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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.

vanessa shaw blog community

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.

vanessa shaw interview bevi

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.

culture leaders dinner vanessa shaw

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.

vanessa shaw human side of tech bevi

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.

Not all company growth requires a brand new office; often times, a few adjustments to the current office layout can make a big impact, ultimately helping your space become both more productive as well as accommodating of future growth.

For quickly growing startups like Bevi, each round of hiring presents a challenge to the delicate balance of the current floor plan. Teams begin to outgrow their original areas, and suddenly 7 people are sitting in a space that was designed for 2. And since many startups have an accelerated hiring timeline, this puts a lot of pressure on Office Managers, HR, or Facilities Managers to change the office layout quickly and seamlessly. No matter what the occasion, rearranging an office space can be stressful — especially when current employees are not 100% on board.

We’ve got your back. We interviewed our own all-star Office Manager, Claire, to put together this list of 11 things to do before, during, and after a change to the office layout. We can’t promise that the office won’t mutiny, but at least you’ll have a contingency plan if they do (see #3 for some of Claire’s tips).

1. Get key stakeholders on board

Source: Unitar

Regardless of your company’s size, getting key stakeholders on board is the first step towards getting the entire office to buy into the changes. Key stakeholders are more likely to recognize how space adjustments will benefit the company as a whole and can communicate this directly with their respective teams. Especially if you work for a larger company and don’t know everyone by name, employees are more likely to cooperate with someone they know and trust.

2. Use the layout change as an excuse to check in and ask what each team needs

Another strategy for getting each team excited about the change-up is to actively incorporate their goals and needs into the new office schematic. Whether informally in the hallway or at an all-hands meeting, check in with each team to see what they like about their current format and what they would change. By proactively discussing their needs and concerns, you are helping deflect any dissent in the long term.

3. Establish a trial period and streamlined feedback system

No matter how much you plan, there will always be something to work out after the rearranging is done. For this reason, it’s good to establish a trial period, so that in one or two weeks time you can reassess whether the new layout is working out.

Source: Pixabay

During the trial period, have your employees send feedback to a designated Slack channel or survey. This way, folks have a space to express their concerns and you have the ability to mute their reactions until the trial period comes to a close.

If you’re really getting bombarded with comments or requests, ask your own manager to openly address (and shut down) any opposition. It’s always nice to have someone on your side to help deflect any whining — it really gets old after awhile.

4. Keep open positions in the hiring pipeline in mind


Source: Pixabay

If you have the opportunity to make a change, think big! Chances are there are several open positions at your company, so think about how your desks will be populated once new employees arrive. Consider syncing-up with HR or senior management to find out the teams the company is looking to expand over the next quarter (or year) so you minimize the amount of times you’ll have to reorganize the office.

5. Put yourselves in a visitor’s shoes


Source: Unsplash

Whether they’re investors or user testing groups, visitors expect to see people hard at work upon entering your office. Put your company’s best foot forward by making sure the teams closest to your front door (or visitor entrance, if you have a larger company) are typically in the office.

Here at Bevi HQ, we have a stellar hardware team that spends a good portion of their time in our engineering lab a few floors down. Our Office Manager Claire had the foresight to situate the hardware team in the back corner of our office, so our visitors would never be greeted by empty desks.

6. Constant communication before, during, and after

Similar to #2 and #3, constant communication is key. Between Slack messages and email updates, be sure to remind your employees to pack up their belongs 1 week and 1 day before the move as well as on the day of.

Once the layout has been changed, it’s a good idea to send an early morning reminder with the new seating chart and instructions on how to inquire about any missing belongings. Our Office Manager Claire made sure everyone stayed in the loop by giving email and in-person reminders in the days leading up to the reshuffling.

7. Sketches, diagrams, and maps, oh my!

X marks the spot. Before moving anything in your office, sketch out a few options for a new office set-up. Pro-tip: always make sure they are to scale!

bevi office layout change

Office Manager Claire breaks down Bevi HQ’s most recent layout change.

If you consider yourself visually or spatially inept, ask a designer or engineer to help you realize your vision. They might even have some handy software that can help make testing different layouts much more efficient than using a ruler and graphing paper. For example, Eliza, one of Bevi’s co-founders, helped Claire model different versions of the office without moving a single desk.

8. Strategically pick a time when the office will be nearly empty

While you will need an extra set of hands to make the rearrangement happen, less is more when it comes to having people in the office during all of the shuffling.

Aside from staying late on an arbitrary weekday, the day before a long weekend or holiday is often the perfect time to make your move. Back in November, our superstar Office Manager Claire planned to change things around in the office on the day before Thanksgiving. It worked out well as there were a few folks in the office to lend a hand and enough room to reposition the furniture without disturbing anyone. Within a few hours, everything was readjusted and ready for the new hires starting the following Tuesday — myself included!

Plus, let’s be honest: when the majority of people are out of the office, those who do come into work often look for fun side projects to work on. These people are your biggest asset on the day of the move.

9. Set aside time for furniture assembly


Source: StockSnap.io

A new layout often means new furniture. But don’t be fooled: you’re going to need a screwdriver and hammer before your furniture looks as shiny and perfect as it did on Ikea’s website.

10. Four hands are better than two


Source: Burst

Even the office hero needs a little help once in a while. Rather than trying to rough it by yourself, enlist a few helpers to move or assemble desks and chairs while you double check the diagram of the new set-up. For medium-sized or large companies, you’re better off hiring movers to help you get the job done quickly and efficiently.

11. Label like your life depends on it

With just over 30 people working in Bevi HQ, the office is certainly on the smaller side. Nevertheless, a few things did get lost in our most recent round of office rearrangements. Take it from us: labeling is everything.



Source: StockSnap.io

Whether with masking tape, printed labels, sharpies, or cute cat stickers, make sure everyone clearly labels the box containing their belongings before anything gets touched. You’ll thank yourself later.


Looking for more ways to keep your office happy and healthy? Meet Bevi, the smart water cooler designed to make your life as office manager that much easier.

Request a free flavor tasting for your office here.