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Hiring and Retaining Great People in the New World of Working

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Sarah Hawley of Growmotely about employing and retaining people in the remote and hybrid working world.

Key Takeaways

  • Hiring for remote work is very different to hiring for in-person
  • The remote hiring process should include engaging with the candidate across multiple channels, in a similar way to how they will be used in the work context
  • Onboarding well, and keeping people engaged with the organisation’s values and mission are key to retention and engagement
  • There is no single “new way of working” – every individual, team ,department and organisation needs to work out what works best for them
  • It is important to allow people to listen, learn, experiment and adapt to find what works best for them and their teams

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Sarah Hawley of Growmotely about employing and retaining people in the remote and hybrid working world.


Shane Hastie: Hey folks, QCon London is just around the corner. We'll be back in person in London from March 27 to 29. Join senior software leaders at early adopter companies as they share how they've implemented emerging trends and best practices. You'll learn from their experiences, practical techniques and pitfalls to avoid, so you get assurance you're adopting the right patterns and practices. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today I'm sitting down across the miles with Sarah Hawley. Sarah is the founder of Growmotely and this week is in Austin, Texas. Sarah, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Sarah Hawley: Thanks, Shane. Thanks for being here. Yes, I am in Austin. People can probably hear, I'm an Aussie, so it's fun to be chatting to another, what do they call us, antipodeans or something? But yes, I live in Austin, Texas, so I'm here this weekend mostly.

Shane Hastie: Cool. Okay, so probably a good start. Who's Sarah?


Sarah Hawley: Well, I am an Aussie entrepreneur, serial entrepreneur. I moved to the US in 2016 after I had turned all of my companies remote back in 2014 and started living the dream out here, which is where I wanted to live, and really experienced a lot of growth as a founder and a leader specifically when it came to culture and leadership after turning my companies remote. And so when I had my last exit in 2018, I was thinking about what did I want to do next? And I wanted to do something in technology and something that was scalable and the thing that I felt most passionate about was remote work.

So in 2019, I started working on Growmotely, which is a remote work platform designed to help any company anywhere in the world find and hire talent anywhere in the world with a focus on culture first hiring and the future of work as I see it, which I'd love to dive into with you here today. But yeah, that's me. I'm an entrepreneur. I love to ski as well. I actually first moved to the mountains of Colorado, but now I live in Austin, as we said earlier. I'm a mom, I've got a baby boy, Luca, he's almost two, so he is growing up. That's a little bit about me.

Shane Hastie: Cool. So tell us a bit about Growmotely, culture first hiring for the future of work from anywhere.

Sarah Hawley: It is an end-to-end platform, but I think what we're really strong at is bringing together people and companies. So basically from a company perspective, you set up a company profile, there's a job board where you can post jobs. We have an applicant tracking system that's been designed specifically for remote hiring, which is different to hiring in an office location based environment. So that's really kind of one of the core strengths of our product. And then we do have a payroll product designed to simplify that kind of global payroll aspect. And we've built some culture tools and other things in there. But the real focus of our product, especially after being in market for 18ish months, since we went live in April last year, what we're really focusing on is continuing to develop that kind of first stage of what we've built of helping companies and professionals meet each other on the platform and move through a process that's designed specifically to get to know each other in a remote context with culture first being at the heart of what we believe successful hiring, successful work looks like in the future.

I think skills and experience are important, but the most important thing is that we feel aligned in terms of the vision and the mission of the organization and the culture, the values, the ethos, how we want to show up and work together. So provided we have the skills and the experience and the ability to do a job, we feel like we're competent and all of that. What really matters is how are we working together and how are we feeling fulfilled in the work that we're doing in the world.

Shane Hastie: So what is different about hiring for remote?

What’s different about hiring for remote work?

Sarah Hawley: I think that the first aspect is how do we get to know each other in this new context where we're not coming into an office and sitting across from each other? And so what we've built is a multi-dimensional way to get to know each other through this process. So it starts with pre-screen questions, which are written questions that you answer when you submit an application. So instead of just sort of, you can hit apply to a million jobs, you actually have to answer questions in order to apply. So the company has been thoughtful about three to five questions they would like to know alongside your online resume slash profile about why you're interested in this company, why you're interested in this role. So that's the first kind of starting point. The second phase is a video Q&A. So the company has also been thoughtful about a couple of questions they'd like candidates to answer via video, a couple of minutes per question.

