In this episode of Rule Breaker Investing, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is joined by The Motley Fool’s Kara Chambers and Lee Burbage to bring you some tips on how to survive this physically distanced, video-meeting-dominated world. Kara and Lee share what they have learned, how they are keeping spirits up at The Motley Fool, and much more.
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This video was recorded on September 15, 2020.
David Gardner: The date was December 2nd, 2015, that was the first Rule Breaker Investing podcast where I thought, what the heck, let’s try it, maybe people will enjoy not just stock tips on this podcast, but business tips as well. And so, I had my friends, Kara Chambers and Lee Burbage join me. And we did 10 Traits of a Great Company Culture. Now, we didn’t call it Vol. 1, but sure enough that day tipped off an episodic series over the years focused on company culture. Such an important thing to me, as a conscious capitalist, and something that we do once or twice a year sharing out our best ideas, on this podcast, about how to make your workplace more successful, more fun, more Foolish. And hoping, of course, to hear back from you some further ways in which we might improve ours.
Well, so many of us are working from home here in 2020, so I thought why wouldn’t I have Kara and Lee come back on for a special working from home edition, 10 Company Culture Tips to Help Your Organization Thrive or at least survive in our physically distanced Zoom-dominated world. And sure enough, Kara and Lee said, let’s do it, which is what we’re about to do this week only on Rule Breaker Investing.
Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. A delight to have you join with me and my two special guests this week. Now, if you are a longtime listener, you’re going to know my guests ahead of time, because this is the seventh time, as I mentioned at the top, that I have had Kara Chambers and Lee Burbage join me for a company culture tips episode. This is our seventh.
And when we all met, I think it was top of the year, January, we last joined together, I think we said something like, yeah, next time let’s do a best of… because how much fun would it be to do a best of… . We have enough material from our first six, we could definitely do a best of… . And then COVID came, and all of a sudden, that didn’t seem as relevant as what we could do for you today, which is to think together about how to work best from home, that Zoom-based environment that so many of us are working from. But you may have other tools, we use Slack. We use a lot of internal tools that may or may not be how you work in your job. We have so many Motley Fools so many different places, we’re all doing different things. I remember one of my favorite early listeners was a Major League Baseball Groundskeeper. Well, that’s the same job, in a lot of ways, probably, as it was a year ago, there just aren’t any fans, but that’s very different from using Zoom or Slack.
So, in the end I decided, I wanted to have Kara and Lee come in here and share some of our best learnings, hoping that they will map to your experience and help you.
The date was March 6th of this year, and I was on spring break, I was in Colorado. I got a phone call from my brother, my brother Tom Gardner, our CEO. And Tom said, hey, Dave, just so you know, I know you’re on break, but just FYI, I think we’re going to close down our offices. March 6th, it was a Friday. And as I’ve learned, of course, to be trusting of my brother over the +50 years of our relationship, I thought, OK, yeah, I trust you, Tom. That seems a little radical to me; I was thinking at the time. It’s crazy, we’re going to close down our offices March 6th, is this big enough for that?
And, Kara Chambers, you earlier that week had participated in some senior-level conversations. Again, I was still on break, but what were you discussing and learning earlier that week in March?
Kara Chambers: I think it goes a little bit further back in terms of we’ve been talking about remote work and testing out what it’s like. We had employees who wanted to work from home a little bit more, people who were moving to different locations. So, we started researching it a little ahead of time. And so, I think after the Super Bowl we had a test day where we tried having everybody, kind of, work from home. So, we tested it a little bit. And then as COVID came about around March 3rd, which was also Super Tuesday voting day here in Virginia, we decided to test that day as everybody works from home day. And we did that, and it worked so well, we said, you know what, maybe the rest of the week might be OK. And so then, I remember because that Thursday was my birthday and I took the day off. And then on Friday I came into a ghost town in our office. And a colleague turned to me and said, haven’t you heard? We’re going to be closed for a month. And I just looked at her like she was crazy. So, that’s crazy talk, a whole month; and here we are six months later.
But at the time, it seemed completely radical. And as I recall, we were the first ones to close, because only around the 11th was when major things started happening in the news and everybody realized. So, that week we’re about a week ahead of everyone else.
Gardner: Lee Burbage, what is your recollection of the start of March?
Lee Burbage: Yeah, I mean, I was in some of those conversations. And you know, like any kind of leadership conversation, you’re sort of weighing the pros and cons. And I can remember your brother basically saying, what is the downside of us sending everyone to work from home? Now, we’re lucky because we’re a company that we’re able to do that, just about every role at the company, at The Motley Fool, can be done from home. And so, we all looked at each other, and just like, the downside of us not doing it is people getting very sick; and the downsides of us doing it, we couldn’t think of any. So, we thought, this is the right thing to do, let’s do it now, let’s get ahead of this. And as Kara said, we had just tested and it worked great, so we went for it.
And since then we’ve said, we want to be the first to close and the last to open is, essentially the way we’ve looked at it.
Gardner: And it is our good fortune that we can run our business well in that environment. And obviously, we feel for so many friends, in some cases family members that have been furloughed or flat-out laid off; and all of those wonderful businesses. Washington DC has become such a wonderful restaurant city. And to see all of it so tamped down right now. I have tried to get out to a few restaurants, a few of my friends are crazy, they’re like, you even go to a restaurant? And I say, yeah, we sit outside, it’s been OK. I’ve been four or five times in the Washington DC area. Anyway, every business is different.
But Kara and Lee, we talked about it and we thought, you know, how about if this episode we share 10 company culture tips to work from home with the most success that you could have, whoever you are. What are the things that we’re trying and learning? Things we may have failed at and learned or things that are really working well for us at The Motley Fool, and why don’t we share those with our listeners everywhere, in hopes that we can make it all a little bit better for you and yours?
