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#043 – Build a great workplace culture. No burnout. Even with remote teams

Podcast Summary

How can you build an engaged, high performing workplace culture…whether you are in the office, hybrid, or fully remote? Even better, how can you do it without the burnout and high turnover that often comes from a fast paced environment with high workloads?

That’s the focus of today’s episode, and the answer will surprise you…or at least make you wonder why so few companies actually do it.

My special guest is tech leader and serial entrepreneur Graeme Barlow. He’s an expert at building thriving companies and teams. Over the past 14 years, he’s built and scaled four successful companies, selling two of them.. Now, before you say that the tech industry is different, I encourage you to hear his simple philosophy and highly effective strategy for building businesses and teams. Regardless of your industry or company size, Graeme’s insights will be realistic and practical. 

Episode Links & Resources

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Podcast Transcript

Please note: This transcript is generated by computer and may contain errors


How can you build an engaged, high performing workplace culture, whether you’re in the office, hybrid, or fully remote? Even better, how can you do it without the burnout and high turnover that often come from a fast paced environment with high workloads? That’s the focus of today’s episode, and the answer will surprise you, or at least it’s going to make you wonder why so few companies actually do it? My special guest today is tech leader and serial entrepreneur, Graeme Barlow. He’s an expert at building thriving companies and teams.

Over the past 14 years, he’s built and scaled four successful companies, selling two of them. Now, before you say the tech industry is different, I encourage you to hear his simple philosophy and highly effective strategy for building businesses and teams, regardless of your industry or company size, Graeme’s insights will be realistic and practical. 

Welcome to the Working Well Podcast, the show that explores the rapidly changing landscape of work and well being. Each episode, we dive into the hottest topics in leadership, employee well being, and the future of work. I’m your host, Tim Borys. And before we dive in, let’s learn a bit more about Graeme.

About Graeme Barlow

As mentioned, Graeme is a seasoned serial entrepreneur with an impressive track record spanning over 24 years. He’s most renowned for his pioneering efforts in the tech industry, co-founding and leading four successful companies that have left a significant mark on the business landscape. This includes co-founding a gaming currency company that was acquired in 2006, the social gaming company Rocket Owl that grew to over a million active users.

It was acquired by Keshment Technologies in 2014. Then there’s ProPet Software, a thriving SaaS company, specializing in business management tools for the pet industry, and numerous other companies that continue to thrive today. Since 2016, Graeme has been focused on building Iversoft, a world class software development agency specializing in mobile and emerging technologies.

Under his guidance, the company has grown from a team of seven to a nationally distributed team of more than 50 employees, with annual revenue approaching 10 million. Needless to say, Graeme knows business and what it takes to scale an idea and a team. 

Shifting Workplace Culture in Different Work Environments 

All right, Graeme, great to have you on the Working Well podcast. And, yeah, over the past 15 years, you’ve had amazing success. You’ve built multiple companies, built high performing teams. Yeah. That’s congrats on that. 

Thank you, Tim. It’s awesome to be on the show. I appreciate you extending the invite and really enjoyed the conversations to date. It’s been an awesome kind of learning from your perspective and sharing what we’ve been learning on what has been a pretty crazy past couple of years in the kind of employee and cultural wellness side of building, building teams and building culture. So excited to be here. Excited to chat. 

Awesome. I know from our previous conversations and chats we’ve had off the show,, I’m super excited to dive into some of these. You’ve touched on a few things that I know our listeners will really get value from, and we’re starting to see lots of big changes across. Not just the tech industry, but workplaces in general. And I think some of the things that you’ve experienced are going to be of tremendous value and help companies, other organizations really benefit from some of the learning you’ve done.

The Impact of Remote Work on Company Culture 

Yeah, it’s been a pretty exciting and crazy journey. And one of the things that I’m keen to dive into, especially for potentially your non tech listeners is. Even though the tech sector and at least like our current company, Iversoft, has always viewed ourselves as very progressive in the kind of people and culture space and very progressive in our leadership style and thinking, one of the things that has been most enlightening for us over the last three or four years has been how many assumptions we thought we knew about how things had to work or things that really couldn’t change and the more we’ve experimented with new strategies, new approaches the more we’ve been surprised at the results and realizing that a lot of, maybe the more traditional philosophies on how things have to happen or how team building happens or how culture becomes a thing really aren’t what we assumed they were. 

One great example. I think the last time was prior to the pandemic. We had, in hindsight, somewhat comical. At the time, we thought of a very progressive policy of having a remote work policy where staff could request, I think, one day a month with manager approval where they could work from home as long as it was planned well enough in advance. And we were like, yeah we’ve got this remote work thing. And I don’t think anyone really used it and we were not believers in space. And we went from that mindset to in the span of less than 30 days, checking the entire company fully remote. And at this point now have no office, no physical presence and have more than 50 employees across the country working fully remote and performing at a higher level than we’ve ever seen in the 12 year history at Iversoft.

That’s great. And I definitely want to chat a bit about the productivity side of things, but you, a lot of people think that tech now particularly is, Oh, everyone’s, globally distributed, like Atlassian or something like that. But you were bricks and mortar for all the previous companies and you better one came to the office each day.So what, tell me a bit about how your leadership style has had to shift over that time. 

Yeah, so I think one thing that’s interesting, at least for my own career progression is I actually started my first kind of business when I was very young in the space like in my teens. Was a fully remote company. The rest of the partners I had in the business were all friends. I’d met through online gaming and never really connected in person, never really connected online. And that was 20 plus years ago. So I started in business and tech was remote since then every company had built. From consulting to game development to Iversoft was bricks and mortar, and like, when we look back at it, Iversoft scaled up to about 30 people.

