to-face. 

His answer came quickly: "It’s sort of an art. It’s similar to if you were to ask someone how to pick friends. It’s not like they’d said, 'Well, I go through these six steps.' It’s more like you just get a feel for someone. You meet someone, you talk to them, you get a feel for them, and friendship sort of evolves from that point.

"It’s similar when we hire. When we interview people, we’re not just looking for skills. Obviously they have to have skills, but when you’re talking to them, asking them about their life, you just start to get a feel for someone."

Many people are skilled, but few will fit your culture

Fried emphasized that while a lot of people are highly skilled, it's the combination of skill and personality that makes someone a prime candidate. 

"Skill never really comes first because there’s plenty of people with plenty of skill.

"It’s got to be the balance. If somebody isn’t somebody you want to be around, isn’t someone you want to hang with, isn’t someone you can’t trust, isn’t someone you want to represent you, then I don’t care how good they are, they’re not working here." 

The importances of references

Fried notes how critical references are to hiring the right cultural fit. Talking to a former boss is a great way to dive deeper into the character of a person, and pick up on traits—good or bad—that they might not self-proclaim in a resume. 

"One of the questions I like to ask when I talk to references is, 'What’s it like to disagree with this person? How do they handle disagreement?' 

"The answer will help you develop a sense for if this is a good person or not. You can tell, are they really ego-driven? Are they really obsessed with themselves?"

Over to you: How do you screen for culture-fit? 

We'd love to know what sorts of things you look for when hiring for culture. What types of indicators do you look for? What clues give you an insight into someone's personality? Shoot us an email at editor(at) or send us a tweet at @HRisDeadHQ to let us know.

When to fire "superstar" employees

Too many of us have been there: you love your team at work, but there's that one bad apple who consistently brings the team down. She might be really smart, really skilled, but socially, she's just not nice. You might even say she's a bully. 

You'd think the easy answer is just to fire such people, but far too often, companies keep them on board because they're so great at the hard skills of their job. The price of a toxic employee—especially when they're in a leadership position—is a hefty one. Showing these people the door if they can't turn their attitude around is key if you want to maintain a healthy workplace culture overall. 

Jack Dorsey, the CEO and Founder of both Twitter and Square, learned this lesson the hard way. 

“One of the things I learned early, early on in Twitter is sometimes you have these people who are just superstars—they have all the right answers, they have all the skills and they’re amazing, but they’re negative—they’re super, super negative,” Dorsey shared at a Square event in Melbourne earlier this month. 

“As you look at your team, if there’s anyone who’s negative on the team, you realize everything is going to become harder because of that negativity," Dorsey said. "No matter how good this person is, if they can’t bring a positive and optimistic attitude to their work you’re probably going to be slowed down.”

Toxic employees like this can quickly bring down the morale of a team. In a workplace that strives to stimulate innovation and open-mindedness, having a nay-sayer or wet blanket type can really stifle the environment for everybody else. 

Here's the bottom line: no matter if they're skilled, talented, pedigreed, have an incredible resume, or build great products, their presence isn't worth it if they bring others down. Not only will they make it tough on your existing team, but they'll quickly irk new hires, and risk infecting the entire company with emotional toxins that just don't belong in the workplace.

As good as a person might be at their job, if they make those around them worse, they're simply not worth having on your team.

You can't afford NOT to invest in your culture

I was at an event recently where I was surrounded by progressive leaders who deeply understand the value of culture. Well, everyone I talked to, except one. 

As I was talking to one CEO about the importance of culture and the employee experience at his company—something he actively works on—another CEO argued that in his industry, there was no time for things like making the office a cool space to work, or doing regularly check-ins with his staff of about a dozen. 

"They really want a coffee maker," he said with strain in his voice, his Rolex flashing as he brushed his hair back.

"So get them a coffee maker!" the other CEO and I said in unison. It seemed so obvious to us—what a little, inexpensive thing to invest in. Not only that, but coffee makes people more productive, and it would remove unnecessary coffee runs outside of the office. For someone obsessed with productivity, it seemed like a no-brainer. 

"You could even make a little cafe area where people could stop and sit down when they need a reset, or a little creativity boost," I suggested. That comment did not sit well with him.

"There's no time to sit down during the day," he said abruptly. "We have way too much to do. I don't want to encourage any distractions."

Hearing these old-school perspectives—from someone who barely looked 30—really fired me up. I couldn't believe he was actually saying this stuff, so I began to share my own perspectives, and argued that he couldn't afford not to do these things.