So, team, I say let’s just get started. And Kara, I think you have company culture tip for working from home No. 1. I realize I’ve been a little remiss, could you also just introduce yourself briefly [laughs] what you do at The Motley Fool as you lay it all out. No. 1?
Chambers: Sure. So, I’m Kara, I’ve been at The Fool almost 15 years. And my team, I’m trying this out where the purpose of The Motley Fool is to make the world smarter, happier, and richer. And so our, what’s called the HR team, we’re here to make our Fool smarter, happier, and richer; so that’s what most companies would call an HR team. And so, we have been thinking about, again, how to make people feel mostly happier; smarter, happy, and richer. And one of the big takeaways we had early on is, when you’re working from home there are other beings there; humans, pets, cats rolling in, your bird is squawking, I don’t know, babies, giant six-foot teenagers wandering through the background. It’s really been enjoyable, and I think if I’m speaking to anybody who is leading a team or out there trying to hide, like, their home life, I think I would just really encourage that, kind of, very personal life. I worked with a lot of Fools for years and I am getting to know their pets and children a little bit better. And so, we even asked in our survey, just put out an open call; OK, what’s the best cameo? Whose four-year-old came in at the most impro- and made the most random jokes? And it’s just been really fun about, you know, getting glimpses into people’s homes. Making it more personal has actually been more fun. And so, our encouragement is, welcome your kiddos and your pets into those conversations. So, it’s really been fun for us.
Gardner: “Welcome tiny and furry coworkers” is how you listed it on a page you sent me ahead of this podcast. So, yeah, I think our instinct is to be embarrassed about sharing those things. And yet, the humanity of the humor, the shared plight, and also the shared beauty of a baby or a really cute puppy, is something that brings joy and smiles.
Now, Kara, I could imagine this doesn’t necessarily work for every corporate environment. There might be somewhere that looks really unprofessional. If you’re in the middle of an IPO roadshow pitch or something like that, or just imagine if you work, I’m making this up, at Goldman Sachs, you’re not allowed to do this. But at least for us at The Motley Fool and maybe for a lot of other businesses, welcome tiny and furry coworkers.
Chambers: Yes. I would also add, I’ve seen – I’ve been on calls with vendors. And again, the whole world is in this scenario pretty much, it’s become they’re uncomfortable and we’re just enjoying it, right? Our vendors or someone else we’re talking to, that’s making us a pitch. There’s like a toddler having a meltdown back there and we’re just kind of, and they’re still mortified, we’re just like, bring it. [laughs] And so, I think it’s just kind of making it more part of your day, [laughs] The Fool has been really kind of relaxing for people.
Gardner: Well, one of the things I love about what we do at The Fool is, we challenge conventional wisdom. And this is a great one for me, because, again, my instincts are to hide and not want to embarrass family members or pets or whatever. But in fact, maybe it is helpful to have a quick conversation with your partner, spouse, or kids that, hey, it’s OK. And/or don’t show about too much, but actually people want to see you, so wave and say “Hi!” and make that part of how we work. Okay. Great.
Well, Lee, I know we’re going to you for No. 2. Could you also introduce yourself? Thank you.
Burbage: Yeah. So, I’m Lee Burbage. I work here with Kara on the People Team. I think I’m coming on my 22nd year of doing all things Human Resources and Culture at The Motley Fool. And 22 years of just a great time. And you mentioned on your No. 1 the bit of humanity. And so, for No. 2, I’ve got checking in on people. And what we’ve done is a couple of more personal touches. So, when we all first went home, our team, Kara and I, divided up all the people that work at The Motley Fool. And we each took a group and hand wrote a note to them and mailed it to them. And we thought that that was a good, sort of, out of the normal cycle way to contact employees, to receive an actual postcard in the mail that was handwritten that really just said, hey, we’re cheering for you. You’re doing a great job. Thank you for being who you are, we’re going to get through this together. So, it’s just kind of like a handwritten hug, if you will, that we sent out to every person at the company. And then we followed it up maybe a week or so later with a message. We use Slack in our office, it could be email, however you want to do it, to just check in on people and say, do you need anything? Can we help you? Is there anything we can order for you? We had some people, like, can I go into the office and grab my chair because my back is killing me? That sort of thing.
So, yeah, just reaching out to people on a personal level and checking in on them, realizing that a global pandemic is a stressful time in addition to all your normal work was, I think, something that was pretty powerful for us.
Gardner: Well, and that was a lot of handwritten letters to write, and thank you for that, I got mine. You know, it’s amazing to think about the efforts that we forget to make in normal times. We don’t say thank you enough probably, we never do. I certainly don’t write enough thank you notes, let alone handwritten ones. But I remember doing some interviews with the media around this time. And the notion that we at The Motley Fool had dedicated people to just call up their fellow employees and check in and see how they’re doing, that was not only praiseworthy, but it was considered surprisingly over the top. And I think in a lot of ways it is, and I’m not sure every business that’s hearing us right now could do that. Some of them are a lot larger than we are and some of them have fewer resources. But I certainly take heart knowing, Lee, that you and Kara and our team do check in with our Fools, whether it’s that initial handwritten note or in the months since.
And here we are now, [laughs] well after March 9th, we’re into September now. So, it’s been more than six months. Lee, do you find that those kinds of check-ins that we continue to do with the same frequency, is it more important to do now in the Fall or less important, where are you in terms of your thinking there?
Burbage: I don’t think we’ve yet figured out exactly what the right frequency is, but we are continuing to do it. We’re also using different methods. So, you know, Kara does a great job of managing all of our surveys. We just sent out a new survey today, just to check in on communication. We have another one that’s going to be going out in a few weeks on where you’d like to work and how we can help you. So, I think we’re just trying to hit people all kinds of different ways to make sure that we’re meeting their needs.
And then our team, we’re also talking among ourselves about things we’ve heard. So, like, hey, I heard that, you know, David was struggling a little bit with his internet connection, let’s check in with the IT guys and see if they’ll reach out to them. That sort of thing.