Office Environment

In physical space and right before the pandemic, we had just finished renovating 12 and a half thousand square feet of office space in Ottawa, because that was where we were going to be growing and expanding and taking over the world from. And one thing that at least for me has been a bit of a guiding star when you see so many experienced voices in the business world and in the tech world saying Oh, you can’t develop junior talent. You can’t. Do culture, you can’t do all of these things online and virtually. I come from the gaming space. I like my entire life online. The best man at my wedding. I met through playing World of Warcraft 15 plus years ago. And I think we’ve met in person three times in my lifetime. But it’s been one of my closest relationships.

And I look at the kind of bonds and culture that can be created in online gaming through Fairly large teams, like traditionally used to be up to 40 people overcoming extremely complex, extremely high paced challenges. And if you ask some of those groups, if they felt like there was culture, if there was collaboration, if there was shared learning, I think you’d get a pretty resounding and definitive hell yes, there is that’s literally what we do, that’s what defines us, that’s how we make things happen. And yet. When you shifted gears into a corporate setting, it was like, Oh, yeah no, we couldn’t possibly develop juniors, tell you couldn’t possibly nurture confidence or other things. And I think as a leadership group, but I was often for myself, it’s been challenging at every step and trying to be trying to look to other places where that’s been overcome and leveraging those tools.

What Can Gaming Teach us About Engagement and Workplace Culture?

And so we’ve used a lot of the tools from the gaming ecosystem from different online communities to help try and create. An online culture and online collaboration and seen pretty incredible results from it. However, it means that you have to be very intentional with it. And this is where I think what you’re touching on is a little bit like leadership style has to change.

If you take remote and as something that you’re doing because you have to, or if you take it as a philosophy of we’re hybrid. Most of my focus is on the people in the office. There are also people on a screen that dial in and they will get what they get. It’s not going to work like you have to go all in on virtual and we are going to make sure virtual mentoring happens.

And if it’s pair programming, if it’s check ins, if it’s one on ones, if it’s random coffee chats with lots of different people in the company, cross departmental and everything, all of that can be recreated virtually. And, but not without leadership and kind of A strong embrace and championing from your executive team.

Why are Companies Struggling with Employee Engagement and Corporate Culture?

And I think that’s a big thing where a lot of companies have struggled. You don’t necessarily have full buy in from the executive team because a lot of the executive team wants everyone back into the office. They want to be able to see people. They want to be able to connect. And I think there’s value in those connections, but I think there’s potentially more value in kind of occasional or quarterly or whatever it is, groups of people getting together versus oh, yeah, no, we’re infinitely better if we had 50 people in one room versus 50 people not stressed out, not commuting distributed across the country and access to some of the best talent we could possibly attract anywhere in Canada versus.

Who is in commuting distance to a building. I think you nailed it when you said intentionality, it has to be a mindset shift that happens, and you use the words going all in, however you describe it, it has to be a commitment by leadership to say, this is what we’re doing and learning from it.

And knowing that you probably won’t be able to do the same things that you did previously, or at least in the same way. In fact, some ways you can do them a lot better, but the, and that some of that is overcoming those belief systems that people have held so strongly. I love how you said what we thought we knew pre COVID.

What talk, talk a bit more about some of those beliefs that you had to reframe or get rid of. Yeah the big one was remote work. That was the giant crazy one of we’re like, we couldn’t possibly do what we do, not remotely. You need everyone around a whiteboard around a table for a scrum and whatever, and all the developers need to be able to see each other.

Really? We had a little bit into that. We had a month into it and the cadence for every metric we tracked was up. And if we look at the last three years, our quality of what we ship, the quality of the products, the quality of the code caliber, the talent, like everything across the board is up. The other thing that I think was a big one is a lot of us brought into the philosophy that culture in a company is defined by The events and the parties or the quarterly events or like the.

The Need for Transparency and Open Communication

The stuff outside of the work and the reality of what we’ve seen is culture, especially in a digital ecosystem, becomes way more about the values that bind you together, the philosophies that are lived by the leadership team, and we hear this time and time again in one on ones and reviews and feedback from our staff that one of the core culture tenants at Iversoft is transparency.

That we run a very transparent model. We have quarterly all hands where we go through all the financials for the company, good, bad, or otherwise we show expenses, profitability, revenue anything that are that’s a concern for us. We go through all projects across all the teams. What’s going well, what’s not going well, and at any time are generally willing to sit down and have a conversation with the staff over where things are at and what’s going on.

And we get so much feedback, but that. Is such a culture shift for them to experience? Nobody’s really come forward and say, man, transparency is nice, but I wish we had pizza every Thursday. A lot of you guys live in transparency. You live those values. Another 1 has been that, this is a little bit heretical in the services world, but the client isn’t always right. It’s part of our job as the technology experts at the table to sometimes flag when the wrong decisions are being made or push back on conversations that need to be pushed back on and for better or worse, that’s something we’ve lived throughout our whole portfolio.

And the vast majority of the clients we work with on a daily basis really appreciate that because it’s something that’s very, it’s way more of a partnership than just a kind of. Yeah, you’re shoving stuff down the funnel, and we’ll just run off and do it. That’s what’s come through is that is what is our culture.

Defining Leadership

That is what kind of defines Iversoft. That’s what defines leadership. That’s what defines our people and culture team. Is that kind of air of openness and communication, transparency, willingness to stand up for the values? And I think as much as we would have said pre pandemic, but the values played a big role in the company, I don’t know that you would have had a crystal clear response from our entire leadership team that the values embody our culture.

There would have been a lot of references like the art that’s on the walls, what we’ve named our boardrooms, the vibe around the office, all of that stuff. Whereas today, I think you’d get a unanimous answer from anyone in any lead position across Iversoft that it’s those values that bind the culture and that’s what attracts people and that’s what keeps people.

