Workplace Culture & Navigating the Future of Work with Maddie Grant, Cofounder of Propel

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Maddie Grant, Cofounder of Propel. Maddie and I talk about the changing dynamics of workplace culture and what companies need to be doing to navigate the new future of work. Let's get started. 

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help new innovators navigate what's next. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Maddy Grant. Co-founder of Propel

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Maddie Grant. She is the Co-founder of Propel, which focuses on helping organizations prosper through cultural change. Welcome to the show Maddie. 

Maddie Grant: Thank you so much for having me.

Brian Ardinger: I'm excited to have you on the show. There's a lot going on when it comes to workplace culture and the future of work. For those in our audience who may not have run into your work yet, you're also in addition to working at Propel, you're an author of several books, including Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and I think your most recent book is The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement. 

You know, this whole concept of work culture, work culture is being disrupted. You know, we hear about the great resignation or the great reassessment or the great return to work. Whatever the next great thing seems to be out there. You know, what are the biggest challenges and changes that you're seeing when it comes to the world of work? 

Maddie Grant: What's interesting is I've been kind of researching culture change in the workplace for quite a long time. For a couple of decades. So long before the pandemic, the workplace was changing in terms of needing to be more digital. You know, advent of social media changed a lot of stuff about managing and leading in the workplace, not just, you know, marketing and communicating with your customers.

So, it all started with basically the digital age. And my particular interest is actually on organizations that need to transition from the old way to the new way. Right. So, I'm not so much about startups who could basically create their own culture from the get-go. What I'm interested in is how do you take like a hundred-year-old museum and change, you know, and get them like up to the digital age. 

And then the pandemic happened. Right? So, a lot of the things that I was exploring in my books and my research basically happened really quickly overnight. And the big disruptor beyond of course the pandemic itself was to me, the idea that all of a sudden there was a really good reason to change how we work. Right. Right. 

Because if you didn't, people might lose their lives, literally. So in that respect, you're going to go remote. Like, even if you said that you couldn't or only, you know, very special VIP people could take like one half afternoon off of work on a Friday. Well, all of a sudden everybody's working from home and oh, guess what? It's actually working pretty well. 

It's actually, you know, people are doing their jobs and they're, they're managing, you know, what they need to manage. And they've got kids, dogs, all the rest of it at home. So, there's all these new external factors coming into it. But the work is still getting done.

Brian Ardinger: So, talk a little bit about we're in a weird space now, because for lack of a better term, a lot of the pandemic's talk has, has gone by the wayside and people are returning to work. And you're seeing this push again to trying to go back to the old normal. What are you seeing when it comes to that push and pull and, and that desire to go back to the way things were and what's working, or what's not working when it comes to that?

Maddie Grant: What we're seeing is that the people who want things to go back to the way they were, are almost always senior level people. So those are the people who got to where they are in the old system. And those are the ones who are very, very keen to go back to how it was. But like my partner Jamie Nadder likes to say the toothpaste is out of the tube now. So, there's some things that just cannot go back.

So for example, saying that people can't do their work, can't achieve their goals or their project targets or whatever from home, you can't say that anymore because there's so much data that people were completely able to do that, you know, for the past two years. However, what I think is really interesting is there is actually value to coming back to the workplace. But that value, you know, everybody talks about, you know, the water cooler conversations and, and building relationships.

And, you know, seeing people in person is better than online. You know, all of these kinds of things. But they're not defining why those things are important. Like why do we care about water cooler conversations? And in fact, water cooler conversations are actually not an equitable way of building relationships or coming up with random ideas that turn into that next multimillion dollar revenue source, because not everybody has access to the water cooler, right?

 Some people are not supposed to get up out of their desks for X number of hours. So that's just one example, but I think some of the most interesting work that we're doing right now is actually around the hybrid workplace. And so we wrote this eBook that was basically the four culture decisions that you need to consider when returning to the workplace.

And the four are Customizing the Employee Experience. Like how much are you willing to customize? Second one is What is the Value of the Workplace, the physical workplace. Third one is Defining Collaboration and the fourth one is Supervision and Accountability. Like, so you know, that people have been able to achieve their work from home. So how does that change, how you supervise and hold them accountable in the future? 

And these four things are all very interrelated. But the idea is that really smart organizations will take this opportunity to rethink actually what's important about bringing people together. And they will redesign their workplace, for that purpose. And it could be multiple purposes. 

But you might have a group of people inside your organization who really need the workplace for quiet time. So, it's actually not about collaborating. It's about having time away from the dog and the three-year-old. For other people, it's about collaborating, but in larger brainstorming teams. So, you know, collaborating with people outside of your department. So not your regular work with your team but getting together with others that you don't normally get together with. 

Sometimes it might be actually very social. Like what if the workplace was now like the big cafeteria where people came in literally to eat and have coffee, and that's where you start to, you know, run into people randomly, that kind of thing.