Gardner: Yeah, it makes me think about post-COVID, which I try to think [laughs] about frequently, because it’s possible just to get too in ourselves, in our own skins and just project the present out forever into the future. But we all know this too shall pass. And yet, Lee and Kara, we’ve also announced, as a company, that you may now work indefinitely from anywhere. And so, some of these efforts that you’re getting experience with, getting the reps in during COVID, well, these are actually going to be the rhythms, for some of our employees anyway, post-COVID, indefinitely, forever. We’ve changed.
Burbage: Yeah, we’re pretty excited about the steps forward that we’ve taken for enabling work-from-home. And some of the things that we’ve learned that we will absolutely carry forward into the future.
Gardner: And no doubt, we’ll be including some more of that thinking in our following eight tips. But there we are; welcome tiny and furry coworkers, No. 1. Checking with people, No. 2. Kara, what’s No. 3?
Chambers: No. 3 is about the time zone. Even if you live in the same place, I think we – this is from an author named Laura Vanderkam, who writes about this stuff. But we’re all working different hours because of where our lives are right now, especially in the caregiving stage. And so, in the office, you’re used to, kind of, just running up to people and asking them questions, and you’re, kind of, have an implicit deal to be there. Even at The Fool, we’re flexible, but we’re usually there in the middle of the day, right? Come in the morning and leave in the afternoon. And so that rhythm, we feel like work happens then, but when you’re in a caregiving stay or maybe you just have learned like to give yourself energy, maybe you want to work out in the afternoon or get up early or sleep in a little later or something, your work is going to be what’s called asynchronous. There’s just going to be a different timeline.
And so just being able to talk to your coworkers about when you’re available, when maybe you might be homeschooling or running an errand. Early on, if you remember, we were trying to manage getting to the grocery store, right, like, that was a big thing. And I’ve heard the term split shift a lot of people use, when they log off at like, 3:00 or 4:00, take care of kid stuff, be there for their kids, and then you’ll see them answering and responding at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock at night, right? That’s typical. And so just feeling like making sure you’re talking with your team about when you’re available, maybe your core hours and then maybe what people can expect from you. And again, we’re still working on this, but really like, not expecting everything is an immediate response, right. That’s how Slack is, I ask you a question and you answer, or maybe I wait a few hours, I don’t know.
And so, just getting us to think about, imagining that people are in a different time zone rather than immediately available to you, like they would be when they’re sitting next to you. So, that’s just something to be mindful of, is something we’ve learned.
Gardner: Yeah. And especially, obviously, within a team setting. I think knowing the time availability, the time zones of your teammates. Now, again, a lot of us work in businesses where everyone is in the same zip code roughly. Some others are in businesses that are far more geographically splayed than our own, so there’s no one size fits all for a topic like this. But Kara, it does feel like if the six people that you interact with most frequently, if you’re checking in to make sure you understand their time availability, that is a progressive stride forward.
Which I guess reminds me to ask my longtime Producer, Rick Engdahl, Rick, we’ve been recording these podcasts 2:30-ishe on Tuesdays for about five years now. Rick, is this actually a good time for you?
Rick Engdahl: You know, at this time, I’ve kind of shaped my home life around this podcast, David. So, it’s obviously the most important thing.
Gardner: Excellent. Well, I appreciate that. I hope everybody is shaping their home life around this podcast, but it does make sense [laughs] for you and for me to do that to a certain extent, Rick. So, thank you for sharing that. And, yeah, I don’t want to be a hypocrite, though. Since Kara just said, have conversations about availability, it occurred to me I hadn’t had that with you. So, maybe I’m just trying to mirror the good behavior we’re all wanting to see from other coworkers in the world at large.
Burbage: Surprise and delight. We definitely have found in this home working, there’s a bit of a routine that happens. And we haven’t been able to get after what we normally do in the office. So, as you show up and suddenly there’s breakfast sandwiches or a string quartet or all kinds of fun things like that. So, we’ve been trying to look for ways to get those surprise and delight moments that make us all so happy at home. A couple of examples I can give you. Some of your listeners may be familiar with Robert Brokamp, one of our long-term investors here and a retirement specialist, he was in a channel, I believe it was called Seven Dos and Don’ts of Investing or something like that. And he had made a joke that every time he went to look at it, he read seven donuts in his mind. And so, we actually had seven donuts sent to his house as a surprise, which just totally made his day [laughs] and his week.
So, I mentioned I worked here for almost 22 years. Every year that I’ve worked here, every month that I’ve worked here, we have had pizza day, which is a longtime tradition at The Fool. We all get to stand, Rick and I are often next to each other in line, opening up boxes and peeking inside, it’s just like a family tradition. And while we couldn’t send every person a pizza, we created a lottery. And so, we’re sending out, I don’t know, 40 or 50 people get to win every month. And people are so excited to win the pizza lottery and to have a pizza sent to themselves. And the last thing I’ll just throw out personally is, I found that every town where I have an employee on my team, there is an Uber Eats, and so it’s very easy for me to just use the Uber Eats account. You know, we already have an Uber account at the company to fire off a surprise meal, surprise desert, what have you, using the local Uber Eats, because I have the person’s address. That’s been especially good, because shipping has been a little spotty. So, sometimes we want to mail things to people and we can’t, because Amazon is a little slow because of the pandemic, that sort of thing, totally understandable, of course, but Uber Eats seems to be working great. So, anyway, we’re just trying to find places where we can throw in a little surprise and delight into what may be a full day of video meetings in your little home office, that sort of thing.
Gardner: So, I guess we probably could afford to send even more pizzas than 40 to 50, but I think part of the point here, Lee, is that it’s more fun to, like, win sometimes and not win other times. That’s part of the “surprise” part of the surprise and delight.