Which I think has been. A really cool learning experience for me and very humbling to realize maybe how powerful it is, but also how wrong some of my perceptions were before, but I love it. I want to keep learning. And that, that has come up in a number of different episodes of done over, over the past couple of years is that company there’s the culture and the value.

I guess you typically talk about culture. I believe culture comes from the values that are. Demonstrated by leadership every day, every single day and now you can have a plaque up on the wall that says, here’s our values. Honesty, integrity, blah, blah, blah, blah. I just want to throw up with that.

Leadership Actions Drive Performance and Workplace Culture

But the fact is the actions of leaders every single day and how they interact with their teams is what defines what the culture is. So the, and if we talk about stress and burnout. There’s a great definition of stress is that the stress rises based on how far you are from your actual to your ideal.

So if there’s a big gap in if you’re promoting and you’re marketing teams, promoting these values. And the reality is that you’re in a toxic workplace. The further that gap is, the bigger the stress and burnout. And I think, especially as companies grow and I’ve worked in lots of different larger companies over the years, it’s just, there’s zero connection by leaders or employees to what the actual they know exactly what the real world says, but there’s no connection to the values on the wall.

And the companies that do that well, that really connect that and hire for that and reward and recognize people for acting and stepping up to live into those values. They’re the ones that thrive. It’s not rocket science, but it’s so uncommon these days. Yeah. One of the, one of the exercises we did a couple of years ago, and I think we’re coming up on another pass to, to redo it is when we settled on our core values of driver soft recently, we had a session where we put all the values up at this time in a boardroom on a whiteboard with all the staff, and then we had all anyone in a leader management role, Left the site for the day and worked somewhere else.

And all the staff in the company had an opportunity to put either kind of printed out stickies or written sticky notes on each of the values of whether or not they agreed with them, whether they thought they were something we were actually living or not. If something needs to change in the way the value is presented.

Employee Experience

Or if there was something that was missing and honestly, it was such an incredible experience. I think we got a resounding endorsement of, I think there were seven or eight at the time. Resounding endorsement of three or four, a 100 percent kickback on one of them of just yeah, this is great.

We don’t do this. This isn’t us. So try again. And then 2 or 3 of them where we get some really good feedback on things we like. We think we’re halfway there. Here’s what we would need to do actually. Make this part of our day today and make this part of who we are and. We’ve tried to continue to collect this kind of feedback on a smaller scale, but I know we’re going to be redoing it now that we’re a lot larger.

And I think that kind of, to some extent, anonymous, transparent, open feedback and communication with your team as to whether or not the day to day reality matches the writing on the wall is important and can be a very humbling experience. And then in some cases, I know companies that I’ve talked to about the idea about doing that and they’re like, yeah, we would never do that.

We know they wouldn’t agree and we wouldn’t do that. That’s it, I don’t care. We’re going to, we’re going to strive for it and that’s what matters. And it’s okay if there’s that much of a disconnect between what’s written and what you’re saying the reality is, then I think you have problems that go far beyond just a disconnect on the values, but.

Checking In on Remote Workers…The Right Way

Yeah, that temperature check to me is so so important. Yeah. And that’s something I’ve done on the coaching side with leaders and teams and to really look at doing the, there’s the core values and then what we call the aspirational values. And differentiating between those, because I like how you said, yeah, there are some that’s yeah, this is something we live every day.

And there’s these ones that, yeah we’re aspiring to that. We’re part way there, but being able to differentiate, because when we talk about those core values, that’s the, those are the things, the non negotiables, that’s all the stresses, the challenge, the challenges, the conflicts that happen.

In interpersonal relationships, but also in the business, they typically are around one of the core values and that’s something that again, companies and leadership teams don’t always put the time into really clarifying. And if they do, we often see the gap in communicating that to the rest of the team and across the organization.

So that. Reception or the janitor, or they need to know that what they’re doing on a day to day basis is living into those core values and to be recognized and rewarded for living into them, but that’s often not happening, especially in larger organizations. Yeah, how I’m curious about your experience, because you’ve been into a lot of organizations for this conversation.

The Disconnect Between Executives and Employees

How often have you observed disconnect between kind of senior groups and maybe the more junior teams? And when you do, is there an opportunity to typically collect feedback from the junior teams or? Has there been generally a fair bit of pushback of yeah, no, we’re not pulling everyone to, to put an opinion forward.

Yeah, it’s a great question. The fact is the opportunity is always there to seek feedback. Whether the desire to seek feedback is there is a different story. I’d say more often than not, there’s a disconnect between the executive leadership team and call it frontline employees. Why do you think that is a good question to ask those leadership teams and again, it comes back to why there’s so much challenge around toxic workplaces.

And I don’t often like using that word toxic workplaces because it’s not always toxic. It’s a lot of times. It’s just, man, it’s yeah, whatever shows up, go do my job. And I hear so many people say, Okay. You don’t have to love your work. You just show up and you put in your time. And, but as a business owner, I don’t want to see, I don’t want people in my organization, the company, right?

That is, that spreads. Yeah. And they’re like, what are the stats show now? It’s something like 65 percent of people in or more in the companies are disengaged. Some are passively disengaged. They’re just like, whatever. They’re the meh. And then there’s the actively disengaged that are sabotaging the business.

That’s where a lot of the focus goes on those people. We obviously want those out, but there’s this middle of the bell curve that’s just there. They’re putting in the time, they do okay work. They’re not thriving. They’re not happy, but that’s where the opportunity is to, as leaders, when we can engage those people, it’s like.

Turbocharge for your corporate culture, your results. And I think a lot of leaders are just so overwhelmed right now with everything that’s going on. Is there either, I guess it’s a combination of overwork, overwhelm, and maybe not necessarily having the skills to start to implement those. We see in even massive organizations, there are little pockets within the organization where certain leaders.

