Engaging the Distributed Workforce
By Meena Narayanan, Vice President - People, Livongo
What happens when Livongo hosts a panel of HR leaders at the Computer History Museum? They nerd out on how to engage a distributed workforce!
Last month, I had the pleasure of moderating a diverse panel of HR luminaries, and the discussion and audience participation was lively. So, in the spirit of sharing the insights and best practices with the broader HR community, I’m providing excerpts from our event.
- Nate Randall, founder of Ursa Major Consulting and host of the Illuminate HR podcast
- Dr. Candice Reimers, co-founder of People Runway
- Arnnon Geshuri, chief people officer at Livongo
- Bryan Power, head of people at Nextdoor
How do you identify culture—and, whose responsibility is it in an organization to drive the culture?
Nate Randall: So, my thought about culture is that you can't really define culture. I think what you can do is identify your culture. I hear a lot of people say things like, “We want to change our culture”, or “We want to create a culture.”
And I think your culture is what it is. As an HR person, I also believe that our role is really to identify the positive pieces of culture and prop up them up. I don't think we can really squash pieces that exist. It is what it is, and it's going to be based on things like you said. How your founders act, how your managers act, those sorts of things that are really, a lot of times, out of HR's control.
Candice Reimers: To your question of who owns the culture, or who enhances the cultural elements that you want, I really look to the leadership team. I think they set the tone, they invest the time, the resources, to support things that are most important, and if you don't have a really strong culture, I think it's a reflection of the leader.
That said, one thing that I do want to highlight is that I believe that cultures are dynamic, and they need to be dynamic. They need to adjust and evolve with the environments around you.
When companies go global, what are some of the things that you have to be careful about—to make sure the culture and values are in alignment and being carried forward?
Bryan Power: I’m laughing because there’s kind of a classic pattern you see from startups. It's two big mistakes. Which is they think everyone in the world should just do what Barry wants to do, and then Europe is a country. You see this over and over again.
And so, anytime you start a new role, one of the things any good leader tries to do early on is just identify quick wins. How can I do something to show impact, that I'm going to do a good job here, and people can respond to what I'm introducing?
So, one of my quick wins is to roll out global holidays, instead of just U.S. holidays. It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud, but international employees felt like, “Oh hey, finally someone's going to recognize that we're not all on the American calendar here.”
Candice Reimer: So, the question is, how do you transfer the culture? I think what's really interesting is, yes, we want to celebrate the core culture across where everyone is located, but we also want to celebrate and recognize some cultures within different offices and groups and teams.
So the Remoties, they clearly have an identity and a norm and a way that they want to interact and engage, and finding a way to encourage that element of us-ness, and to celebrate that uniqueness, but also within the context of the organization I think is a really important thing that we often lose sight of.
Bryan Power: More to the question of “What can you do?” What was new for me at Nextdoor, which just speaks to my entitled career, was it was the first company I worked at that didn't serve three meals a day. So, for the first time in, like, 15 years, I had to figure out how to get a lunch.
I was so used to just grabbing whatever I wanted at Google or Square or Yahoo! It's all right there for you. And if you worked at companies where food is always available, it's about convenience or sustenance, and people just grab it and go to their desk.
At Nextdoor, we serve lunch one day, on Wednesdays. And what I noticed was the culture around food is very different because it's scarce. Everyone stops and has lunch together. It's a time where people don't really talk about work, and there’s a sense of community.
And so, I realized these other offices, that pattern of stopping in the middle of the week on Wednesday and getting lunch is actually easy to replicate in other offices, in a way that can translate to other cultures.
I was surprised. When you start to talk to some of the country managers, they're like “This is great, because now you go to an office in another city or another region, you happen to be there on Wednesday, you have this pattern of just shutting down and talking to people in different ways.”
So, it was an easy way for us to take something that we do, or a tradition, really, in San Francisco, and export it globally.
What happens when companies are getting acquired, and we're talking about integration or assimilation of cultures?
Arnnon Geshuri: I think it starts prior to the acquisition. So, the whole evaluation process, you want to find a company that is as aligned to the culture as the current company. Because if you have too much of a difference, it's a very difficult acquisition, right?
When Livongo made the acquisition of Retrofit, which was a 99% remote culture. It fit so well into how Livongo thought about taking care of its employees and building this Remotie culture. Like, you automatically look at time zones, you make sure that people feel connected. It's just part of it. So, the pre-evaluation is really important.
