Culture Amp's People Operations Manager Stacey Nordwall joins the show to talk about designing a culture first office space.
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Edited for grammar and syntax
Julie Rogers: This week, Culture Amp’s People Operations Manager, Stacey Nordwall, joins us to discuss designing a culture first office space.
Bronwen Clune: Welcome to the culture first podcast. I’m Bronwen Clune, Director of PR and Comms and I’m here with Julie Rogers who is our Head of People. We’ll introduce our special guest for the day.
Julie Rogers: Our special guest today is Stacey Nordwall. Stacey is Culture Amp’s People Operations Manager. She’s been at Culture Amp a little over a year and has experienced San Francisco and all of its growth and glory over the last 12-plus months and in the process of this has some really interesting insights to share with us today about building a culture first work environment.
Stacey Nordwall: Hi everyone!
Bronwen Clune: Hi Stacey! I should say when we first started the San Francisco office, I didn’t even think we’d set that mandate for you building a Culture First office, had we?
Stacey Nordwall: No, I don’t think when I joined there was anything other than “find us an office”. That was the very first thing that needed to happen – to actually find a physical space – and the thinking about how to actually make that a home came much later.
Bronwen Clune: Now we have another challenge for you, Stacey. We talk quite a bit about culture first and what that means and how we’re still trying to distil what that is and what it looks like in practice. We’re pretty open about that. I guess one of the challenges for you is you’ve been at the helm of what has been one of the high growth hotspots for the company here in the office in San Francisco. I think I was the first employee in the office 18 months ago. We had two of us. We’re now pushing up against 30.
Stacey Nordwall: Yeah, just shy of.
Bronwen Clune: Thirty in 18 months, I think that’s hyper growth for a little company anyway. You’ve been there from fairly early days in that experience. When did you come in? How many of us were there?
Stacey Nordwall: I think that in the San Francisco office I was number eight or nine, somewhere right around there I think.
Bronwen Clune: Just when we started feeling like a real office, I guess.
Stacey Nordwall: Yeah. I think it didn’t take long after we were in the co-working space. It soon became clear we were packed in there like sardines and we’ve just continued to grow steadily.
Bronwen Clune: Here we are at 30-ish which is I think the maximum we can get to in this office space. That brings interesting challenges as well. Stacey, tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you’ve had in such a rapidly morphing environment – as well as the growth we’ve had a lot of company changes, we’ve talked about Team of Teams being implemented that required a whole lot of re-moving around and things like that. Can you tell us some of the challenges for you in having that role and what your approach has been?
Buy-in from co-workers is key in developing a culture first environment
Stacey Nordwall: I think the interesting thing about being in this role in a space where it’s growing so quickly and there’s so many new people coming on is not necessarily being the generator of all the solutions. I think that part of my approach has been really observing what’s been happening and then talking to people about that and how they want the office to grow and change and what solutions they see. If everything is emanating from me, it’s hard to sustain and it’s also a lot easier to get buy-in when it’s something that’s important to people.
You may find out that it’s something that they’re passionate about when it comes to things like the office design. Getting buy-in from other people and really making it more of a community effort as opposed to something where I’m always the one coming up with solutions, I’m always the one implementing things, I think has been key in developing a culture first environment here.
Bronwen Clune: Was that something you always had as an approach or something you have evolved in this role?
Stacey Nordwall: I think it’s something that somewhat evolved in this role for me. I have a background in psychology and so it’s just something that I’ve always been interested in and I spend a lot of time reading books about the brain and how people behave. There were two books that I read around the same time at the beginning of working here. One was The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business and the other one was Creative Confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all.
Those two books gave me two perspectives on thinking about approaching the office. The one in terms of habit is understanding that people have routines. They have ways of behaving where they don’t even necessarily know why they’re doing it and they aren’t necessarily even aware that they’re doing it. In terms of thinking about how people behave when something simple comes up, when they have conference calls people might say “Oh yeah I book rooms. I prepare 15 minutes in advance. I go in there.” The reality is if you look around you see people in a panic about one minute before their meeting is happening and running around trying to find a conference room.
Julie Rogers: This is the truth.
Stacey Nordwall: Understanding that people don’t necessarily behave the way they say they behave is important because you can step back and observe. Then with the creative confidence book, it was about understanding a design thinking approach to the office. The two things that I really enjoyed from that book are that they have a couple of different exercises and they apply them to different things, not necessarily the office environment, but I apply these things to the office environment.
One was an exercise they call “I like, I wish.” The idea behind this is that instead of trying to rush directly to a solution or have preconceived notions about what the answer is and because those might be negative things, you start from a perspective of “here are the things I like and here are the things that I wish for.” When you start a conversation about the office with, “What do you like about the office?” it turns it into a positive frame. You can collect all of the things you like. What do you wish for the office? You can match those up. “Here are the things that we like. Here are the things that we wish for. Here’s how they match or how they don’t match.” I think setting the frame and having the conversation in that way is helpful in terms of not rushing to a solution, not thinking about the negative and opening things up more. I also think that I used another technique from the book and that’s about again instead of rushing to a solution, you go step by step through an experience. What you may find through that is that there is a completely different problem from what you thought existed.
If you don’t even think about the actual experience, you might be trying to solve for something that isn’t the actual problem. Laying the framework and getting people to participate got a lot more buy-in from people in creating the office that we have than if I had brought in forms for people and said “We’re going to talk about the office and this is how we’re going to do it”.
Julie Rogers: When you’re asking people for their experience and participation, we have a whole variety of ways that we communicate here at Culture Amp: email, Slack has been probably the biggest one. We use Confluence as our wiki along with Google docs. What kind of form are you looking at? What do you find is working now in the process of trying to get people to participate in the discussion around the space and creating the culture first environment?