Why the Tech Industry Doesn’t Need to Be Different

Are creating thriving teams and departments. Yeah, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s not a. Strategic initiative top down to say, Hey, we’re going to develop our people and we’re going to create this culture. And I think people often look at the tech industry and say, yeah, but it’s different.

They’ve got higher margins and they have the money to pay people more and add these perks. But, as a Canadian tech entrepreneur, how do you see that being different? Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I love them. They call it too for the segment in the middle is where a lot of the opportunity lies.

So I would say product software companies definitely tend to have higher margins and have an advantage in that space. However, at least in the context of Iversoft, we’re a services business, so we have similar margins to other service based businesses where we charge a 20 percent markup on our kind of.

Time and materials cost. So that’s where we’re looking and we follow very transparent pricing. So we’re very upfront with our clients of what our cost basis is and what the markup is. And we still make it work within that. I think a lot of businesses are often afraid to communicate how their business model works.

Especially in the service of space, there’s a lot of effort to hide the math that happens behind the curtain, which sometimes makes it more challenging to raise your prices or negotiate like we moved our prices a fair bit during the pandemic. But it wasn’t a huge issue with our portfolio because we’re very clear with our client.

I’m like, here’s the cost of salaries in the team. You have here’s what’s changing because the whole world’s going crazy. This is what the new pricing is because of that. So being more transparent and open helps, I think, facilitate some of that conversation. 

Rethinking Core Values and Culture

The other thing that I think sometimes gets lost is just because tech has more knowledge base. That’s more Potentially adaptable to remote. There’s a lot of things that we focus on for keeping people inspired, keeping people motivated that is transferable. And a lot of that comes down to making sure you’ve got a culture where you recognize rising talent, and be willing to promote quickly a lot of the time.

We talked to businesses and we can be a little bit controversial here. And one of the things I love and hate hearing from business owners is Oh, there’s no talent. I can’t hire anyone. It’s no, you can’t hire anyone at the crappy wage. You’re trying to pay them more, raise your prices.

Engaging and Motivating Employees for Better Results

You will have talent and you’ll be the only person in your sector that has the best players in the space. And I think that’s something that happens sometimes. Gets overlooked is that happy, motivated, compensated people do better work. That’s just a fact. And you can see that in so much of the data. And I would be willing to bet that translates over to most kinds of physical industries, most service industries, we’ve certainly seen it.

And we talked about it a little bit as we went remote and we saw productivity go up. Reality is we saw productivity go up because parents weren’t spending hours commuting. They had more time with their family and kids. They had more flexibility of oh, a kid is sick. I’m not panicking to figure it out.

I can balance stuff a little bit differently. I can do the time I need to do for my job and then still be available to make my own food at home or whatever it is that helps to reduce the stress. That’s the reality of what helps and if you’re not in a remote situation you can’t do that.

Burnout is a key factor in low employee engagement, and also shows up as poor corporate culture. Here’s a previous episode on burnout that you may like

Creating Opportunities for Career Progression

There’s so much else you can do in terms of providing certain flexibility by providing a little bit of autonomy of people are adults, they can make decisions for themselves and you over track and over monitor and almost over engineer your systems to contain and control everyone.

People feel very contained and controlled and not motivated. And so often we see a combination of that system plus a lot of arbitrary barriers to career progression where it’s okay, yeah, you’re showing leadership and you’re really killing it. We require 3 to 5 years of experience to move you up to the next role.

In a year from now, we can talk about a promotion. If you’ve got someone that’s killing it, promote them quickly. Show that there’s upward mobility in your company. Show that people that are motivated, that are working hard, can advance. I laugh a little bit seeing all the TikTok videos and Instagram videos and everything trending and all the new generations of you have to change jobs every two years to progress.

Challenging Assumptions in Remote Work

And I think in most traditional organizations, that’s true. Like I’ve talked to business owners that are like, Oh, I couldn’t possibly give that person a 10, 000 raise because they’re going from junior to intermediate. They’ve only been here nine months. It’s okay. They’ve been here nine months.

Are they delivering at the level of the person that’s making 10, 000 more? It’s yeah, but that’s way too fast. They might get greedy. It’s or they might realize they’re worth what they’re doing and you’re billing them at that value. So there’s a disconnect there. And I think that’s, all of that goes into how do you motivate, how do you address that middle slice that isn’t necessarily about Oh, it’s remote or it’s tech.

Like it’s people. And that has been our guiding philosophy for a long time at Iversoft. It’s like we are a service based business where our product, our offering is really smart people to work on problems. Therefore, as a management team, our only job really is to make sure we have clients and then make sure that they get the happiest, smartest, most productive people we can possibly find them.

Everything else is noise. And when you distill it down, like when the lights shut off in the office is empty, there’s nothing there. We don’t have a product that we’re selling where we tell the talent of people and a lot of service based businesses are the same way. But don’t necessarily recognize the people as the product, right?

Cutting through the Noise to Find What Matters

They think it’s like, Oh, it’s our brand. It’s our legacy. It’s whatever. And that’s part of it. But at the end of the day, you’re selling people doing things. And the more skilled those people are, the happier they are, the better they are with your clients, the friendlier they are, the more successful your company is going to be.

And so finding a hundred different ways to improve wellness and happiness. Is how you grow talent at those companies, how you retain people who love it. Yeah, exactly. Hire great people, support them, help them learn, grow and improve. And then if we take some of the recent stuff, it’s then you put tracking software on the computer.

So it tracks their most strokes and keystrokes like, come on. I shake my head when I see that in the industry these days. It’s funny because it’s such a hard line to walk and we’ve actually had to have a lot of conversations with staff about this because as a remote business and like we ship technology all over the country, we have proprietary code on people’s computers.

It took us a while to find good fleet management tools for all of our hardware that did not include. Or could very explicitly for all staff show that they are not doing keystroke logging. They’re not doing the remote monitoring, but they are giving us the ability to GPS track a computer or remotely lock a computer and report a stolen.