We also looked at the programs they were offering and how do we translate and honor that? So, we were very thoughtful about it. We wanted to look at the best practices of both companies. Is there something we can learn from their approach, and make sure the culture was aligned at the beginning? And then you can have thoughtful conversations around it and make sure that you're doing the right thing.
In terms of a multi-generational workforce, what can you do to make sure the culture piece is aligned and communicated across all these generations?
Bryan Power: One thing that I've thought a lot about is communication. I definitely need to check myself. Proud Generation X-er, been in the workforce for 20 years, and kind of this bias that people need to meet together in person. Like, that's the maximum bang for your buck is to have this in-person experience.
And I've just learned with a lot of the younger folks on my team, 20, 21, 22 years old, that often prefer online communication. How people want to engage and process information, there’s really been a major shift. You look at how people would rather work on Slack or they're so comfortable on video and chat forums, instant message is like the baseline, versus earlier generations that feel like they need to talk in person or get on the phone.
I remember when I was 22, there was this old guy I worked with that kept writing out these memos and sending them out over email. I'm like, “What is this memo?” This guy's sending memos. But that's me now. With the whole let’s get together for 60 minutes and talk, I get the same eyerolls I gave.
Arnnon Geshuri: Yeah, but there is something that's good. I've done a lot of research on this, the differences between generations. So, all the research I did, I'm going to distill it down in the next 30 seconds, so you don't have to do any research or go to graduate school in HR.
This is the insight. So regardless of generation, there are two things people look for in a company. Just two things.
The first one is feeling connected to the company. When I say it, it seems obvious. Feeling connected. Connected to the mission, to the manager, to each other, to the environment, just feeling connected.
The second pillar is are they learning? And learning is not only—and I found again it's generational—learning isn’t just about moving up the corporate ladder, but it's also lateral learning. Exposure to different areas and learning different things. Exposure to a TED talk. You just have this innate need to know things outside of your job.
So, if a company can solve those two pillars, and build programs around the culture that you have, then usually things work out pretty well.
Candice Remiers: If I could build on that… So, we're brought in often if there's high attrition or issues or issues around organizational health, and the quick response is, we need to pay our people more. So, we come in and do a compensation analysis, what do we need to pay them to attract them and to keep them here? And we start to unpack it and look at their engagement surveys and all the feedback.
It's never compensation. If you're a small company, you can't compete with Google, you don't want to compete with Google. You want to sell the purpose, and you want to sell the learning opportunities as well. And so, you'll save yourselves a lot of money if you can create that culture of both learn and grow.
But going back to the generational opportunities, when I've worked with organizations, the organizations I think have been most successful in bridging that gap in the generations foster a culture of curiosity, openness, risk-taking.
So there's some really exciting research, there's a researcher named Amy Edmundson who talks about psychological safety. How do you create a space where people can take risks, they can ask questions, and they don't feel stupid? How do you create that environment within the team?
And so, if organizations can foster that, I think there's a great opportunity there. As a plug for Amy's work, there's an online survey where you can access the survey questions that she uses. Send it out within the team, ask folks to respond, just 15 questions, come back, and then do your own analysis.
Bryan Power: So, I love this conversation because it ties into another conversation I was having a couple days ago. I don't know if any of you guys have followed the Edelman Trust Barometer, but look it up.
What they found—and this came as a shock to me as an HR person—is the recent survey of the barometer found that the number one entity that people trust more than any other is their employer. Not the government, not external brands, not any other entity, not their church. It's their employer. It's a real gift in my mind. If we're the most trusted thing, imagine what you can do with it?
What's your experience in terms of leveraging technology to keep the distributed workforce connected?
Bryan Power: One thing again I noticed recently coming here to Nextdoor is timely because we joined with a new CEO Sarah Friar, and we're kind of at this transition point that a lot of startups go through, which is moving out of this really heavy headquarters phase, where you really have to be there, to starting to expand your global footprint.
So, she's a much bigger global operator, I mean, she’d been the CEO of Square. And just right away, the manner in which she was running the company shifted us, right on its axis. And so, a month or so in, as we started talking to other offices, they said that it was a night and day transition just understanding what was going on in the company.
Because before some of our experience would be, maybe they'd figure out how to get you webcast into the meeting, and you discuss things and you feel like a decision’s been made.
And then the meeting ends, and the people in the meeting keep talking and then they get together again an hour later, and they talk for another hour, and the meeting now has taken four right turns from what was discussed in the webcast meeting.
