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Vanessa Shaw speaking at Culture Summit

Vanessa Shaw speaking at Culture Summit, San Francisco.

You’ve been in the workplace culture space for a long time. Tell us about your journey.

I’ve been an advocate for the importance of workplace culture ever since 2001. I fell in love with culture as a body of work when I had my first experience living in a different country as a study abroad student in London. It has taken my career in many directions. I’ve worked in the nonprofit, public and private sector. I facilitated cross-cultural trainings for volunteer abroad programs, taught creative leadership skills at the Pentagon, and coached CEOs on how to design cultures that achieve their business goals.

Like anyone who has had a few career pivots, at some point you look at your career and ask yourself, “How does this all make sense?” I realized that ultimately I love bringing people together. My mission is to create a space for people to build community, be inspired, and have the courage to take action.

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Bring your community together to discuss culture.

This is what Human Side of Tech is all about: I help company leaders to understand the value of culture and build it into their business strategy, as well as coach individuals on how to uncover their own ability to drive culture. More recently, I’ve been on the teams for TEDxBarcelonaWomen, Culture Summit, and supported Culture Amp in their Culture First tour. Throughout the year, I bring people together through interactive workshops that focus on incorporating Design Thinking and human-centered design practices into employee experience design.

How did your experience living and working abroad influence the way you think about culture in the context of the workplace?

Because of my international experience, I started out with a more global perspective of the meaning of culture. This global understanding of culture is different from what most people mean nowadays when they mention “workplace culture.” Within the US, culture is often seen from an organizational design or organizational psychology point of view.

There is, however, a whole other school of thought — anthropology — that is really the authority on culture. For me, I started with an understanding of anthropology, cross-cultural teams, and intercultural competence. Organizational design came later.

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Photography by Jennifer Emerling, courtesy of All Hands. 

While cultural discussions pertaining to Silicon Valley may dominate the conversation, there’s a multitude of ways to think about culture. One area that often gets overlooked is cross-sector collaboration, particularly collaborations between government and private sector organizations. These partnerships have a big influence on the world we live in.

Organizational design is an important aspect of workplace culture, but it’s just a small sliver of something much bigger.

It sounds like company culture is much bigger and far reaching than we all think.

Yes. Workplace design, team culture, and diversity are just slices of the pie. There’s a lot more on the table.

Airbnb, for example, has shown that their workplace culture not only impacts the people inside their office walls, but also affects what happens outside those walls in the local community and beyond. When you gain an understanding of your impact across multiple communities and then apply that knowledge, there’s a huge opportunity to redefine the scope and impact of your company’s culture.

Vanessa Shaw Quote for Bevi

In the same sense, there’s also a huge career opportunity here. Businesses, cities, and states are going to need more people that are culturally tuned in and able to build bridges between the existing gaps.

This might be a chicken-and-egg question, but why do you think we’re so focused on workplace culture these days as compared to 20, or even 10, years ago?

I don’t believe there was one specific event; like anything, it was a combination of things. I think we just reached a tipping point.

Different research kept pointing to the same trend: when a company invested in the employee experience, it improved the customer experience as well.

The research done by Glassdoor had a particular impact on me. They found that since 2009, Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work For” performed 84.2% better than the S&P 500, while Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” outperformed the general market by around 115 percent.

The message was simple: if you treat your employees well, your company was more likely to be financially successful. When people kept hearing this same message, they started to listen.

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Guests at a Culture Leaders Dinner Party.

Around this same time, we began to see rapid change in a number of industries due to digital disruption. As a result, the skillset of the average worker changed dramatically as we entered into the knowledge economy in which we currently work.

We began to focus on the employee as a ‘user’ of a company; or in other words, we began to recognize employees as individuals the company directly served. This was a monumental shift. If you would like a more in-depth exploration of this, I recommend the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

How does this factor into your company, Human Side of Tech?

A large part of why my brand is Human Side of Tech is due to the amount of focus on technology and how much, and how fast, it continues to change. I believe that these rapid changes in technology open up space to empower us to focus more on humanity.

Human interaction facilitated by technology is everywhere. Everyone has a favorite story about an experience with a Lyft driver. We didn’t have these interactions until technology brought us together.

employee experience design Vanessa Shaw sticky notes culture

Some people are worried and claim that technology is getting rid of human interaction. I take an optimistic stance. As the famous Spider-Man quote goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I see technology as a huge opportunity to bring us together, but we have to be smart about it.

Here’s a hard question: how do you define culture?

Culture is everywhere. And it’s created by everyone.

There are many, many different definitions. Instead of adding yet another definition, I like to remind people of an aspect of culture that is typically unmentioned: culture is a value system by which we judge the world around us. It encompasses how we define good or bad, right or wrong, pretty or ugly, admirable or disgraceful, successful or not.

It’s trendy to say “I’m not judgmental.” That’s simply not true — all humans are programmed to judge.

Knowing this, there’s still room to grow, and the way we do this is by improving our own ability to understand how we are judging. By defining the core values of a culture, you’re setting up the cultural system that will establish what you believe is good or bad, a reason to hire or fire, and what the company defines as a successful quarter.

Even though “culture” has reached buzzword status, what are some of the biggest challenges companies still face when trying to define— or redefine — workplace culture?

When it comes down to it, we need to unlearn a lot of things.

There’s a long history of how companies have been run, how we define roles in Human Resources, and how HR serves a company overall. Traditional Human Resources was designed to serve the average employee 60 years ago. Because of this, there are many ingrained, systemic issues that have to be unlearned and unraveled.

It’s much harder to unlearn what we already know than to learn things that are brand new.

We’re now seeing that Human Resources is becoming ‘People Operations.’ This doesn’t change too much. This is what I would call a pivot.