Burbage: Yeah, we made a game out of it. And because we have about 500 employees, trying to contact 500 different pizza places [laughs] can get a little cumbersome. But we’re pretty well known at the company for getting people the pizza they want. So, we’re not just sending out 50 cheese pizzas. We know that Rick loves the barbecue chicken with the vegan cheese, no sauce, you know, extra crust …
Engdahl: That is not true. [laughs] First of all, if it doesn’t come from New York or maybe New Jersey, it’s not a pizza.
Gardner: Wow! That is high maintenance. No wonder Rick never wins these. [laughs]
Burbage: Yeah. So, you see what we’re dealing with. We have 500 Ricks out there that are very particular.
Gardner: It’s got to be delivered by Uber Eats from New York to Washington DC.
Engdahl: Yeah, I don’t even sign up for that lottery, but I did enjoy the pinatagram that I got.
Burbage: Oh! See there you go.
Gardner: Could you explain, Rick, what’s that?
Engdahl: I just got in the mail, it was a thank you for some project we’ve done, but it was a little miniature pinata which had a little nice note to it. And it was very unexpected, very surprising, better than a pizza from Maryland, that’s for sure. And granted I got none of the candy because my daughter found it, but it was a delight.
Gardner: Well, it is. And it was a surprise. And I really appreciate point No. 4. And again, this means different things to different businesses and different people. I mean, even just the example of Robert Brokamp, who’s also the Co-Host of Motley Fool Answers. I know many of our podcast listeners will recognize Bro through that association. But I mean, there was no program that generates seven donuts, there was listening on the part of some of his coworkers and then reporting into the team that this would be a fun thing to do, right, Lee? So, we should all be trying to look for opportunities like that.
Burbage: Yeah. And I will say that this is something that we get certainly from you and your brother, something that Kara and I and our team have learned, it’s a learned behavior, to constantly be looking for the little places to send surprise and delight. You know, each time we interact with people externally, we’re trying to send some flowers. Taking care of our employees with little, small items like Uber Eats or pizzas. The cost is actually very low compared to big things like recruiting costs or the cost of turnover. So, you know, you’re doing the calculation of paying, you know, Rick’s salary, probably it cost me double his salary to replace and train someone new, that sort of thing, instead I can spend a small amount of money here and there on pizzas and flowers. And he knows like, hey, they care about me. And it makes a big difference.
Gardner: All right. What’s No. 5?
Burbage: Encourage random interactions. And so, David, we actually thought we might flip the switch on you here a little bit. And this is an area that we think is, we’ve seen near and dear to you, with tools like donut and so forth. So, I thought we might ask you about how you’re encouraging random interactions.
Gardner: Well, thank you. Yeah, those who know me well, know that I’m a gamer. And part of what I love about games is the randomness of them. In fact, earlier today, I had a new Fool coffee, because we continue to hire through COVID. In fact, you both know, better than anybody that we’re accelerating our hiring, which has been kind of crazy. But yeah, so I’m meeting new Fools almost every week these days. And I always have a new Fool coffee with kind of a conversation format, but we randomize who goes next. Which is probably a little weird, like you’re a new employee at this company, you’re trying to not to screw up, then there is the co-founder saying, let’s have coffee, and he’s randomizing who goes next as we talk. [laughs]
So, yes, you would both know that that’s idiosyncratic behavior for the vast majority of humanity, it’s very normal for me. So, yeah, I mean, thank you. Thank you for point No. 5, encourage random interactions. So, one of my favorite internal tools, this one is a plugin. And, Kara, I believe you brought this to us. It’s a Slack plugin; I’ll let you talk about it in a sec, but I’ll just give my viewpoint on it. It’s called Donut. And you can just plug it into Slack, I assume it’s a free plugin, and what it does is anybody who signs up for the channel, we’ll call it the donut social channel for that, anybody could have on their Slack. Anybody in there gets randomized to have a coffee with another person in that same channel. So, I’m making this up, but if we have 500 employees, something like half of us enjoy this kind of thing. You don’t have to do it, it’s just an opt-in, but you find out each month that you’ve been randomly paired with one, two or three other fellow Fools to have a coffee. And there’s no agenda, there’s no intended conversations. Sometimes, I think, maybe people think I need to lead it because I’m the Co-Founder, but, no, I’m just joining in. It’s basically the watercooler, we all showed up, but the Donut app enables us to have that conversation. And I just think it’s great, I look forward to it, you can set the frequency, you can make it once-a-month, once every week, once every two weeks, whatever it is.
That is one example of random interactions, Kara and Lee, but that’s a plug for the people of donut, and working with Slack. I’m sure it exists in other forms. Kara, was it you who came up with that?
Chambers: Yeah, I did hear about that. And I really love the randomness too. I love an in rather than having to socially introduce myself in any other way. It’d just be like, oh, I’m you just appeared on my Zoom, [laughs] like, here you are. So, I personally love that. And the nerd in me likes this concept of there’s two things that you can do to build collaboration, one is called bonding ties, where you’re like teambuilding with the people you work with, which is great, which is what we’ve talked about. And then the other one, which is harder when you’re remote, it’s called bridging ties, is talking to people you don’t normally work with. And that gets way harder because you’re literally not, like, stopping by in the hallway or you’re in the elevator, you’re waiting in line for pizza. So, there’s some effort that has to go into that, so.
And I have met the founders from Donut, and they were surprised, and this is two, three years ago, how much their product took off in remote companies because of this. And so, I thought that was interesting, like, it was much more appealing. Because, again, you’ll hear about collisions like the randomness of interacting with someone in an office space is also there, but this one too. I will also add a little plug, this is not a bot, but I thought it was funny, Lee did it in one of our team meetings. Where during our team meeting random people would just jump into our Zoom from different departments, and be like, oh, sorry, I’m in the wrong meeting. And they would just say “Hi!” to us. And for people who were not on our team, we might not have seen their faces. And [laughs] we were so excited. And so, I think, again, even a random popup, just inviting someone out of your team into a meeting was kind of fun. And so, it wasn’t, like, officially random, but I think maybe that kind of ties into surprise and delight, right; they were delightful Fools who were showing up. So, I think for us, it’s just really something you want to put some effort into.