"It's not that I don't want to do these things. It's just that we don't have time, or the budget. I'd really like to create a Zen garden, for example, but we just don't have the resources."

I suggested they do that as a team building exercise—take one Friday off, and get their hands dirty as a team to create a tranquil workplace area together. He brushed it off again saying they couldn't afford to take a single day—or even a half day—to do something like that. 

I couldn't help but wonder what his turnover is like, or what sort of culture he's cultivated. What kind of people does it attract? How much of the motivation there is fear-based? 

Liz Ryan, a former Fortune 500 HR SVP and current leader of the Human Workplace, regularly writes about the evolution of HR and culture in Forbes. Something that stood out to me in a recent article was this:

"If your workplace is bound up in rules and policies and the work is boring and the employees are not respected and valued, you will be able to fill your job openings, but people will not stay.

"The best people will leave the fastest. They’ll catch the unmistakable scent of a fearful work environment in their nostrils and they will start a new job search."

Clearly, there are still some companies that can get away operating like this, but it seems it's only a matter of time before they can no longer attract—or at very least, keep—the best talent. 

Fostering a healthy workplace culture doesn't have to be something time-consuming or expensive. At its most basic, it's about recognizing the people you work with, and proactively supporting them in making your workplace an enjoyable place to be, and your vision something they're excited to contribute to. If that means adding more plants to your office, investing in a coffee maker, or doing regular checkins with your teammates, do it. The investment will pay off exponentially. Just try it for one month, and you'll see. 

Culture can't be forced; it's created slowly, organically over time

Amazon's 2016 shareholder letter from Founder & CEO Jeff Bezos was released last week and quickly circulated the Internet. Last year, the company came under fire for its tough corporate culture, but Bezos didn't shy away from the topic in his letter; in fact, he mentioned the word "culture" 12 times. 

Whether you agree with Amazon's workplace philosophies or not, Bezos did make some really interesting points about company culture:

"A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove."

Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has made similar remarks about culture not being something you can create with force. Back in 2008, he wrote a blog post called You don't create a culture, in which he wrote the following: 

"You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, and you give them the freedom to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust then trust will be built into your culture."

They're essentially saying the same thing. While developing a formal values system and mission statement can help guide things like internal communications, policy, and benefits, true culture is something that forms organically through the human dynamics within an organization.

Another statement Bezos made in his letter was that any given culture is not necessarily better or worse than another; it's simply unique in nature, and will, in time, attract people accordingly:

"The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one – just that it’s ours – and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful." 

The unanimous takeaway seems to be that if you lead your company in a way that's authentic to your beliefs, philosophies and aspirations, then over time, your culture will evolve organically as you attract people who consider your company just the right fit.

Why Basecamp's CEO wants to create a more mindful, peaceful workplace

Jason Friend is the co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, and a big proponent of working more effectively rather than the long, gruelling hours many companies push for today. 

When we asked him what his #1 piece of business advice was, his answer was in alignment with that philosophy: "Know what you'll say no to." 

Fried is a big believer that 40 hours a week is plenty—if we work effectively. Part of that is having a good grasp of what is essential, and knowing where—and where not—to invest our time.

"I think that’s the hardest thing: knowing what you’ll say no to when it comes to your business because there will be an endless number of opportunities and ideas, and so may things you can do," he told us.

"Getting good at saying no to things that aren’t the right things for your business, or aren’t the right things for you, or aren’t the right things for what you want to do, is a really important skill to develop. It’s a lifelong pursuit to get better at it, but I think it’s very important.

"When you have good boundaries around yes and no, a lot decisions just become much easier."

Fried explained that it comes down to understanding your core values, and having a solid grasp of what your priorities are. That way, when opportunity or temptation arises (as it inevitably will), you can refer to those guidelines to help keep you focused. 

"For example, if there was a customer out there who wanted to pay us a million bucks a year to use Basecamp, but they made us change the product in significant ways for them, we would just say no," Fried explained. "It’s not in our culture to have two separate products: one for one customer, one for everybody else. It’s just not how we want to run the business. It creates a lot of complexity, and it’s not something we want to be. And so that would be a really clear 'no' for me."

Coinciding with Fried's philosophies of worker smarter is creating a more mindful, harmonious workplace. They've even integrated a new function called “Work Can Wait” into their product, which turns off notifications outside of work hours. 

"A big part of what we’re trying to do at Basecamp is create a calmer, more peaceful way to work," Fried explained. "That’s both in our company and in our new product, Basecamp 3. We’re trying to go the opposite way of the industry, which is more notifications, more real time. Everyone’s trying to get ahold of everyone all the time, but really I think it’s a toxic, terrible way to work."

That's a lesson the Basecamp team had to learn the hard way, but Fried is committed to fostering a healthier work environment going forward. 

"We’ve worked that way in the past, and it’s so crazy. It’s unhealthy. We’re now trying to go in the opposite direction by slowing things down, being more deliberate, calming things down, being more peaceful, not interrupting each other. And then you end up having plenty of time to do great work."

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense: if we slow things down to increase our focus, we can free up brain space for problem solving and creativity, and naturally produce better results. While it's still far from a mainstream mindset, hopefully seeing someone as well respected as Fried lead the charge will inspire other leaders to adopt similar points of view.


Evernote's big goal? To build a culture that lasts 100 years

Beyond building a product that makes writing, clipping articles, and staying organized simple (and dare I say, fun), Evernote, has built a progressive work culture that includes equity, unlimited paid time off, $1,000 vacation stipends, catered lunches, an athletics program, and the intention to be a 100-year-old startup. They're also big on life-long learning, and work hard to create an environment that fosters personal and professional development.

They've swapped HR for People Operations

Evernote -- "the workspace for your life's work" -- currently has 400 employees, a number that continues to grow rapidly. The privately held company, which was founded in 2008, has over 150 million global users, and is headquartered in Redwood City, California.

Like many of the companies we've profiled, Evernote doesn't have a traditional "HR" department; instead, they prefer to call the department in charge of recruitment and culture the People team, which is led by Michelle Wagner, the SVP of People Operations.

They Want to Be a 100-Year-Old Startup

"We're in it for the long haul, so if there's anything that's dinking, that's annoying, anything that doesn't feel right, our only solution is to fix it because we've got to live with it forever," Phil Libin, Evernote's Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, told Fast Company.

The operative word in this aspirational goal is startup. They don't just want to be a company that has existed for 100 years -- they want to be a company that's actually still relevant, interesting, and a great place to work. 

"We want to be a 100-year-old, very large company that's still operating like a startup, people are still in love with, that's making innovative decisions, that's acting decisively. We didn't know how to do it; we still don't, but we thought 'This seems like a sufficiently epic quest to devote our lives to.'"

But really, it's the culture they want to survive for 100 years, not necessarily the product 

"If you're thinking in 100-year terms, the culture is the only important thing," Libin told Fast Company. "The culture is everything in the long-term. The culture is much more important than the current product. The product is the current product, the culture is the next hundred products."

Cardboard furniture at Evernote's Taiwan office

Cardboard furniture at Evernote's Taiwan office

A new CEO 

Last year, Libin took off his hat as Evernote's CEO and passed the reigns on to Chris O’Neill, who was brought in to help the company grow through its its "awkward adolescent phase." Since joining, O’Neill -- who was previously at Google for almost 10 years -- has hired a new leadership team comprising former hotshots from Microsoft, Skype, HP, Motorola, and AOL. 

The coffee bar at Evernote's Redwood HQ

The coffee bar at Evernote's Redwood HQ

At Evernote, they love their coffee

A lot of tech companies in Silicon Valley have cafes and coffee bars, but Libin wanted to do something different... something cooler. So to kick off the coffee program, he invited a bunch of California coffee roasters to do tastings at the office (the winner was Santa Cruz’s Verve Coffee Roasters). To take things to the next level, they brought in a barista competitor to train Evernote's management team on coffee knowledge as well as the ins and outs of making a great espresso. Today, any interested staff can sign up for the trainings, which includes a "master class" for serious connoisseurs. 

"The response to Evernote’s unique coffee program has been quite positive, with many employees reporting that by taking a 'break' to make coffee for their coworkers, they were able to clear their heads, using a different part of their brains to get creative juices flowing," Sprudge explains. In addition to baked goods on Monday mornings, the coffee bar is home to Tea Time Tuesdays, Iced Coffee Thursdays, and Beer o’Clock Fridays.

A few more things

Among the cultural perks Evernote offers is free housecleaning twice a month, which Libin told The Next Web is "probably the thing that we do that people love the most." He added, “We thought that we needed to get spouses and significant others on our side. I want the pressure from them to be, ‘You better not be thinking about leaving Evernote.’"

They also offer unlimited paid vacation time, and a $1,000 annual vacation bonus for people who successfully take at least one week off. The reward is to help dissuade employees from flirting  with burnout, so if verbal encouragement doesn't convince them to take a break, hopefully a monetary nudge does. 

Over to you

What company cultures do you find remarkable? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below, or via email at editor