How COVID-19 put a tech company’s company culture to the test

16 Jun 2020

How COVID-19 put a tech company’s company culture to the test

Chief Executive Graeme Watt explains how FTSE-listed Softcat PLC coped when the world shut down.

Graeme Watt

Mike Drew, Partner and Global Head of Odgers Berndtson Executive Search’s Global Technology Practice asks the questions in the third of a series of interviews with top tech CEOs.

Mike: Graeme, thanks for joining us. Can I start by trying to understand more about Softcat’s very unique culture, and how purpose has manifested itself within your organisation?

Mike, our culture is what defines us ultimately.

That culture isn't just about performance. It's mostly a people-based culture. Our teams and individuals take a lot of time to support each other, we support our customers very strongly, we remain positive and we jump to take ownership as new situations arise.

That culture is really important for us in normal situations, and we are really leaning on it now when we've got all of these challenges around COVID-19.

Watch a ten-minute video of this ‘CEO leading through the lockdown’ interview with Graeme Watt, Chief Executive of global software reseller Softcat PLC.

We’ve been sticking to the same values we’ve always had and reinforcing them wherever possible.

Whilst trying to provide a good mix of business as usual, we've also been finding new ways to have fun and celebrate.

On the business as usual front, we've been having our usual team meetings while we're all working remotely.

We've been having our daily figures, employees of the month and quarter. Celebrating the success of those people who have hit targets and those that supported them with reward and recognition has always been very important in our strong sales culture.

What about the experience of remote working, it’s not all good, is it?

Where people have struggled to cope with remote working, we have provided additional avenues for mental health support, created a buddy system to complement the managerial and HR support that they are already getting.

We've been very flexible with people who are caring for others or have other demands at home and provided additional equipment to people where their homeworking environment needs it.

Communication has been super important too, as well as the now weekly COVID-19 update email that comes out every Tuesday afternoon.

Our staff in a sense look forward to that because it's a bit of structure around emerging news and events. ‘OK what’s the leadership team are thinking about, how are they're responding to some of the things that the government may have said or may not have said’.

We are into our second round of Q and A's, between the company, Colin Brown our MD, and myself. The teams are able to ask us about anything that’s on their mind: what we're seeing and how we are feeling, and what challenges we’ve still got to address, and what’s on the horizon.

It helps people understand those challenges and what our approach is. Frankly, it helps Colin and I and others set some expectations for people as well.

The next round of Q and A’s is already fully subscribed, so there's a big appetite for very open and transparent communication. It's always important for people to get access to that ‘tone from the top’ at any time.

I mentioned the fun stuff, we’ve arranged cocktail mixing masterclasses, as well as top chef masterclasses. Tom Kerridge is pretty well-known to us all so and I will be personally attending that one.

We also have “Softcat’s got Talent”, big nights in, and “University Challenge”. These challenges are for charities. Volunteering has always been high on our agenda and it's been really touching to see so many people involved, supporting those heavily impacted by this crisis.

Has the Softcat culture evolved now that everyone's working virtually? Have you seen any substantial changes?

I think the culture has been strengthened and deepened, re-emphasised if you will.

Qualities like supporting each other, having fun, being energetic and fully available to one another and the customers, wanting to connect, feeding off each other’s energy and ambition, that’s all there, but now it’s been re-emphasised.

The amount of connectivity we have with each other now, inside and outside of the company, is amazing. Where people have already established relationships inside and outside the company, I think they've been dramatically enhanced. And just the simple stuff like when people who are in the middle of a zoom conference, like you and I are now, and the dog walks in and starts barking, or the family walks in, those are the nice personal touches and they make everything so real.

Our business is about developing deeper and more established relationships with existing customers, whilst bringing in new customers to the company as well.

Where we have been challenged is bringing in new customers, which relies on cold calling, where we don’t have warm or hot relationships, the challenge is to establish those relationships at a time when we are predominately remote, we’ve found that much more difficult during COVID-19.

The power of purpose has been vividly illustrated as so many people are putting their lives at risk during this crisis. Where have you seen purpose manifest itself inside Softcat?

I’ve always been a big believer in laying out our short term and longer-term goals so that people can put their own roles into context. We are a simple company, we like to talk in simple terms, have simple goals and behave in simple ways.

We want to become the undisputed, number-one reseller in the UK, we want to achieve the top 5 reseller status in Ireland, we’ve got goals to get female leadership to 35% and one day to perhaps become a FTSE100 company.

Our employees are increasingly wanting to understand the value they are creating and how it feeds into that bigger picture.

I think the other thing we are seeing is that everybody's got a talent or some kind of gift for something. Increasingly, people are looking for ways to put that talent to good use and express themselves.

Taking on mundane tasks, as a means to an end, if you like, is much less attractive.

As an employer, our responsibility is to automate a lot of those routine tasks and to put the great talent we have within the business to good use.

The need and the desire to do that has never been greater.

We did put together a formal purpose statement for the company six months ago. Softcat’s purpose statement is that we help customers use technology to succeed by putting our employees first.

So what we believe, and we believe this strongly, is that a highly-motivated, enabled and engaged workforce will give a really, really good customer experience which is then reflected in the results of the company.

Our employee net promoter score sits at 53, our customer net promoter score sits at 60, and that’s what drives our success. Our biggest positive differentiator, in what is a very crowded and fragmented IT solutions reseller market, is our culture.

I’m chuffed to bits that we have been recognised twice in the last few months, both with Top Five positions as a great place to work by Glassdoor and “Great Places to Work” themselves. It’s easy to say these things, but it’s difficult to achieve.

I’m just amazed that more companies don't make the connection between their people and that engagement and the knock-on effects that has on customers and customer satisfaction and results, that they don’t make it their number one goal or priority.

That really is an important connection. In the next part of this interview, I’d like to ask you about leadership and what you’ve learned about what works when the game changes so dramatically and completely.