By the time you have another meeting next week, it's completely different. So, the person's like, “I thought we discussed we were going to go this way, and I thought we were going this way. What happened?” And, “Oh yeah, we kind of forgot to tell you.” And this is so common, this phase.
And so what Sarah has done is a number of things. Number one, she emails the company every week, the whole company, “This is what I'm thinking about, this is what's going on.” We have a global all-hands where she does a similar update, so you're getting it on email, you're getting it on a global webcast.
Number two, we really leverage Slack and Google Docs for our meetings. Before, I think people would walk in and say, “Let's talk”. Now stuff gets sent out ahead of time. We do a tradition that I think Amazon was really famous for, which is the silent reading. She spends the first ten minutes reading the materials, and what's everybody commenting in the doc, so it doesn't really matter if you're in another office, you get at least your thoughts into the room.
Just these two simple things just showed very visibly that we're moving to include everyone around the world. I don't know how we would do it without technology. And I think you kind of don't really put much emphasis on that when you're in this garage mentality of “we just got to stay rolling, figure out how to do it together.” But you ultimately got to get out of that phase if you're going to grow.
Nate Randall: So, I live, no kidding, in a small town in the Sierra Mountains, and I wouldn't be able to live there without technology, right? I mean, we have high-speed internet, it's way faster than the internet I paid a fortune for in San Jose because I'm the only one using it.
So, there's sort of that piece, but then I think that technology used by a remote worker, it can create a bit of intimacy. Because when I'm having a video conference call with somebody, they're seeing everything going on around me as well. I have a guitar hanging on the wall, there's my whiskey is way in the background, and they want to know what kind of whiskey I have back there, and these sorts of things. So, it really does create a connection when you have this technology, to be able to have that cultural connection in a visual.
So, I do think that there's nothing as powerful as sitting down with somebody, having lunch, having a conversation. But, video is a very close second, especially if you're in an environment that's not just a whiteboard in the background, and it shows something personal.
The other thing that I would tie in here to technology is just a little bit of a story about my son, who's in his second year of college. And he's been there now for almost six weeks, I think, and we haven't spoken once. We've texted every day, a lot. And we actually made arrangements for him and his girlfriend to come home for Christmas, all over text. I'm like, “Pick up the phone, dude, this is so difficult.” But for him, that's the way it is.
So, I think it's about meeting people where they are with the technology they want to use.
Candice Reimers: So, I've worked with two organizations with large remote populations. One successful, and one not successful. The unsuccessful one, each department chose their technology individually, and so one group's using HipChat, one's using Hangouts, one leader you can only get him by text, and so much time and energy is wasted trying to figure out how to reach somebody. There was no coordination there, so a lot of time and energy was lost.
The other one, I'm constantly amazed by how they leverage it. So maybe half of their population is global, and there are these norms that they set in place. I was facilitating a meeting today, and there's the chat and you can see questions that are popping up and there are all these strange figures, and I'm like, “What does that mean?” It turns out that means they're raising their hand, that they have a question. But everyone knows the norms of the culture.
They have one client where there are more folks that act as an ambassador for the folks that are on the call, so they make sure that these questions are all getting asked. If they want me to slow down, I have to reiterate, if connectivity is not as good.
Bryan Power: There's one funny story. So, we have a business development leader who works out of Seattle. What he decided to do to stay connected, is that he purchased a little robot that is on wheels, and it's a little pole and a screen on it, and he has a joystick in his office in Seattle.
And there's a little battery port station, this is near Mountain View, and so when he wants to go to meetings, he just unlocks it. And he's just traveling down the hallway with his head sitting there all happy, and he comes into the meeting. And he's there, and he has a little camera on the video, and so he's moving around, watching everybody; and, all of a sudden, he’s right next to you.
It's kind of fun, right? He's leveraging technology to stay connected and he can roll into meetings in the conference rooms, spend some time, until the battery runs out. He's dead.
Arnnon Geshuri: How often do you unplug him?
That’s a Wrap!
I hope you found this write up useful. In case you missed this gem, Arnnon summed up what people look for in a company in 30 seconds, “So you don’t have to go to graduate school in HR”:
- Feeling connected to the company. To the mission, to the manager, to each other, to the environment, and
- Are they learning? And this isn’t confined to moving up the corporate ladder. It’s lateral learning—exposure to novel areas and learning new things outside of your job. We have an innate desire to learn.