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What is ‘non-parental culture’—and why's it so vital for remote companies?

Written By
Simon Dumont
Jessica Hayes

Companies and parents have a lot in common. Some help you pursue your passions, take you on nice holidays, and buy you ice cream every week. Others make you stay in all weekend doing homework and spy on your browser history.

But with companies now letting people fly the nest and work from anywhere, is it time for the age of employer-employee parentalism to end?

For Jessica Hayes, COO at Whereby, it has to—if we want remote work to work, at least.

Jessica has played a huge part in building Whereby’s ‘non-parental’ culture—an authentic embodiment of the company’s mission to ‘Build a world where anywhere works.’ It informs every part of life at Whereby, from hiring, to onboarding, to day-to-day decision-making.

We spoke to Jessica to find out why 'non-parental' culture is so important at Whereby—and why going remote means everyone has to grow up a bit.

What does ‘non-parental culture’ mean?

JESSICA: As a fully remote company, we can’t always be there for people. We don't have an office where you can see everyone. People are working independently in different places around the world, and the best way to do this is to take a fully hours-agnostic approach.

Once we’d made those decisions, it became pretty clear that we couldn’t also have a high degree of centralized oversight into what's happening with people. So naturally, we had to build an approach that was very decentralized and required a very, very high degree of individual autonomy. That’s what got us talking about this non-parental approach.

So, let’s say you get an offer to work at another company. They send over your contract, documentation, and benefits. All you need to do is show up on your first day.

When we make you an offer at Whereby, we send you a Notion page with the four different types of contracts you can take—depending on where in the world you want to work—and you let us know which one you want. We’ll explain what the clauses mean if anything is confusing, but we're not going to give you legal advice or interpret stuff on your behalf. You're expected to do it.

And we have that same approach everywhere. Other companies send you a monitor and a laptop when you start. We give you a virtual credit card with £1,500 one week before your first day. You decide what you need for your home office, you purchase those things, then you upload your receipts. We don’t arrange anything except the cash.

“We had to build an approach that was very decentralized and required a very, very high degree of individual autonomy. That’s what got us talking about this non-parental approach.”

<quote-author>Jessica Hayes<quote-author><quote-company>COO at Whereby<quote-company>

What are the main benefits of having a non-parental culture?

JESSICA: I don't think it's possible to have agnostic hours and be fully remote unless you have a fairly non-parental culture at work. So that's the number one benefit. There’s also a lot more freedom to make decisions and be autonomous, which is great if you enjoy that way of working.

What about the challenges? Does it ever go wrong?

JESSICA: Some people really don't like the ambiguity that non-parental culture brings. They struggle with not knowing exactly what the guardrails are, or not having someone telling them what needs to happen. That can actually be quite anxiety-inducing for some people.

We really try not to have those people join the team. So even in our recruitment tasks, we bake in quite a high degree of ambiguity. Somebody basically has to do something on their own without many answers to questions. We want people that don't get too much anxiety about that.

If you can't handle this situation with confidence, then you’d really struggle to work at Whereby because you're working by yourself at home all day. You could be in Germany and your boss might work in Canada. So for six hours you need to make a decision with no one else online.

Because we try very hard to hire for this, we don't have any real examples of someone who joined the team that fundamentally didn't get along with it. There are some examples of people who generally liked this approach, but at times of crisis or conflict might struggle with not having the top-down parentalism they’re used to from other companies.

A chunk of the Whereby team.

How do you handle workplace conflicts in a non-parental way?

JESSICA: When there's a conflict between two people and it gets escalated, the response is basically: we think you two can make this work. Rather than saying, ‘how can I help solve this for you?’ we say, ‘how can I help you solve this problem?’

Sometimes that can be quite difficult for people. If you already feel frustrated and want something to be over, one of the most annoying things that someone can say is: ‘how can I help you solve this problem?’ You're like: ‘I don't want to! I want you to help me solve it.’

But that very rarely happens at Whereby. And this approach generally works—the person has a conversation about how they can solve the problem, they get any tools they need, and they go solve it.

There are some instances where things boil over, the team member struggles with that, and they want to have a conversation after about how they’d prefer us to solve the problem for them. Then it becomes more of a coaching moment: that's just not ever going to happen at Whereby. We won’t solve things on your behalf.

"I don't think it's possible to have agnostic hours and be fully remote unless you have a fairly non-parental culture at work."

<quote-author>Jessica Hayes<quote-author><quote-company>COO at Whereby<quote-company>

How do new employees respond to this kind of culture?

JESSICA: When people first join, often they almost over-extend into the freedom and do all this stuff they wouldn't usually do. And then they might get pulled back on a few things, and retreat a lot. Eventually they find a balance.

But it does take a little bit of time. You're trying to figure out how to navigate this new non-parental space, which is very ambiguous and open.

For example, we've got an unlimited holiday policy. There’s a minimum threshold you have to use. Above that, if you want more holidays, you just do it—as long as it’s approved. But we've actually had some team members say they don’t like the policy, because not knowing the maximum makes them feel anxious.

Obviously, most team members don't complain about having unlimited holidays—it's great. But there are some people that just really struggle with that degree of freedom. Maybe they’re used to being judged in the past, or they think it’s some kind of double standard they're unaware of. So a little bit of anxiety from previous workplace traumas does creep in.

Do people in different places respond to non-parental culture in different ways?

JESSICA: Yes and no. People in the US tend to use their unlimited holiday less than people in Europe—but on the other hand, they’re more comfortable with taking coworking stipends, home office cash, that kind of stuff. People in Norway and Europe actually feel less comfortable using that kind of benefit.

But these things are never consistent, right? We try to set a minimum hurdle that everyone's entitled to and encourage people to aim for this. Then people can make decisions themselves.

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist