The Remote Show

Show Notes:

This week we’re excited to share our conversation with Laïla Von Alvensleben, the Head of People Ops at Mural. Laïla was kind enough to dig into the specifics of managing and cultivating a successful company remote culture, and much more! Enjoy!

In this wide-ranging conversation, Laïla and I dig into a number of relevant topics when it comes to remote work. What has been particularly interesting for me, as many of our listeners probably know, is the idea of company culture on a remote team and how best to optimize it. One of the key takeaways from our chat was the importance or one on one check-ins with team members, and what happens when someone is feeling off or not 100% in their work. Laila gave a unique perspective on this, as well as asynchronous communication, hiring, design thinking/collaboration on a distributed team. 

Mural is a leading digital whiteboard product that empowers modern teams to visually explore complex challenges and collaborate on researching, brainstorming and designing ideas. Go to mural.co to find out more and start collaborating more effectively.

Follow Laïla on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lailavon/ and Twitter at @lailavona, and her personal website at: lailavon.com 


Matt Hollingsworth: 00:06 Hello everyone. My name is Matt Hollingsworth and welcome to another episode of The Remote Show where we discuss everything to do with remote work with the people who know it best. Thanks so much for listening. The Remote Show is brought to you by We Work Remotely, the largest community of remote workers in the world. With over 220,000 unique users per month, We Work Remotely is the most effective way to hire.

Matt Hollingsworth: 00:24 My guest on today's show is Laïla von Alvensleben. Laïla helps distributed teams improve their collaboration practices and cultivate a remote working culture that will enable them to work from anywhere. She splits her time between her role as head of People Ops and facilitating online workshops on remote work collaboration at Mural, which is an online canvas that helps teams collaborate visually with anyone, anywhere. As a strong advocate of remote works is 2014, Laïla has covered extensive research on remote design thinking and helped to create the remote starter kit. Laïla is also a founding member of the remote work association, a network that organizes online round table events to discuss and learn about how to promote location independent jobs. Laïla, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. We really appreciate it.

Laïla von Alven: 01:07 Hi Matt. Thank you so much for inviting me today.

Matt Hollingsworth: 01:10 Really excited to chat. I know it's been a number of different emails going back and forth, so I'm glad we were able to organize this and I think what an interesting place to start and where I typically start always for these podcasts is what over the past 12 months have you done either in work or in your personal life that you'd like to share, that you've been most proud of, if anything comes to mind?

Laïla von Alven: 01:31 Yeah, so this has been a very interesting year and the year prior to that as well because first of all, I started freelancing for the first time last year and then this year I transitioned from my role as a designer slash facilitator to a head of people operations role within Mural, which is a startup that I'm working with right now. So that's definitely what I'm most proud of right now.

Matt Hollingsworth: 01:56 That's great. And so with that, you mentioned you were, was it a designer before heading into the People Ops role?

Laïla von Alven: 02:03 Yeah, so it was a hybrid role. So my background is in UX design, but then over the past years I'd also been doing a lot of online facilitation and this can be for workshops or any kind of training session that I do with clients online. So I was doing a bit of both with Mural and specifically around helping their clients understand how to collaborate better online using their products, which is an online whiteboard. And so that was my background and now I'm managing the people operations team.

Matt Hollingsworth: 02:31 Nice. So what was exciting about the People Ops role that led you to move away from the design component into that role more full time. Was there anything specific that was really interesting to you?

Laïla von Alven: 02:43 Yeah, definitely. I think I've always been very interested in company culture. Well I can't say always because once upon a time I didn't know what company culture even was. Probably after like my third job that I heard about the importance of culture and keeping employees engaged and everything like that, so that aspect was something that I was doing naturally in my previous job as well, doing lots of culture related initiatives like helping teammates give feedback to each other and creating like team bonding experiences and things like that.

Laïla von Alven: 03:13 I can't say that the HR part was the part that got me excited because I have no experience with HR, but I have learned what's been interesting is understanding that I can apply what I know from user experience. So looking at the user's journey into employee experience and this term was something that I didn't know either before. So I went essentially from doing UX to EX. I liked the challenge. I like putting myself out of my comfort zone and learning something new. And I actually have a degree in interior architecture, so I keep changing roles all the time.

Matt Hollingsworth: 03:44 Wow, that's awesome. And it's a pretty common thread actually that I hear people that are in roles such as yours that have had successful careers. They've often bounced around into different things because I think what makes somebody really good at their job is that it interests them. So whatever interested you about the head of People Ops role and what makes you good at it is because you know you had that interest to start out and that's what led you into it. So it's a pretty common thread, I think.

