People & culture: 5 lessons we learned this year

Tom Holliss

Well, what a year. I’m not going to waste much time describing how unexpected and epochal the events of the last 12 months have been. There are plenty of people to tell that story, and my version will be nowhere near as entertaining as others out there (see Michael Mcintrye’s sketch released during the UK lockdown).

In the grand scheme of things, we have been very lucky here at Zappi. Our customers by-and-large fared well through the pandemic and continued to get value from our platform. Operationally, we were well placed to transition to remote working; the building blocks of trust, freedom and responsibility that underpin our culture turn out to be remarkably strong foundations to ride out a year of turmoil.

While we’ve been fortunate in our circumstances, we’ve also worked hard and smart, and the result is that we have grown the business, invested in rewards for our staff, put more time aside for learning and development, and budgeted for a big hiring push early next year; all to support our lofty ambition of becoming unequivocally the best insights platform on the market.

It absolutely has not been plain sailing but we have learned a lot. To wrap up the year, I wanted to share five of the key lessons I’ve taken away from 2020, both personally, and in regards to our people and culture.

1. The importance of human connection

This one feels obvious, especially coming from someone in a People leadership role. However, on so many levels, 2020 has reinforced the idea that we have evolved to be inherently social animals. Being away from colleagues, friends, and for many people, family, has proven challenging on many levels. But in different ways, our circumstances have led to unique opportunities to build connections.

On a personal level, that meant living with three generations of the same family under the same roof for several months; building and renewing relationships across the generations. This is almost certainly not something that will happen again, and definitely an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.

At Zappi, we have a vibrant and social culture. While our move to fully remote working was seamless from a technological and operational point of view, many of our colleagues struggled from a social and personal wellbeing perspective. Many of our team members are close friends as well as colleagues, and being so distant from each other is difficult.

However, in many ways, we are ending the year feeling more connected and with a greater sense of our collective identity than when 2020 began. Our employee satisfaction scores are higher than any point in the past.

As the great Maya Angelou once said,

“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

This message has never felt more relevant. My sense is that the challenges of the last 12 months have naturally encouraged us to dig deep, to draw on our strengths and know ourselves more authentically.

When we have a better sense of ourselves and our collective identity, we develop resilience, we build on our core beliefs and reinforce our sense of togetherness in the face of adversity — and we also innovate.

2. Cultural innovation is just as important as business innovation

In the absence of face-to-face communication, we have tried a range of different approaches to support people, build human connections and develop a culture to fit the new reality. I’ve always been a disciple of Peter Drucker and his famous adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and that feels ever more relevant in 2020.

New developments

We developed a number of tools to help people communicate, including the Ketchup app (which matches colleagues randomly for virtual coffees each week) and Loop (which encourages people to give each other positive and constructive feedback). These have both landed really well and increased the scope and quality of our relationships.

Company-wide gatherings

We introduced a weekly all-hands meeting, called Friday Roundup, to build our sense of togetherness. For a very dispersed company of ~200 people this has been a game changer.

Each week a DJ (or sometimes glam rock guitarist!) plays us in, our CEO Steve Phillips says a few words, then people from different teams bring forward ideas and updates to share. If someone has a work anniversary (or, as we fondly refer, a Zappiversary) they will typically take a moment to share a few reflections. We always end by reading through the Kudos Board, a selection of thank you’s and good vibes left for people across the business.

Friday Roundup has become what I call a cultural artifact; while it might be a bit corny, it is a shared ritual that has taken on real significance. It helps us feel connected and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Peer coaching

Finally, in the last 12 months we have placed a much greater emphasis on coaching. We use it to nurture personal growth, to support each other’s well-being, and to help people navigate the change that’s inevitable in a fast moving technology company in the middle of a global pandemic.

We now have a vibrant community of approximately 30 internal ‘peer coaches’ who work with colleagues across the business. There are also group coaching sessions that run every few weeks, and we’ve invited specialist well-being practitioners to share their expertise. All of these activities provide people with the right space to talk, to process, to think, and to navigate complex situations whilst prioritizing an empathetic, human-first approach.

Of course there have been many other ways we have worked to build human connections, to keep us talking and to help us stay sane!

The benefit of a vibrant, resilient culture is that it tends to respond to volatile contexts on its own volition. From an emoji world cup (yes, you read correctly), to remote team lunches, quizzes and many other activities, our teams have adapted independently in a whole host of ways.

3. You don’t need to assume control in a crisis

When the pandemic hit hard in the UK and USA in March, we were extremely worried about our business. Much of our revenue comes from new product development and advertising research, and we were concerned both of these would be severely impacted by changes in our customer’s businesses and the wider economy.

Additionally, customers began to raise concerns about the validity of our data. A key component of the insight (and value) our platform offers is derived from norms; models running over new datasets comparing the results to our database of previous studies. This analysis helps us predict in-market success.

Due to the radical social and lifestyle changes which occurred, many of our customers were worried that these comparisons lacked validity. Simply put, the pre-COVID world was seen to be too different to the post-COVID world for these comparisons to make sense. We had to respond...

For all the talk of empowerment in the modern workplace, it’s almost instinctual for leaders to assume control in a crisis; to pull up the drawbridge and revert to a command-and-control style of operating to steer an organization through the turmoil.