And this now is starting to build like, okay, we've seen someone's written responses, we've seen the video Q&A before we get to the point where each of us are going to invest an hour or whatever it might be in a Zoom or some kind of online interview. We also built instant messaging into the platform. So along the hiring journey, you can also just be sending what's more like a text, which is that informal aspect that I think is really important because email can get very formal. And I think in this future of work, what we want to do is meet each other on a human level. So what we're trying to do in this process is give people these different ways that they're experiencing each other, video, informal instant messaging, more formal written content, the profile, the online interview. And we've found that through the hiring journey and using these different methodologies of communication, we're starting to get a real sense of who each other are and build that relationship.

Shane Hastie: As a potential candidate, how do I vet the company culture, that it's for me?

As a candidate how do I learn about a company’s culture?

Sarah Hawley: Yeah, that's great. And that's the other aspect of what we built, so I'm glad you asked. But we have the companies set up their vision, their values and their purpose as a part of their profile along with an about the company so we have an idea of what the company actually does. And the candidates also add their values in. And we have an auto matching algorithm that we will be developing over time into a culture matching algorithm. So we want to suggest people to companies and companies to people based on, yes, skills and experience and job openings, but also on these values matching attributes. So that's a longer term project that we're building as we have more data in our system. But that's the kind of vision is that ultimately you go on Growmotely and you see a list of companies where you would actually thrive based on your profile and the things that you've put in.

And companies see candidates that would thrive in their organization. I think really the values, the ethos that forms the culture is the most important thing that we should be considering when we're looking at where we're going to go and work, or on the other side, when we're looking at people we're bringing into our team because team cohesion and having people engaged and happy in their work, and as an individual being engaged and happy in your work and feeling resonant with the way that the culture is in this organization is the thing that leads to more easy productivity is what I would call it. So I think there's two different ways to create high performance. I mean, there's probably more than two, but generally speaking, we can have a high performance culture that's driven by pressure, lots of goals and metrics and driving, driving, driving. And that ultimately tends to lead to burnout and high staff turnover.

So while we may get that performance short-term, we're probably going to have a higher turnover of staff and really going to have to work hard to find people that can actually thrive in that kind of organization long term. The other way that I think, which is a much nicer way to get high performance is having that alignment around the vision and the values and the skills and experience to be able to do the role because when we feel happy and fulfilled and engaged and competent, the work can just flow out a lot more easily. And so that leads to a higher level of performance in a way that's really enjoyable and doesn't see people burning out and wanting to leave the organization.

Shane Hastie: For an employer looking to bring people on remotely, how do I keep that level of engagement? So they've come to me because we have a values alignment, this looks good on paper, we're starting to work together. How do I keep that engagement when we might never talk to each other?

Keeping people engaged and involved

Sarah Hawley: The first thing I would say is hopefully they do talk to each other. So creating some kind of environment where there is consistent communication and opportunity to meet each other and engage. And I think there's many ways to do that. I don't believe in meetings all day long and being on Zoom all day long. I don't think that's the solution at all. I think for smaller companies, one weekly, all company meeting is nice, for larger companies, maybe it's a monthly where you're kind of updating everyone, but maybe then the smaller teams are getting together once a week. So I think this kind of weekly face-to-face touchpoint where everyone has their cameras on, normalizing it for it to be okay that they might be dialling in from the yoga studio or the park or from bed if it's late at night or whatever it might be, not necessarily having to be at your desk and all of that.

Because also when we're working remotely and globally, we could have people in all different time zones and hopefully we're embracing a more fluid, flexible way for people to work. But bringing people together, I think at least once a week, is a really nice way to create that relationship. And secondly, the most important thing is having good online easy ways to communicate. So in our company, we use Basecamp for example. Obviously Slack is another really popular one. Tools like this where you can easily be chatting. We also use Telegram so that we can send voice notes. Voice notes is a really incredible way of brainstorming and having ongoing collaborative conversations either in a group or even just with one of your peers where you can unpack things, convey things, spend some time with a concept or an idea, but not have to be doing it at the same time, not constantly having to be finding time where we can meet.

So I think in terms of communication and coming together, I think that's really important. But to get back to the core of your question around the values and making sure that we're actually embodying them so that we are attracting the right people in and then we're maintaining that culture. So the first thing is to be honest with ourselves about the culture and the values of the organization and communicate them clearly and truthfully to the market when we're looking for talent. Don't put a value of flexibility if you're ex-military and have created a pretty structured type of organization. There's nothing wrong with being a more structured organization. So it's important to communicate clearly, not going, oh, flexibility's a buzzword, let's put that out there, because you're just going to attract people who will struggle in your environment if they're truly much more flexible and flowy and you have a much more structured approach.

