Meet the Radicals: Paulina Sygulska on how trust is transforming the way we work

So Paulina, tell us how this fabled “open culture” works at GrantTree?

Basically at GrantTree our culture of openness extends to all aspects of the business, like accounts, salaries, everything. The thing most people find surprising is that everyone who works here knows what everyone else is earning, but it’s also a lot more than that. For us it’s to do with values, how you work in the team, and making sure everyone knows they can initiate discussion and feel free to raise any issues with the whole team if they want.

But surely knowing everybody else’s salaries can cause some problems?

That’s the amazing thing; we haven’t had any problems with that at all! It all comes back to the type of people we want to hire: people who are passionate about the work they do and aren’t just looking to trade in their time so they can rush home when the clock strikes 5 and forget all about work. It means everyone in the company can sit down together and discuss what they think are fair salaries for different roles, which I think is pretty incredible.

So it’s all about the people?

Yes, it’s all to do with your values, what you represent and what you can contribute. If you are at peace with your talent and skills and know what you want then you’re the type of person we want. You definitely need a certain level of self-awareness and integrity for this to be possible. The business is such a fun place to be because of the attitude of the team. If one of us makes a mistake, we are fine with admitting it to everybody else and explaining how we sorted it. It’s all about people’s attitudes. The trust, the atmosphere, the real sense of team spirit and working towards a shared goal are key.

Do you think that kind of attitude is rare in the workplace?

It depends on the kind of business. I spend a lot of time in the start-up world where I am constantly surrounded by people who work because it matters to them. I can’t help feeling that we are moving in that direction as a global workforce and we increasingly want to work for something we believe in. It’s not about selling your time from 9 to 6 anymore but about contributing towards something that you believe in. Society hasn’t been set up in a way to allow people to live for their work unless they’re really lucky, but we think that’s changing. I really think the start-up world is a kind of social incubator for a much bigger change that is happening at the moment on a wider social and even global level.

Sounds quite idealistic. How do we go about transforming the old widespread notion of work as just a means to an end, into your utopian vision of an end in itself?

I think there are all kinds of different ways. We do it by trying to have as little management agenda as possible. We don’t want people to be forced to do something or behave a certain way because of ‘office politics.’ It fosters bad feeling. Our Managing Director has meetings with each team member every two weeks to see how everything is going – work, life, whatever. We want a culture where you can bring the entirety of who you are into the workplace. We want to hire you as you, not you as generic office worker. There shouldn’t be any mismatch between the role and the person.

We also have much more fluidity between roles so we can rethink this whole ‘identifying yourself with your role’ problem. We give people the freedom to do what they do best with their talents and skills. If they’re good enough and passionate about helping the business succeed, then there’s no reason to force people to do a certain number of hours or hit a certain number of targets (at least not to an extreme degree, we still need some structure!) We want people to care about their work, which means they need to enjoy it.

That’s all well and good in a small company. But what about when a business hits over 1000 employees?

Yeah, that’s when you really have to step up your game. Generally it does seem that people work harder in smaller companies because they know their work is more valued, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve read this great book called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux that has some great ideas for big, multinational, companies. It’s definitely not just small start-ups that can organise themselves into inspiring and innovative places to work. Division into smaller units that can self-manage is one obvious way of improving a massive business. There needs to be a sense of community where people know each other and have the space and opportunity to contribute something. There needs to be personal contact for trust and there needs to be trust for original ideas. No company has to be an impersonal, uninspiring generic 9 to 5.

So the future of business is looking bright?

Absolutely. Success means so much more than a huge fat pay packet from a great big firm, which people are starting to realise. We are demanding more from the work that we do which is no bad thing. As I said, start-ups are the pioneers of change in the workplace and it’s starting to have a massive social impact.  Start-up culture will find its way through to the masses and work won’t have to be something you just have to get through, but something people actually care about. Maybe it’s only in small circles right now, but it’s started, it’s happening already whether we want it to or not. Social change takes radicals and I think start-ups are the radicals of today.

Long may they reign.


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