Podcast: The secrets behind a great workplace culture

Contributor: Bruce Daisley, EMEA Vice President, Twitter

In this podcast, we’re joined by Bruce Daisley, EMEA Vice President at Twitter. Bruce’s passion for a healthy work culture has been recognised in a series of accolades, including a number one Apple Podcast ranking for his Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat Podcast, speaking to an array of experts. He has also recently released his debut book, “The Joy of Work”, and has spent two years studying psychology and neuroscience at work. To listen to the podcast, click play or read the transcript below.

1. So, firstly, it would be great if you could tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your career.

My career started in sort of traditional media; worked at Capital Radio, worked at Emap Radio, and then I found myself working, setting up the YouTube team in the UK for Google. From there, I spent the last seven years working at Twitter.

It was actually my time at Twitter that led to the obsession with workplace culture. During my time at Google, people used to wander past my team saying, “Wow, this is the best team. There is most incredible buzz to this team.” And then, when I went to Twitter, people used to say to me, “Wow, the London office has just got this really unique vibe to it.” And I decided, narcissisticlly, that that was down to my genius understanding of workplace culture.

And it was only subsequently, a couple of years later when maybe things weren’t going as well, I realised, “You’re not as much of an expert on this as you think.” So what I started doing was contacting psychologists and people extensively to do a podcast. What I found was, as soon as I started chatting to them, their understanding of the way that work impacted us or the best way to work was completely different to what people in office jobs thought.

So it felt like there was this real dissonance. People who spent time studying work would advise something completely different to what people in the offices did.

2. What was it that made you so interested in workplace culture to begin with?

Ever since when I was a teenager doing bar jobs, there were some times you’d go into a bar job and seemed to be a great buzz of the place, and then others were every night used to drag and it was like a really strange thing. What’s the secret sauce? What’s the dark matter that makes some workplaces good and some workplaces bad?

It’s just because I think we all know when we love our jobs, and quite often loving the job, yes, can feel like you’re making progress on something, you’re getting something done. But also sometimes it’s just a dynamic where you’ll do favours for the people next to you, you’ll work extra hard when things are busy just to get things done. And I was just really interested: if you could understand the science of that, would it be easier for other businesses to unlock it?

3. Why do you believe workplace culture is so important to both businesses and their employees?

If you look at some of the stats, probably the biggest survey of people in work is the Gallup Workforce Survey. The Gallup Workforce Survey surveys tens of thousands of people around the world and it looks at employee engagement. It says the average US worker, for example, there is about 24% engagement. That’s pretty low, until you see the UK figure. In the average UK workplace, 8% of the UK workforce are engaged with their job. The lowest is the French, they’re 3%.

But you suddenly realise that, if people felt a bit more engaged, they felt like they could have a bit more autonomy, if they felt like they could achieve what they’re capable of in their job, it’s what’s called discretionary effort: people would work a little bit harder. If people believed, “Okay, if I were allowed to do this, I would work harder. I could get it done in the way I wanted.” They would work harder. And I think that’s the secret sauce. If you can find a way to make people feel like they’re doing their best work in their jobs, actually the results follow.

So one of the best things I’ve seen, a professor used to be at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied supermarkets. This isn’t trendy office jobs. She wanted to know supermarkets and she found that the places that treated their workforce the best and had the best working culture and conditions were twice as profitable as those that didn’t.

In fact, I spoke last week to the Chief Constable of Lancashire Police Force and he said there’s clear evidence that the way you treat police officers directly impacts on the quality of policing that they give to the public. So these things aren’t “nice to haves”. Actually, they have a big impact on the job we do day-to-day.

4. You’ve mentioned the ‘secret sauce’ quite a lot. In your opinion, what are the secrets behind a great workplace culture?

I spent a long time obviously, trying to get these things down on paper and writing a book on it and the thing for me was that, the first thing before anything, was that people are exhausted, more exhausted now in their jobs than ever before and that isn’t a hyperbole.

Since the arrival of the mobile phone, the average working day has gone up by two hours a day and the consequence of that, is people who have gone from doing a hard day’s work to feeling mentally exhausted. Half of all office workers are burnt out. People are in a state of exhaustion really, from what they’re doing. So the first thing, if you’re gonna fix workplace culture, you need to try and remove some of the excessive demands upon people.

But the stuff that I was really intoxicated by was just science about human synchronisation and the science on this is magical. If you put a group of people together and you get them to dance. If you put a group of rowers together and you ask them to row in time rather than just row individually, they are able to withstand more. So the way that scientists work out how much pleasure hormone you’ve got going through your body is they inflict pain upon you. It’s cruel, but that’s what they do.

Anyway, people who are in sync with each other are able to withstand twice the amount of pain. Then you have a look at choir’s, if you bring people into choir’s, you bring strangers into choirs, not only can they withstand more pain, but they also feel more connected to the people around them. So there’s something magical that when we’re fully in sync with the people around us, something is created, endorphins are created.

As soon as you understand that science, you think, what are the other ways to access that? Some of the ways to access that, face-to face-chat activates it, laughing together with people activates it. In animals, picking the fleas of each other activates it. We don’t do that in most offices these days, but there’s increasing ways to get in sync with each other.

To illustrate how powerful sync is, I’ll give you one example. A researcher looked at couples who lived long-distance relationships. So this is four thousand couples who were living long-distance relationships and wanted to know which couples survived after a short period of time. The ones that survived were the ones that took time everyday to have trivial phone conversations. So if you said to them, “What did you chat about it?” It was, “I’ve put the recycling out.” It was so mundane, but it was that human sync. It was connecting with someone at a sort of human intimate level, was the thing that differentiated the ones that survived.

So, as soon as you know that this sync is like a magical dark matter of good workplace culture, you start thinking, “What are the ways to build this in my team?” What you find is meetings don’t achieve it, emails don’t achieve it. It has to be face-to-face discussion. It can be trying to bring laughter back to the office. Honestly, I think most of us, especially when times are hard— I’ve had bosses say to me, “Now’s not the time to be seen laughing.” We tend to think that laughter is this frivolous distraction, that we’re not doing our job. What you tend to find is laughter builds teamwork, it builds creativity and builds collaboration. So, trying to optimise offices for a bit more laughter might not be a bad thing.

5. What actions aside from laughter and face-to-face conversations can bosses and employers take to improve their culture immediately?

The third thing I go on to look at in the book is a sort of a combination of psychological safety and positive effect. Two jargon-y terms so let me explain what I mean.

Psychological safety is effectively what you find the best performing organisations have: the ability for people to speak up to the boss. Let’s have a look at scenarios where that’s most vivid: plane crashes. 2017 was the safest year on record for passenger airlines and it’s largely because about fifteen, twenty years ago, they instigated something that brings psychological safety to the cabin. It’s called Crew Resource Management, but it’s just a system of communication that means you’re allowed to speak up to the boss and you’re allowed to raise a concern without being seen as anti-hierarchical; it’s safe. Hospitals have it. This remarkable case of a guy called Martin Bromiley – his wife, unfortunately, went into hospital in her mid-thirties for a routine sinus operation and she passed away. Because he was an airline pilot, he wanted to understand what they were going to do to investigate and he found out that hospitals don’t do investigations into things that go wrong. He asked politely, he said, “I wonder if you could investigate?” What he found was that even though there’s forty years of experience in that operating theatre, everyone in the room knew what was happening, but no one vocalised it. So her air passages had collapsed. There’s a very routine get-around for that, but because they were all so focused on the jobs that they were doing, no one resolved it and that’s a lack of psychological safety.

Now of course, airlines and hospitals are far more vivid than our own jobs, but we suffer from this as well. People being scared to speak up to the boss. Maybe being scared to say to the boss, “Don’t email us on the weekend, please boss.” But people are scared to speak up to the boss.

