The Culture First Podcast - 05 - Global Company Culture

Culture Amp's Bronwen Clune, David Ostberg and Julie Rogers discuss some of the challenges that come with being a company that has offices all over the globe.

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Transcript 

Edited for grammar and syntax

Bronwen Clune: Welcome to the Culture First podcast. I'm Bronwen Clune, Director of PR and Comms.

David Ostberg: I'm David Ostberg, Director of Insights.

Julie Rogers: And I'm Julie Rogers, Head of People. 

Bronwen Clune: Today we’re talking about scaling culture across geos, which is what Australians call it, but geographies for everyone else. We’ve just opened our fourth office in London. That’s a pretty big achievement for us, go Culture Amp! I was in London recently and took the opportunity to talk to the team about how we've managed to set up the culture there, but I thought it was probably a good opportunity for us to have some reflection on how we've done things until now. I know both of you joined the San Francisco office after we'd been here for a while.

What number employee were you, Dave?

David Ostberg: I think around 46? Something like that. 

Bronwen Clune: Julie, you know the stats. What are the stats on our growth from San Francisco to now?

Julie Rogers: I can tell you, I joined six months ago. In that six months, globally, we’ve almost doubled.

Bronwen Clune: I think I was employee number 13 and I was the first employee we brought across to an overseas office from Melbourne. Karina was already working here as the first employee in San Francisco with Jon Williams, one of the founders. I got to help set up the San Francisco office, which was an interesting and fun experience. It struck me how different things are now in London and how much we've evolved.

When I came over, we didn't even really have an office. We were working out of a co-working space. There were two of us. We didn't really have an idea of what our culture really was, when you're such a small group of people. I hadn't worked in Melbourne. There was nothing we were trying to replicate or build on. We were really grabbing the culture from here.

David Ostberg:   Well, we're up to, what, mid-90s now in terms of number of people?

Julie Rogers: Yeah, we're just shy of a hundred globally. Melbourne is over 50% of our global organization. San Francisco, we're just bumping up against 30. It's getting bigger.

David Ostberg:   Six in New York, is that right? Six or seven.

Julie Rogers: Close to nine. Five in London.

The role of “ambassadors” in establishing culture at AdRoll – an option for Culture Amp? 

Bronwen Clune: We opened in New York and we had Corey – who was working out of Boston – come across to New York and set up the office there. What we didn't do was bring anyone else who had originally worked in one of the offices to New York. I think one of the lessons we learnt was that that became challenging for the team. I don't know, Julie, if you've got experience in similar sort of situations?

Julie Rogers: At my last job, we had a bunch of external offices. One of the things that we had was called an Ambassador Program. The Ambassador Program was set up so that we had people who applied for a role to go over and work in one of the other offices. Those people would go anywhere from three to six months.

Over time, we evolved it so they would be there for six months. They would go, not only to work and help train up the people, but they were also responsible for hiring. They helped build out the new offices. Typically the Ambassador Program would go for about a year from the opening date. We'd have two sets of ambassadors actually roll through those offices.

This was critical because they were able to go through and do the hiring and help bring on people who were reflective of the values and the culture fit and the culture add that we wanted. They were able to bring over the energy that we had from the headquarters office, which was in San Francisco, with the full knowledge that they would be coming back, but they were also able to train up people. Most of our external offices were sales offices. They were able to go in and help train our sales people on how to sell a very complicated and technical product.

That didn't mean that we didn't bring people from our other offices back into San Francisco, but being able to have someone who is actually there from the 'mothership' be in one of our new external offices was imperative to the success of the new office.

Making Culture Amp culture meaningful for London

Bronwen Clune: These are some of the things they touched on in London. It's probably worth us having a quick listen to what the team had to say. We can chat about some of the things they brought up afterwards. 

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Bronwen Clune: I'm here in London and we're talking to the London team about having grown their culture here on a new team, far away from Melbourne headquarters. Nick, I think it's the furthest you could be from our head office.

Nick Matthews: Yeah, absolutely. It's a physically long way away, and a time difference. It makes it very interesting, in terms of how we operate when they're online, which tends to be at the beginning and very end of the day. That was really crucial to us. Also we don't have any executives here, so we are remote in that sense. Lots of things to think about as we opened up the office.

