Company Health (Beyond Profit)

Discussions Series, Episode 5: youdo talks about all things company culture

Luke - Today we are delighted to have youdo’s very own CTO, Gulliver Smithers joining us. Gulliver would you introduce yourself?

Gulliver - Sure. I'm Gulliver and I’ve been working in a mixture of large and small media organisations for most of my career. I’ve worked at a couple of startups but it’s mostly been companies like Sony, the BBC at senior levels, so either vice president, senior vice president or Chief Technology Officer roles. And that means I've been running big teams, and big technology development teams and product development teams.

Luke - And am I right in thinking you also had a brief stint in finance early on in your career? How was that?

Gulliver - Yes, my very early experiences as a graduate were in finance. And that was pretty unpleasant at that time. People would go and get drunk in the afternoon and have fights and it wasn't very nice! But when I started at the BBC in 98/99, it was very different. It was very relaxed and tolerant and inclusive. And kind of non judgmental as well I guess.

Luke - Do you think the culture at the BBC has changed since then?

Gulliver - I think the big thing that changed there is that there's a culture of higher performance, less jobs for life, a less protected work environment, that's kind of arisen as part of market forces and the increasing normalisation of fairly hardcore versions of capitalism. And so these places have become harder places to work, because your job doesn't feel as safe. You're probably being held to account for targets and objectives that maybe you didn't have a hand in authoring, so there's a little bit of disengagement around that.

I think what companies have been trying to do to make that more bearable for people is bringing in other elements to improve people's quality of life as they do the jobs. It’s an unavoidable fact of the modern workplace, that your job is going to be a little bit insecure, and that high performance is going to be demanded most of the time. And companies - rightly - are looking at other ways to soften that, because in its naked form it’s quite bad for mental health.

Luke - Do you have a good example of that from your career?

Gulliver - I have! I worked at Sky around 2003 and I had a job where I was pushing through quite big projects, and I had to really lean on people to get stuff done. At that time that was okay. Being fairly aggressive was kind of encouraged! As a result, Sky was seen as not a very pleasant place to work, and people would leave quite frequently and lot of people suffered stress and things like that. But if you look at Sky now they've really turned that around. They really do spend a lot of time focusing on making it a good place to work There's been a lot of time focusing on making sure that the senior executives are accessible. They spend a lot of time on ESG and it's great to see because I didn't have a particularly happy tenure there. I got some stuff done and it was good for my career, but as a place to just be, it wasn't that comfortable. But I think now looking at it, and also speaking to people I know that work there now, it's quite different. So if you can see that those things have changed. And they've managed to achieve that without necessarily compromising the bottom line. They're a pretty successful company commercially. And I think they joined the dots really, and said, well, we can't retain people, and if you've got people saying this isn't the best place to go, or if you've got people leaving, and we've got high turnover, then that inhibits our ability to be market competitive.

Luke - That chimes very much with what one of our previous guests, Ollie Lane, said last week when he said he thought there were two reasons that companies were making efforts towards being a better employer. One, it was pragmatic for exactly the reasons that you mentioned, which were retention and recruitment. But he did also say that he thought there was more of a sense of people thinking that this was the right thing to do. Do you subscribe to the idea that businesses are becoming more altruistic, more geared towards having a purpose that extends beyond just making a profit?

Gulliver - I don't think businesses are altruistic. By and large, I'm not not sure that's what they're here for. I think that what they've discovered is that they can have their cake and eat it too. You can bring in the things that you know are the right things to do for your people. And lo and behold, they actually make things better for the company as well. But if they didn't make things better for the company, then I'm not sure that companies would do them. The people, purpose and profit movement I think is fantastic and I wholeheartedly support it. BUT I think if you're not making a profit, then the other two are academic. I fully believe that a company with a clearly defined purpose will eventually win out over a company without.

With the PPP movement, I think it's a response to the fact that everything had gotten a little bit too bottom line focused. There are invisible things in bottom line externalities, social licence to operate etc. And if you lose those, then you disappear, or you lose your audience. I'm trying to think of an example of a company that did that. I suppose you've got your sort of classic Enrons and stuff, right? “We just made everyone in California have a blackout, but we made loads of money so what's the problem?!” And the market says, now you guys have gone a bit too far.

I think it's a little bit like when you're doing product development. If your product has a philosophy, it just comes across and I think the product is better for it. And if your product doesn't have a philosophy, then it's harder to love. I think Amazon would be a good example of a product that doesn't really have a philosophy. And Apple would be a good example of one that does. People really love Apple products and they don't love Amazon products, even though they are functionally excellent.

Luke - Who is your kind of North Star in terms of the companies that you've worked at, or of the companies that you've come into contact with?

