Changing the music world was one aim of ROLI’s founder Roland Lamb when he launched the company back in 2009, but equally as important to him was to create a business and a community at the same time. With offices based all over the world, I popped into the London one for a spread of lunch and a natter with their Chief People Officer Corey Harrower.
From what I can tell, ROLI doesn’t preach, you practice. How has that become so?
I joined when there was a team of six full-time people and a vision to push the boundaries of music and technology and to build a new type of company.
Roland and myself shared the same view that it is a privilege to have the opportunity to bring smart people together everyday to solve complex challenges in science, tech and how one builds a community. As with any privilege, there’s a related responsibility, which in our case meant recognising our duty to our team to ensure they had the opportunity to grow and develop as individuals and as professionals at ROLI. Our challenge was, and is, to take seriously our responsibility to our team and use it as a catalyst for leveraging new ideas and opportunities.
Where did you start with this?
Well, Roland and I always felt that we needed to interrogate the concept of the ‘work/life balance.’ I’ve always found this framing to be odd, because although balance is very important, the division implies that when you’re working, you’re not living and vice versa. Instead of these two things being in opposition, we wanted to create a synergy between the two. I don’t think this idea is too far fetched; if you take the personal sphere and the professional sphere you’ll see that there’s a potentially dynamic overlap between the two which can be cultivated. Many of the skills you rely on are found in both spheres.
What did you want to displace from the norm to solve this?
I have always been perplexed by this notion of how people can be summed up by their job title. She’s a ‘finance director’ for example. We are all more than just our job titles—yes, you might be a finance director but you might also be a great dancer or a chef. We wanted to create a workspace which would allow people to realise their full creative potential and not ask them to close off a part of themselves.
In essence we didn’t want people to only bring half of themselves to work – listening, creativity and problem solving requires the whole entity. It makes no sense for the individual members of our team to not have the opportunity to be themselves. This thinking was prominent from the start.
What bugs you with your industry at the moment?
I keep hearing ‘culture’ bandied around like a buzz word. A foosball table and a few bean bags will not necessarily establish a culture. You see companies offering benefits to their staff and thinking again that this equals culture. I feel strongly that this is a narrow way to think about and define culture. Many traditional benefits, while important, are for the individual, not the team and over time I think that if you only have these types of offerings it can strain the notion of an integrated workforce. Culture is not something you buy.
So how have you built the ROLI culture?
We constantly ask ourselves: what are the structures and habits that support our values? Culture is developed through specificity, not through broad platitudes. We have built our culture on everyday actions and practices.
So what does an average day at ROLI look like?
Every day at 8:30am we have a stand-up meeting with the whole team. This is about 80 people and must take less than ten minutes. In that time we share any quick announcements, appreciations from the day before and then everybody has to share what their main task is for the day.
Everybody. It’s literally a punchy sentence of what you intend to achieve that day and then you name the next person to speak who is standing beside you in the circle. Believe me, it can be done. Then we all spend ten minutes doing space improvement. We turn up the music and no matter if you’re a CEO or an intern, for ten minutes we all roll our sleeves up and improve the space: finish the washing up from the day before, tidy the book shelves, reset our desks, take out the garbage, water the plants, whatever you think will help to ensure that we share a great space to create in.
Our whole team comes together every day at 1pm for a healthy vegetarian lunch which is made in our kitchen by our two chefs/wellness managers, Mary and Harry. Lunch is a time to chat, take a break and share an opportunity to spend time with colleagues you might not directly work with. We do the washing up on a rota with every member of our team pitching in. You might ask, is that an efficient use of a senior coder’s time to wash plates? But then it’s all part of our investment into our culture.
How do you bring the personal sphere into your culture?
Every month we transform our space and host a family and friends dinner. This is a three-course vegetarian meal, again, expertly made by Mary and Harry. It’s a special evening and it’s our way of saying thank you to the loved ones of our team members for sharing their loved one’s time with us.
What is the most important word that the ROLI culture is centred around?
Co-creation. Collaboration. Everything we do is co-created – our language, the sounds on the Seaboard, the objects we build. It’s a collaborative industry and for us it’s the journey of co-creation and the growth that occurs as a result that makes our products and our culture thrive.
How do you find new people?
We encourage a ‘refer a friend’ type of people searching. I would say that 75% of our team have been internal referrals. We try to be very honest about who we are and what we do, and that our culture isn’t for everyone. So we make sure that during the interview process the relevant team members get to meet and spend time with a candidate, as opposed to simply interviewing with a ‘HR manager.’ Potential team members come and work through a problem or have lunch with us to give everyone a chance to get a feel for whether or not it’s the right fit. It’s a very collaborative environment that one can flourish in if it is what you’re looking for.
Will robots be on the list for ROLI anytime soon?
Whilst we’re in the tech business and thoroughly inspired by all of the new advances that are open to us, we’re also really keen to balance out the tech with the human side. We’re a company that’s driven by touch and an exploration of the human side of human-to-computer interaction, so we really want to grow with that in mind.
How does your office space impact on your ethos?
We took a while to find, design and refine this space. As you can see, it’s dynamic, which in turn directly supports to our culture and polymathic interests. We can host meetings, parties, workshops and encourage the creativity we all bring to our work. It’s perfect for us as it’s collaborative when we need it to be and yet the quieter meeting rooms branching off of the open space are great when you need to focus on the details of an idea.
Campus-style office vs. office integrated within a broader community
I think whilst the Google type of campus is an interesting concept, for us, we can find more value and inspiration by being part of a pre-existing community as opposed to creating our own self-contained one. Travelling between our offices (which team members do everyday to come to lunch and meetings) means walking through a park, past various local businesses and a railway station. We’ve found time and again that more dynamic opportunities can come from collaborations with local businesses and we love the interaction. If you’re going to learn from and influence the world around you then you need to be out in it.
As Stevie Wonder has just played the ROLI Seaboard and given it the serious thumbs up, I think it’s safe to say that the collaborative team has pushed forward the boundaries of design, touch and music to new levels of success. We look forward to hearing what’s next for them later in 2016 … as for now, check out the ROLI Seaboard Rise in action below