At Zappi, that’s quite alien to our cultural DNA. While the leadership team did meet more frequently as the pandemic continued to unfold, more actively and regularly reviewing our business metrics, we also resisted the urge to restrict decision making.

The political scientist Ian Bremmer came up with the stability / openness curve to describe the path that countries take from dictatorship to liberal democracy. The simple message is that as dictators give way to more open forms of governance, a period of instability occurs until the institutions, systems and culture of openness catch up, which eventually leads to even greater stability than under the original ‘closed’ framework.

This model is equally applicable to organizations. Typically in a crisis, the instinct of leaders is to move back up the curve, to close down decision making and become more directive, all with the admiral aim of steering the ship to calmer waters.

However, this year has taught us that the ‘take control’ approach misses something crucial: When in crisis you need absolutely all the creativity, innovation, and speed that you can collectively muster. For that you need everyone in the business making important decisions, not just a select group of leaders.

So what did we do?

At Zappi, we moved very quickly when the pandemic hit. Within a matter of weeks, we ran what I still believe to be the first significant fully online market research event, the Virtual Insights Summit. It was a huge success and helped us grow our business by triggering great conversations with new and prospective customers. In both of these examples we moved extremely quickly, and with the creativity and commitment that I believe come most readily to the fore in a culture of freedom and responsibility.

4. It’s okay to not have all the answers

Another lesson that really came home to roost around leadership this year, is the importance of saying, with honesty and vulnerability, “I don’t know the answer."

At Zappi, we talk about psychological safety a lot, along with the importance of transparency, and bringing our whole selves to work. However as Simon Sinek tells us, while we often pay lip-service to vulnerability in our organizations, the prevalent, masculine discourse of leadership demands strength; demands that our leaders should know the answer and act decisively.

But what about when that future is unknowable? More than any other year I can remember, 2020 has thrust on us conditions of such uncertainty that not knowing or having all the answers is not only natural, but inevitable.

This idea has even been formalized in the Cynefin decision-making framework as the concept of Aporia — a state of puzzlement and doubt; a place of not knowing which provides a safe vantage point for leaders to observe, plan, experiment, but crucially to be honest that they don’t have the answers and so to act decisively would be irresponsible. Decisiveness certainly has a place in effective leadership, but this year has taught me again that for our new world, we need a new style of leadership.

5. Businesses have a social justice debt to pay

COVID-19 aside, the other significant and deeply troubling events of 2020 centered around the murder of George Floyd, the subsequent protests that sprung up first in the US and then across the world, and the conversations surrounding racism, systemic inequality and privilege that followed.

As with people everywhere, colleagues at Zappi were deeply impacted by these events. For many these issues were very real in their communities and in their lives, while for others there was something of a reckoning; forcing us all to look hard in the face of some very uncomfortable realities.

For me, this year has involved a great deal of learning, reflection and really facing up to the privileges I enjoy because of my identity as a white, middle class, straight, cisgender man. The two questions I’ve kept front and center are: “What does it mean to be anti-racist?” and “How can I be a better ally in the fight for social justice?”

Unpacking the myriad of components of the answer would take a lot longer than I have in this piece, so I want to focus on two insights that I’m taking away from this tragedy.

Firstly, on a personal level, it means recognizing and owning my privilege, and committing to constantly and consistently using it to level the playing field — to work to transfer power and opportunities from people who have them in abundance, to people who have been denied them for generations.

Furthermore, I now believe that modern businesses owe a considerable social justice debt. It’s easy to conceptualize racism and other forms of inequality as abstract social and cultural issues, and therefore any expression of these within businesses is incidental and normal. I wholeheartedly reject that assertion.

For example, when reports show that Black people in the UK are massively underrepresented in senior leadership positions, and this has barely changed in 8 years; or that women hold only 16.9% of Board positions worldwide, the business community has to take responsibility.

It was power, access to labour and the demands of wealthy business owners that drove the transatlantic slave trade. And from those extremes the exclusionary policies of governments, education systems and businesses over the following centuries have continued to prioritize the needs of some people over others. If we are going to finally make real and lasting change, then businesses have to do WAY more than we’ve done in the last few years.

That’s why at Zappi we are committed to a goal of becoming one of the most diverse and inclusive organizations in the world.

We will achieve this by continually educating ourselves, making our processes for recruitment truly objective, reaching out to people from marginalized backgrounds, ensuring a level playing field for development opportunities within Zappi, and supporting high quality educational initiatives like Black Codher. And as we do this work, as we bring new people and new perspectives into our business, we have absolute certainty of the positive impact it will have on our success.

Note: For anyone looking for resources I wholeheartedly recommend Scene on Radio’s Seeing White podcast for a US perspective on race and racism, and About Race podcast for a UK perspective, both of which have helped me immensely.

Wrapping up

Overall, 2020 has been a year of extremes. It’s been a year of chaos and uncertainty, with long periods with little to do but watch Netflix or read a book. If we did socialize, it had to be at a distance; but for many folks this also meant more time for family. It’s also been a year of real social and economic upheaval, but with the glint of progress on the horizon.

I have learned a huge amount and through everything I’m ending the year with a real sense of optimism for what will come next (I’m also very much looking forward to a couple of weeks off).

See you on the other side!