Feedback tools can drive collaborative problem-solving – within reason
Stacey Nordwall: When you’re nine people in a very small office, it’s pretty easy to just look to your left and your right and say “What do you think about this? Okay, great”. In a larger space it gets more difficult especially when you know people aren’t necessarily in the office all at the same time or they have other competing things that they need to do. Part of what I did was I would put out an invitation and say, “This is what this is going to be about. If it’s something that interests you, please attend or let me know if this doesn’t work for you and you really do want to attend.” Then everyone can show up and the people who it really matters to usually will show up.
The people for whom it’s not a particularly relevant issue won’t show up. I think in that way just putting out the invitation and letting people participate if they want to has been helpful. There are also informal things like sometimes I’ll put something in Slack. “This is what I want to do: thumbs up, thumbs down.” I wouldn’t necessarily do that for something major but if it comes to “Do you like this snack?” something informal like that can be just fine.
Bronwen Clune: I’m guessing in a role like yours that can also be frustrating at times. it doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, there’s always people who go, “I don’t like those snacks in the kitchen.” How do you cope with that, or do you have a way of processing that so you can just go, “Yup, okay, on with things anyway.”
Stacey Nordwall: I think that’s something I’ve developed over time because doing a good job is important to me. Creating an environment that people enjoy is important to me. Especially when we’re talking about conference rooms and getting the phone booths or the pods and things like that and I had a lot of feedback about how it should be done. I would have the conversation repeatedly of “Yes, I have looked at these options. Yes, this is what I have come to.”
It was exhausting and I got to a point where I thought “I can’t have this conversation again and explain the variables.” I want to make sure that everyone knows that I have considered these things but at the same time there comes a point where you just acknowledge the feedback and say, “Thank you. The decision has already been made.”
Julie Rogers: I think you bring up a good point, Stacey. Just to get some context into what Stacey was just referring to, our San Francisco office is small but mighty. The space is small and we have a lot of customer facing people who spend a lot of time on phone calls and so on. Part of this is how we manage an office space with a lot of people where there’s a lot of noise and people want to be not disruptive to their neighbors.
Stacey has taken the bull by the horns in trying to figure out some solutions to where people can sit within the confines of our small but awesome space and have phone calls where their sounds or their voices are not going to be echoing throughout the office. That’s been a tough challenge I think, probably harder than anyone knows. Beyond building an annex out the window or something like that. It’s something that we’re still struggling with.
We have a lot of discussion around what culture first means and how do we interpret this in terms of our action. I think that again one of our values is to learn faster through feedback. A lot of people like to share their feedback and they want to help and they want to participate. It’s just sometimes it’s like “Yes! That’s been under consideration. For the umpteenth time therefore we actually weren’t able to go in that direction” and just trying to get people comfortable with the current status quo as being the current status quo, although not permanent and forever. Definitely it’s a challenge and a very, very real one.
Enabling others is key in building a community culture
Bronwen Clune: I guess from early on there has been an evolution from people expecting to accepting. Once you know someone’s tried, that it’s been looked into, even if it’s not the solution we think it’s going to be, people do generally accept that, which is a good thing. I think part of it is involving everyone to work together.
Stacey Nordwall: This is one of the things that I also liked in having the I like I wish session with people. It was also a form so instead of each person coming to me with the ideas and me having to explain every single time, I was able to explain it once broadly and we could talk about other solutions and then I was able to bring other people in as problem solvers. When we went through and put everything on the white board – all of the different things that we liked and that we wished – we came up with some things that would help and you had suggested rugs, Bronwen. My response was, “That is awesome. I will enable you to take this task on.”
Bronwen Clune: I bought some awesome rugs though.
Stacey Nordwall: I think that’s part of my approach in the office as I mentioned earlier that I don’t have all the ideas. I can’t be the problem solver for everything and there’s some people who are going to be enthusiastic about certain things that I won’t be or who will have knowledge that I don’t have. Basically being a facilitator, an enabler of those people to do those things is a relief for me and also creates more of a community within the office and with other people. You can say that you contributed that to what the office looks like and what the office feels like. I think that’s important in building that culture as well.
Bronwen Clune: You’ve moved into a new role recently. How does the learning from building the culture first environment impact your next role?
Stacey Nordwall: It’s funny because as we speak one of the things that has come up was that we have a fail wall in our office. One of the things about the fail wall was that when we implemented it, it really spoke to us in terms of “we’re going to celebrate the mistakes that we made because we can learn from them and move on.” I think right now we’re in a different space. We don’t necessarily want to have a fail wall. We want to have something where we are celebrating people’s accomplishments.
Julie Rogers: Like a win wall.
Stacey Nordwall: Exactly. Maybe we’re going to have a win wall. There are a couple of people in the office who have come to me in the past couple of days really excited about doing this and I’m thinking, “The kind of general motto is does it hurt to try and if not, why not?” This is something that people within the office are excited about so I’m at the point where I’m just “I’m going to get behind you and enable you to do that”. I think that’s the kind of stuff that I’ll be doing in this role where it’s maybe not as much in terms of physical space but it’s in terms of the things that we want to do to create our culture. I think that’s part of how I will be navigating this role.
Bronwen Clune: Last question, it’s been a great chat and I think there’s a lot of insights for other people in this role or facing this challenge. For someone taking on this role, first off in another company, what’s the best bit of advice you have for them?
Stacey Nordwall: I think it’s just what I’ve been saying all along, that you must really get buy-in from other people. You can’t set up an expectation that someone is going to say, “Hey I have this idea and I’m going to tell you. You’re going to be the one to implement it”. I think first that’s exhausting for you and second, it doesn’t really get this community building aspect within the office. Having people come to you with an idea and you say, “That is fantastic. I would love to help you make this happen” is something that I think will be good both for your own sanity and the community building within the office.