Company Health (Beyond Profit)

youdo talks to James Kirkham about all things company culture. Episode 7, Part 2

Luke - Welcome back everyone. We finished Part 1 talking about James's experiences of how to / how not to build a strong company culture. Following on from this, let's look at one of the biggest changes to the way that companies have to function these days, which is the post pandemic-world of remote or hybrid working.

On the face of it looks like a logistical change. I was sitting at that desk, in front of that computer, in that building, and I'm now sitting in a different one, which also happens to be my home. My view is that there's more to it than that, because you're dealing with people, or rather the absence of people. James what’s your take on remote working?

James - What happened during the pandemic came out of a moment of necessity. And everyone jumped on it with real efficiency and excellence and we all carried on in our respective roles at our respective businesses. I was at Defective Records and we had record breaking growth. So it's not like stuff just stopped. However, over time, I definitely believe there was a decrease in the quality of the conversations, a decreasing quality of the creativity. Maybe you could get there (higher quality) in the end, but I saw a more prosaic, staid set of discussions, kind of - ‘we are in this meeting for a period of time until we turn the laptop off or go to the next zoom which is very specific’. And there is nothing around the edges, I mean, quite literally nothing around the edges, because you are speaking into that screen. And my personal belief is that the edges is where the gold is.

We used to pick up something like a million pieces of individual body language on any given day, all of which are entirely subconscious, but they are actually individual data inputs into how you're reading that room, reading that person getting on with that person. That doesn't exist anymore. Now there was an awful lot of understanding of hey, this is all working great Zoom and Teams and Hangouts we've got a billion different versions of which version we want. And we're on Slack and we're on Workplace. I believe they can get you to from A to B, but almost to the detriment of what it is to be human (without sounding too melodramatic). Some of the best creativity simply doesn't come from those A to B sessions. It never did. It came from the incidental walk behind the desk, have a chat, have a cup of tea, shall we pop out? It comes in the moments of an aside now.

I've been in offices (Holler, COPA90, Defected) where people who were doing a brilliant job in accounting or finance, don't need pounding music or people doing keepie-uppies or idiots making jokes at coffee machines. I think it probably is insanity for them to sit in that environment day in and day out for 365 days of the year. Hopefully what we should get to is it's less about hybrid meaning tech and physical. It's more about a hybrid understanding of the way of business should compartmentalise that assumption of where people are.I think if you are to have any level of creativity, or ideas generation at the heart of your business, then people need to be together at some point they need to be together. If it's a regular part of your business, you probably need to meet regularly, you probably need to be together at least two, three days a week. That’s my belief.

I love the idea of autonomy, I've exploited it and leveraged it myself, you know, young son, blah, blah, I get that. But I think if I was probably running a 100 person company, right this second, I would probably be on the other side now and be a bit more demanding about how often those people are in, because I believe that's where you get your best work, your best bars, that best training of conversation, the understanding.

Luke - Lots of a lot of threads to pull on here! My experience of the working world is that I’m a better employee - I'm more productive, more creative - when I’m in an environment where I'm enjoying myself, where I'm having fun. And it can still be a very pressurised environment but I enjoy it and I enjoy the people around me. What I worry about is that companies - and not just companies, people - are missing out on the critical importance of being around people on a daily basis. We all say ‘it's the people that make a company’, and ‘the people are the reason I’m staying’. My concern is that in the ease or the convenience of not having to leave your house to go to your place of work, you lose so much of that. And yes that's to the detriment of the company but it’s also to the detriment of you, as an individual who needs to interact with other people on a regular basis in order to fulfill certain basic human functions.

James - I remember witnessing the team you had around you at Channel 4 in the early noughties, and it was an unbelievable time to be doing the work that you guys were doing. But you look closer and amidst the pressure and brilliance and hard work, it looked well fun! I often say my meetings with clients to be the most fun meeting they have all week. I want them to look forward to it. But that comes from the place in which you are operating and from the people around you. I'm a huge believer in that.