Bronwen Clune: Chloe, you and Chris came across from the Melbourne office, so you got to export or import part of our culture. Was that really important as something to bring here?

Chloe: I think it's really important that we both had a chance to spend a decent amount of time in the Melbourne office. Although, bringing the culture here, I was very mindful that it was only my perception of the culture, and Chris's. You want to have a true representation, but you don't necessarily want to bring a clone of the old culture and start it here. You've got to make it meaningful for the new place. I think also, what really helped is having built really strong relationships with the people in the Melbourne office. Those have been really valuable as we've been setting up.

Bronwen Clune: What about you, Chris? What have been some of the challenges that you've faced?

Chris: I remember when we first started, we talked about not wanting to be remote culture-wise. I think that's helped, having us come over with strong networks. As Chloe said, being able to reach back and talk to people in Melbourne and already have established friendships and networks makes integrating a little easier. Especially when you don't have face time, when you don't have interaction time, when you've solely got requests and favors to ask for.

Bronwen Clune: What are some of the things that you think are unique to the office here? Is there anything you can see happening? I guess you're a much smaller office, so that's a different dynamic as well.

Chris: We're a lot closer. We're  about a meter apart. In Melbourne it's kind of bigger. I think your relationships in Melbourne get diluted a little bit because you spend less time with more people. Here you spend a lot of time with the same people. Relationships get closer. In London we're just mostly customer-focused, whereas in Melbourne you've got the engineers, you've got some of the experience, you’ve got securities. You've got a broader, more diverse range of people, which can have its advantages as well.

Bronwen Clune: I think, Nick, you referred to it as a "start-up within a start-up?" Do you want to talk to me about some of the challenges of that?

Nick Matthews: I think you said we are customer-focused, that's the primary reason we opened the office, because we have a large number of customers here in London, but also Europe. Because we don't have those support functions of other parts of the business that are here, we're doing the customer work and everything else on top. Whether that be making sure that we have all of our materials available to give out to customers, which involves lots of printing. Whether that means when we have events, we all become marketing and events professionals for that time. We wear a lot of hats here, so it is very, very "start-up" in that sense.

Because there are only five or six of us, and we don't have a lot of face time with other parts of the organization, it feels like it's just us. It's been great to have that start-up feel, but also very warming to know that you do have the support of the broad organization, even if they're not physically present around you. We get the best of both worlds, really.

Bronwen Clune: Is there anything, do you think, in setting up another office, we would do differently to anything we've done here?

Chloe: I think it's like baking a cake in that the first time you might not get it right, but as you bake more cakes, you keep making improvements. We've set up a few offices now, and this is sort of the third one we've set up in a row, in a location different from Melbourne. I think we keep making changes to make it better. I feel like we're almost a little early on to have that reflection.

Establishing culture to create a truly global company

Nick Matthews: I think one of the things that I've learnt is that actually, it's not just another office opened up by 'the mothership.' It's another office opened up by Culture Amp and one of the biggest things that we've had help from is other offices. The New York office, the San Francisco office. I think that has been a really nice thing to see. If we were to open a fifth office overseas, I think the two things that I've learnt would be – one: you absolutely need to bring people from your head office and put those people into the very origins of that team to set and make sure we have continuity of that culture. The second thing is make sure it doesn't feel like it's a two-way relationship between that new office and each cube. That you make it global. We've had that in the last few weeks, and that's made it really special.

Chris: That's true. I think the future of the culture is more of an equal global company that's spread just flat, as opposed to being based out of Melbourne and having that emphasis on HQ.

Bronwen Clune: What are some of the things that helped that along?

Nick Matthews: There's a real value placed on face time … Both in terms of the executives coming over, but also movements within teams. I've already been to the New York office, and I've been to Melbourne. It gives me those points to triangulate on around what actually makes a great office and a great culture. I see that happening all over the organization in terms of that continuous face time movement of people. I think that's really important.

Chloe: I think, as well, now we've fine-tuned a little bit better the communication between offices. I think that's one thing, if we started a new one, we'd say, "These are some things we've found have worked with communications across time zones." Especially in relation to meetings. You could say to somebody, "Don't do early starts and late nights" because it really gets to you. There's those kinds of things. Working out how to do an all-hands across four different time zones. If you can have the luxury of knowing that stuff ahead of time, it's really helpful.