And so finding route, I spoke to someone who works in the special forces, the elite military in the UK, I spoke to people who worked in hospitals, I’ve tried to understand what they do to build that psychological safety and for me, bosses understanding the route to building psychological safety is the route to creating greater success.

6. What can the average worker do to improve workplace culture?

I mentioned two things when I was getting into my jargon detour, but I mentioned positive effects and psychological safety.

Positive effect is this remarkable and well-observed phenomenon that when we’re in a good mood, our response to things is different to when we’re not. So, a researcher, Alice Isen, did some research where she gave doctors a bag of sweets, told them not to eat the sweets, but it was just a gift. Then she gave them some medical case notes and what she found was, the ones who are happy because they received a gift did a far more thorough job of investigating the case notes. They asked more questions, they reached a more complete diagnosis and it’s just an illustration that when we’re in a better frame of mind, we tend to do a more complete job.

Now, if you think back to where we are at work, half of all of us who check our emails outside of work are showing the highest recordable levels of signs of stress. We’re all in a state of anxiety and stress, and so to my mind, if we’re going to get to the state where we’re in positive effect, where we’re doing the best jobs we can do, we need to think about how we can depressurise some of the parts of our job.

Some of these things are incredibly mundane. Taking a lunch break doesn’t feel like it’s a revelation, but what you find is when people take a lunch break, not only is their clarity of thinking better, their productivity is higher. The worst possible time to find yourself in front of a judge is straight before a break at the end of the day or just before lunch because they tend to inflict higher penalties on people and higher sentences. Breaks have this powerful effect of just resetting us. You see it in schools, you see it in hospitals, you see it with judges.

Now look, if someone stood up and said, “Here’s the plan for 2019. We’re all taking a lunch break.” I think most of us would say, “Really, is that it?” But what you find is a combination of these small things can have a really re-energising impact on us.

Getting a good night’s sleep obviously as well, there’s lots to be said for it. Probably the most performance-enhancing thing that we know in the world is getting good night’s sleep. It is actually really enjoyable as well, but we just don’t want to do it. We just think it’s better to either lie on our phone, swiping through various million things, but we don’t do it.

The easiest thing that anyone can do is turn the notifications off on their phone. And normally, when you say that to people, they say, “Yeah, I can’t do that. My boss needs to get hold of me.” But one of the challenges we’ve got with modern work is we use email for everything, we use it for the urgent things and we use it for the non-urgent things.

Someone told me he made a long business flight somewhere and it was only when he got onto the WiFi, in the airport coming through passport control, he saw an email saying the meeting’s cancelled. He was like, “I can’t believe this. I sat for hours in the airport in Gatwick before I flew. And they said, “Well, we emailed you.” He said, “Well, why didn’t you phone me?” But we don’t do that, we’ve got multiple routes of communicating with people, but we don’t use all of them and the consequence of that is a lot of us find the need to be checking emails on the weekend just in case.

We’re not relaxing, we’re in a state of heightened anxiety ‘just in case’. I think trying to get some balance there, trying to sort of get a sense of freshness to what we’re doing is really important.


7. Do you have any examples of great workplace culture done right?

What you find is the best workplaces definitely have workers feel they’ve got autonomy to get things done. It’s why I’m personally against banning people from using emails at the weekend. I don’t think people should press ‘send’ on emails at the weekend, but if you want to spend Saturday morning clearing your inbox, you shouldn’t be prevented. There’s some talk in some countries about banning people from even accessing email at the weekend. What your doing there is, you’re turning people into infants. If you want to catch up and feel like you’re doing your job properly, even though work is too demanding, you should feel free to do that. So I think, good workplaces normally allow people to have the autonomy to get their job done in the way they want.