I have a friend who runs a marketing consultancy. He's absolutely brilliant and they're doing great with a remote first policy. I really buy into this idea because I kind of do it myself. I've got this amazing talent in South America and in Southeast Asia and we're all connecting and it's decentralised and we're getting great work. I just wonder if it only takes you so far there. I just wonder if it’s all a bit one-way. I don't know, if it's a true exchange of value. You go on that Zoom for that period of time to kind of ‘rent’ those ideas. But when that Zoom closes and you move on, what happens to that person? I'm wondering if it's something to do with the exchange in the back and forth, and I've not thought enough about that part. But do humans need humans? Yes. That's a fact. I'm not sure a Zoom and a Hangout is sufficient to be long lasting. My final point on that this requires attention. I'm looking forward to the Fast Company article in about three years time that looks back on this. You can't help but think if a company is entirely remote - and I a lot of the big tech ones have been entirely remote now for a couple of years - thenthere is an erosion of the bond between those people. And that sounds melodramatic but it has to be true.

Luke - I just had quickly go off and remind myself what the acronym DAO stands for. So it’s a Decentralised Autonomous Organisations which is new type of company that's come out of the blockchain community. I'm going to make a complete hash of defining it, but it's the idea of an anti-hierarchical structure, very much based on individual autonomy. People in the DAO will have an idea about where they're trying to get to, and they’re going to get there in whatever way they want. And it's all very flat. On the face of it, that sounds that sounds very interesting (though not for everyone!). But going back to your point, that immediately puts in my mind the image of an archipelago - lots and lots of little islands that are all part of this one thing - the archipelago - but what is each individual island's understanding of what that archipelago is? I’m taking this image too far!

But - and this is probably an age thing - when I work for a company, for me it has to have some sort of physical substance. And I would question whether that kind of island approach makes it almost impossible to pull off what we discussed at the beginning of our chat; the importance of understanding what a company's purpose is and of believing in it.

James - It feels like that. And by the way, the archipelago when the only risk of you using the archipelago image is that now I'm thinking sunshine and beaches and where do I sign up this!

There's a reason team talks or team rallies exist in person and that’s because it’s about being human together. And I'm not going to try and start talking about prehistory and those earliest versions and how we are still the same. We are still that same biological being, we are just beautifully augmented with the tech that we have created around us. Sometimes that’s to our detriment, and we end up realising this and pulling back. And that's why there is now an unbelievable drive towards wellness and getting back to nature and understanding, frankly, what we've seen already screwed up or what we're missing out on in any given day. This is not a coincidence. And I think we're going to see a continual search and yearning for that. Humans need to feel a part of something, I need to rally behind something or rally the troops and I need to see the faces in front of me and they need to feel the buzz around them. And there's a reason crowd dynamics work in a certain way. There's a reason audiences respond in a certain form.

I used to insist at Holler - and we took it into COPA90 - that we did, call it a ‘comms meeting’, on a Friday, and it was our chance to punctuate a working week. And it was easily - of all the million initiatives - the most important. Everyone sat or stood together, going through some of the great stuff we'd done, some of the issues we'd had and having a laugh. They were the most fun. I know that only works to a certain size, but you need the gang and if you're under 150 people you can create that gang mentality. And I am the biggest believer in that.

I remember stealing that from the music business. I spoke to a good friend of mine who was a director at Universal. I was kind of just getting some insights on how they did things. And he said “we get together on a Monday, we have the whole team, every facet and faction and pillar of this business gathered together and we talk about that we are getting that record to number one, or whatever the aim or ambition was. And then they effectively at the end of the meeting, press the button and charge as one together. I love that galvanised feeling, that feeling of being in a gang, that common cause that binds you. It's not just you sat in your isolation chamber, it's you being part of this thing and working together. This is a hard to dismiss in favour ‘ok I’ll see you on a Google Hangout at three o'clock on Thursday’!