Gardner: That’s great. And you know the ironic reflection here is that we’re having to be intentional to create randomness. Certainly, as you mentioned, the act of walking up the watercooler and just seeing somebody else there at the coffee machine, you don’t know who’s going to be there, you just went for coffee, but you have a conversation, you have an interaction. We don’t have that opportunity now, so we literally have to program and build for that, and something like the Donut plugin is just one such example.
Sort of a poignant moment, a couple of weeks ago. I was seeing one of our fellow Fools, who’s worked at the company for 20 years, congratulate another fellow Fool who had just celebrated his own 20th what we call Fooliversary. And the exchange that they had, again, on Slack, so just virtual chat room basically, was, you know, you and I have never actually worked together, we’re not on the same team, we’re not even in the same group, but I’ve built up a friendship with you over 20 years because we were near each other, desks. We were kind of near enough. And when we had a chance to move around, I kind of stayed in your area, because it’s fun, our friendship has meant a lot to me over 20 years now. So, without physical proximity that relationship may never have existed if we were all in a permanent Zoom COVID state, those things don’t happen. And so, it was really interesting thinking about that, thinking about the passage of time, about relationships and how they come about. And so, yeah, more random, if you will, interactions.
Well, thanks for letting me participate with my first ever tip. I think if we’ve done seven of these tips, and we do 10 each time, that means that was number 6, and you broke the rules and let me present one of them, at least in part, but it was your idea, Kara, you brought. So, thank you.
Before we go to No. 6, I’m just going to say, halftime. So, let’s just quickly summarize the first 5 tips, before we get to the second 5 tips. So, welcome tiny and furry coworkers and make them feel welcome and make them part of your interactions. Your fellow workers, in many cases, love it. They want to see it, they get to know you better, it’s fun.
No. 2, check in with people. No. 3, have conversations about availability, time zones. Lee, said with No. 4, surprise and delight. And then we just, of course, covered encouraging random interactions, which itself would not be random, you have to do that very intentionally.
All right, Kara, what’s No. 6?
Chambers: No. 6 is leveling up your remote tech skills. We have partnered with a company called LifeLabs [LifeLabs Learning] who’s been great at teaching some classes on this. And one common theme has really been to not take what you do in the office and try and exactly replicate what you would do in a meeting. And so, there are some cool benefits of not being — you know, you may not have your whiteboard that you draw on, right? Some of us still pantomime drawing on a whiteboard, when we’re talking, we’re like, if I could draw this. And so, we’ve got things like using little polls, and we use Zoom. Things like using Trello or shared Google Docs, and working together using a chat function. Just kind of adding little tweaks and making the meetings fun. Again, speaking of random, one of my favorite Zoom features is the breakout session. You can just press the button and it’ll randomly [laughs] break you out into groups, and it’s kind of fun, there’s a split second when you’re wondering who is going to appear on your screen. Again, maybe I just stole them from the previous. But just learning whatever technical tools you have to not just use them to replicate what’s out there what you used to do.
I think, kind of, rethinking your meetings, rethinking your interactions. This one is a little lower tech, but I also learned about, you know, if you’re having a one-on-one, maybe just call the person on a phone like they did 100 years ago, [laughs] right? It comes more naturally to you, so you’re not always staring at a screen and doing video interaction. So, kind of just, I think it’s about mixing up and understanding not taking your meetings and transplanting them into video and just changing nothing. And so, I am the technical geek and I like to, kind of, just learn how to do these a little bit better. And so, I think for anybody working remotely, being the one who’s like, I just figured out how to make backgrounds and cool, you know, DJ-ing or something. Whatever it is that you can do is going to benefit you and make your meetings more interesting and fun.
And again, it can be exhausting to be on just straight-up video calls all day long, right, so helping people break it up is really important.
Gardner: Boy! That’s great. It’s funny to think that we three are sharing a Google Doc as we do this podcast together. In fact, I’m seeing you both on the fly, like – I’m not going to say what No. 7 is yet, that would be a spoiler, that’s coming up. But you’ve already tweaked that a little bit as we’ve been doing this podcast. And we had never done that before. We had not, in our previous six episodes, had a live Google Doc on our screens where we’re doing it together. So, this is just a great example of, yeah, how we can operate more intelligently, with the constraints of our present environment, we can in fact innovate and do it better. Lee?
Burbage: Yeah, I mean, I think something that we’ve noticed, our culture and our office is a pretty fun one, like, we like to have a good time. And so, we’ve been looking for all the little tools and techniques that Kara has been teaching us. So, whether it’s throwing up some emojis or I wore my Hawaiian shirt to add a little fun to our meeting today. I personally like to choose backgrounds that make me happy. So, like I’m always choosing places that I’ve been or places that I dream of going. So, if I could sort of glance out of the corner of my eye, I’m like, oh, look, you know, I happen to be in Peru with an alpaca hiking up to Machu Picchu, right?
So, there’s all kinds of little things that you can do if you pay attention that just add a little fun, like Kara said, with polls or emojis or fun background. So, hey, we’re all just trying to have a good time while we’re working simultaneously.
Gardner: Very well put. And, Lee, I really have been admiring the alpaca that’s behind you. That is a very, very large creature. It seems like he’s bigger than the mountains behind him.
Burbage: He’s very close, it’s perspective, David.
Chambers: I feel like this is also the part where we should mention that we did have a Zoom background contest at one of our all-company huddles. And it got about as creative as Halloween, people were in full costume. Someone was like in a storm with like a fan blowing on them and a tornado going behind them. Our Fools are extremely creative people, so have some fun with the tech.
Gardner: That’s a great example. Well, I do see now spoilers are acceptable. I do see No. 7 which is coming up, and Lee you’re presenting it. And it’s creative socializing. I feel as if we’re already talking about that, but what do you mean with No. 7?
Burbage: So, we’re looking for ways to meet and greet one another, share experiences in this virtual world. And I’m not sure we have this perfect yet, but we’ve tried a bunch of different things. So, I can tell you some of the ones that have worked for us. At least once a day we have a Zoom room that just opens up that anybody can just pop into and talk. We’ve done that at the team level. We do that at the company level. Sometimes we have a topic, we’ll have somebody there presenting on a topic. Sometimes it’s just to say, “Hi!” but just trying to recreate what might be happening, for instance, at the coffee machine in the office. So, a place where you can just pop in and run into folks.
Trivia contests. So, I think we put ourselves up pretty, pretty high on our ability to create good trivia. But if that’s not your skillset, there’s lots of places online to help you figure that out. So, we’ve built some trivia contests which is a great way to get into, if you’re using Zoom, use breakout rooms. And you can actually use the tool and software to create teams that are working together for trivias. One of my favorites is we have, look for places or topics that people love to discuss. We love a good bracket, and since we didn’t get to have March Madness this year, we had —
Burbage: Yeah, I know, that’s personally painful for you, David.
Gardner: Yeah, still hurts.
Burbage: But what we said was, hey, is there something else that we could create a bracket for? And so, there’s a great tool online called Common Ninja; I think it cost like $15 maybe. And you can create your own bracket. And so, we did one out of snacks. And so, we had a companywide voting on snacks that lasted over several days, counting down to whatever the favorite snack is of Fools. And it created a lot of discussion, a lot of fun, a lot of arguing about, you know, are Mike and Ike really a snack, that’s more of a candy, does that even count, right? So, a lot of good ones.
For any Fools that are listening, I don’t want to ruin it, but we have a cereal bracket coming up. We’re going to be going for what’s Fools favorite cereal. Kara just had a big smile. And the last one I’ll say, which, David, I think you’re in this channel with me as well. One of my favorite discussions is, if you ever meet anybody out in the world, oftentimes the first thing you talk about is the weather. And so, we actually have an area on Slack, the tool we use, just talk about the weather. And geez! Especially in the United States, there’s a lot of weather happenings, and so there’s a lot of discussion there. Just different topics and different fun ways to bring people together outside of the normal business day, where they can just connect over commonalities.
Gardner: I mean, I obviously have to ask you, what won, the snack of the year or the snack of all time or whatever the bracket was called?
Burbage: The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was the winner of snacks. And I may blow you away, I learned something about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups online yesterday, and that is that, in the United States of America, we receive two Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in a standard Reese’s, everywhere else in the world there’s three.
Gardner: Wow! I did not know.
Burbage: So, if we were just to go up to Canada, we could get 3 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and apparently, they are the same size. Which is typically the very first next question is, oh, they must be smaller. No, no, in America we’re getting gypped out of one Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in every package. I’m upset about it.
Engdahl: But in America we eat two packages.
Gardner: [laughs] You know, I like that we’re putting in some free plugs. I don’t think Reese’s needs our help, but Common Ninja might appreciate that. And it reminds me, Kara, that your Motley at The Motley Fool, the value you bring to work every day, unless it’s changed recently, is there’s an app for that and it reminds me of how important tools – and these are plugins, these are small tools. I always feel like I’m the last person to hear about these myself, that’s why I’m just happy to be your friend and hanging out with the cool kids who know the cool tools. So, I’m conscious we’re giving some plugs here, and rightly so, but they’re typically around tools and things that we’re using and trying out.
So, Kara, is there another plug that you want to put in for something that you found useful that we’re enjoying at The Fool?
Chambers: Yes, we’ve had some fun recently with Pingboard, which is a connections app that builds out an org chart, but their killer feature is this fun little name game, which is like basically flash cards of people’s faces. We’ve had about 50 Fool starts since the pandemic, and a lot of them we’ve never met in-person. And so, there is a fun little name game and a leaderboard that we – I believe the prize was maybe $10 and it was a brutal competition, of course. We had categories like most tenured Fool with the highest score and then the least tenured Fool with the highest score. And so, we had some fun with that. So, Pingboard has a fun little game in there.
And what we found is we purchased it for the game, and then we found all their other fun features about building connections through; and again, putting faces with names. It’s literally way harder than you think. And so, Pingboard has been fun for us as a company directory. But I think their killer feature is in the mobile app, which is learning people’s names.
Gardner: That’s really cool. All right. Well, take us to No. 8, Kara.
Chambers: No. 8 is about support systems. I’ve heard this quote recently that we’re all in the same storm, but maybe in different boats, right? [laughs] And so that kind of concept of everybody’s life situation is a little different, but we’re all kind of stuck at home, and stuck at home could be different for everybody. So, there are people who are trying to solo parent and do this. There are people who are trying to homeschool. There are people who are living solo. And so, having these support groups for people, like a little Slack channel just check in with each other, has been really helpful for people just to, kind of, connect in some way. And so again, the same thing is you might not be there to discuss your favorite snack food, but it’s really just offering life tips, as I know, like, at least four people trying to homeschool kindergartners, which sounds just impossible, [laughs] like, kindergarten on Zoom, right? I know. So, if those four people are talking to each other and kind of sharing some tips and consoling each other, right, it’s probably really stressful. Or people who live in solo, just checking in what’s that like for you, right, it’s just a different experience in here, and how that’s going, or if you’re a caretaker in any way.