Important Considerations for Remote Work

Those were 2 things we realized were a reality as remote companies like. We need to be able to turn off computers anywhere in the world and just lock it down and make sure nothing can happen to it, but finding that middle ground finding software. I don’t need it to be invasive.

I just need those two options for what we need to be enabled to do. It’s challenging. We found a good solution though. So we’re happy in that space, but it definitely took some good conversations with the staff. Like we are not doing this. We will do a whole tech demo. If we try and take over here, all the pop ups and prompts, it gives you like, do you want this person to take over your computer?

Do you want them to see this? Do you want them to like, we’re not doing any of that. We just need to be able to kill the power and track where it is, because if you lose it, or if someone runs off with one, we need to be able to find it. We actually had that. We had someone ship a laptop to China and we were able to, the first time it turned on in China, we were able to shut it down and kill it and take care of it.

And fortunately it was, there was nothing associated with it that was a problem, but. It was insightful to see that journey and be grateful we had the right tools in place. Yeah. And that’s probably a whole other podcast episode is the technology these days of how to manage and help promote teams thrive.

We need technology to do it, but how that technology is used really, I think it starts with trust in the people. And as my wife likes to say, trust, but verify, you have to lead with trust and have safeguards in place, like you said, to be able to shut down remotely, shutdown a computer.

Trust, Leadership, and Workplace Culture

But if you don’t trust your people to get the job done that you’ve asked them to do. You hired the wrong people. Yeah, that’s the first issue. And it will become very clear, very quickly if someone is not delivering, if you’re leading people effectively doing your one on ones and have clear expectations and metrics.

It’s very evident who’s performing and who’s not. Oh, yeah. But that goes again into the leadership extremely quickly. Identify when the performance isn’t there. And the reality is like a lot of, we sometimes hear oh, I can’t possibly put the metrics in place where we’re, we don’t have the time to look at that.

I was like, if that is true, then you also don’t have the metrics in place to identify rock stars in your company. You’re also not. Getting the right data to identify and celebrate when you have people that are absolutely killing it, that are going above and beyond that are doing that because it’s the same systems.

The Downside of Metrics and KPI

It’s the same metrics, the same KPIs that come out of it that will help flag underperformance also flag your superstars. And if you’re not celebrating your superstars, why would anyone that has the capability of becoming a superstar stick around? If there’s no hope of them being acknowledged or progressing because of it, if it’s purely going to be based on like personal politics of how well they navigate their one on one relationship with their manager, you’re not going to get a culture or a team of high performers that are moving the needle forward.

You’re going to get a culture of politically savvy networkers. There are some businesses and maybe that’s what you’re looking for. For us, we’re looking for the superstars. We’re looking for the people that are crushing it. And it’s funny, we haven’t touched on this yet, but one of my favorite quotes that I.

Reiterate often, unfortunately, like we’ve never actually run into this too much, but every now and then I catch myself falling into the trap a little bit which is the whole like theoretical conversation of between the CFO and a CEO of oh, we’re spending so much money to train these people and buying courses.

The Power of Learning & Development. Helping Employees Thrive.

What if we train them and they leave? And the CEO response was like, what if we don’t train them and they stay to me, I literally have that quote on my website, like for the court. I love it. Yeah. Yeah. I’d like, I heard it years ago and it is, it, to this day is one of my favorite things. I was like, yeah, have you.

If you pull someone out of the market, put them into your company, put them in a black box and have them ship the same stuff for three years, and then three years later, wonder why they haven’t become an intermediate or senior person or improved in some way, or they’re behind on the newest trends. Software, we’re, we work in mobile by virtue of Apple and Google shipping new operating systems every year, the space is moving every single year.

There are new languages, new technologies, new hardware. Every year, you have to have a system that is keeping people trained and on top of things and make time and make space for that to happen, or you are going to fall behind. Same with any trade if you’re not taking time to train people and invest in development of the next step, yeah, you can get 3 years in with the same person.

Attracting Top Talent in a Competitive Landscape

You’ve had the person doing the same routine stuff every year have the potential to advance. You haven’t created space for them to advance and now you’re complaining, you’ve got someone that’s not learning, right? But I had a related conversation this morning with she’s a HR leader and she’s been brought into a very, not a tech industry, but a subject matter expert company, we’ll just call it engineer types in in more blue collar, heavy industry.

And the, a lot, almost all of the leaders in that company are subject matter experts that have been put into leadership and. She’s they think they still need to be doing the job. And we had a great conversation around that being one of the major barriers to promoting people is when you go from a doer to a manager, your role is completely different.

It’s great to take that subject matter expertise to understand the business and understand the roles that are happening, but your job is not to do anymore. Your job is to lead the people that do. And I think that’s a very different skill set. It is. Yeah. And it’s something that still in, even in large companies gets completely lost.

Employee Skill Development

Our people in culture team would be losing their minds hearing you this, say this right now. So it’s funny you say that, like one of the things we have leaned into huge in the last six, six months. It’s been on our periphery before, but I would say the last six months has had a like heavy concerted effort of Iversoft at least is we realized as we were getting bigger and doing just that of take your most senior developers, your most senior designers, your most senior, whatever.

And moving them into leadership positions, shockingly, just because you change someone’s title doesn’t actually mean they have any training or understanding how to lead and manage people. And if you don’t take a proactive stance, you end up with a one on one 6 months later. That’s oh, we’re getting a lot of negative feedback that you run really bad one on ones.

The Power of Effective Feedback

Or you don’t give negative feedback. It’s and they’re like, oh, how should I do that? What should I change? Oh yeah, we probably need a system that trains management, that trains leadership, that trains how to do these things. And we’ve been building now a whole kind of pre lead program where people that are aspirational for leadership get to try out a leadership role for a month before getting promoted into it.