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What I really love seeing are renovations. When you renovate your house, you break down walls and you create a whole new space to live in. Ultimately, we need to unlearn and undo. We need to renovate the way organizations manage people, culture, talent — the entire employee experience.

One way to begin doing this is by giving space for the creative process. It is not always the fastest way to get immediate results, but it offers the ability to find the long term, scalable impact.

This is why I’m a proponent of design thinking: it helps us to look at things with fresh eyes, to come up with ideas you never thought could exist, and experiment with new approaches that can completely revolutionize your organization.


To find out more about Vanessa Shaw and her upcoming events, visit the Human Side of Tech website.

Looking for conferences happening in 2019?

If you’re an Office Manager, check out this list.

For Executive Assistant and Administrative Professional events, see here.

These 5 conferences for office managers, administrative assistants and executive assistants are much better than the ones you attended last year. We promise.

How many times in 2017 did you leave a conference thinking “that was a huge waste of time”? The answer is too many.

Sometimes hashtags, junk food, and unoriginal icebreakers are just not enough to make a boring conference better.

This year, make unengaging conferences a thing of the past. If you’re an Office Manager, People Ops Manager, Executive Assistant, Human Resources Officer, Culture Champion, or some combination of all these roles, you won’t want to miss these 5 conferences happening in 2018.

1. Admin Bash

Host: Office Ninjas
When: April 25, 2018
Where: Mountain View, CA
Cost: $

“You’ve found your Tribe! Now, it’s time to celebrate together.”

Admin Bash

This is not an office management conference. This is a party.

Although it only lasts one day, Admin Bash is jam-packed with networking opportunities that are actually fun and worthwhile. They have also got sweet raffle prizes, amazing catering, the most legendary swag bag you’ve ever seen, hand-picked vendor marketing, and best of all, a massage lounge. It’s like receiving a whole year’s worth of gratitude in just a few hours.

One important thing to note is that the event is exclusively for “career admins.” If you don’t know what those words mean, then you probably shouldn’t register. In fact, they won’t let you: each registration is verified by their staff, so don’t even try to sneak in. (They don’t call them Office Ninjas for nothing…)

Sign-up here today to get the early bird discount, and get ready to party like it’s 2018.

And if you can’t make it out to San Francisco, try attending one of their smaller Admingling events in a city near you. Their 2018 schedule should be posted soon.

2. Life@Work

Host: live grey
West Coast: March 21–22, 2018 in San Francisco, CA
East Coast: October 23–24, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY
Cost: $$$

“Connect to the place you lead from.”

life at work

Want to make a real change? Practice what you preach. As their unconventional conference model shows, Life@Work takes its commitment to new ways of working together very, very seriously.

Each conference participant is assigned to a team of 20 people; together, they will experience the conference as a unit. The team will act as a place to share personal experiences, have discussions, and do various kinds of team exercises, either within the team or in collaboration with other teams. Life@Work is nothing short of a personal journey, and it will leave you feeling more connected than ever to the human side of your team, your employees, and yourself.

While the Early Bird ticket sales have long since ended, there are still Advanced Special and General Event tickets available for purchase. Take a look at the San Francisco  or Brooklyn tickets for more information on pricing. (Note: you don’t have to be a career admin to participate.)

3. Culture Summit

Host: Culture Summit
When: July 10–12, 2018
Where: San Francisco, CA
Cost: $$$

“Culture isn’t an HR strategy anymore, it’s an everyone strategy.”

culture summit

Pictured right: the Bevi team at Culture Summit 2017.

Whether your office suffers from rampant employee disengagement or you’ve been nominated for a ‘Top 10 Places to Work’ award, the Culture Summit has something to offer. A true Culture Champion knows that culture is not built on perks, but on strategically-planned workplace initiatives and programs. Each talk and workshop at the Summit is designed to leave you with concrete, actionable items that you execute upon returning to your office.

Have a few culture champions at work you would like to bring along? Good news: you don’t need to be a career admin to participate. Everyone is invited. So grab an enthusiastic co-worker, and get ready to build a scalable, thriving culture in your office.

While tickets are not yet on sale, sign-up here to receive an email notification when their Super Early Bird tickets become available.

4. Thrive Summit

Host: Virgin Pulse
When: April 9–11, 2018
Where: Miami Beach, Florida
Cost: $$

“Color your culture yours.”

thrive summit17

Geared primarily towards those who work in HR or People Operations, the 2018 Thrive Summit is a 3-day adventure into the latest data and trends in employee engagement and wellbeing. With a high-profile line-up of speakers, the conference is focused on helping you — the employer — make your employees feel like people instead of numbers. What will the future of work look like? There’s only one way to find out.

And it’s all happening in a little-known city by the name of Miami Beach. Party time.

While the full conference agenda is not yet available, Early Bird tickets will be on sale until February 1st. Reserve yours here.

5. Executive Leadership Support Forum Series

Host: A branch of Q1 Productions
Where: Most major cities
When: See dates and locations here
Cost: $$$

“Quality first, integrity, community, collaboration, transparency, education.”

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Being an Executive Assistant is anything but easy.

The Executive Leadership Support Forum Series is half a professional development course, half a networking opportunity designed to address the specific needs and aspirations of EAs. Learn how to improve your product management ability and leadership development skills by attending academic-style seminars and comparing notes with your peers.

There’s still time to register for the upcoming forums happening in Houston and Chicago. Register in advance to get a discounted ticket.

These conferences are the best of the best, so make sure you sign up ASAP or you’ll be stuck going to the same roundtables as last year. Don’t you remember how fun those were? (Nope, neither can we.)


Looking for more ways to be the greatest office hero there ever was? Get Bevi, the smart water cooler with still, sparkling, and flavored water that never runs out.

Oh, and did we mention you’ll never have to restock the office fridge again? True story.