Episode 2 - What the UK and US workplace cultures can learn from each other [Podcast]

August 10, 2018 - 21 minute read

Frontline by Speakap is a community for progressive HR leaders to share (and learn) ideas and strategies for creating a thriving workplace, to therefore help all employees reach their full potential.

This is the second episode of our podcast series, which will feature a range of experts and industry leaders to discuss topics related to their individual expertise.

In this podcast we discuss the difference between UK and US workplace cultures, and what they can learn from each other. 

About Guy Chiswick

Guy is the Managing Director UK&I of Speakap, who has joined to share his extensive market and retail knowledge to introduce Speakap to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Guy was previously positioned at Webloyalty, where he successfully led their international expansion into Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland.

“Don't be afraid to take risks at the beginning of your career. I think that first of five years of your career, you can move around and take chances - it will work out again.”

Connect with Guy


Email: guy.chiswick@speakap.com

About Ivan Silvagni

Ivan is the Managing Director US, who has joined to share his business development expertise in the mobile, SaaS, and techspace. Ivan was previously positioned at GasBuddy, where he drove the growth of their consumer mobile platform and smb/enterprise SaaS business solutions globally.

“If everyone in your company knows what road to take, then they'll usually take it - versus not knowing at all, or communicating at the last minute. It just creates chaos in frustration and lost productivity. So just simply communicate more.”

Connect with Ivan


Email: ivan.silvagni@speakap.com

In this episode we chat about:

  • Cultural norms in different industries and sectors
  • Employee benefits, recognition schemes, and vacation time
  • Productivity driven workplace culture
  • Culture that drives performance

Mentioned Resources

Smart News - An app to help you discover news stories

Workplace Fables by Mark Price - Real-life examples for a better working life

Measure What Matters by John Doerr - A handbook for setting and achieving audacious goals

Upcoming episodes on Frontline by Speakap…

  • Culture that drives performance

Thanks for listening!


Lou: This is episode number two on what the UK and US workplace cultures can learn from each other.

Sting: You're listening to Frontline by Speakap, the engagement platform your frontline employees love to use.

Matt: Our guests today are Ivan Silvagni, managing director of the US and Guy Chiswick, managing director of the UK.

Matt: Hi, welcome to Frontline by Speakap, the podcast dedicated to helping you create a thriving workplace where everyone feels connected. I'm your co-host Matt Warnock.

Lou: And I'm Lou Blair. We’re a business built on reimagining what internal communications could, and should, look like. We enable companies, to enable their workforce, in order to thrive.

Matt: We want to share with you what we've learnt, not only by working with our partners, but also from creating and growing our own international organization.

Lou: 2018 has been a big year for Speakap. We opened a UK office, and we’re about to open our office in the US. We're lucky enough to have our managing directors from the US and the UK both in the same place here today. How have you guys been enjoying Amsterdam?

Ivan: Well, I happen to love Amsterdam. It’s actually my fourth time here so it sort of feels very much at home for me.

Guy: I have come a few times before as well. I love it, and it’s even better when the sun is shining. It's great to see everyone swim in the lakes, hanging out at the bars and having a great time here.

Matt: Fantastic, it’s hard to beat when the sun shining. So Guy and Ivan, can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive into some of the questions?

Guy: Yeah, so I've got about 20 years of business experience. The first half of which was in media and marketing roles, and the second half of which has been in retail data and e-commerce. I joined Speakap four months ago to launch the UK business and it's going great.

Ivan: And similar to Guy, I have about 20 years of experience, mostly in technology. I had the pleasure of working for large brands like Apple. I also worked with several SaaS-based organizations, focusing on retail-type solutions. I just started here at Speakap, and I’m very excited to be able to launch our US efforts.

Matt: Well, it’s great to have you both on board. Very excited! So, an easy, fun one to start with: what's the first app that you look at in the morning? And what's the last app you look at on your phone in the evening, before you go to bed?