Cause that’s, I think that’s a whole other thing is a lot of companies sometimes promote people into a role, realize they never should have done that. And are now trapped because you can’t move them backwards and you’re stuck. And so we’ve done a combination of things. 1 is creating the pre lead training and then also creating lead and manager training.

Facilitated by our people and culture team on how to. Conduct 1 on 1, how to give feedback, they can shadow. Other successful one on ones and management interactions, but also looking at a scenario where we develop a forked or split career path within Iversoft, where there is a path that people can go down where they continue to become subject matter experts and can continue to advance their career, or they can choose to branch into management.

Career Development Paths and Corporate Culture

Sometimes I think organizations set up a structure where you hit a plateau where the only way you can advance is management and not every domain expert should be a manager. Sometimes it’s okay for them to just continue to become a more senior developer, designer, architect, engineer, whatever. Yeah, some of the some of the best engineers I’ve ever met or worked with, but nominal engineers.

Probably should never run a team of engineers. Should be a rockstar contributor on a team of good engineers. But have zero interest in the people management side of things. Yeah. And that’s okay. They just don’t want to do that. They’re like, I love what I do. I want to keep doing this. I’m good at it and embrace that.

But they shouldn’t be necessarily penalized for that. No. And I think that’s one thing that is challenging and I definitely think it’s easier in tech is there isn’t necessarily really a ceiling for where people can advance in their own proficiency and discipline as as a just peer developer or like software architect, I think there’s potentially more of a ceiling in other industries or other roles, but.

I don’t know, but I think having an intentional structure in your organization where people can advance in both paths is important. If your goal is long term retention, if it isn’t, then I think being very candid with people of yeah, the only step forward for you for here is into a management role or into another company.

And I think you can always find another company that will potentially pay more for that discipline. If they’re not providing that opportunity, but. Yeah, the answer isn’t always just force every senior person into team leadership, because it’s also a good way to scare off a lot of high performers on that team.

Leadership Skills That Generate Performance and a Great Corporate Culture

If you put someone into team leadership that is not interested in the person management side of things, and they would infinitely prefer to be a doer. And we’ve definitely been through, we’ve been through that before where we’ve promoted phenomenal talent into leadership roles and then realized we took away everything that made them excited about their job.

And. Months in, they’re just going this is not for me. I want to go back to the doing stuff because the people management side is exhausting. Whereas we want the people that are lit up by coaching and supporting and developing talent and passing on knowledge and technique and all of that, but.

Yeah, it all has to be intentional. Yeah. To when they get put into a position to make sure they have a development path to build the skills needed if they want to go in that path. Yeah. And that comes back to just that overall. Culture and building great teams. If you have the right training to develop people into the role you like, who’s the engine, like a great doer engineer can become an amazing leader.

But as you said, it’s a different skill set that has to be developed. And they went to school for years to become an engineer. They have years of career progression in the doing. All of a sudden you shift gears on them, drop them into a role and are like, you should be just as good at this as you were at the engineering stuff.

It’s like, how? On what world? Like you have to give them the skills. You have to at least take a step. There. And I’m not in any way saying we figured it out. We’re in the process of figuring out and finding the gaps and learning. But I think that’s something that I see happen over and over again in, in companies is yeah, he’s just, you get promoted.

The Importance of Wellness in Today’s Workplace

For more on this topic, check out this previous episode.

And as soon as you have the like new salary and title, they’re like, all right you’re a manager now manage. Yeah. Yeah. It’s crazy. Now, one thing I, we touched on briefly earlier that I really wanted to dive into maybe as a bit of discussion is we’ve seen. The role and structure of HR people, wellness change dramatically.

We’ve definitely seen it shift in Iversoft. I wanted to maybe get your opinion and share, share some of our insight on what do you see has changed in the leadership structure and organizations from what was traditionally like your, I don’t know, C level HR role to the introduction of like people and culture roles to the introduction of like potentially wellness roles.

What is. What’s changed? What are those roles mean? What’s different between them and how do companies benefit from that? Yeah the role of HR has drastically changed over the past few years. In the past, I call it pre COVID HR was seen as basically the, an administrative function. The, it was the most common structure in most organ, especially large organizations.

Large to medium would be your CEO, the C-O-O-C-T-O, and then VP of hr. And just that in itself. I often use the analogy of HR sits at the little kids’ table at Christmas, and, they don’t treated from a mindset standpoint as an equal in the C suite. Now, there are, and pre, even pre COVID, there were companies with C level HR.

The Emerging Role of Chief Wellbeing Officer (Head of Wellbeing)

And I think in those companies, depending on the person in that role, there can be a much more strategic role. I talk a lot about chief wellbeing officer. And tech. Technically, the right person in A-A-C-H-R-O role or ACPO role can do a lot of those things and have that same impact.

But what happens is a lot of the people, every CHRO or Chief People Officer I’ve seen has come up through H hr and so they’ve steeped in the HR mindset of payroll benefits. And they might be very good at managing the financial aspect of the people business, but very few C level HR people are seeing the overall strategic impact of wellbeing throughout the organization.

And that’s where I’m like, have people do, have HR do what they really do well, which is the people side. And being is definitely people side. There’s also a strategic component organizational structure. It go well, being goes to leadership, learning and development. It goes to operations.

It goes to sales and marketing. It’s finance, where’s the budget line items to get all these things in place. And I think that’s a I don’t think, I know it’s a different skill set than typically comes up through years and decades in, in HR, not to say it can happen because there’s a lot of massive and rapid change in HR over those last few years.

The Changing Role of HR in Executive Strategy

I’ve talked to so many business owners and C level leaders that are like, I’ve taught. At the start of COVID, I talked to my HR director VP more times in the last like month than I have in the previous 10 years combined. Problematic, but I’m glad we’re heading in the right direction now. Okay. Yeah, exactly.