For all of those things, the reason it works or doesn't work is that you've defined that that is the reason you want people to be interacting in person. You know, so just having that thoughtfulness about why you care about getting people back to the workplace. It's not just to sit in a cubicle and be on your laptop on Zoom. Right. But now possibly with a mask on depending where you live. That doesn't make sense to anybody. 

And it doesn't make sense, and a lot of C-suite people will see this very quickly if they don't already, to drive like an hour into town for your meeting and then lose another hour, getting back home to get back on Zoom for your other meetings. It's so inefficient compared to what it used to be. 

Brian Ardinger: Let's talk a little bit about, I've had a conversation with a lot of companies and some of the challenges revolve around existing managers, not having the tools, resources, or training to really know how to interact or deal with remote employees. 

Again, a lot of people were just dumped into this and were never given an opportunity to learn new ways of connecting and communicating and collaborating in a remote kind of environment. Do you have any tips or tricks or things that you've seen that can help manage that transition better? 

Maddie Grant: There's technologies available for all of the above. Two minutes on Google and you can find tools and platforms for online meetings and for all kinds of different whiteboards and you know, whatever your needs might be. So it's not the technology, that's the issue. 

I think it literally just goes back to really defining why are you meeting. For what purpose is each meeting. And what are the different formats that they need to be. And how do you build relationships throughout the year through these different kind of connection points. And when is it better for it to be a one-on-one meeting versus a group? And when do you have your camera on or your camera off? Right? 

These are all very nuanced things and they're all culture things. But once you sit down to really just audit all of the meetings that you do and really define which kinds of meetings are for what purpose that enables all kinds of people, both on the management side and, you know, the individual practitioner side, contributor side, to really, you know, be on the same page about what these meetings are for.

Brian Ardinger: Have you seen any examples of companies doing this well and, or different ways that if I'm thinking about this, should this be top ground driven, thinking about like how do we actually calculate the meetings and figure this out. Should be done from the bottom-up team by team? What are some of the best practices you've seen out there?

Maddie Grant: I don't believe in best practices. I am a culture person who believes that every organization has the right culture for them. And that may be very different than for your competitor who does exactly the same work in the same market. But it's just a different company. So, for me, it's about that blueprint that works for you as an organization. The ability to define what the guidelines are for you.

And this is going back to what I was saying about defining collaboration, for example. You know, if you really understand as a company, why you want people to get together and have kind of a guiding principle that literally writes out, you know, we value collaboration because X, Y, Z, then those kinds of statements, which is similar to core values, right, but they're just a bit more granular. But the point of them is that anybody in the company should be able to get behind that and to understand it, no matter where sit. 

So, yes, it's top down. And yes, it's bottom up. Like it's got to go both ways. I will say it will not work if it's only bottom up. Like the power of the CEO, you know, no matter what the CEO might say, the core values are, or the culture is if their actions don't match with other words, they can destroy a culture really easily. But they can also really set the tone. And they have a lot of power to model the behavior that they're looking for. 

And I think the really fascinating thing about this whole great reshuffling is that there are people out there who fit every kind of culture. So, for example, we were talking to a lobbying firm. They need people, their lobbyists to be in person, because they go and meet with politicians. And if there's three people on zoom and three people in the room with the politician, you know, guess who's going to get the most attention. They just cannot do their jobs equally well on Zoom versus not.

So, for a company like that, then yes, they have a really good reason for wanting everybody to be in the office. I don't at all believe that everybody should be remote or anything like that. But the idea is just to really kind of understand and specifically define what those guiding principles are. You know, we do our work better because X. 

Brian Ardinger: Tactically, how do you start breaking that apart? Is this something that the C-suite should sit down and think through this. Should every team be thinking through and mapping this out on a board saying here's how we work best together. And here are the rules of engagement. And talk to me, tactically, how that can be done. 

Maddie Grant: The simplest way to start is with a culture assessment. It'll just help you break down into categories the, the different topics for discussion. And any culture assessment will do. Obviously, we created one that I like the best, but whatever. The point is just starting the conversation. But just as an example, our assessment measures things like agility and innovation and inclusion, transparency, collaboration, solutions which is like employee focus versus customer focus. And a couple more. 

So, there's eight markers and they're pretty legit from the standpoint of eight big topic areas that you can talk about. And when you start having those conversations and it is literally what you just said, like, how do we do innovation here, for example. 

What we've seen in our data is some really, really fascinating results. So, for innovation, I have to tell you this one, because of this podcast topic. For innovation, there's what we call a culture pattern, which appears across many, many different companies. It is where the scores for the concepts of innovation, so things like creativity, passion, and purpose, like learning, you know, ability to bring in resources for learning.

All these kinds of things tend to score high. But the structural pieces of innovation tend to score low. So, these are things like risk taking, experimentation, right? So, it's like, we like to talk about innovation, right. But we don't necessarily have the structures in place in our company where it's okay to innovate. And to take risks. And to measure.

We're not measuring the experiments that we're trying. So that's a pattern that comes out in this kind of data that you can immediately start to fix. If your goal is to be much more innovative as an organization, literally the data tells you every single department needs to have a way to measure how many experiments per month you're doing. And not just the results, but how many you tried. Like the failures are as important as the ones that worked, because if you're not failing enough, with trying things then you're not trying enough things. 

Brian Ardinger: Yes. Great insight there. And I think that's very true. I think a lot of companies have a lot of innovation theater where they like to think they're innovative, but when it comes down to like you said, the actions don't necessarily match up with the reality of that.

All these changes are obviously affecting every company out there. And this war for talent is becoming now global. Used to be where you could find your talent in your backyard. And now everybody's competing for every job around the world. What can companies do to better position themselves for attracting and finding the best talent today?

Maddie Grant: Yeah. So, I think that your differentiator is your culture. And of course, I'm a culture consultant. So, culture hammer, everything is a culture nail, right. But I do think there's a great lack of good description of what your culture is. Like good authentic description. And for every company that is losing people because of whatever their culture is, there are other people leaving cultures that are the opposite because there's so many different companies with different cultures. 

Being able to really accurately describe what it is, what it feels like to work there. You know, how people collaborate there. How much people are expected to integrate their external life into the workplace. You're a startup and you want people to live and breathe the startup life. Cool. If, if I'm, you know, 25 and my parents pay my rent. Like, yay, I'll go do that. 

But I'm 50. Can't do that anymore. But the point is there are people out there that will actually gravitate to your culture no matter what it is. So being able to really understand it and describe it to me is the key. Absolute key. And all the rest of it falls to the wayside. The salaries, benefits, all that stuff is almost irrelevant to me. 

Brian Ardinger: You talk a lot about how you customize the employee experience for employees to do their best work. Can you talk a little bit more about how do you customize an employee experience? 

Maddie Grant: Yeah. So just an example, based on what we've been talking about, the whole, you know, remote working. So, we worked with a group that owns their own building, a beautiful building. So of course, they were very insistent on trying to get everybody back in. And what they did was they said, okay, everybody needs to come in twice a week. And then each department gets to pick which two days. Like that sounds fabulous.

Okay, cool. But in actual fact, within every department, there are people who want to come in five days to get the quiet or to, you know, because they miss everybody. There are people who want to come in, never like you couldn't pay me enough to come back in because I do my work really well from home.

And then there's a lot of people somewhere in the middle, like, I'll come in two days, if you want, but I really don't want to come in Mondays or Fridays. Right. But now everybody comes in Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays. So the traffic is absolutely horrible. So, you know what, actually I'd rather work from home.

So, you know, if you get down to like the people's real lives, it's about the ability to really kind of gather everybody together. And balance a collective need or an organizational need for, in person collaboration with individual needs. People who want to be in all the time are out all the time or somewhere in the middle. You know, some people moved away and so they can't actually come in. Right. That's definitely happened a lot. 

The idea of customizing, it's all about the best way to do your best work. And so literally just asking the question of everybody, of how they best prefer to work. But it's also not just, we're trying to appeal to everybody's individual needs. There's also an organizational piece to it.

And if we've defined, you know, that collaboration is important to this organization because it helps us build relationships long term, which helps us do better work you know, in these other ways, you have to get all those inputs and then design the experience of your employees in a way that balances both. Like you'll never please, everybody. That's not what you're trying to do.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah. It's very much mosaic that you have to put together to make it look good on all fronts. Both for the employee and for the company itself. 

Maddie Grant: It might also really change your ultimate plan. So, this organization we worked with, they wanted everybody in two days a week, but it turns out that what they really, really wanted was those opportunities to build relationships and to run into people. 

Brian Ardinger: Right. So, can you do that in other ways? 

Maddie Grant: Right. Having random people in two days a week was actually not the way to do it. Instead, it was having everybody in for like a social day. Yeah. Like twice a month. And that they would bring in food trucks and they would bring in maybe a speaker or two and have some activities. But also just have some open time where people could just hang out.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: It's definitely a fascinating topic. If people want to find out more about yourself or the books or the company, what's the best way to do that?

Maddie Grant: Yeah. So, my company's called Propel. The URL is propelnow.co. And all my books are on Amazon. So, When Millennials Take Over is probably the easiest one to Google for.

Brian Ardinger: Well, Maddie, I really do appreciate your time coming on Inside Outside Innovation and sharing your insights on the world of work. I'm sure we'll have you back on because the world is changing quite fast. 

Maddie Grant: Thank you so much for having me. 

Brian Ardinger: Thank you very much.

That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

FREE INNOVATION NEWSLETTER & TOOLS

Get the latest episodes of the Inside Outside Innovation podcast, in addition to thought leadership in the form of blogs, innovation resources, videos, and invitations to exclusive events. SUBSCRIBE HERE

You can also search every Inside Outside Innovation Podcast by Topic and Company. 

For more innovations resources, check out IO's Innovation Article Database, Innovation Tools Database, Innovation Book Database, and Innovation Video Database

Also don't miss IO2022 - Innovation Accelerated in Sept, 2022.