In The Flow

Driving digital HR forwards with an open culture

In a virtual business, it is no longer physical spaces that bring us together, but ‘belief and trust’ that sustain us.

At HR Tech World in Amsterdam last week, I presented Emberson’s open, virtual company culture to an attentive audience. I was hoping to provoke thought while placing digital HR in the working context of a (creative services) business – looking at how we are driving digital HR forwards to the benefit of our employees, customers and business by embedding an open people first culture into the daily life of our team.

After all, why do things in the same way when with new cultural practices and new technologies, we can really shake it up and do things differently! An ethos that runs through the core of Emberson.







Let’s get virtual

Emberson is a virtual company – by this, I mean it does not physically exist in one single place but is presented as a single entity, enabled by software. Traditionally, an office building is the business ‘location’ – a weighty physical manifestation of the company position, image and culture. For us, our cloud software alone is our ‘place’ – and our place is virtual. We live in the cloud.

It follows that a virtual company is very different to a physical company and requires a different culture to function – in our case, an ‘open virtual company culture’.

Relinquishing the physical for the virtual does seem – culturally at least – incredibly challenging. Giving up the reassuring sense of control that a physical space gives you – for example, you and your people are physically present, and can be continually watched and directed. Giving this up is incredibly challenging for most organisations. And this reluctance is then further entrenched, wrapped up in the myth that we need to be physically there… to be creative and to perform. In our experience this argument doesn’t stack up.

In many sectors today it is not the case that you have to be physically there to be successful. You can be there virtually.







I used an example last week or a clipping in the Times newspaper, which gave credence to the direction of our virtual travel. In our experience the reluctance to change to a virtual world from a physical one is an anxiety about control and not productivity or creativity! In fact, quite the opposite is true – the more virtual you are the more productive you can be.

In our creative services sector our competitors still have a ‘closed factory culture’ not an ‘open virtual culture’. Paradoxically, they often deploy the latest technologies to remain a slave to a physical space rather than go virtual and change the way they work where space is limitless. It’s ironic that there is an old adman maxim “when everyone zigs you zag’ – true in everything, it seems, but culture.

Changing the creative services landscape

Since the millennium our agency world has changed…. A lot!







In 2000 the web was still in BETA. Today the connectivity the web delivers is ubiquitous.

In order to reduce fixed costs agencies are increasingly turning to freelance resources, but insisting they travel in to sit at a work station in the office – no change there then.

In the past talent would live locally … Now talent can be found globally, we work with specialists in Finland, Spain, South Africa, Ukraine, US and India as well as the UK.

In 2000 one of the defining moments was the postman picking up the mail bag… I really cannot remember the last time an artwork or visual was sent in the physical post.

In 2000 agency Software was expensive, over sold, took ages to configure and was often under used – I am particularly thinking CRM software as an example. Now there really is ‘an app for that!’ – and we can buy in at any level we need. However, many agencies use new technology not to change the way they work but to do what they always did – just digitally.
I think a lot of organisations fall into that trap.

Possibly the biggest change of all is that, In the years preceding the millennium, people in agencies worked hard as there were real perks to doing the job they loved – the money trickled down with great trips and parties, lunches and bonuses. Those were the agency glory days.

We can see that over the last few years the environment has changed – but culture has changed little. Agency working practises stubbornly hold on to the behaviours of the past – and as a consequence pass-on increasing work pressures to their staff – longer hours, less rewards – Given all the advances in digital technology workers still remain chained to their work station in an office.

There must be a better way… and this is our opportunity. Let me present our open virtual company ethos.

A better, more open way

At Emberson we made the decision to be Virtual from day one. We have no physical ‘place’.

Currently we employ a full time team of 12 and utilize the specialist services of 50 based in 12 countries. We are a trans-Atlantic business with revenue split between clients in the US, Europe, Middle East and UK.  We are nimble – able to grow quickly – not limited by local talent pool or by location of customers – we are where they are… virtually!

Being virtual delivers tangible cost savings reduces individual and collective environmental impact and reclaims valuable time. Being virtual adds up to Improved productivity from fitter, healthier more motivated and engaged people with more time to achieve a better life / work balance.

  • We are Digital – we fully embrace the power of the cloud for all our business functions. Accounting, CRM, Design, Marketing analytics, file Storage, communications and soon with the addition of the ‘open people platform’ from people first – HR. The cloud enables us to be virtual and without it we could not achieve our goals.







