Faces of HR

Culture Is How You Think, Act, and Interact

Some organizations look at culture as in-person experiences and quality-of-life benefits and perks. I recently asked Cassie Whitlock, Director of HR at BambooHR, if culture could be translated to a remote or hybrid workplace. She agreed, saying that at her organization, they define culture as how you think, act, and interact. Through that lens, culture can be identified and supported regardless of how a company is organized. Perhaps the most important ingredient for success in a remote and/or hybrid workplace is HR and leadership working together every day to understand and support the employee experience.

How did you find yourself in HR?

I started with an accounting background. It was a very interesting story for me as a person. I was divorced, I had two children, I was in my twenties with no education, and I had no career. I was thinking, “Wow, how am I going to take care of these two human beings?” I knew I was good with numbers; I always enjoyed math in school and decided, “Well, hey, people in accounting can put food on the table. I’m going to go do that job.” I went back to school and quickly got my degree. Part of the degree includes a class on human resources. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t necessarily spark anything for me. Then as I entered into the career world, working in small and midsize businesses, I found that accounting and HR are often housed in the same office or in the same person. And that was true for me.

I quickly took on all HR responsibilities, and it’s a fun place where you can learn and grow just in the middle of doing the job. I found I was really good at it. Having a data background marries well, I think, with human resources, just because of all of the detailed things you have to keep track of and follow up on and reporting and compliance, and even some of the analytics are there. I had done that for a long, long time, and I finally decided that I felt that the challenges in human capital management and the HR space were far more exciting to me than my spreadsheets. Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to give up my spreadsheets. I decided that I needed to go back to school because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I went back and got a master’s in HR and found it hugely beneficial. I did the program through Utah State University, which has a phenomenal program, and just loved the learning experience. So a while back, I specifically transitioned my career to focus strictly on the HR opportunities.

Accounting to me always seemed—and I’m not an accountant—like you’re completing tasks and then they’re done and you move on to the next task, making it fairly process-oriented. Right? But then you move to the next step of applying, well, what does it all mean? The application of all the information must have been quite exciting. I know I love getting into the numbers over here. It’s probably not as strategic as it could be, but it’s always fun to see what’s working and what’s not working and try to figure out why and what you can do next and where you will be.

That is probably some of the work I enjoy the most where I work with our leadership team. We’re just now going through our next employee net promoter score survey. I’m gearing up to dive deep into the data and to bring forward the information to our executive leadership team to talk about what employees are saying and what they’re feeling and experiencing, as well as how we want to continue to invest in the experience our team members have every day. I’m getting all excited for that one.

That’s fantastic. I’ve interviewed a few folks at BambooHR before, and I’m not sure if this is still the case, but do you guys still pay people to go on vacation?

We do. One of our benefits is affectionately called a paid-paid vacation. The first paid is you get paid time off—most people are familiar with that. The second one is annually, you get paid money for going on vacation. The idea here is this is part of how we support our company value of enjoy quality of life.

We hope to provide opportunities that really enhance people’s existence and the experiences they have. I have seen employees use it for everything from the traditional to unique uses. I think we’re keeping Disneyland alive financially. That is the top visited spot; we have lots of littles among our employee base, and they have growing families. I’ve also seen people use it for some of the hard things, the unexpected things in life. We’ve had individuals who have lost loved ones, and because of the paid-paid, they were actually able to bring out a family member to be able to attend memorial services and come together at such a difficult but important time in their life. That’s the whole idea behind it: spending time with the people you love and doing things that are important to you. While that’s a very sad and difficult example, it’s also very powerful.

Then you have the other side where people can go out and experience new cultures and have that trip they could never afford before and now they can with this extra money. My favorite paid-paid was exactly that; I took a trip to South Africa and got to experience a beautiful culture. My favorite experience there was working with an orphanage and being with those children and hopefully creating something positive in their life in the time I was with them.

And just to be extra clear, you only get the money if you prove that you’re using your vacation to go do something, right?

Yeah. So you have to submit your receipts. We try not to make it too burdensome on an administrative level. And while we’re not here to buy souvenirs, we are here to help you have experiences. We cover things like flights, hotels, tickets, meals, and kind of all of the central basic things. Outside of that, we just encourage people to use it in the ways that best enhance and enrich their lives.

It’s a great program. I think the spirit of it is clear. We know as HR people that when people take the time off and they genuinely cut loose or they have new and fresh experiences, it’s better for everybody, it’s better for them, it’s better for their families, it’s better for their employers, and it’s better for their mental health. Unfortunately there’s this energy, particularly in this country, that people feel bad taking time off, even if it’s paid, even if they earned it, and even if they’re taking less time than they normally would or than they’re allowed.

Yeah.

They still feel guilty, which is just unfortunate. By giving someone money and saying “go do it,” it’s putting your money where your mouth is.

Your point, I think, is very valid. It really takes a thoughtful, integrated approach. Yes, we have a paid-paid, but we’ve also been super thoughtful about our paid-time-off policies and whether they are constructed in ways that promote taking time off. A lot of people go into unlimited PTO, right? But studies show that you actually take less.