Trust that there are people who really thrive and desire structure. So when we're doing a values exercise, and I think it's important for companies to re-look at their values every year or so to really, see is this true to who we are? Are these the core most important things about how we are and are we communicating them authentically? And are we living up to them? Because we all stray from them from time to time. And what they should be is our kind of moral code or something to bring us back to center when we maybe have strayed off course a little bit. So our vision is the north star. It's like where we are trying to go, what we're looking out to the horizon for. Our mission is why? Why do we even care about this thing? And I think that's really important because that's the fire that fuels us every day to get to where we're going.

And then the values or the ethos, which essentially becomes our culture, is how we show up together, how we like to work together, how we're going to actually achieve this vision. And so being really honest with that and learning how to communicate it clearly is what's going to attract the right people in. It also means you have an anchor point for conversations when people maybe are not thriving. And you can start to say, well, of these five values, what are they embodying and what are they not? And how do we have a conversation around where they're not embodying some or one of our values and ask them openly, does this feel like something you want to be a part of and be in, or is it just feeling really uncomfortable for you? Because it's also okay if it's not the right fit, and how can we help navigate out to whatever's next for you?

And what I've learned over the years of running organizations this way is it actually removes this idea of firing people or having people quit unexpectedly. Because what you're doing is having ongoing open conversations around who we are as an organization and how we all want to show up together and making it really okay if that doesn't feel right. Because there is no right or wrong in the world. There's no right way to be necessarily. I mean, I know some schools of thought do, and we do have laws and things like that, but a much more open way I think of living and experiencing this life is to say there's no right or wrong, there's just different. And what works for me maybe doesn't work for someone else, and it doesn't make it good or bad, it just means let's not try to work together because it's going to be painful. Why not just find somewhere where you're actually going to thrive and really love it? So that's kind of I think the ideal scenario that we can strive for within an organization.

Shane Hastie: Another concept that we are seeing become more visible today is this concept of not just hiring for culture fit but hiring for culture add. How do I as a leader in an organization build a self-awareness of what's next in terms of our culture? What is the add-on that we want to our culture rather than what we are today?

Hiring for culture add

Sarah Hawley: Yeah, I think that's really beautiful. And I think it's still important to be sure that we want that and that it's not a trend that we are forcing ourself down. And I think that's really critical because if we get into a conflict, like an inner conflict where the market says they want this, but we don't actually want it, but we're hiring someone to bring it in, but there's a resistance, it's just not going to work. So there's still always that aspect of can we trust that who we are, there are people out there that are like us and that want to be with us? Where I see culture add working really well, and where I see it to be really important is like, wow, we really desire this. This feels really resonant, but we don't yet know how to do it. We don't necessarily have the tools.

And I think that's very relevant right now. We've just taken this huge leap forward into a whole new way of working together. We have a really big opportunity to redefine how we're working together as humanity, to redefine what work even means to us. It's very exciting, it's very empowering, it's very enlivening, but we have basically no past conditioning or evidence or experience to kind of support this new model. So it makes a lot of sense for those leaders and organizations that are looking out and saying, yeah, I mean I really want to lead a company with more transparency, but be really scared about what does that actually look like, what does that actually feel like to be really transparent? I see that it's a trend. I also do actually desire that for our organization, but I don't know how to do it. I don't know how to have really transparent conversations.

I don't know how to share all the financials of the organization with the team and then take the team on a journey where they actually understand what those financials mean, whatever it might be. So to use that as an example, looking for someone who has that experience, who is an expert in that area, to join the team or to be an advisor or whatever it might be, to actually guide us and be intentional about transitioning the culture into something new, something with this added piece to it. So we're not necessarily flipping the entire thing on its head, but we want to bring in more of whatever it might be. So I think that's very, very powerful. Still requires that honesty and integrity with self, the organization of like, is this an actual desire for us to move in this direction? Because if we have that buy-in and that intention, we can communicate that out to the team, we can communicate out why we want to do it. It will resonate with people, it will hit, and then people will start to invest in like, okay, let's do it.