Julie Rogers: Super interesting. I love hearing from our team in London. I think that Chloe said something, in particular, that was really interesting, which was around not wanting to produce a clone of the home office or the mothership in the new office.

Culture Amp’s global offices: similar cultures but unique personalities

Julie Rogers: I'd love to dig down a little bit. We talk about this idea of making sure that there's some degree of "sameness." We want our cultures to be similar. We want there to be a flow from our home office in Melbourne to all of our offices. What does that mean? In my experience, there's an intense need to have a recognition that each office is going to have a high degree of unique, their own flavor.

David Ostberg:  A personality.

Bronwen Clune: Also, there are cultural differences. We're talking about a company across three countries – Australia, the US, and the UK. There are different ways people operate in business and all those sorts of things.

Julie Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. It becomes even more pronounced, as well, when you start opening up offices that are not in Western-type nations. You start to move into Japan or other countries in Asia, it becomes a lot more different. Nick actually talks about this idea of cultural continuity and says it's critical. I'm thinking, what does cultural continuity mean within the context of actually setting up a new space? A new team?

David Ostberg: Yeah, I think about it. It's analogous to culture add, you know, when we're talking about bringing a new person onto a team at a specific location, we're not looking just for culture fit with the values and our mission, but also what can this person add? What can they bring? It's the same thing when we're talking about adding a whole new location. Creating a space for them to be authentic, be themselves, actually really represent who they are as individuals and as a team. Also, ideally aligned closely to our culture and our values and being fully supportive of that. I think that's so critical in terms of how we select, recruit, and hire.

Bronwen Clune: I've visited all the offices as well, and I'd say one thing – people are very aligned with the mission of the company. That that is their objective, that's what's driving them. We also have a culture of making sure our teams spend time together and have time off together. When I was in London it was the first time we did a day where we all went off and did that sort of thing. It was kind of a bonding session for them as well.

There are some things that are hard to define, but are things that I feel make Culture Amp different from a lot of other companies. Probably less different in San Francisco compared to other tech companies, but in places like London, which has a much more formal company structure, formal way of doing business, that is something that kind of stands out there.

David Ostberg:   Even formal dress code.

Bronwen Clune: Yeah, a lot of suits in London.

David Ostberg:  Yeah, it's interesting. People come to visit from other offices here in San Francisco, and they say, "Wow, it's so casual here. Everyone looks so comfortable and dresses as themselves," where, you know I think that's generally true of the Melbourne office also. We’ll see what happens when I'm out in London later this year, but people dress a little bit more professionally there. They're just a bit more buttoned up and formal. A bit sharper, I guess you could say.

Bronwen Clune: It's hard to know what are things around the company's culture that you take to other offices?

Julie Rogers: At a previous workplace we had lots of offices. The values were the defining factor, the thread that pulled everything together. When I first started there, we didn't even have the values posted. We didn't need to. It was something that was referred to all the time in the course of conversation at all levels in the business. It got to the point where we decided, yes, we need to actually have these things displayed because they're actually a really critical part of our culture. Opening up new offices, how do we go through and display these in a way that's actually going to have some degree of continuity so that those conversations can keep happening? Values, in a lot of ways, are the pieces that really tie everyone together.

We talk about cultural add, we don't look for people that are just cookie cutters, or like Chloe said, looking for the clone. We're looking for people who have this additional add, but we'll have these shared values, these things that we fall back on when things get really difficult. How do we make decisions? We look back to our values to have that driver.

Bronwen Clune: Just thinking back to your point about ambassadors, I guess, making sure that the people you entrust with that job are people who really live and breathe the values. Chloe's a great example of that. She worked really closely with Didier on building our own internal values, running our first surveys, building on that. To me, she was a perfect person to send over there because she had that deep understanding. It’s important to send the right people as well. Not like, "Well, do you fit into our values?" But I think people who really live and breathe those is probably important.

Julie Rogers: Sure, absolutely. That's why we had a process at AdRoll of going through and selecting people. They were kind of coveted roles because you're called out as someone who's going to be that cultural ambassador to help launch a business that's reliant upon not only your experience and your skills to get people trained up and to get people hired, but also the role is reflective of how to go through it and really carry over those values. There is a lot of discussion around values add and what does it mean to live the values in our ambassador programs.