Gulliver - When I worked at Sony, they were pretty good. They had all sorts of benefits, and they had re-done their whole campus with particular ideas in mind, like boosting energy, or reducing unhealth or whatever it might be. I kind of liked the way they approach things because it was holistic. Whereas when you go to someone like Google, and they go, “Oh, look, we've got some beds for our staff” and you just think, oh my god, they never leave the building. It doesn't doesn't seem like a nice thing, really. Whereas they might promote it as being a nice thing, right?

Luke - Maybe Google campuses are like the Vegas hotels which are designed so that you never leave! Google Campus is a Vegas hotel. You heard it here first.

Gulliver - Hah yes! The two companies from the US that I really like are Costco, who pay staff double minimum wage, and a really, really good employer by American standards. And also Trader Joe's, the supermarket chain in the West Coast. They do all the cheap organic foods. And you can tell that both places are nice places to work because the staff are relaxed and helpful. And there's enough of them!

Luke - What would you like to see those companies doing more of? Where do you still feel there is a lot of room for improvement?

Gulliver- I would just like them to pay more tax! I know there are issues with that, because the tax then can get spent on things you don't agree with. Also I’d like to see the general level raised in this respect rather than having certain companies constantly knocking out of the park. It's great to have examples of really good companies, because that shows as a model for the others. But I do think if the general bar was raised, it would be better for everybody.

Luke - I'm going to switch topics slightly. The pandemic has had a huge impact on the corporate sector not least with the (forced) move towards remote and hybrid working practices. How well do you think companies are doing in adapting to this new world of work?

Gulliver - Well, it's fascinating, isn't it? And it's sort of deeply rooted in human psychology. Extroverts are going to do less well working from home and introverts are going to do better. I have a great anecdote about this; I had a developer working for me at Sony, and I had suspected for a while that he wasn't pulling his weight. So I started to give him individual tasks to check this and he didn’t do them. Ever. In the end, we let him go. And when we let him go, we checked his computer and he’d had another job the whole time! And he’s been in the office just doing the bare minimum to keep hanging on by his fingernails. I should have probably worked it out but I think some people have fairly Luddite views of productivity, right? It's like, if you're here, you're being productive right? That was a big thing in the city right where people would sit around just so they weren’t the first to go home. In the city we would start at seven and people would still be sitting around 7:30pm just to show that they were keen and available and up for it. And it drives me crazy because I hate that sort of presenteeism. I think the hybrid situation is probably here to stay. But I do think it pushes employers and colleagues into very new territory in terms of measuring and understanding productivity. Presenteeism just doesn't map to the new world of work. So I think it's going to push new conversations about what productivity truly is and how you measure it.

Luke - To what extent does connectivity between colleagues play into that question of productivity? There's a lot of data which shows that people who feel more of a part of a team are more productive and do better at work? Obviously that is much more difficult to create when you've people not working together in an office?

Gulliver - My view is that productivity is largely a factor of work. Okay, some people just like banging out code and that stuff, right. But they take pride in what they do, because they know other people are going to look at that code at some point and say that person knew what they were doing. And so ultimately, if you're in a collaborative enterprise, a large part of it is knowing that somebody else cares whether you do your job or not. So I think that team cohesion is really good.

The best performing groups are where people are really engaged from the minute they get in, and the day goes quickly, and everyone's up for it. But my view is that you really only get that privilege with great companies and with great projects where things are going well. If you're working at a company that's not going so well or in a sector that just isn't set for explosive growth, then it's still important to build those social bonds but it’s much harder to build that sort of startup collaborative endeavour.

I still think that social cohesion is really, really important, and will help you retain the best people and help you have each other's backs, right. I think then the social bond, the social licence to operate, becomes more important. And I don't know how easy that is for hybrid working.

Luke - As a technologist, what technologies are out there now or coming down the pipe that you think could have a transformative impact on the relationship that we have with each other and with the planet? As in a good relationship, not a bad relationship, e.g next generation nuclear missiles!

Gulliver - I think the natural decentralisation of what people are referring to as web 3.0 is very interesting. And I think that structures like DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) will potentially empower people to work together in more in a more balanced way, without so much of the older hierarchies that we see in traditional businesses. I see this as energising and empowering and I think it could lend itself very well to two future modes of working. I think the metaverse is going to be fascinating, especially with AR goggles. For instance, I've got some goggles on at work and I can chat to a guy who isn't actually at work, but I can see him at his desk because he's got a camera's computer and we're just there all the time. So I can sit opposite someone without having to commute, which I think is going to be great for the planet. And great for some of the team coherence problems that we talked about. I think technology will catch up eventually and you'll be able to do proper telepresence and one would hope, less flying. If I could attend CES via a telepresence robot, then maybe 30,000 people don’t have to fly to CES…

Luke - Gulliver thanks for taking the time. Always pleasure!