Let's be more transparent. Let's see how we can start to have these conversations. And I do feel that it's leadership's responsibility to embrace something new first and as wholly and fully as possible. So if we bring that expert in, having the leaders actually really learning and really embodying and really going to that person and saying, how am I doing with this? Are we embodying it? Are we embracing it? Because we can't expect that people who are further out from that core, like I don't really like the hierarchy type system. I don't like to say people who are at the bottom compared to those at the top. But if we think of the leadership maybe as the core, the nucleus of what's happening and what's evolving, we want people out at every layer and level to be able to see and be led by that nucleus into the future.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned the new way of working, the new world of work. What is it? Actually, I want to say it's not it. What are the many possibilities that are in front of us today?

Many possibilities for new ways of working

Sarah Hawley: My personal why, the reason I exist is to inspire possibility. So I like the phrasing that you use there of that question. Yeah. So what I am excited about and what I'm leaning into is a world of work where work becomes much more deeply integrated into our life in a way that's joyful because it doesn't feel like work. The traditional definition, I think, when we hear the word work, what we think about is something I don't really love doing, but I do because it gives me money so that I can live. And then outside of my work, I can do the things that I enjoy. The world of work that I see that we now have a greater potential of achieving is a world of work where I am doing something that I absolutely love and I'm really, really good with a group of people that I thrive amongst.

And so now it's just amazing that I get to do that every day and I get paid for it. And because of remote work, I get to live where I want to live, build a lifestyle that I want to build, so work is actually now being very much integrated into the life versus also before we lived in a city where there were job opportunities, we probably lived somewhere that was fairly convenient for our commute. So there were a lot of decisions around our life that work was dictating and wasn't necessarily integrated. In a lot of cases, it was overtaking our life, but on this false belief that, well, I have to do this thing here so that either one day when I retire or on my weekends or whatever, I can do the things that I actually love. The world of work I see is I love what I do, I do it from wherever I want.

I have this amazing lifestyle. That feels pretty good. The other aspect of it is sovereignty and empowerment as an individual. So am I trusted as an individual? Do I trust the people I work with to do what they are responsible for, accountable for in whatever way works best for them? And do I treat them and treat each other with respect and this kind of equality in terms of just like we're all just human beings? There's no one that's above anyone else, there's no one that's below anyone else. So it's really moving away from the hierarchical structures and moving more toward, okay, we are a company that's made up of all these different people doing all these different things so that we can get to our North Star because of the things that we care about side by side. And as a leader, I'm not above anyone.

My area of accountability is to look out to the vision and to communicate that vision to the world so that everybody's engaged with it, whether it's our customers, the media, our team, whatever it is, that's my role as the leader and to kind of navigate us toward that direction we're going. But I can't actually do that without all the different people kind of doing their bit and telling me what's important so that I can course correct and do whatever I might need to do. And so I'm not above anyone. I'm not like the boss in the typical sense, in the traditional sense. I'm just a person in the team that happens to be the one responsible for the vision and driving the ship toward where, maybe not even driving it, but kind of making sure we're on course for where we're going. I'm speaking as myself as the CEO, founder of my company.

But a world where in that typical traditional model, let's say a receptionist or a customer service person, they were seen as lower in the organization with less say and less power and less whatever. How about we're all empowered? It's not a power game. The finite power game is like, I have power, which means you don't. Or if you have the power, then I don't. To be empowered is we're both embodied, we're both empowered, we're coming together. And my value as the customer service person is that I'm talking to our customers every day. I know what they want. I know what they care about. So my voice needs to be heard in our organization because I'm close to them. And hopefully I'm amazing at customer service and it lights me up and I love dealing with people and I'm highly valued within the organization, no more or less than the CTO or the whatever it might be.

So it's really just about saying yes to the areas of accountability and responsibility and then trusting and empowering ourselves and each other to work in ways that work best for us. And I think that also comes down to the daily. If someone's a morning person and their brain works really good at four, five, 6:00 AM like why would we not let them embrace that and do three or four hours work early in the morning, then maybe finish off with some of their more mundane tasks later in the day after they've gone to yoga and taken the dog for a walk? Why does that matter to us when they're doing things? So I see that as a big part of the new world of work as well, where individuals are truly empowered to create their lifestyle from the bigger picture of where they live and all of that, but also down to how they're living out each day.

Shane Hastie: That's a long way from where many organizations are today.

Sarah Hawley: Yes, I know. Some days I'm like, man, I got my work cut out for me.

Shane Hastie: How do we get there? What's the kaizen steps, the small steps? Thinking of our audience, the technical leaders, the influencers who are working in the technology teams and organizations, what can they do to move towards this?