Ivan: Besides my alarm clock in the morning, the one I usually go to is an app called smart news, which is a news aggregator app that brings in news articles based on various subjects that I choose. It helps to keep you aware of what's happening in the world. I actually like tech news, business news and sometimes I fancy myself a bit of a GQ reader.

Matt: And the last app you look at before you go to bed at night?

Ivan: Usually my calendar app, so that way I just kind of know what to expect for the next day.

Matt: Makes sense! And Guy?

Guy: It depends on the day of the week, and also what the weather's like. If I'm on my bike and going to the office, I'll check the weather before I get up to see if it's going to rain on the way. Also, depending on the time of the month, it might be my bank app - depending on where my finances are! News is a pretty common one too - the Telegraph on there, which is great. A very mobile-friendly format which is great for scanning through. And at night, again it tends to be the calendar app and the weather app to see what's happening the next day.

Matt: Nice. So we have the full spectrum of predominantly English language speaking nations here, with Australia the UK, the US. There’s obviously a shared common language there. But what about in the workplace? Do you think they share similar workplace cultures, or do you think there's a difference between the two?

Ivan: I find that in the US there's a big focus on staying connected with your work and with your career. So constantly evolving your career; whether it's rising from retail shop associate manager to district manager, or whatever sort of path it is. There's a high focus in the US with employees on always trying to move up in their position, or in an organization.

Matt: I'm curious, is that really expressly planned? Do people have a five-year plan for their career and for themselves? For example,

Ivan: Not really. I think it depends on the person, and sort of what goals or objectives they place for themselves from a personal perspective. But from an employer perspective, it depends again on the organization. Some organizations tend to have a defined structure in terms of growth for their employees, and some don't.

Matt: And Guy, is that similar in the UK or does the natural British reservation prevent us from talking about our aspirations?

Guy: I think it really depends on on the sector. So again, if you look at some sectors, they are wildly different. If you think in terms of retail, leisure and hospitality, in the UK they tend to be more transient jobs - people don't necessarily see them as a profession for life. Whereas in the US it very much is so. Again, if you look at the leisure side, in terms of how it works and how you earn your money (in terms of tipping), the service that you will deliver and the professionalism you will put into that. I think it's very different in terms of that.

But if you look it at other sectors, they're quite aligned and it depends where people are coming from. How much have you invested into your education? Therefore what is the weight on their shoulders, in terms of what they want to get in return. I think you will see an interesting change in the UK since they brought in having to pay for tuition fees. It's changing the focus over there, in terms of the approach people put into their career at the beginning.

Lou: One thing that I read about recently that I found to be concerning, is that there's a trend in the US - according to Glassdoor - that people are only taking about half of the vacation days that they have allocated. In the US, on average, you get about 16 vacation days - compared to the UK where it's around 26 vacation days. And I'm sure that in the UK they are definitely making use of all the holidays that they have. What are your thoughts on this?

Ivan: It's actually very true. There really are a few reasons for why Americans suffer from being what we say work martyrs and where they choose not to take time off, because they're concerned about coming back to a even more work. Plus, many people have a feeling that no one else can do their job.

There's also some disconnect between employers and employees; most employers in the US would say that they agree that vacation improves health and well-being, boosts morale and alleviates burnout. But a large majority of workers feel that company culture is ambivalent or discouraging, and sends mixed messages about taking time off.

So, the situation creates a communication divide - almost a vacuum - where negative perceptions about taking vacation time thrives. And thus, employees will forego some vacation time in order to maintain what they believe is needed to stay employed.

Matt: And Guy; in the UK, where we are more accustomed to taking more vacation time, do you think it’s because there is better communication from the employer to the employee? That they know they will be respected, and it won’t be frowned upon if they take their vacation days? Or is it more of a cultural thing?

Guy: Yeah. I think that culture plays one part in it. There's also the part which is in the connected world we are in now, are people ever truly on holidays? So while they still take their holiday, they'll still be checking in while they’re away. I think it depends by sector, and by the type of job they're doing.

There’s an interesting one now, where they're trying to go the other way; lots of media and marketing companies are now offering unlimited holiday, so you can choose to take as much holiday as you wish, or as little. Which I could potentially create a very toxic situation - you could therefore take 65 days of holiday, but you still have to do your job.

I think there's some interesting things at play, in terms of putting it back on the employee and giving them ultimately as much permission to do what they want. But that meaning they probably won't do anything.

Matt: Ivan, it must be interesting - because obviously, you've worked extensively in Europe or visiting Europe - to compare the work culture here. One thing that struck me when I moved to the Netherlands was (even more than the UK) is we’re very productivity driven here. Employers hold their employees responsible for output, rather than necessarily for being the first to check-in in the morning, and the last one to punch out at night. Do you think the US is learning from that in any way, and is that a journey that they're on? Or do you think it's so ingrained culturally, that they won't be able to change in that way?

Ivan: It really depends on the industry. There are certain industries where it is really time-based, so people have to punch-in and punch-out. But in a corporate environment, especially in technology or even in the financial field, and various other corporate type based organizations, a lot of it is moving towards sort of rewarding actions and results. Versus just putting in a certain amount of time during the workday.

Matt: Yeah, and in the UK we're sometimes accused of not necessarily saying what's on our mind, or finding ways to talk around subjects without being as direct as we might like to be. Do you think with younger generations that's changing? I'm always curious if even when you put communication channels in place, do people feel comfortable reaching out to their employer, or reaching out to somebody to discuss that they may be feeling stressed, or under supported?

Guy: Yeah. It's led by the business and it's how that culture works. I think people feel resistance towards it and feel nervous about what they putting in. But if they can show that it’s a confidential service that's provided, and they've benefit out the back of it I think that builds trust. Initially there will be a concern that if they put something out there, it could come back to bite them.

Matt: And Ivan, in the US we see them, certainly from the UK perspective, employees there as not being backwards and coming forwards. Does that make them better users of communication channels, or do you think there is still a distrust between different levels of an organization?

Ivan: I think in the US there's definitely a culture of feedback, which sort of translates into communication both from the employer to the employee, and then the employee back. That has obviously grown as social media channels have become more and more ubiquitous amongst all demographics - certainly in the US.

And so there is definitely a focus for employees to really provide feedback and communicate when possible. The challenge, of course, is how do they actually do that? What are the channels in which to do that? And without the right technology platform, it becomes difficult for employees to provide either the timely level of feedback, or to the right person (or people or group within an organization) for that type of feedback.

Matt: And what sort of organizations do you look at, and think that they're doing a really great job in this space?

Ivan: Well, having come from Apple, and having worked for Apple for many many years, Apple has created what we call “Fearless Feedback” and it is really driven throughout all parts of the organization. I know that Apple has always done a good job around trying to empower employees with the right level of education, tools and also policies, in which every level of employee feels enabled to communicate and provide feedback. I'm sure there are other organizations that try to do it as well.

Then we found in the US that the really savvy nimble businesses, whether they're in tech or retail, whatever the industry is, those savvy organizations realize that they have to stay connected to their employees on a very timely basis. And those are the organizations that we find are winning.

Matt: Yeah, I think it's no coincidence that Apple is seen as the gold standard in terms of customer service as well. We tend to think of internal comms as just being exactly that: communication throughout an organization. But actually, your employees can be your market research and they are absolutely how you convey your brand.

So Guy, how about in the UK? Who are the real leaders in this space?

Guy: Well, having come from John Lewis, it stands out in so many examples of how to be a good employer, and I think in terms of putting its employees first. Providing a platform where they can be communicated to and give feedback. And beyond that, in terms of embedding in their employees that they are part of that business and they are valued: there's a profit share scheme that they can benefit from.

So I think it's got to go beyond just having a good feedback loop in place - it's got to be authentic. It's got to mean more than just when people give feedback - that it's acted on and that it creates change. It needs to be authentic, and tied to organizational goals and values.

Lou: Well that leads us on to our next set of questions. We created this podcast as a space to hear and learn from leaders and experts on how to create a thriving workplace. And we know that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to achieve this - every industry has its unique challenges, and every company has their own values and culture.