Laïla von Alven: 04:07 That's good to know that I'm not the only person doing these kind of bouncing around.

Matt Hollingsworth: 04:12 Certainly not. Certainly not. That's super interesting. And I'd love to get into the culture piece because it's one that we talk quite often about here in the podcast and I think it means different things to different people. But before we do, can you explain a little bit about what Mural does and how you started. I know you mentioned you were a designer first, but just to give a high level overview of what Mural does and what problems you're aiming to solve.

Laïla von Alven: 04:36 Sure. So you're all for those who have never used it before, if you're familiar with collaborating in person on a physical wall and having like sticky notes up and trying to visualize your work at any kind of meeting or workshop, then Mural is really interesting for that because essentially what it does is taking that physical aspect of collaborating visually and doing it online. So it's a software, and I like to call it an online whiteboard, but there'll be different people at the company call it something else, but an online whiteboard that allows you to share your ideas and collaborate with anybody anywhere.

Laïla von Alven: 05:10 So the way that I see it is it's like a canvas, just this blank space where you can put images, digital, sticky notes, icons, you can add links and you can just map out whatever it is that you want so that while you're partnering with somebody else and collaborating on something on a project, or it could just be simply a meeting, you can actually both look at the same thing.

Laïla von Alven: 05:32 So if this person is in a different country or just in a different office in the same city, we can both look at the same thing and work on it together at the same time and see what the other person is doing in a very visual, easy to understand way. And when I initially joined Mural, I was helping them with a number of things. I wasn't necessarily calling myself a designer, but I was using like a designer's mindset to do what I was doing.

Laïla von Alven: 05:54 So I was building out templates for their users. I was doing training sessions with their clients to help them understand how you can use such a software to collaborate better remotely. Now I have quite a bit of experience with distributed teams, so I was looking at it under that lens, but I would just want to emphasize that Mural is not only for companies or teams that are distributed. It's for anybody who wants to visually express her ideas. We often talk about our mission being powering up imagination workers and we believe that anybody can be an imagination worker. It doesn't mean that you have to be a visual designer or any kind of designer to be able to use Mural. You know, we have all kinds of people using it.

Matt Hollingsworth: 06:34 Yeah, that's one of the downsides certainly of remote work and what we've been running into recently actually specifically with our company is the brainstorming component of it. It's just harder to do white boarding, like you mentioned, it's just harder to do as a remote team and so you really just have to find different ways of creating that experience otherwise. And it sounds like Mural is looking to do that. Have you found that the growth of Mural, did it start out specific? And you mentioned that it's not specific to distributed teams, but was that sort of the niche that you were looking to fill early on? And I guess how long have you been around and how has that shifted as the phenomenon of remote work has become more popular?

Laïla von Alven: 07:10 All right, so that's like three questions, but I'm going to try to answer the first one. The niche, Mural has been around for seven years. It's going onto his eighth year soon. And I started using Mural about five years ago, so way before I even joined the company when I was a UX designer at another company. And initially they were targeting people who were collaborating remotely, whether it was with their teams or whether it was with their clients or whether it was with any kind of stakeholder, it was targeting these people.

Laïla von Alven: 07:36 And it was putting a lot of emphasis on being the tool to go to if you're doing anything around design thinking. So if you're familiar with design thinking, it's a lot of visual work, brainstorming, researching, prototyping and all of that. And it was a great tool to get people who were located in different places to be looking at the same thing and go through the same actions that you would go through in a kind of design spring, for example. And so that's how we got to use Mural. Now your second question was, as it grew... You just remind me.

Matt Hollingsworth: 08:02 Yeah. So how has it changed, over the years where now we're seeing such a phenomenon of remote work and has the business changed at all to specifically cater towards the distributed? And how has it changed since you've come on and how has the product changed?

Laïla von Alven: 08:17 Right. So what I've seen in my experience and how it's changed is whereas before it would focus a lot on designers and targeting designers and distributed teams, now it's opening that up to basically any team that's collaborating virtually with anybody else, again, whether it's clients or people they need to research on. And we're focusing a lot on facilitation. So a lot of our features now, we have these super powers of facilitation super powers. If you go on our website, you'll find more information on that. But what I've seen as remote work is expanding and yes, everybody's jumping on the bandwagon now and trying to build some kind of tool for remote teams do something better. Whereas mural was already doing that before, what's interesting now is that we're understanding that most teams, regardless of whether you're distributed or not, will need to have the soft skills like facilitation.