  • We are transparent – It’s simple – at Emberson, work = rewards. We are open about the business numbers and reward is clearly linked to team performance. With open visibility of the financials – everyone is making a contribution and are appreciated for it.
  • We have trusted teams – Management through team objectives NOT command and control. Customer facing teams are trusted to make decisions and lead. Today, we have 3 client facing teams with responsibility for their own business plan and P&L. Our target is to increase this to 5.
  • We are sustainable – in all senses of the word:
    • Economically – we are profitable and the money is in the bank and not the principals pockets
    • Environmentally – reduced travel and commuting saves 25,000 tonnes of CO2 per year
    • Socially – we are better balanced with wider stakeholders e.g. family, friends, peers and communities.

Our open people first culture

So what is the dividend of an open people first culture for our employees?

  • More rewarding: on every level – for everyone, not just an elite. There is an open and visible relationship between purpose / performance / reward. As the team grows so do they. Re-numeration and bonuses are continually aligned to their performance and agreed with the team. Mark Williams CTO of People first calls it ‘enlightened self-interest’ – Our people are treated as adults: Trusted to make decisions and to manage their business
  • A transformed work experience: We are trusted to manage time against objectives. Work when you want to work. Balance work with personal fitness and development. In an open virtual culture you have time to be healthy – going for a run or a spin class.
    • Socially balanced Many of our team have young families and they can be there for the school drop off and key milestones – that school play or football match
    • And we are Free to roam: Not chained to the desk in the office. We work where we are most comfortable – here there and everywhere

We are seeing that our open virtual culture is not only great for our people it is great for our customers too.

Our technology enablers

As I have already mentioned, technology and the cloud are key enablers and we already have many the bases covered.  We now recognise a growing need to add cutting edge HR functionality into the mix.

We have chosen the people first open people platform to be our partner in this. As we challenge the ‘closed agency culture,’ the people first open people platform will help us to transform the way HR is experienced by our people – it will become one of our differentiators and we are as evangelical as they are.

Let me share with you why have we chosen people first open people platform.

Why people first?

The clue is in the name. And there was a meeting of minds from day one. Their values are our values.







  • With people first we will transform the HR experience – make it intuitive, mobile, and simple. The people first ‘personal assistant’ will help us to reduce the burden of administration wherever it occurs providing our team with an app to take care of disruptive HR tasks wherever, and whenever they occur – particularly admin, holidays and expenses from day one.
  • The platform will provide tools to create an HR culture that is continuous and embedded in every individual – i.e. virtual HR for all – not a department – with information, performance, goals, and engagement always connected. Continuous check ins replace discontinuous appraisals
  • The openness of the platform means that the solution will grow as we grow. It is right for today and right for what’s next. The platform will give our team access to new ideas and technologies on a secure robust foundation built on Microsoft Azure. Unlike other options, in the people first market place we will be able to always have access to the best and in the future It will interface with the applications we already use to provide us with proactive team and business insights

We are currently implementing phase one of our ‘open people platform’ roll out in November and this will include modules for: data and records, holidays and absence, talent profiling, ‘check-ins’ for continuous appraisal and alignment of goals and performance. Phase 2 will include recruitment, training and learning modules and analytics.

What we know







An open ‘people first’ culture is not a revelation for all and some sectors are ahead of the game, but speaking for creative services there is still much for us to do! And much opportunity to explore.

  • Until agencies and businesses get over their addiction to the myth of control associated with physical bricks and mortar they will not be virtual
  • The more things change the more they stay the same. Sometimes I believe that the concept of business was invented on LinkedIn… but since antiquity business has always been challenging and will continue to be – being virtual is not a panacea for business success, but technology can give you an edge if you use it
  • I have personally learnt on our journey that not everyone wants to be an astronaut or at the bleeding edge of change… but that doesn’t make them less valuable – we must embrace diversity of talent, personality and need. The future of work is not just for the revolutionaries – Everyone wants to be fairly treated, rewarded for their contribution. People just want to love their work, and having an open virtual culture helps them to achieve that. And technology such as people first helps to deliver it.

In conclusion may we offer one last thought – in a virtual business it is no longer physical spaces that bring us together, more than ever it is ‘belief and trust’ that sustain us. Oh and above all have fun and enjoy your work!

Andy Graham