So, I know there are even ones about learning to cook on your own or something like that. A lot of us, I don’t know, for all of us, when the pandemic started, we all looked around, we’re like, who is using all these dishes? [laughs] Because we’re all at home so much. And so that concept of everybody is, kind of, cooking more and teaching each other tips and things like that. So, the support system has been really helpful, finding them at work has been really nice for building those bonding ties as well.
Gardner: Now, I assume, for many of us listening, some of those conversations just take place naturally. We know our friend also has a kindergartner, so we start to talk about it. But it sounds like you’re talking about a level up from that, Kara, where just as a professional, within our People and Culture Team, you are intentionally, it sounds like, creating some support systems, is that what you are advising?
Chambers: Yep. Early on, there was a group of channels that got set up early on. I would say early March, when we first went home, and then again, they were, like, for Slack. And then, again, I recall the living solo one. I recall homeschooling. And again, if you’re home with a two-year-old and you’re trying to work at the same time, that support system is really helpful.
I know we already had in place a really good support system for new parents, that’s out there too. And so just those demographics. And people naturally, kind of, socially when they hear about one, they start bringing people into the other. And then to tie it to one of our earlier topics of those little check-ins with people. So, let’s say I might have checked in early with somebody and they said, yeah, I’m doing OK, but I’m living by myself and it’s hard. And you say, hey, there’s a group for us, come on over. And so, we kind of used our informal connections; we didn’t make an official spreadsheet. But, again, it’s just helpful, everybody is in a different situation right now.
Burbage: Part of it too, I think can be about having creating space for people to be able to create those channels themselves, more of those groups. So, we had some groups that organized on their own right away. Someone was brave enough to post, hey, I’m someone that deals with a lot of anxiety and this, sort of, added stress of the pandemic, I’m having a little trouble. And kudos to this person for putting themselves out there in that way. And some other employee stepped forward and said, I’m dealing with the same sort of thing, you know, would you be up for a group? And now there’s a pretty vibrant group of people that are there supporting each other through, again, what we just all have to recognize is a lot of added stress to our lives. I mean, you can’t even get to the grocery store and get basic needs met, that sort of thing.
So, realizing that there’s other people struggling in the same ways that you are with whatever, as all the things that Kara listed, and just making sure that you’ve created space for those people to connect is important. Again, we use Slack, which is a great tool, but I’m sure there are other pieces of software that help too.
Gardner: Well, and you know, connecting back to a previous episode with you both, I mean, this has been one of your cardinal points, Lee, that you’ve always mentioned, which is that we don’t have that many compulsory things at The Motley Fool from a culture standpoint or traditional HR, if you will; an acronym I don’t use very often. No, you’ve always had the spirit that, [laughs] if you’re having to compel people, right, Lee, then maybe you’re not designing it well enough in a way that they’d want to participate. So, giving people the space to create the thing that they want to do as opposed to cookie-cutting something that HR has done and forcing it on people, there’s a big difference in how that feels.
Burbage: Yeah. And it’s a pretty selfish approach actually, because Kara and my least favorite thing is to run around and make people do things. [laughs] It’s a lot more fun as an HR person to create programs that people love and look forward to or to give people the room to do that themselves. So, partially, the kind of work that we like to do. And hey, it turns out it’s better for everybody.
Gardner: That’s great. All right. We’re in the homestretch, Lee and Kara. I see Nos. 9 and 10. Lee, ball gets passed to you, what’s No. 9?
Burbage: No. 9, take days off. It’s kind of a funny one, and maybe it’s people are wondering, of course, we should take days off, why is that on the list? But at least in the United States, and I think worldwide, people tend to equate taking days off and vacation from work with travel. And so, when travel has been taken away then people tend to think, oh, I’m not going to take days off for whatever reason. But there’s plenty of study in this area that you need breaks, your brain needs a break. And so encouraging people, even if you can’t leave your house, just to unplug from work for a day or a week is super-important. I know at The Fool different teams have said, hey, so last week the People Team, Kara and I said, hey, we’re closed on Friday. And again, it’s sort of a funny thing, because we’re not physically closed, because we’re not in a building to close the door, but we just said, for this day, no People Team work, and we’re not going to communicate to each other, we’re not going to have meetings, that sort of thing, and to take a break. So —
Gardner: Did you manage to do that, did you actually manage not to text anybody?
Burbage: I sure did. I played some golf, which was nice. I’m not the world’s best golfer, but it sure is fun, I enjoy it. Kara and I are probably the worst at being able to turn ourselves off. But I think what she and I have to realize is we’re leaders on that team and people look to us and our example, so she and I will try to hold ourselves accountable on days like that to not be plugged in and that gives other people permission to take the day off as well, and you know, do what you’re going to do.
So, I think this is a great place for team leaders to step in and say, we’re all taking the day off or really giving that permission or that room for people to take a break that they might not normally, because, hey, here we are sitting at home in our office, and now I’m at work at home in my office, like, it’s just always there. So, trying to turn that off. What do you think, Kara?
Chambers: I agree. I think I was one of the people who was reluctant, I was like, I’m not going anywhere, why would I take a day off, right? What am I going to do? I heard someone on my team say it’s preventative care. And then just kind of like, not look at your phone or take a walk or something, and just get, kind of, some stuff done. I think it’s been really nice. And so, yeah.
Gardner: And it’s not going to be every day, certainly. And I think some people think they’re supposed to take Saturday and/or Sunday off just as part of normal everyday life, and they may or may not even do that. But whether it’s a full day or not, even just an afternoon, or a morning, if you will, these are the kinds of things that I would hope most businesses would not be counting. I know that we’ve distinguished ourselves at The Fool over the years, we don’t count vacation days anyway. But it’s funny to think that you can’t just expect therefore that people are balancing themselves. Just because we have a policy of no policy around vacation days. Here we are, here are our team leaders saying, hey, you know what, we do need to say take Friday off, we actually have to say that to remind ourselves in part.