But I think, accessing psychological safety is really critical. One thing that Pixar animation does is they have something called the Brains Trust. And anytime someone’s working on a film, people sit down and they’ll share it, and everyone in the room is invited to give criticism, but not solutions. So you’re not invited to solve it, you’re invited to point it out. And the people there say, “What it does is it means that no one feels above criticism. No one feels like they can’t be told that something doesn’t feel right.” In fact, the first thing that Disney did when Disney bought Pixar is they introduced the Brains Trust at Disney. They called it the Story Trust Day. But if anyone’s seen Frozen, the two main characters weren’t sisters before that came along. She was going to fall in love with the prince and that was going to be the end, before that came along. So actually, some of the things that helped subvert that film and make it a bit fresher, they came from that process.

So businesses that try and build in the psychological safety are the ones that tend to be doing a better job. One of the best examples of that, I chatted to a member of the UK special forces. He said to me this remarkable thing that say if they’ve been on an excursion in Helmand province, or they’ve been out somewhere, they do a hot debrief he calls it, at the end of everyday. They’ve still got the kit on, they’re often still sweat steaming off them and they’ll stand there. He will say, he will describe what he believed they did on their mission today and then, he’ll say what he did including what he did wrong. He said that’s a really important part of it because that gives access to everyone hearing that saying you did something wrong isn’t a point of shame; it’s a point of description. So he said that, by the very fact he leads by example saying, “I did this. It didn’t go as well as I wanted,” it gives the access to everyone to do that.

And what you find is that businesses that thrive tend to have found a way to systematise this psychological safety. They seemed to have found a way to do it. And so that’s why I’ve put ten ways to do it in the book to try and find a way to build these methodologies.

I think the secret of work really is experimentation. No one is going to read this book and go, “Here’s thirty things that I will definitely do.” But they might read it and go, “That one didn’t work. I tried that and I loved it. I’m going to tell twenty people about this one.” So it’s about experimentation, finding what feels right for you.

8. And finally—this is a question that we ask all of our podcast guests—what do you think are the top three qualities that make a great leader?

I’ve mentioned laughing, but I love a sense of humour. Really interestingly, James Comey, the guy who was Head of the FBI fired by Donald Trump, he’d even gone as far as to search YouTube footage. He said he’s never found an instance of Donald Trump laughing. And he said, in his experience, he’d worked with President Obama, he’d worked with President George W. Bush, and they used humour, not only to warm a room and to remove the anxiety from a room, but they used humour to be self-deprecating. To make a difficult point, they’d use humour as a way to do that. Humour is an incredibly powerful way to sort of forge connections between us and he observed that Donald Trump never laughs.

So I think a sense of humour, a sense of humility and that’s why I love these people who illustrate and demonstrate when they’ve done something wrong. They’re willing to put their hands up and say “There’s something wrong here.” A wonderful example I talked through in the book of someone, when they were trying to do a brand new procedure for open heart surgery, the researcher who looked at this looked at hospitals across different parts of the US and she found that a lot of hospitals found it was too difficult. Effectively this is operating via someone’s leg, right? You’re putting a catheter up a vein in someone’s leg, a tiny little incision… It’s really complicated. Half the hospitals just abandoned it. The ones that succeeded tended to be led by surgeons who described what they were doing all the time, admitted at the end, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I need help. I need your input, guys,” . The ones that demonstrated that they didn’t have all the answers, the ones who weren’t trying to make out that they were flawless, they were the ones that tended to be the most successful. That’s really interesting, isn’t it? Humility as an access point to success.

I can’t think of a third one. The one thing I’ll say is I don’t think any boss should email at weekends. It’s a really trivial and tactical one, but bosses are the worst culprit for this. Normally when you chat to bosses, they say, “I thought I was just clearing my inbox.” By all means, write the email, but just don’t send it. Because what you find is, if you’re hoping that your team are going to be creative, your team are going to be inventive next year, all of the evidence is that stress kills creativity. So the stress that you instigate in your team members, the fact that you’re not giving them a full break, is killing that part of the strategy that you were so proud of. As long as you remember that stress kills creativity, not emailing at the weekend is the most important thing to do.

Looking for some more leadership advice? Then you might find some of our other blogs and insights, as well as Bruce's book, useful: