It’s clear that the role of culture in business is growing. As companies go for a location-agnostic approach to workforces and jump into an international market, cultural cohesion within the organization and affinity with customers becomes a must.
To achieve their cultural goals, some companies have created the role of the Chief Culture Officer: a member of the C-suite tasked primarily with defining the cultural strategy of an organization and implementing it throughout its halls.
NSAM had the opportunity to speak with Vera Babat, Chief Culture Officer at Abstracta Inc., a provider of IT services which operates mainly from Uruguay, but which has offices spread throughout Latin America and in the US. With a background in clinical psychology, Vera brings a fresh perspective to the discussions around talent management, internal communication and corporate identity.
The following conversation covers several of the most relevant topics related to culture for providers of nearshore services: from how culture is built in an organization, tips on how to implement it in a hybrid setup and its significance for other areas of a business, like talent retention and even sales.
NSAM: Let’s begin with a very basic question: what is a Chief Culture Officer? What are the responsibilities and credentials for the role?
Vera Babat: Let me answer from a very personal perspective, because I had never heard the term “Chief Culture Officer” before becoming one.
Credentials, let’s start there. I’m a clinical psychologist. However, it is not just that which allows me to do this interpretation of the role. I think it has a lot to do with being able to understand the needs of the business. I also do existential analysis, which means I have experience dealing with more philosophical questions. That has given me the ability to read into a culture.
Abstracta is a company that is internationalizing its services. Being a cultural officer has a lot to do with understanding the multiculturalism that we live in. In that field, I’m an English teacher. Teaching a foreign language has given me a profound belief on how enriching it is to live in a diverse environment, and how we can experience and learn that.
The credentials are many. You can arrive at a job like this from different roads, but mine has been one of bringing together psychology, philosophy and education; understanding culture and business together.
NSAM: A major part of your role is understanding not only the culture of Abstracta and of its many collaborators, but also of potential clients. Is that an accurate statement?
Vera Babat: Yes. We provide services to other companies, so we need to understand how to build bridges between our cultures, while becoming a team with our clients. That’s why we are allies.
NSAM: That sounds very complicated. How do you adapt a team, which already has its own culture, or cultures, to the culture of a client?
Vera Babat: That’s why I talked about philosophy. This is a challenge that organizations are only starting to take into consideration. This is what happens in the life of the polis, like the Greeks used to call it. It has a lot to do with coexistence, with tolerance; the art of living and working together.
Abstracta is a company that is internationalizing its services. Being a cultural officer has a lot to do with understanding the multiculturalism that we live in
We live in a society that’s very polarized, and we’ve forgotten the art of dealing with conversations, of agreeing to disagree without necessarily attacking each other. It’s complicated, but certainly not impossible. I think we [at Abstracta] are doing pretty well.
NSAM: Could you share tips on how to achieve that collaboration?
Vera Babat: It’s common for service providers to take a position of the client always being right, or of declaring themselves the experts, the ones who know. We [at Abstracta] understand there’s a third option; one that has to do with collaboration, with understanding the clients’ perspectives, their needs, and making suggestions from our position of expertise.
You asked for tips. The first one I would say is humility. I don’t mean saying “I’m humbled”. In the business world, we tend to strip concepts from their core meaning. When we speak of “collaboration”, sometimes we deprive the content from the word. Collaboration has a lot to do with understanding that, yes, we [as service providers] have something valuable to offer, we are knowledgeable of what we do, but at the same time it’s your product and your team. So let’s do this dance where we get to know each other, where we are not at war and recognize that we both have the same objective.
It has a lot to do with how we feel. When you’re in a team with mutual trust, when the client chooses us because they believe we have something valuable to offer, and we want to share what we know, there you have collaboration.
So humility and mutual trust would be my two tips for you.
NSAM: You’ve been at Abstracta for eight years. When you arrived at the company, I assume they had their own culture.
Vera Babat: Yes, because culture is something that emerges in a group. This group started as three friends who became business partners. Of course there were ideas, values and ways of doing things that replicated themselves and took a life of their own beyond these three people.
We don’t even talk about retention. If you want a relationship in which there’s mutual trust, you don’t want anybody to be retained
When I started at Abstracta, there were 60 [persons in the company]. What works for a group of 10 people that looks more like a clique than a company is quite different. We started to become aware of the things that we wanted to keep from that original incarnation of Abstracta and which things we could let go.
NSAM: Who defines what Abstracta’s culture is and how is it implemented?
Vera Babat: I sat down for months with each of the owners, individually. I know them deeply. From years of conversations with them, I write things based on where we are moving towards. And it’s not one perspective; it is a collective vision. I write that, and we convert those writings into something that feels alive.
We ask the people that work in Abstracta periodically what are the things that they value the most. For some is flexibility, for others the ability to travel, for others working in high profile projects.
We figured out that we are creating a community, an excuse for a community to unite, so that each person in that community can have a better quality of life and do something meaningful. We understand that the answer of “What is Abstracta’s culture?” will be quite ample because we are a diverse group.
NSAM: How do you implement this culture, in practical terms?
Vera Babat: Through several means. One has to do with the value proposition of what Abstracta is, what it does, what makes it different, what kind of company it wants to be, what world it wants to build.
Then there’s how we make that into something that happens every day. We have activities where we share knowledge, learn constantly. I’m speaking of after-offices or reunions where we talk of transparency, of sharing information.
At the same time we create tools that provide transparency and autonomy to our people, who can then build trust in our company. Tools that tell them about their roles, about how they can learn more, develop themselves professionally and personally.
We walk in tandem with people when they’re having a rough time, whether in a personal or professional realm. In my team there are five psychologists, including me.
We also offer mentoring that allows our people to take the next step in their careers.
NSAM: Abstracta is an organization with a mostly remote setup, right?
Vera Babat: Not really. It’s mostly hybrid; we call it “intentionally on-site”. That means that we have offices and do go there, but only when we want to meet and work together. There’s a value to meeting in person, and not necessarily for working. Perhaps we meet for an after-office.
We are distributed throughout many cities, and many of our people chose, after the pandemic, to live away from major urban areas. We have confirmed that working remotely is something very viable. But there’s a point, after working remotely for a while, in which people start to feel lonely or detached. It’s more about that than about the quality of the work. So we promote being near [to our offices]. It’s about trying to find closeness, even if it’s remotely.
Wherever we go, we try to have an office as a home, a place where we get together whenever we want to. That’s the spirit
NSAM: So most of your collaborators live in Montevideo [Uruguay] then?
Vera Babat: We have offices in Montevideo and also in Salto, the second largest city in Uruguay. But, for example, in Chile we used to have an office in Santiago, but people’s habits changed and we had to respect that. Our people decided to move, and now we don’t have offices in Santiago.
Wherever we go, we try to have an office as a home, a place where we get together whenever we want to. That’s the spirit.
NSAM: Most companies who chose to stick to the office would force that decision on their workers. From what you tell me, Abstracta did it the other way around, at least in Santiago. How did that come to be?
Vera Babat: This has a lot to do with humility, with understanding that this post-pandemic moment is questioning the very basis of what we used to think about the world of work, and nobody has figured it out yet. We are learning together, questioning if there are ways to make things better for the people. And “people” not in a populist sense, because we all work here and have our own personal projects and try to find ways to make all that work better.
We’ve seen the system fail so many times, so we want to figure out if we can have a better quality of life in our jobs, which doesn’t mean more money, but an actual life well lived.
NSAM: Which have been the major challenges for you, as a Chief Culture Officer, in this hybrid/remote setup?
Vera Babat: I think mutual trust. We spoke today about the role of humility and understanding that nobody has it all figured it out.
Mutual trust is dealt with in very unconscious ways. Much of communication is non-verbal, and when we work remotely, with people we don’t share much time with, with teams that rotate a lot, we don’t have the time to be together and build that trust. And I think that happens not only in Abstracta, but it has to do with the moment we’re living in, where people don’t trust companies; they are not expected to work at a single organization long term.
We ask the people that work in Abstracta periodically what are the things that they value the most. For some is flexibility, for others the ability to travel, for others working in high profile projects
We’re all more or less looking for the same objectives; we all want a happy life. But what that looks like differs from person to person. We need to listen to each other, and for that we need time together to figure it out, because we won’t get it right from the start. It’s a process, like in any relationship.
NSAM: What’s the role of company culture in employee retention?
Vera Babat: We don’t even talk about retention. If you want a relationship in which there’s mutual trust, you don’t want anybody to be retained. We want to have people choosing mutually to work together.
For sales people, and particularly in the B2B space, culture is something intangible, so you can’t put a price tag on it, which makes it seem unimportant
I think company culture will be one of the main reasons people will want to stay in an organization. Sometimes they leave anyway because they’re in different moments of their lives, and they’ll miss you. For me, having people that have gone through Abstracta and remember it as a positive experience that shaped who they became, that’s something that moves me.
NSAM: What’s the role of culture in sales?
Vera Babat: That remains to be seen. For sales people, and particularly in the B2B space, culture is something intangible, so you can’t put a price tag on it, which makes it seem unimportant. But culture is the difference between enjoying working with someone or not.
It is completely intangible, very difficult to incorporate into a sales pitch. We’ve tried. The more you force it into a sales pitch, the less authentic it is.
I believe in culture. I hope I see it happening [culture integrating into sales] one day. But for the time being, I don’t see it happening, at least to the extent that fulfills its whole potential.