And, whether it’s a chief wellbeing officer or CHRO, as long as. Strategically well being is placed in the C suite and there’s line item accountability for the performance of people. And that is a multidisciplinary. Impact it’s how do we restructure operational processes to help people thrive?

How do we set up the budget to allow people to do that? How are we internally marketing to our team? How are we externally marketing to attract people? And so all of these things that are there, and I’ve used the analogy before of the the pieces of the puzzle. And so they’re in most companies of any size with say 50 people or more, they have most of the people, most of the pieces of the puzzle on in place.

They’ve got a great benefits plan. Names. Got a learning development team, the people team, they’ve got the finances and the operations and it’s there, the systems are in place to run the business well, but what’s missing is the top of the puzzle box with the picture. And so strategically as a senior leadership team to sit down and every senior leadership team goes and does their mission vision values and their annual goals.

Yeah, but on the specifically the people performance and being side to have strategic planning around what does that picture look like? What do we want the performance and being of our people to do as part of contributing to our financial and organizational goals? And then who’s responsible for that and how are we rolling it out in the organization?

What’s Missing in Corporate Wellness and Employee Wellbeing?

That picture does not exist in 99. 9 percent of companies. Despite having all the pieces of the puzzle on the table. So how do we, and that’s really what I do is come in and say, okay, let’s take what you already have and flesh out that picture. And then once we know the picture, it’s oh this piece can go here.

This piece can go here and Hey, we might need to add this one. But you probably don’t have to add too much more other than being able to restructure what’s already on the table and see it in a new perspective from a new perspective. And so I think that’s not happening even in companies with CHROs. I would agree with that.

I would say we’re part of the way there, but I can’t necessarily think of other companies I’ve interacted with that have that picture mapped out. And I think that’s. Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s one of the things that we’ve run into as a question. We got a lot early on. It’s like we added HR as a function in Iversoft earlier than I think most companies do.

We had a full time person in HR by the time we were nine people and have had full time HR from that point on. Largely because what we said at the beginning is like our entire product offering is smart people. Therefore, if we’re not doing the right things to attract and retain smart people, we don’t have a whole lot to do.

Attracting Top Talent in a Competitive Landscape

But tying the kind of overall wellness philosophy together and having those metrics, I think that’s something like something I know our people and culture team has been building KPIs for and really diving into how to measure and how to improve, but you’re absolutely right. And like the vast majority of companies haven’t connected those dots yet.

They have the pieces. And they could, but starting those conversations at the senior level, I think is challenging. Which is why it was exciting to be part of the podcast and part of here because I love the work you’re doing, the message you’re putting forward. And I think more companies need to recognize as we go forward and as you’re in a more competitive hiring landscape and in a more competitive global landscape for competition, like how you nurture talent is going to be so important for being able to compete. You met, you talked about it earlier in the first few minutes of the intentionality and the mindset. And until C suite leadership starts to look at it through that lens, it’s not going to happen. And the frustrating part for me over the past few years, and it might not be just me, but the.

Beyond Benefits

Being industry in general, is that billions have been spent on increasing benefits plans and doing different workshops and seminars, which is. Those are great tools in the toolbox, but without the bigger picture. And the strategy, how do we know those are being effective? And we know right now, based on the stats, they’re not being effective.

Despite billions of being spent, people are more stressed and burnt out than ever. So that senior leadership is they’re throwing it out there, checking the boxes and saying, yeah, we had to do this. We do this. It looks good on paper. We’re not measuring the outcomes and it’s finally starting to shift.

Stress, Burnout, and Employee Engagement

We’re three years plus since COVID it, and finally people are like. All right. I guess we can admit what we’re, we were trying to do isn’t working and we’re still struggling to attract people and keep people and morale’s low. Okay. We need to do something different. So we’re starting to see that shift, but it’s been.

I think the new generation is coming up. Like when you talk about people about hiring Gen Z and hiring Gen Y, then I don’t know. And then Gen Alpha is like on the internet now, which is weird, but. When you talk to all these generations that have grown up completely native on the Internet and they have options, they can launch their own businesses, they can find distribution and scale easier than it’s ever been in any generation in history.

You’d better have a real compelling offer for why they should come work with you and why your business and your ecosystem is the right place to grow and develop their careers. Versus the thousand other side hustles, they’re being sold on tick tock every day. And I think what’s funny is I keep hearing from maybe older generations that like the new generation doesn’t want to work.

It’s no, they’re content to work. They just don’t want to work at a crappy job and they’ve got options that they could do themselves. That may not pay quite as much as your entry, the whole position, but close enough that they’re not going to notice a lifestyle difference. And in one scenario, they’re in control of their lives.

Stop Using Employee Tracking Software!

And the other scenario, you’re monitoring keystroke software is going to just haunt them forever. So yeah, I think the, there’s a big shift coming across all industries about how businesses operate to attract and retain talent. And it’s going to be, it’s going to be exciting. I think it’s taken a bit of a step back in the last couple of months with the kind of.

Probably correction in the tech industry from some of the over hiring during the pandemic, but I don’t think that’s going to last. You’re not seeing a ton of big tech companies laying off tons of people and then nobody’s rehiring. Nobody’s growing. There’s a equal cohort of new companies coming up and growing and gobbling up the talent.

But yeah, we’re seeing change coming, which is just exciting. It’s been probably a pretty crazy journey in the wellness industry or like the. Kind of corporate people industry for the last eternity trying to change the narrative. And 1, 1, last thing I wanted to touch on is something we discussed in a previous conversation about some of the changes.

Embracing a Compressed Work Week

That Iversoft made well, when going fully remote. And some of the learning around flexible culture compress the compressed 4 day work week and how, what the reaction was from clients and staff on that. Yeah, that was that was an interesting experience. We went remote. And then I think within a year of going remote, we started having lots of conversations.