So, we have five little rapid-fire questions that we like to call the thrive five on how to drive your workforce to succeed. First question - is there a single employee benefit that you feel should be mandatory within every company?

Guy: Yeah, I think you should make every employee feel invested in the business.

And I mentioned it just before with John Lewis: a great example of this, with their profit share. So everyone that has the KPI’s they need to deliver on, everyone that takes the same profit share, depending on their salary, and everyone feels incredibly invested in the business.

I think it's however you do that, it might not be financial. It might be benefits - so they can then take back additional benefits. But again, reward people for doing a great job.

Ivan: And I think enriching and career focused learning and development programs should be a part of any companies benefit plan. When employees believe that the company is investing in their growth the reward pays off, I believe in increased trust, morale and a more engaged employee.

Lou: Second question - if there's one piece of advice that you could give yourself at start of your career, what would it be?

Guy: Don't be afraid to take risks at the beginning of your career. I think that first of five years of your career, you can move around and take chances - it will work out again. The impact isn't that huge.

I remember being approached by some sort of funny American companies who were rolling out web services - I think Microsoft was one of them, and Facebook - and thinking “that’s never going to work. I'm in established media brands, selling national press advertising” and yeah, look at it now!

So take risks early on, take a chance and be brave.

Ivan: I could take a take a time machine back, I would just say listen more and learn more from others and just be a sponge.

Lou: Next question, what are the most obvious signs that employers should look for that indicate their workplace culture might need to shake up.

Guy: There's a few indicators - high turnover staff, are you to struggling to retain people? Now, there’s sites like Glassdoor where it's very easy to get a temperature check, and find out what companies are like based on employee feedback. Go and look at your employees. See what look they have on their face, you can read a lot in terms of how people feel about being there. And then have a look at your social media channels; the company Facebook page, Glassdoor have reviews to see what people are commenting on and then take a balanced view on that.

Ivan: Tieing into what Guy just said - when employees aren't challenging you with new ideas or suggestions on how to improve. In many cases your workforce is on the frontline of the business, and hence they’re seeing and feeling the challenges and change of customers, competition and market factors that are happening pretty much in real time.

So when employees aren't engaged in helping the business with this information, then it's time to look into why.

Lou: Fourth question. What are the books of resources you recommend to anyone interested in business culture?

Guy: One I just recently read which is great is called “Workplace fables” by Mark Price. Price spent the best part of his career at Waitrose, which is part of the John Lewis partnership. It’s a great read, and there's some sort of fantastic real life examples that it gives for people to apply to their workplace culture.

Ivan: And I've recently been reading a book by John Doerr called “Measure what matters”. It's a handbook for setting and achieving audacious goals through OKR’s, which are “objectives and key results”, which have been adapted by successful companies like Google and Amazon. It’s a model that could be used by both small and large organizations.

Lou: Final question. What is one small change that employers can easily make, starting today, that can help their workplace to thrive?

Guy: Building on Ivan’s previous point - be clear on the role that every employee plays in delivering business success. Provide a framework where then people can be measured on how they deliver again on that success and then reward people for doing so.

Ivan: Yeah, I think really touching on everything that we really spoken about today is just simply communicate more. I know it's cliche to say, but employers can communicate tactical decisions more and do so in a way which can give workers purpose and clarity on at least what to expect for the next few months. If everyone at a company knows what road to take, then they'll usually take it - versus not knowing at all, or communicating at the last minute. It just creates chaos in frustration and lost productivity. So just simply communicate more.

Matt: It's been a pleasure to have you both on the show, and thank you for those great answers. I've certainly got a couple of books to go and read now. And thank you listeners for joining us.

employee engagement retail report
Louise Blair

Written by Louise Blair

G'Day mate! All the way from "down under" Louise has joined Speakap to help businesses to build better relationships with their workforce. When she's not busy producing the Frontline podcast, you might catch her running... while listening to a podcast. (Disclaimer: she has never actually said "G'day Mate" in her entire life)