Katie Burke of HubSpot is standing outside in a pink dress, smiling into the camera while leaning agaisnt a red-brick wall.
Katie Burke. Image: HubSpot

HubSpot’s Katie Burke on building an inclusive hybrid culture

21 Oct 2020

Katie Burke, HubSpot’s chief people officer, explains why diversity and inclusion efforts shouldn’t neglect remote staff in a hybrid working model.

A lot has changed in the working world since the pandemic began, but our learning isn’t over yet. It’s highly likely that many businesses will strike a balance between working in the office and working from home moving forward, opting for a hybrid working model.

To learn more about hybrid working, we spoke to chief people officer at HubSpot, Katie Burke. She explained why you can’t “copy and paste” how your business used to operate into a remote world and outlines the first steps you should take.

‘Access to a career in tech shouldn’t be determined by your Eircode’

What are the hallmarks of a functioning hybrid company?

Similar to company culture, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to being a hybrid company. It will look different based on what your employees need to do their best work.

That being said, there are some critical ingredients: dedication, empathy, iteration, effective communication and, most importantly, inclusion. Every employee should have the same opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally, whether they work from an office or a home office.

When done right, a hybrid approach should complement a company’s commitment to being more diverse and inclusive. Access to a career in tech shouldn’t be determined by your Eircode, and so we’re excited to access talent who may not have had the option in the past to pursue a job they love from where they live, and meet new folks outside of our existing networks, cities and local offices.

What are some of the first steps businesses should start taking towards a hybrid model?

To be successful in a hybrid world, you have to start by listening to what your employees need and want. It can be easy to get distracted by what other companies are offering, but there’s danger in the ‘copycat model’. For example, we’ve been hearing a lot of platitudes about the future of work. Companies are going all in on remote and people are saying the office is dead.

But, instead of doing what other companies are pivoting to at the moment and rushing judgment on our future of work, we asked HubSpot employees and candidates what they valued. It turned out choosing an extreme wasn’t right for our company. What we heard from our employees is that they want flexibility. While we admire many leaders and companies who have announced different offerings, we realised there’s a real opportunity to create our own unique path as we determine what will work best for our culture and employees.

The best first step is to collect data. We did an employee survey but complemented the quantitative data with panels where we heard from candidates, experts at other companies and leaders we admire. So, we weren’t overly reliant on our current state and perspective, or on factors that might be overemphasised in survey data due to the pandemic. Figure out an approach to listening that works for your organisation and start there.

The second critical step is to align on first principles. What are you solving for and why? When you lead with the logic informing your decision-making and approach, it’s a whole lot easier for people to understand the rationale and approach you recommend and adopt, and to explain it to others. Leading with first principles means your values inform your decision versus being swayed by current coverage or trends.

What challenges do businesses need to be aware of as they set out?

I think there are two core challenges for any company pursuing the hybrid model. One is that you have to do remote and in-person incredibly well, and there are very few examples of companies who have done that well at scale.

The second is not to get distracted by what others are doing. I’ve never met anyone at a cocktail party who doesn’t have an opinion about culture and work, so you have to be sure your company is both staying true to its values and adapting to what your candidates need and want. That balance is incredibly challenging.

At HubSpot, our co-founder Dharmesh [Shah] is a big proponent of aligning vectors. So, one of our big challenges is aligning the vectors of hybrid work while giving teams and leaders autonomy to do what’s best for their teams. While we sort it out, we’ve really leaned into our value of transparency and overcommunication, using regular ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions, Looms and our company Wiki to share information, field questions and share what’s top of mind as we make decisions on what’s next for us.

Are there any common mistakes companies should try to avoid?

When employees first started working remotely at HubSpot many years ago, we made a lot of mistakes that most companies make. One of them was that we tried to take the in-person experience and move it directly online. The truth is, you can’t copy and paste your office experience into a remote world. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be really intentional and thoughtful about creating inclusive programming and perks. No one should need to come into an office to experience or enjoy your culture.

Another common pitfall is not investing in career growth for your remote employees. There’s a popular belief that you need to be in an office to get promoted, become a manager or lead a team. Unfortunately, I think face-time does still play too large of a role in someone’s ability to get ahead at most organisations. We’re actively working to change that narrative at HubSpot by evolving our internal processes for feedback, performance reviews and access to growth opportunities remotely, and by hiring more remote managers and leaders to join our team. Doing great work isn’t dependent on location; we believe being recognised for great work shouldn’t be either.

Two other common mistakes we’ve seen are not embracing asynchronous communication and not providing managers with the right tools to best lead a hybrid team. Creating a guide for employees on how they should communicate in a virtual world will help teams to work across multiple time zones and lifestyles. Similarly, people managers and leaders need to receive training, workshops and support for building psychological safety, equipping high-performance hybrid teams for success and remote-inclusive hiring and team development.

Are there particular tools or technologies that can help?

Absolutely. As global company working across many time zones, we’ve always leaned heavily on technology to communicate and collaborate. Like many organisations, we rely heavily on Zoom, Gmail and Slack, but we also really depend on Confluence from Atlassian, and on Loom for regular updates and videos.

When you work remotely, it’s more likely that the lines between home life and work life become blurred, which can sometimes lead to overwork. In fact, our 2019 remote work report found that 35pc of those surveyed report working more than eight hours a day. By embracing asynchronous communication more across our organisation, we’re hoping to reinforce that our culture is not one where people need to be always ‘on’. We use tools like Slack’s custom ‘away’ messages (‘recharging’ and ‘being a parent’ are fan favourites) so that we normalise time away from work, rather than glorify overwork.

We also offer regular seminars on mental and physical health to help normalise that navigating a global pandemic means taking care of yourself as a human being first and foremost. Turns out self care is a valuable tool in high-stress times for everyone.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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