Laïla von Alven: 09:08 And so if you're organizing a meeting with other people and this is happening online or in person, but you want to take notes that anybody can look at later using a tool like Mural is extremely helpful. We're also adding features like we've had the timer for a while and a voting feature, but now we're adding a lot more things for facilitators to hide parts of the mural until the participants are there or add notes for people to go through and in a session that are attached to specific exercises.

Laïla von Alven: 09:36 I think we're becoming much more flexible in that sense. And we're also looking aside from design thinking, we've added a lot of frameworks around agile methodologies and we're looking at different processes and different ways of working that could be done in Mural beyond just design thinking, agile and so forth. So it's really grown in that sense and in a much more mature product. And we have a lot of large enterprises now that are using it. A lot of consultants are using. So, I started out with designers and I have a lot of consultants using it. You have people in finance using it. So it's really gone beyond the initial audience we were targeting.

Matt Hollingsworth: 10:13 Yeah. Something that I've been thinking about is there's so many tools out there and products that are related to making sure that remote workers feel included in the and can do their best work. And I wonder sometimes in this, maybe not as applicable to Mural, but I wonder if we're getting away from what makes remote work great in the sense that allows for deep work. And what's the threshold in which we have to leave the products and let people to kind of go into their own deep work and not be distracted by other things that might lead them to be more involved in the process of design thinking. So I guess my question to you is what do you think that design thinking specifically can benefit from being remote in its nature? And is there any downside in terms of the process in which you think design thinking it works well that they would only be able to do in person or only be able to be remote? And what are the trade offs when it comes to design thinking both in person and remote?

Laïla von Alven: 11:11 Right. So when it comes to design thinking, well first of all I think many people's experience when it comes to you using that mindset and apply it in any kind of project or problem solving is usually you learn about it in person. And when you do that in person, there's a lot of the energy in a room when people are going through this process of researching and brainstorming and coming up with ideas and all the prototyping, it's quite an energetic and quite a physical thing where you're kind of moving about, standing, putting things on the wall, sitting down again. And so I think the, the, the biggest difference that I saw when transitioning from an in person design thinking session to an online one is that it's a much more sedentary one, right? Because you're looking at your screen and you're online.

Laïla von Alven: 11:54 And so the energy levels are completely different and that can throw people off if they're not used to it. But then that's where the facilitator steps in to make it engaging. And there's nothing stopping a facilitator in an online session just say, "Hey, let's all get up, stand up on your feet and now we're going to stretch out a little bit and then sit down again." But you have to plan your session differently so you can keep people like six hours in a room and they'll get a lot done. But it's very hard to keep that level of productivity up when you're doing an online session for six hours straight. So, that's the first thing that's going to change. That's the first thing that comes to mind for me is it's more like, let's do some smaller sessions.

Laïla von Alven: 12:34 They're shorter, they're more like energy bursts. And then you split your time up more between coming together and working online and then doing individual work and then coming back together again and then individual work. You can't forget also time zones. So if you're bringing people who are in different time zones, there's a lot of asynchronous collaboration. So essentially people are going to be working on things at different times of day and like commenting on things.

Laïla von Alven: 12:57 It can feel slower but it doesn't mean it's less productive. It's just some people are maybe going to do their research earlier and then the second round of people waking up in their time zone, then they're going to look at something like Mural and add their ideas there at a different time and so the entire process actually can give you sometimes more time to think. You know? And that pause, that lag you have can really bring up, maybe I'm not going to say better ideas, but it's definitely a different way of thinking and it's not like rushing through everything.

Laïla von Alven: 13:26 Sometimes when it's in person is why you get so drained. You can get very drained in both types of sessions. And sometimes you can do a hybrid session as well, where it's okay, we have people in person in a room, but we're all looking at Mural, and then we have some people in another room somewhere else also looking at the same Mural. And so then you have a combination of online and in-person work, and that can be very interesting as well. What it does is it brings more stakeholders to the room to work together to the virtual room that normally would be harder to bring together. It can really open up a lot more opportunities to involve other people with complete different mindsets, especially for looking at cultural-

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:14:04]

Laïla von Alven: 14:03 ... involve other people with complete different mindsets, especially for looking at cultural differences. If we're doing the design sprint with people who are from another country, they're going to bring a completely different outlook to what we're working on if we're able to collaborate virtually thanks to the technology that's available. I think that's very enriching to bring different perspectives from different cultures, different experiences to the table.

Matt Hollingsworth: 14:22 Yeah, for sure. Optimizing for or trying to figure out the best way in which people do their best work, especially when it comes to design is something that you're, like you said, is so physical in nature and requires some level of physical interaction on some level. We talk a lot about this sort of thing in this podcast, but I think it really boils down to, it depends largely on the team that you're in, but I do think it's important for people to address this and think about these sorts of things in order for them to come up with the best way that they work.

Matt Hollingsworth: 14:53 Maybe that is fully remote and it's HR and maybe it's a hybrid approach like you said, which requires you to be in an office for some level of time and then can go and allow you to be on your own for some time as well. That kind of fixes the inherent busy-ness that I think people need to feel that they have throughout their day in order to feel productive. I think that you're right. The remote work and the design component of remote work allows for that deep work and that thinking that I think that a fully in-office team doesn't get to experience as much.

Laïla von Alven: 15:27 Exactly. For somebody like myself, I work remotely in a different time zone. I'm in the UK time zone and I am working with my colleagues who are based in the East coast and West coast and in Argentina. I get so much done in the morning before everybody else wakes up. So it does have its benefits, rather than just being in a four hour meeting with somebody and trying to collaborate all the time, all the time together, it's not going to lead to a better result necessarily.

Matt Hollingsworth: 15:56 Yeah. That's a good segue actually. So I would love to learn a little bit about what Mural does to address some of the communication issues that pop up when remote work is the norm. Do you do the asynchronous communication? How do you account for the time zone differences when there's something that's so collaborative, like People Ops and making sure that everybody's feeling satisfied in their work? Is there something that you do in terms of rules that allow you to have that deep time to work?

Laïla von Alven: 16:23 Yeah. So just to give a little bit of context for the people operations team at Mural, we are in three different time zones. So that's UK time zone and Buenos Aires time zone and Pacific, somebody who's in San Francisco. So we're split across three different time zones. I think with myself, the biggest gap is there's an eight hour gap between me and the person in the Pacific time zone. In terms of communication and collaboration, I've set up a bunch of things for my team for us to be able to communicate while others are either sleeping or away. Of course, we're using Slack when in teams, but even in Slack you can have asynchronous collaboration. Not everybody is going to be online. We're using a project management tool called Asana where we communicate asynchronously, thrives around a certain task that needs to get done.

Laïla von Alven: 17:11 I don't say we have super strict rules around how we need to communicate, but it's more like best practices and some kind of guidelines that we've agreed to. Then we have some rituals. For example, once a week we come together, we have a People Ops meeting to discuss what everybody's kind of working on, like the major things that need to be agreed on together. Then there's, from Friday to Monday, that you have time to write a reflection of your week. So we're using another tool called [inaudible 00:03:37], which is around setting up your OK hours and helping people prioritize their tasks and reflect on what they've done during the week that is helping us achieve our OK hours.

Laïla von Alven: 17:47 Then we have a bot on Slack, so we're using Geekbot for that, which is automatically asking us every day how we're feeling. The how we're feeling question for me is important as a manager because I want to measure somehow how people are doing. If I don't necessarily have a call with them that day, I want to get a sense of their energy level or their mood. That helps me understand if people need more support or if they need to take some time off or whatever is happening in their lives. And then the other questions that ask everyday to everyone, "What are you going to be doing today and are there any blockers?" So the blockers are very important for me as well. I'll be posting them first with my other colleague in England and then everybody else will check it in their own time. It's just our way of asynchronously communicating what we're working on and giving that overview and being very transparent with that.

Matt Hollingsworth: 18:36 Yeah. Checking in on a daily basis with how people are doing, what is the success that you've seen out of that and how important in terms of the data that you collect on that? I'm curious as to how you use that data and what the practical application of knowing how somebody's feeling it every day, what's the threshold in which you would step in and say, "Something needs to be done here,"? Because people change every day and I think that there's a lot of things that affect what mood you're in and how you feel about your work. But on a daily basis, is that something that you take into consideration and what point would you step in and start to dig a little deeper?

Laïla von Alven: 19:08 Yeah. That's a really good question. So the daily check in for me kind of represents the moment of greeting that you have if you would work in an office. Somebody steps in and they'll probably greet everybody else, or at least the people next to them, right? And say, "Hi," and "How's it going?" Or, "Good morning," or whatever, or, "I brought you some donuts," whatever it is. Also, even if that person doesn't necessarily ask you, " How are you?" many times you can see on that person's face or how they're handling themselves, whether they're tired, whether they're upbeat, whether they're in a silent mood and whether we do that consciously or unconsciously, you kind of adapt your behavior around that person's vibe I would say. When we're remote, it's much harder to see that, especially if we're not on a call.

Laïla von Alven: 19:53 What I noticed, I was working at another company before called Hano. If we asked other like, "Hey, how's it going today?" It's kind of that usual answer like, "I'm fine, how are you?" "Fine," everyone's fine. Right? And then we set up, we created... This was before these mood bots existed. It was like four or five years ago, we created our own bot, we called it Oscar. It was a little squirrel and it was open source. Anybody could use it on Slack, but this bot was basically asking everybody on the team, "How's it going? Use these emojis," and they were from the saddest or angriest emoji up to the happiest one. They were just like five emojis. We tested with more, but it was a bit too much. It's kind of like a scale from one to five. What we noticed is that people were being much more transparent and honest with the squirrel, with Oscar, than with our teammates.

Laïla von Alven: 20:37 When the squirrel asked, "How're you doing?" People will be like, "Well, actually I'm king of feeling a two or 2.5 because I didn't get enough sleep or I'm stressed about my visa for this country that I haven't gotten yet," or whatever it was. Collecting that data, so we also had laid this dashboard kind of summary at the end of the week, which would show everybody on a chart, everybody's mood going up and down and it was interesting to see also these waves. Sometimes it was the collective team was going up and down at the same time and then you could connect that to, "Okay. What project are we working on together? Okay these three people, their moods are the same. They're all working on the same project with that client and maybe Tuesday and Wednesday it was a really hard day," and it make sense, but sometimes it was interesting to see everybody's on a high and there was this one person who was like super low. It's like why was that? You know?

Laïla von Alven: 21:26 Capturing that and then talking to with people allows you to really step in at some point, so you ask them about the threshold, like step in and say, "Hey, how can we help you?" And we noticed that if people were feeling the two, it's like, okay. Everybody would jump in because everybody sees the answer and say like, "Hey, how's it going? What happened?" Or often they would say what had happened if they wanted to, but I would say if anybody's feeling like a three or below, that's where I step in and ask them like, "Hey, do you need any support? I know you have a lot on your plate." Or, "If you're not feeling well, do you prefer working from home or taking the rest of the day off?" Or whatever it is that we can do to make sure that that person feels like they're supported. That's how I use the data.

Matt Hollingsworth: 22:05 Yeah. It makes sense to try to pull at that thread a little bit more when there is the feeling of things just aren't quite right so it makes sense to collect that and to have a pulse on how the people are feeling on a regular basis and have it be more sustained and consistent. One of the things that I wanted to as, when somebody has issues or has something that they are having trouble with, because sometimes it's hard to articulate and I know that just people in general have a hard time articulating sometimes how they're feeling and really pulling apart why they're feeling certain ways and what the real issue is. For you and your team, is there something that you do when you do have that sense that somebody isn't doing well and they've reported that they're maybe a two out of 10 or whatever. At that point, what is the next step? Do you block off an hour for a call?Because sometimes that will help.

Matt Hollingsworth: 22:52 The reason I asked that is that in my experience, when wasn't working remotely, those kinds of conversations were best in person. You really got into the meat of what was the issue oftentimes when you really sat down with somebody and had a quite a long time to pull it apart.For you now as a remote team, not having that ability, what is it that you do to try to get to what the real issue is and really get somebody to open up about what their problems are?

Laïla von Alven: 23:16 Yeah. There's a few steps that can be taken. So one is, if it's in the channel that everybody else can read in our team, I can directly ask there and say... Maybe I won't ask them anything, but I'll comment. It's also to show, not just to that person I'm supporting that person, but also to show others that, "Hey, if something's wrong, you can bring it up and I'll be there for you in any way that I possibly can." And then I'll send a private message to the person and ask the, "What's wrong?" Or, "Is there anything that you want to share," about whatever it is that they mentioned, because many times they will mention the reason, but maybe it's not the full reason. You know? I think everybody has different levels of disclosing personal information and being vulnerable. I try to act as a role model for the rest of the team. The more open that I am about how I'm feeling, I'm assuming that other people will feel more comfortable sharing as well.

Laïla von Alven: 24:08 Once I send that private message, I see, so sometimes they're like, "No, it's not a big deal. I just didn't get enough sleep," or, "I have so much to catch up on and it just feels like a lot and it's a Monday," and you know. So I just leave it there if it sounds credible to me and I know the person a bit by now. But if it's something more serious, then I definitely suggest having a call either immediately so we don't have to wait or I try to find a time in their calendar later that day. Sometimes they say, "No, I'm too busy," or, "I can't do that." But eventually, even if we don't talk about it that day, I try to make it a point and bring it up when we have a personal... So I have a weekly one-on-one call with all of my teammates. So I definitely bring it up then as well.

Laïla von Alven: 24:49 Sometimes in retrospect, they look back on it and say, "Actually, yeah. There was more to that than what I actually disclosed immediately, but there was just too much for me to talk about right then and there." So they might feel more comfortable waiting until the one-on-one.

Matt Hollingsworth: 25:02 Yeah, that's a good point. I think that you're right. I know for myself as well it, it often is better if I spend some time to think about really what I want to say first and foremost rather than having to articulate it there on the spot because it's often not quite what I want to say. So having some time to think is really, probably a good thing as well. This is such an interesting piece and I'm so happy that you able to take the time today to talk to us about your role as People Ops because Mural's one of those companies that's prominent in the remote space. In your role, do you have a definition of what success looks like? I guess, the broader question is how do you define your success in your role as head of People Ops at Mural?

Laïla von Alven: 25:41 That's a very good question. I probably should have spent more time thinking about, "Okay, what are the metrics of success for me personally?" aside from, okay, our teams measures success. We can look at things like employee engagement that's coming up in surveys where we calculate like EMPS and conversations and things like that, but for me personally, I think there's two ways of looking at it for success. Well, first of all, I'm here to help the employees and anybody. Also, the contractors working at Murals feel like this is a great place to work. If I'm getting regular stories, anecdotes, if I hear people sharing how excited they are about working at Mural or even in exit interviewers, people who leave for different reasons, but they're not leaving because they don't like the company, I feel like that's a successful story for me and shows that we're doing a good job or that I'm also doing a good job. But then also for me personally, I'm looking at two teams.

Laïla von Alven: 26:38 On the one hand, I'm part of the leadership team and on the other hand, I'm looking at the People Ops team. So if I'm getting positive, but also constructive feedback, but if I'm getting good feedback and can create a kind of sense of bonding with my team, I feel like, "Okay, I'm being successful there." If they feel like they're growing in their careers and their roles and they're doing more of what they want to do and they're learning along the way, then I feel that I'm doing my job right. If leadership is having a similar view around how I'm impacting the company on a whole, then I guess once again, I feel like I'm doing the right thing.

Matt Hollingsworth: 27:12 Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah. No, it's a tough question and I think especially it's a tough question when it comes to people's feelings towards the company because it is ultimately, there's as many metrics as you can pull out of that. But I think it's also just a feeling that you have with how people enjoy working and maybe that's not really a measurable thing, but it's just a sense that you have. It's a difficult question, but I thought I'd give it a shot. From there, I'd like to shift to a maybe even more difficult question depending on... Well, I guess we'll see. But the culture piece that you mentioned, you mentioned earlier, and I wanted to get into that with you. What does culture mean to you in Mural, and what is the most effective way to build, in your opinion, a culture that's... How does the employees' enjoy their work? Is there anything that you do specifically that you think is super important there?

Laïla von Alven: 28:00 Yeah. So in terms of culture and how I see it, there's-
PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:28:04]

Laïla von Alven: 28:03 Yeah, so internal culture and how I see it, there's different definitions that I've looked up in the past. Like you said, it's a difficult question because it's so hard to just define what culture is, and it will be different things for different people. When it comes to my view on it, I think I see culture as a sense of belonging. So if people working at Mural feel like, "Yes, I feel like I connect with these people, I align with the vision and the mission, I'm contributing to where this company's going and all the humans that I'm working with. I feel like we're doing great things together and so I feel like I belong to this group of people. This is my place," and I think that's how I see culture, really the sense of belonging. The people ops scene has not in any way communicated culture out in that way.

Laïla von Alven: 28:46 I think culture cannot be defined by any one department or by the founders or anything like that. So we kind of let the people do their own definition or construction, let's say, and of course we're there to nurture what's already there. I think Mural's culture ... and I would describe it one way and surely other people would describe it in a different way, but I would say there's warmth in it. There is, in terms of people on the team, it's a very friendly place to work, but then also it's really people who are very hardworking and very committed, and I would say we're really good team players, but I think that generally speaking, we can do better at this, because like any startup, there's so much to do, but we try to keep a healthy dose of work versus play.

Laïla von Alven: 29:34 And I mean it's not all like, "Okay, we're going to work ourselves all day long too hard," and then it's not enjoyable anymore, and then the people ops scene is there to help people shape the company in the kind of environment that they would feel good coming to, and there's different kinds of initiatives that we can take there. I mean at the moment, we're doing some very kind of small ritual. We have the all hands, we have a lot of different kinds of conversations and spaces to talk about stuff on Slack. We're trying to make sure that more people are feeling comfortable to express whatever it is that they want to express. If they want you to give feedback, we're trying to show that yes, there are surveys, there are other ways of collecting feedback. Sometimes I put out little warm ups before company meetings, but these warm ups are not just for fun.

Laïla von Alven: 30:21 They're also for me to kind of understand how do people see Mural? How do they see our clients? How do they see the work that they're doing? What are they thanking people for? What are their needs? What are their pain points? It's not just like I'm sending surveys out all the time with my team, and then what we can do better at is defining and being aligned with our values. I think a lot of companies can struggle with that, where you've created some values and then they're just like values up on a ... like a manifesto or something that's just up on the wall. I think that's something that we're aiming to do much better, because we have to revisit those values that were created a while ago, but I think culture goes way beyond values. I wouldn't say, "Oh, our culture is this because our values are this and this and this." I don't talk about values much. I talk more about how we work and how people feel about coming to that workplace, whether it's a virtual workplace or a physical one.

Matt Hollingsworth: 31:10 Yeah, it's a really interesting question and it seems to get different answers depending on the person and depending on the company. That's why I ask actually, because I hear the word culture thrown around so often, and yet when I ask people about it, it means so many different things to so many different people and so I like to just get into it a little bit to see what it means for you and for the company. It also seems that culture and the people enjoying your work has so much to do with who you hire and who you bring on to work with you, because as much as we all can try to make a place of work as enjoyable as possible, it really depends on the kind of personalities that are within it. So I guess my lead question here is how do you look at fit when it comes to hiring people, and how much of that is to do with the culture you're trying to build? And I guess outside of having somebody come on that can simply do the job, what else do you look for that would lead you to believe that you would want to work with that person for a long time?

Laïla von Alven: 32:06 Right. Yeah, so looking at a fit ... so another thing that I didn't mention before around culture was one of the reasons that I am in the role that I am in is because I'm trying to help the company have a remote first mindset, even though not everybody is working remotely, especially due to the tool that we're creating and trying to help other companies get better at working remotely. That's something that we're trying to do internally. So to answer your question now, we're definitely looking at people who, maybe they haven't worked remotely before, but they're understanding the problems that we're trying to solve. They're committed to have an impact in that and they want to close that gap of that difficulty between companies that decide that working remotely is impossible and closing it for them, so that they can see that it's absolutely possible.

Laïla von Alven: 32:52 So that kind of enthusiasm for our mission is very important. We look at that, have they tested Mural before, have they used it? If they've never use it before, do they do the, research first of all, and how excited are they about the product? So that's going to be huge for us. I love people we've interviewed while we're recruiting. They get so excited about Mural and they start seeing all these use cases that they could apply Mural to, even in their personal lives. We're looking also at their personalities. I mean we are, I think I said before, very friendly and everything, and there's a playfulness aspect to it. One of our values is around playfulness as well. So are these people who are okay with jokes and have a bit of a sense of humor?

Laïla von Alven: 33:32 It doesn't mean that if you have a different sense of humor, it's not okay, but if somebody is too serious I think then they're not the best fit for Mural, if they can't kind of make fun of themselves or others a little bit, or in certain situations. I think that humor is definitely part of our culture, and creativity. We also look for people who ... and creativity, again, when I say that it doesn't apply only to designers, but how imaginative can you be? Like I said before, people who see use cases for Mural, are you already looking at taking initiative for new projects that we could do? That's definitely something that we're looking into, and if people are familiar also with design thinking and all of that, that's a plus, but it doesn't have to be an absolute requirement to work at Mural, because we are also into letting people learn about these things on the job. So essentially we also want an open mind.

Matt Hollingsworth: 34:23 Yeah, and I'm glad that you mentioned ... you mentioned a really few really interesting things there, but one of the things there was the not taking yourself too seriously component of the job, cause I think that it becomes more natural for someone to let their humor show when they're in an office, but it does take a little bit more of a mindset of let's all share in this together, and we all try to do great work, but at the same time we're just human beings and we want to share in that the humor and lightness component of your job too, and I don't think that's done enough within remote teams. It's missed, I think.

Laïla von Alven: 34:51 Yeah, and taking your work seriously is important, but when it comes to you as a human, as he said, that's a different story. You know, we can take ourselves less seriously sometimes and we definitely want to be a high performing team and I think we are, but we also have room for being human and making mistakes and learning from that. As long as we're learning from it and we share our learnings, then it's all good.

Matt Hollingsworth: 35:13 Laila, you've been so kind with your time. I know that you have a hard stop here coming up soon, but I want to get in a few closing questions if I could.

Laïla von Alven: 35:21 Definitely.

Matt Hollingsworth: 35:22 My first closing question is if you weren't involved in people ops now, but just in in technology in general, what do you think you'd be doing?

Laïla von Alven: 35:31 If I wasn't working at Mural?

Matt Hollingsworth: 35:32 Yeah. If you weren't working at Mural or in a tech company at all, what do you think you'd be doing?

Laïla von Alven: 35:37 Yeah, that's interesting. So I've always seen myself as a creative, I guess that's why I was a designer before, and I think that I would maybe do something more around arts maybe, but to be honest with you, I don't do anything artistic right now since years, but it's something that I feel like I've had to put on the side. I deep dived into the tech part, but I think it would be something related to ... and art is very, very broad. It could be writing. I enjoy writing a lot and then ... yeah, I don't know. It could be something around that or something that is then still connected to tech, but in a very weird way, I'm very interested in mental health and specifically digital wellness, if you can call it that.

Laïla von Alven: 36:25 So it's still related to tech, but it's kind of going the opposite way, saying, "Okay, tech has done a lot of good for us, but it's also not helped us in many ways," and so I'm interested in companies and initiatives that explore how we spend our time online, the impact that it's having on younger generations, especially kids who grew up already with the internet. I'm still part of the generation who didn't have internet. So I remember what that was like. It didn't have a smartphone. Actually, I was a very late adopter, and I've seen how my own brain has changed. So I'm very interested in that space and seeing how we can improve our use and become more conscious about that impact on society as a whole.

Matt Hollingsworth: 37:05 Yeah, that's a really important conversation. Maybe at a later date I can have you back on and we can talk about that further. That conversation would be, I think ... obviously I have no background in the mental health component of technology and being online. So I would only be speaking from my own experience, but I do think it's a valuable conversation to have. That's a great answer. So my last question here before I let you go is what is the best advice you've ever been given? So it's one of my favorite questions because it's so open ended and it can go into any direction you'd like, but whether work or otherwise, what is the best advice you've ever been given?

Laïla von Alven: 37:41 Oh wow, I've gotten so much advice in my life. Trying to pick out one piece of advice is going to be hard, but I'll try to focus on more recent ones, because those are easier to remember. When it comes to work, I think I got advice from somebody while I was at Mural to let some fires burn. I tended to be growing up a perfectionist and wanting everything to be right, and that is harder to do when you're in a company that's growing fast. So that's been a really good piece of advice to just kind of accept what is there and also prioritizing and realizing that you can't solve all the problems at once and yeah, you just can't, or you can try and you will completely burn yourself out.

Laïla von Alven: 38:27 So I think it's maybe not the best in my whole lifetime that I've received, but in my most recent times, in let's say the past six months, that's been a good piece of advice, and I think I've also applied that in a different way in my personal life where it's just also about being present and accepting. It's a bit different, but it's just about accepting where you are at right now and not worrying too much, cause I had a tendency to worry, and it's coming from a need to control things and make sure you know what the outcome is going to be, and it's all tied in with that perfectionist thing as well. So yeah, that's been a good piece of advice for me.

Matt Hollingsworth: 39:02 Yeah, that's great advice, and I think it's probably practical for lots of our listeners and I think it's timeless advice, and I think many people can benefit from that. Well Laila, I really appreciate, again, you coming on the show. I know I have to let you go now, but before I do, is there anywhere else that you'd like to send people? I know we should be sending them to mural.co. Anywhere else that we'd like to direct people?

Laïla von Alven: 39:24 Yeah, well Mural also has a Twitter, and we're very active there, and Facebook, and we're on LinkedIn, but if it's to find me specifically, I have a website, it's lailavon.com, so L-A-I-L-A-V-O-N .com, and then you can also find me on Twitter. It will be LailaVonA, cause somebody already took Laila Von, so I had to make it a little bit longer and add on an A, so that's my Twitter handle.

Matt Hollingsworth: 39:51 Perfect. Well that's great. We'll link both of those things and again, we hopefully can get you on again, but we really appreciate you taking the time today and thank you so much.

Laïla von Alven: 39:59 Yeah, thank you Matt. It's been really great and I hope we'll speak again soon. Thanks a lot.

Matt Hollingsworth: 40:04 All right, thank you.

Matt Hollingsworth: 40:06 Thanks so much again listening to the show. Be sure to check out weworkremotely.com for the latest remote jobs, and if you're looking to hire a remote worker, We Work Remotely is the fastest and easiest way to do so. As always, if you have someone we should talk to, any advice you have, or if you'd like to advertise on the podcast, please reach out to us at [email protected]. That's [email protected]. Thanks so much again for listening and we'll talk to you next time.
PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [00:40:35]

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