Make change little by little and bring people along with you

Sarah Hawley: It is little by little. I think that's important. Tackling things bit by bit and seeing, not trying to be all of that, from Friday morning we leave at five, in the office and from Monday it's a free for all, do whatever you want. I mean, it's probably part of the challenge is nobody knows how to do it. So even if people are inspired by the idea of all of this freedom, when they find themselves in it, often they're like, wait, I don't know what to do. How do I even start? How do I know that I'm doing what is expected of me? I'm so used to being in an environment where I'm told what time to turn up, where to sit, what time I can have my lunch break, where the bathroom is, like everything's planned out for me. Now I need to think about all of those things as well as my actual job.

And it can be overwhelming as well. So I definitely encourage just baby steps and also looking at taking the risk off the table. Because I think that's one of the things that people struggle with and can be scared by is like, okay, that all sounds like some kind of idealist utopia that probably won't work in reality and it's too freaking scary, so I don't even want to do it. There's such a big risk. What if people don't do what they say they're going to do? And I can see all of those risks and all of those objections and all of those fears. So if we approach it little by little, and then we also take some risk off the table by seeing it as an experiment. What's one thing we want to experiment out of all of that new vision that I painted? What's one thing we want to experiment on and why don't we just do it for a month?

And why don't we talk amongst ourselves about the experience every week, for example, with a plan to circle up at the end of the month and say, what did we learn? What do we want to take forward, knowing that we can just roll back to what we were doing at any point in time? So the biggest risk you're taking is a month long experiment or a week or whatever feels good for your organization. So let's say you started with allowing people to work, if you're already remote, allowing people to work whatever hours they want. So we're going from all agreeing to work nine to five to all agreeing to work roughly eight hours, but whatever eight hours of the day we see fit. Do it for a week. Let's just do it for a week and just let's talk about it. Let's get to Friday and talk about how everybody ended up just working nine to five because they were too scared to actually do something different or they didn't know.

Or let's hear from the one person who took the risk and actually worked through midnight each night because that's when their brain wakes up. And let's learn from them about how much more productive they actually were. And then next week, let's all try again. Let's see if we can break out of our pattern and see what's possible. So just I think little by little and keeping the dialogue open, which even that could be scary, right? Wow. Actually talking to each other about changes and what a risk if we say we're going to do this and we're going to talk to people about it, but we want to roll back, that feels like risky in itself. So just little by little, whatever experiment you decide to take, just know that it is an experiment and you can roll it back. So maybe starting with that vision and going, okay, if we want to transform our organization over the next five years, maybe, if it's a really big organization, or one year, or six months if you're smaller.

Or it could just be, I want to transform my team. And I mean, that could be an approach in a bigger company as well is letting a couple of teams try something and then, I don't know, that could be a way to do it. But looking at all of this stuff as experimentation and saying, where would we really love to be in X time? And then what do we just want to tackle one by one? Let's try this. Let's try that. And being really compassionate with ourselves that we're going to mess it up. We're not going to be able to do it really well right up front. I wrote the book on this stuff and I still mess it up. I still find myself off course, micromanaging because I'm stressed and I want something to happen.

So all of a sudden I start telling people what to do and when to do it. And then thankfully, because we have a really open culture, they're like, "Hey, Sarah, back off. Remember empowerment and ownership?" And I'm like, "Oh, gosh. You're right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm stressed and this is what's going on." But I think this new world of work as well is about not being perfect. It's about having these ideals that we want to hold ourselves to, but knowing that it's okay that we're not going to be perfect. We're going to go off course, we're trying things, we're learning, we're growing, and then coming back to centre.

Shane Hastie: Some really interesting ideas in there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Sarah Hawley: LinkedIn is a good place. Yeah, I'm pretty active on there and I do share a lot of my thoughts and ideas, and I'm down to connect with anyone. And from there, yeah, feel free to reach out to me or what have you. But you can also find me on Growmotely and all of our social medias. I love this stuff and I'm very aware that we are absolutely pioneering this space. We're very out there compared to where the standard is. For me, that's important though that some of us are being that change and we're being that light and we're showing the world what is possible. Because the scariest thing about making these changes is not knowing if it's possible.

And having companies, organizations, leaders, teams, embodying some new way of being that looks good to us and talking about it openly and talking about where they're doing well and where they're not is really, really helpful. So it's a whole new world. Like you said, it does overwhelm me sometimes thinking about how far some organizations need to come, but I'm bullish on this future and it's what matters to me. This is my life's work.

Shane Hastie: Sarah, thank you so very much.

Sarah Hawley: My pleasure, Shane. Thanks for having me. It was great to be here.


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