They’re like, okay, if this is this is our world. Now, we’ve fully embraced the remote thing. What else? What other assumptions do we have that were untouchable things that maybe we should go challenge it again? It’d be largely because we’d all had our eyes opened on like a hundred percent consensus of remote’s not possible.

Remote is infinitely better than everything we were doing. Okay, what else do we believe is a sacred role that could be challenged? And… We started looking at a lot of the research, and I think our director of people and culture and our CEO brought some of those forward. And we’re looking at there’s all kinds of research, especially in the knowledge based industries world of 4 day work weeks are potentially competitive, potentially a big advantage.

We weren’t out of state yet to go fully in on the kind of 4 day shortened hours of work week, but we had seen overwhelming feedback from our staff that going remote, the biggest change to their lives had been the flexibility had been the capacity to accommodate shit happens in your family, like your kids show up, your kids are sick, or you need to pick them up at 3 o’clock, like, Whatever it is.

The Impact of Flexibility on Employee Well-Being

And we started looking at, okay how do we lean into the flexibility? What do we actually need from people? How often do we need to meet? How often do we need to be calling people in for a video call or a conference call? And how often are we on calls with our clients? Cause a lot of the times our client work is heads down writing code or testing apps or whatever it is.

And so we piloted, we introduced it for the company and piloted it for two months the idea of a compressed 40 hour work week. And what that meant was we established what the core office hours were for Iversoft. So these were the core hours that we expected to be able to book anyone in a meeting and they would have to show up without, giving us prior notice for something. And that, that ended up being 10 a. m. to 3 p. m. Eastern that five window, the five hour window, Monday to Thursday, we needed to be able to book anyone in the company outside of that, how you accomplished the rest of your hours or how you got your schedule done was completely in your hands.

We had some staff say, no, they want the eight hour Monday to Friday week. We had a lot of devs that were already doing longer hours because they weren’t commuting saying I’ve done four, 10 hour days, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Does that mean I just don’t have to do anything on Fridays? It’s yeah, if you’ve put 40 hours of code into the system and you’ve logged that time, we’re not asking for an extra day from you.

It’s okay. What it required from a company process standpoint was you cannot book mandatory meetings or client meetings on Fridays. For some people that gave them a quiet heads down day for other people, they’d already done their 40 hours by the end of the day. Thursday, give them a three day week.

And we left it flexible, so it’s not like you have to lock in at your contract signing that I will do this. It can vary week to week, as long as we need you there 10 to 3, and we need you hitting all of your deliverables every week. Outside of that, choose your schedule. And after piloting it for two months, we ended up incorporating it fully into our core philosophy for Iberosoft and everything, because it did a number of things like we, again, saw continued productivity bump and boost from similar to what we’d seen when we went remote.

Scheduling and Flexibility for Remote Workers

We’re from people being able to take back their schedules a little bit to reduce stress for managing family, kids, whatever because of the hours, parents could take their kids to school. They had no problem picking the kids up from school. So that whole transition. Became a thing. There’s a whole cohort that does a couple hours after dinner Monday through Thursday, because that’s a good time for them to collaborate and work.

And it’s after kids have gone to bed. And again, we saw the caliber of talent that we could recruit and the volume of applications we got on every position we put up. Went through the roof which is the wind for the clients. And that’s how we presented it with clients. It’s look, not all of them love the idea that they couldn’t book us out of the call on Friday.

However, when we went through the conversation, I’m like, okay, you’re going to give up being able to book us on a Friday in exchange. I am going to get you some world class talent that we can pull from some of the biggest companies on the planet that we can’t afford, you can’t afford on a raw dollars basis, but.

They’re willing to come work on your project. They’re willing to come work at Iversoft because they value that family flexibility, that kind of workplace balance opportunity more than the kind of fortune 100 world they’re living in right now. And that’s been game changing for us. Like it’s been it’s been amazing.

Is There Really a Talent Shortage?

While everyone in the world was like, there’s a talent shortage. We’re like, we are drowning in resumes. Which was awesome and the output’s been amazing. It really hasn’t caused an issue. We’re very upfront with it. It’s on our site. It’s in our branding. It’s, we talked to clients about it upfront and the vast majority of our businesses retainer clients that expand their teams and renew and keep growing so the results there speak for themselves, we’ve.

I think we’ve grown almost 40 percent every year over year for the past four or five years. And like a lot of that growth comes from being able to pull in phenomenal talent and keep them. Yeah, absolutely. And what’s the, but the test saying in tech is it’s not a bug. It’s a feature. And so when you say it to your clients, it’s yeah, this is a benefit of doing this.

Yeah, that’s awesome. And Graeme, it’s been amazing having you on the show. And I, we could, I know we could continue talking for a long time and I, we’re going to have to chat about having you on the show again down the road and pick a different topic next time. It’d be awesome. Where can people find you?

Where to Find Graeme Barlow

Yeah. So I’m on a Graeme Barlow on all the social channels or Graeme Barlow. com. If you’re looking for software development support, Ibersoft. ca. Is the place to check us out and always happy to chat all things tech entrepreneurship and development. Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.

And gaming, apparently, right? And gaming, always gaming. I’m still on the fence of whether I want to dive into Twitch and stream some gaming because I think that would hurt my ego a little bit. But yeah always a fan. Excellent. Thank you again for being a guest on the show and I will make sure those links go in the show notes.

And thank you so much. We will catch up again soon. Thank you, sir. That wraps up another episode of the Working Well Podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Which guests or topics would you like to see featured on the show? Message me through LinkedIn or on the contact page of Thank you for tuning in. I’m Tim Borys with Fresh! Group. I look forward to seeing you on the next episode.

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