When you do take it, there is such internal political pressure on how much, when, and why that it turns it into a bad experience, and we do the opposite. We try to be generous with our time off, but we also have a use-it-or-lose-it program. We force you to take time off, and if you’re bumping up against that top edge, then we try to say, “Hey, what’s going on? And when can you take some time away?” And we make sure that we’re staffing appropriately so that no one feels tied to the job out of an appropriate sense of duty and the work that needs to get done. Let’s staff our teams correctly, and then let’s require people to take breaks and go on vacations.

How long have you been with Bamboo?

This September will be 9 years. I started as employee 21. I had known the founders and had worked with them previously, and they were ready to grow the organization and said, “Hey, come on over.” And that was actually when I ended up transitioning my career. I said, “I’d love to, but I do need you to know that I have made a decision to angle my career and strictly focus on the HR space.” They said “That’s OK, but would you do both for a while?” because they knew I could do all of the accounting for small business. It matters that you’re able to wear many hats. So I did that, and then when the time was right, they said, “OK, we’re ready to go get a CFO, if you’re willing?” I’m like, “Let’s do it.” And so that’s been a fun journey, and I worked with an amazing CFO and just love the teams I get to work with here.

That’s excellent. It’s not every day that an organization gets to watch someone transition and evolve. It’s kind of a risk, too, right? On the organization’s part but a worthwhile one.

Yeah. Potentially. I had done both roles before at other organizations, so they’d already seen it. The question is, with that kind of a focus, what is the new thing that you get? That’s what the big question mark in the air was. I’d say that I feel good about the work we’ve been able to accomplish with my having this not split focus but really just dedicated and thinking about the employee experience all day, every day.

Have you got any upcoming projects you’re excited about?

Today is day 1 of our phase 1 of returning to the office. We have made a choice to adopt a hybrid work model, and this is our prototype phase, which means we’re going to try it out as a test. I keep reminding leaders that I don’t want them putting narrow blinders on and trying to stay in their lane. I want them pressing out against the boundaries and thinking. Let’s find out what works for us and what doesn’t. As we get through this initial prototyping phase, I think the big project ahead of us is that we will have a more distributed workforce. How do we plan to maintain and scale our culture, which has always been a culture focused on individual respect and belonging? How are we going to do that when we see each other less often?

It’s a big question. I think that’s probably the biggest concern for organizations, other than earlier concerns about motivation and productivity—we spend all this time and all of this effort saying who we are, so can that translate into a remote workplace? What do you think?

I think it can when you step back and ask, what is culture? We define “culture” at BambooHR as how you think, act, and interact. The thinking still happens in a remote work scenario, and so do the interacting and the acting; it’s just through different forms and mediums. But, it does mean you have to be intentional about very specific behaviors. Maybe you and a lot of your listeners or readers have had this experience in transitioning to a remote workforce under a pandemic. I’m in back-to-back Zooms all day long. I’m lucky if I get a 5-minute bathroom break.

We have to think differently when we’re in a remote work environment about how we can take care of the humans in the middle of this potentially more efficient time of working when we’re remote and you can just jump into the meeting; I don’t have to waste time walking to a conference room or going to so-and-so’s office. And yet what are the good things that happen in those small moments that we don’t value as part of the employee experience? They do matter, and what should they look like now in remote statuses, or in hybrid, where someone’s in the office and someone’s remote, and what are those new social behaviors that we need to put in place?

Again, how we’re interacting is going to matter, and how you think about those opportunities will make all of the difference for the person who feels on the outside. If you have a leadership meeting and 9 of the 10 leaders come in the office that day but one can’t, is that one person on video and no one pays attention to him or her? Or is everyone still on video, even though they’re also in the same room, and do you invest in technologies to improve that experience?

There are so many ways to do it, but I think culture can and does exist, and being intentional is the only way to get the results you want. You also have to be willing to listen to failure.

Think iteratively. Are you willing to practice and experiment, and where and how are you going to be gathering feedback on what it’s really like? You can suppose, but until you’re there doing it, you don’t really know. It matters when you make sure that all of your employees and team members are part of building and driving your culture. It’s not going to be centrally driven, per se. Leadership has to be bought in, and they have to care about it at the top, think about it, and talk about it all day, every day. But ultimately, the employees are doing the majority of the interacting every day, so they have to be part of that.

Yeah. It sounds like you have a very healthy approach, particularly what you mentioned about talking to your leaders about not necessarily finding these stuck in a lane because it’s uncharted territory; not everybody wants to go back, even to a hybrid model, and some people really do. It’s a new kind of division among your workers that didn’t exist before.

Absolutely. If you have offices, you have got to be intentional with what the purpose is. The office is no longer the only place where work can happen. We already know that and understand it.

We’re looking at our office spaces as a place where learning happens, where collaboration happens, and where connection happens. But we also have a set of employees who need it just to be functional, which is why we want a hybrid model. We’re trying to support great work happening no matter what your individual situation is. That means having that flexibility and personal choice. So as long as we’re taking good care of our clients and, through that, taking good care of the organization and taking good care of each other as teammates, then we want you to lean into choice and learn how you do your best work. Here are three different ways you can do it; choose the ones that matter the most so you can have the biggest impact and be the most successful in your role.