Bronwen Clune: The people seeding those offices is a pretty critical role.

Julie Rogers: Absolutely critical role, yeah.

David Ostberg:  When did Jon come over? Jon Williams, one of our founders.

Bronwen Clune: He was here for about five months before I was. It was interesting. Our first few hires in San Francisco were all Australians. Two of us had come over from Australia, but never worked in the Melbourne office. Our first few hires were Australian ex-pats, but actually we made a conscious decision at one stage that we were kind of creating a little culture that other people might not find accessible, so one of the things we tried to do was hire people who didn't have that connection. We still got a lot of Australians here though.

I also think that's something we haven't done until those first initial hires. We haven't hired in Australia to bring over here. I think, very much, one of the things we've come to learn is to hire people who have existed in that place as access to new networks, a new way of thinking, a deeper dive into that culture, that sort of thing. I think that's been good.

One other challenge we do have is we work across four very different time zones. Especially for an office like London, they're almost never online when Melbourne is. Let's talk about some of the challenges of that. Julie, I know you've had some experience in trying to help fix these disconnects we've had.

Nothing beats face-to-face communication

Julie Rogers: Communication is absolutely the hardest thing. You can have all the tools in the world, you can have Slack, you can have email, you can have Quip, you can have Confluence. We have no lack of tools for communications, but that doesn't take the place of having that in-person and real time communication. The ability to actually have people move around and sit in real time with people, face to face. Even just for a handful of days to go through it and sit in their shoes for a moment, get a feel for what their culture is like, whether it's buttoned up or whether it's Aussie coffee culture, you know, one of those things.

Additionally, having communications, making a lot of concessions to ensure that we have time to communicate over video at time zones that are not going to be requiring people to be up in the middle of the night, or be on at 10 o'clock at night in order to catch company communications.

David Ostberg: I think that one is particularly important. Being here in San Francisco, sort of in the middle time zone, clearly we have it easiest. It's just too easy to let, say, London or Melbourne get stuck with the undesirable late night conversations or early morning conversations. I think that's something I try to be really aware of. You know, there's a person in each of those locations on my team. Saying, "Hey, I'm happy to do this call at 6 am" or "I'm happy to do it at 9 pm, whatever's easiest for you this time. We'll rotate it".

Just being aware, keeping an eye on their schedules so you know when they are working outside of reasonable hours too frequently so you can start trying to bring them back to it. And/or at least just having a conversation around it. For me, personally, it can be tempting to say, "Oh, I touched base with that person two days ago. We probably don't need this 6 am morning call or this late evening call to touch base". There's so much value, even if you don't have a business agenda for that conversation, just to touch base, to stay connected, check in, get a feel for how they're doing, and then just have a conversation. Many times those are some of the best business-oriented conversations. When you don't go in with a "Hey, we need to cover X, Y, and Z".

I think one of the other things that's important to remember is with a group like us, where we have, what did you say? Upwards of how many people here in San Francisco?

Julie Rogers: Just shy of 30.

David Ostberg:  Yeah, 30, which is crazy. And 50 in Melbourne. It's easy to feel connected and part of the culture and part of the company. But it’s really important to remember that that is not necessarily the case automatically in our smaller offices. Doing those check-ins, having people spend time in those other offices, and then bringing them here is really, really important.

Bronwen Clune: Even just using language like, we would say, "The remote offices." It's not a particularly great way to describe other offices. We're all equal. We're all doing the same job. We all have the same mission. That was particularly frustrating for us in San Francisco for a long time and I'm very aware of not creating the same frustrations for the other offices. I think when you're in one of the smaller offices, you almost always are the ones to make the effort to connect to the bigger offices. We need to make sure that we do the same for the smaller ones and it's not just one way. That was one of my big learnings, one of the things I'm really aware of when we're dealing with London and New York, and also any of our team who work remotely.

Bronwen Clune: I think we covered off a lot there. It's a big issue. We're still getting it right.

David Ostberg: Still figuring it out, yeah. We have a lot of learnings in front of us and we’re trying some of these rotating all-hands, all-company meetings. It will be interesting to see how that turns out, if it works, what we need to tweak there. It's a fun challenge.

Julie Rogers: Yeah, and we're getting better. Just the fact that we're actually attempting new ways to actually loop in everybody and be mindful of those time zones is a much better process.

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