HR & Leadership

Do We Really Need an Office? How To Build Culture With Any Type of Working Environment

March 3, 2022

I sat down with Barbie Brewer, successful People and HR leader at companies like ClickUp, GitLab, and Netflix, to discuss how companies are working today and how they should be thinking about their people’s work plan strategies going forward. 

What is the biggest challenge companies face as it relates back to office/remote work?

I question if we really want to be there as much as we think we do. Are people showing up in order to be seen or are people showing up because they really want that? 

I think the real challenge at hand is what if there was no COVID? What if we were re-evaluating our offices based on a world where the building doesn’t matter—the people do? 

It’s all about what is the best thing to do for our people. Sometimes that involves being in a building, and sometimes it doesn’t. 

We have to change the narrative. Your business decisions are best made based on what is best for your company. You now know that regulations and the world can change at any moment, so you may want to build your business differently so it doesn’t feel as great of an impact. That is the big challenge right now for a lot of leaders.  

How should leaders be thinking about the future versus how things were pre-COVID?

Everyone says it’s the new normal. I think there’s this verbal acceptance of it, but the mental acceptance of it, people still have to get there. 

Humans have egos and different things drive our egos. For some leaders, it’s walking into a room and seeing all their employees there. It could be driving by and seeing their name on the building. And now we have to re-evaluate the worth of our company, our success, and our wants and needs as a leader. And it’s not a bad thing. We all have it. 

I do think that we have to flip the rule on its head a little bit. I fundamentally believe that SaaS companies have an ethical responsibility to think about being less office-dependent. Before COVID, I had great employees everywhere. There is brilliant talent everywhere—but there aren’t amazing opportunities everywhere across the world. 

Remote work will democratize opportunity by spreading it to more people in more places in the world. It lets the best and the brightest of all places in the world stay in their communities so they can continue to influence and inspire the kids in that community. This allows that community to continue to get the tax revenues. That community can grow—instead of plucking talent out and moving them to San Francisco or Boston or Austin or wherever the big hubs are. We have a moral obligation in the SaaS business to be the ones who try to make this work—by taking the steps to make it work.

What would the ideal workforce look like? Fully remote versus hybrid?

I think the opportunities are limitless. You can do whatever you want. That’s what’s great. There are different challenges based on what you choose. 

With a hybrid workforce, you have to be careful about the bias. There is a natural tendency to feel more connected with the people that you’re sitting next to.

If you have all your executives in office, they have to be aware of their natural bias to value the opinions and respect their officemates more than the rest of the company they don’t see daily. That’s hard to do. 

If you are going to go all remote, you still need to bring people together. You can think of it in a way as I’m not going to save money by going remote—I’m going to spend it differently. Get people together in fun locations with their partners and get social bonds going that are going to carry you through the next six or nine months. 

It really is about building relationships based on trust, not about getting work done. 

When you are on video in someone’s home, take the time to get to know them. Don’t consider it a distraction to get to know each other better, you need to find a way to create small talk and social connections with you are all remote. The 10 minutes at the beginning of a meeting that you spend chatting isn’t time wasted, it is 10 minutes you can use to get to know the right people in the right roles—not just someone you happen to be in close proximity to.

How should leaders empower their organization and employees?

Every executive of the company needs to model acceptance and vulnerability. 

Every executive leader needs to say, I got to go, my kid’s got a doc’s appointment. They have to show that it’s okay to have a life outside of work. This isn’t every CEO—for some, work is their baby—but they can’t expect every employee they hire to have that same passion for the business that they have. They should have passion but it won’t be their baby in the same way. It’s important for a CEO to acknowledge that. 

I love the passion I see in CEOs, especially the founder CEO. I love, love, love that passion. It’s contagious. But what happens when you realize you need to have a life? Have you hired the right people around you that you can delegate to? Showing them that you have a life means that they can, too. 

What have we learned from our changing work policies so far?

We are being too reactive and not owning our own fates. This has been a catalyst to do business differently. 

You’re in SaaS. You are the luckiest people of the bunch who’ve been affected by COVID. Start saying, okay, business is different now; let’s do it differently. 

Stop waiting for someone else to tell you how you grow your business. Just start working in the new world. Have open office hours. Open up a Zoom room and leave it open for two hours. Use this as an opportunity to better what you are already doing.  But you have to try—it won’t just happen.

What’s most important to maintaining and evolving culture in a remote world?

2020 was such a moment. A moment to do it better. But we were all just trying to survive, we forgot to thrive. 

I have my preferences on culture, for sure. But I think the important thing is that, as you read in the best business books, hire, fire, promote based on your values, period. Otherwise, you really don’t have values. It doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. But you all have to be aligned to the same values in order to be honest and candid with one another in a way that’s respectful. 

Put time into it. A value is not a word. You have to define what that word means. Putting the word out there is not going to create a culture and a value for you. 

But it doesn’t stop there. You have to define the behaviors underneath that value. How does that show up? What does that mean for the actions we’re taking? And you have to spend time doing that. And that’s irrespective of remote, hybrid, office. That’s just culture. Basic culture.

What do we have to look forward to?

This year I hope we can put on an event to have everyone together—that is actually fun. 

This year focus on your culture, keep thinking about what you’re doing well and how employees are feeling connected, and then think about what you can do better. 

Culture will begin to happen on its own, but it’s something that you, as a leader of a company, should try to have stewardship over. Really think about where you want to go and what behaviors you want to see put into place—no matter what is happening in the world around you.