All right. Now, I’m not going to say you saved the best for last, Kara, but I am going to ask you to present it as well as you can. What’s No. 10?
Chambers: Okay. No. 10 is, up your communication frequency. And I think that’s really about when you are not seeing people, it’s much harder to read tone and body language. And it happens that if you’re too much time on your own, it will make people ruminate and worry. And I’ve heard this from our employees that we’re living in uncertain times, as you may know, and so everything feels uncertain, right. Whether we are going to open this product on Thursday or Friday or what time is our next meeting, right? Like, people are craving more information, and it’s really just kind of crazy out there in the world. So, when you are working with a team or a whole company or just one person reporting to you, just making sure you’re increasing the communication. So, we’ve encouraged managers, if you meet every other week, switch it to every week. And again, it can be 15 minutes, but the more frequent, the better.
So, we changed our company all hands; it was every week, all right, and that was for a while, and now we’ve finally toned down to every other week. And again, for perspective, it used to be quarterly, right? [laughs] And people, to Lee’s point about not being mandatory, people were showing up. And that was our first clue that people really wanted to hear what was going on in the company, what’s going on in other apartments, when are we going to reopen, when can we go back? Do we know? And so, we still don’t know, [laughs] but I think that people are just kind of wanting to talk about things. And so, just — I think I’ve used the mindful a lot, but remembering that, if you’re out there and you’re tied to your work, and especially if you’re in a role that is less interactive, you really need that kind of check-in. And again, that’s another form of it. Those one-to-one check-ins were important, but getting the team together and saying, I don’t know everything yet, but here’s what I do know, right? Those things have been really helpful on our teams we’ve seen.
Gardner: You know, there is something about the human mind that causes us to run to places of anxiety and fear when we don’t feel fully informed. After all, it was the medieval mapmakers, as I’ve sometimes had occasion to point out on this podcast; that’s one of my favorite points, medieval mapmakers. When they didn’t know what was up there in the upper-left corner, because no one had been there yet, what did they write, they wrote, “there be dragons.” So, there’s something about our mind that we don’t know what’s happening, we can naturally, for whatever reason, at least some of us, run to a place of anxiety and fear. So, I hear you, Kara, the importance of upping communication frequency during a time that is very uncertain.
All right. Well, there you have it. In fact, let me just summarize tips 6 through 10.
Kara said, level-up your video conferencing skills. We’ve actually hired a learning organization to help us think about how to do that better and share some best practices with our employees.
No. 7, creative socializing. You heard Lee talk about our trivia contests and bracketing up snacks.
No. 8, support systems are key. Kara was talking about how, if you have a kindergartner and I have a kindergartner, maybe we didn’t talk about this before, but now what the heck are you doing here homeschooling and how can I learn how to do it better myself? So, whether these conversations are happening naturally or whether we’re just consciously trying to give space to them as people leaders at our companies, those are important.
Nos. 9 and 10. Lee reminding us all, self included, take days off, take days off. Even if you’re the senior person who really loves their work and doesn’t want to, you kind of need to, just to exemplify good behavior for your team. And finally, as Kara just let us know, up that communication frequency, otherwise there be dragons.
You know, Lee and Kara, I wonder if you’d be kind enough just to give out your respective email addresses. I can imagine some of us, speaking of support systems, would appreciate reaching out to you and maybe hearing what was that app you mentioned earlier, or if many of my very smart listeners have tips for us that could make us better, we’d love to learn from you.
So, Lee, if I wanted to reach out to you based on something you said, what’s your email?
Burbage: Yeah, my email is my first name and last initial. So, it’s LeeB@Fool.com. And I’ll just pile on what you said, David, in that, these are things that are working for us, and we would love to hear things that are working for you as well. We don’t claim to have all the answers and we love learning together.
Gardner: Thank you. So well put. And, Kara, since I put you out there. There’s an app for that person; I can imagine some people might want to drop you a note and just hear any additional ideas you have. What is your email?
Chambers: It’s KChambers@Fool. I’m a little newer, that’s when we started first initial, last name, about 15 years ago, so.
Gardner: [laughs] I guess that’s true. And yet, a little newer is pretty relative when you’re talking about 15 years. [laughs] So, well, since I’ve learned a lot from you both, I’m just going to hold up my puppy in front of Zoom. Yeah, this is Phoebe, and she’s making, I realize this is not great in a podcast, which is an audio meeting.
Chambers: Oh, my gosh! For all the listeners, Phoebe is super cute.
Burbage: Oh, my god! That’s a good-looking dog.
Gardner: So, I’ve learned a lot from this podcast, and I’m already trying to put that into play. Well, I want to thank you both, and I also want to just second what Lee said earlier, which is, we have a lot to learn. We would love to learn from you.
I will point out we have mailbag the final week of every month on this podcast. And so, are there things that you are trying at your organization that are really working or really not, we would love to hear from you. And I’ll be happy to feature those on the Rule Breaker Investing mailbag.
Well, this was a delight, as I knew it would be. I have seen neither of you, and this includes Rick as well, I’ve seen none of you for at least six months, but you all look pretty healthy to me, and I know one thing, the work that you’re doing is so important to so many of us. And I’m so glad that you were able to share it out with many, many more people than we have at The Motley Fool working today, through this week’s podcast. So, I’m going to leave it this way, would you both come back on some future date and share some more company culture tips?
Burbage: Happy to.
Chambers: Yes, bring that puppy.
Gardner: [laughs] Excellent, I will do so. Well, in the meantime I want to thank all of our listeners for suffering Fools gladly this week. It was a delight to share two of my favorite Fools and all that they learned, to hope to make your company culture, for profit or not for profit, a little bit better as a consequence of this time that we spent together this week.
In the meantime, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for, yeah, […] of the stars. A really corny way to end this week’s podcast.
Thank you, Lee; Thank you, Kara.
Burbage: Thanks, David.
Gardner: Fool on!