Matt Grimshaw Partner & Director, The Pioneers
30 September 2021

Industry Insights: The Pioneers – Where place meets culture

The Pioneers are a digital agency that builds people management solutions for some of the UK’s fastest growing companies.

They help scale-ups to overcome the people challenges of rapid growth so they can create a culture that sets them apart providing a competitive advantage.

The secret? It’s all about seeing people management as a coherent operating system, rather than as discrete components. A concept The Pioneers call the peopleOS – a modular, user-centric and systemic approach to people management.

Q: At The Pioneers, you’re known for the concept of a peopleOS. Can you explain a bit about what you mean by that?

Most established companies have been built on the assumption that employees work for the company. Employees are seen as an interchangeable human “resource”.

This creates an expectation that people will “fit in” to what the company wants them to do and that they’ll adapt their behaviour to comply with the ways of working, policies and procedures of that organisation.

From a people management perspective, people work for the system. And this tend to result in a people management system that’s “one size fits all”, ordered and quite tightly controlled.

The scale-ups we work with see it the other way round. They don’t think people should work for the system; they think the system should work for their people.

And that’s what we help them bring to life.

We design and build a peopleOS that nudges the culture they want to nurture in their organisation. It starts with an understanding of the employee as a user, allows for genuine personalisation, and creates a coherent, distinctive workplace where people can find that sense of flow.

Q. So, how does ‘place’ fit into the system?

We take a very broad perspective on what we mean by a people operating system.

Effectively, it encompasses everything a company provides to an employee to help them get work done: whether that’s the tech stack, the training people receive, how information is communicated and shared, or how you set objectives, run meetings and make decisions.

What makes us different is that we’re interested in how all these components come together as a system and whether they create a coherent experience.

Most companies try to manage all this stuff as separate silos, but when you do that you end up with the classic boy racer car of a workplace!

Industry Insights: The Pioneers – Where place meets culture

You can put a huge spoiler on the back, bucket seats, a big exhaust, blue lights underneath … you can optimise all the components, but fundamentally you’re still driving a rubbish Citroen Saxo!

That’s why we see ‘place’ as one component of a peopleOS. When it’s done well, it’s because the design of the workplace reflects the distinctive culture that the organisation is trying to create.

When it’s done badly, it’s because companies haven’t thought through the situational influences on their culture.

I’ve been in offices before with corner offices and cubicles, along with breakout areas with soft furnishings and table football.

It just feels incoherent – like the company can’t decide whether it wants a hierarchical, deferential culture or a flat, playful one.

Q. We’ve all come across the stereotype of the rapid growth tech company, with ping-pong tables, free food, etc. Do you think scale-ups do a good job with their workplace?

By and large, yes. Scale-ups tend to have a lot of advantages in this context. They have money to spend and they don’t have sunk costs in outdated technology, workplaces or ways of working.

In my opinion, it’s easier to get it right the first time than to transform a legacy organisation.

Scale-ups also get how competitive the talent market is – particularly for developers. They see their space and their way of working, whether in the office, hybrid or remote, as part of their employer brand and they’re not afraid to invest or innovate to try and stand out from the crowd.

Q. So, coming out of Covid, do you think there are lessons that more established companies could learn from scale-ups in terms of workplace, hybrid and remote working?

Covid has obviously accelerated all the trends that disruptive scale-ups were looking to capitalise on.

One of the reasons that so many scaleups have been able to capitalise on this is because they’re incredibly agile, usercentric, and not afraid of making hard choices.

quote mark quote mark

"Focus on creating the systems and designing workplaces that can support flexibility, personalisation and more than one way of working."

I see some of the stuff coming out of big companies announcing “our new hybrid working policy,” and I don’t think they get it. It’s that old one-size-fits-all command and control instinct kicking in again.

In my opinion, you don’t want a policy. Don’t take the decision away from people. You should be aiming for your people and teams to be able to exercise autonomy about working in the way that suits them best.

Industry Insights: The Pioneers – Where place meets culture

This will change over time. For example, teams with lots of new team members will want to spend more time together than teams who’ve been working together for some time. Mandating policies is a very clumsy way of trying to manage this complexity.

My advice would be to create systems and design workplaces that can support flexibility, personalisation, and more than one way of working.

I think companies need to see their tech stack and their workplace as two sides of the same coin. If you can do this, you can generate data about how people are actually using your space and your tech. You can respond accordingly and begin to nudge employees towards more effective ways of working.

If not, don’t be surprised when your best people start to vote with their feet. Find out more about The Pioneers and their PeopleOS system at

Want to know more?

We are always happy to talk about all things workplace. Get in touch with our team today to find out more about the return to workplace here.

Workplace [R]Evolution: Issue 3
Workplace [R]Evolution: Issue 3

With many organisations now viewing hybrid working as a competitive advantage, it’s more important than ever to engage with people, to guide workplace decisions.

In this third issue of the Workplace [R]Evolution, we’re bringing you the latest data, exploring how to lead with employee experience and sharing the latest examples of hybrid workplaces.

Download for free now