What have we been learning from the Great Dispersal, the forced work-from-home/work-from-anywhere experiment that was thrust upon us more than a year ago? Are companies inclined to continue support these arrangements once the Covid crisis lifts?
At least three leading executives say they’re happy with the arrangements. Gadi Shamia, co-founder and CEO of Replicant; Faisal Pandit, president of Panasonic System Solutions of North America; and Chris Port, chief operating officer of Boomi, a Dell Technologies business, provided their experiences with managing a remote workforce over the past year, and what they see in the months and years ahead.
What lessons have organizations learned about working from anywhere/home over the past year? Did this change management thinking about these arrangements?
Gadi Shamia, Replicant: “Before the pandemic, we, like so many other tech companies, had a semi-distributed workforce. We had an office in San Francisco, an office in Toronto, and the rest of the team was distributed globally. In early March 2020, we sent everyone to work from home, and by May, we terminated the leases on both offices.”
“We realized that the pandemic and working from home made it hard to keep a work/life balance, so we made sure not to schedule late meetings and started Slack channels dedicated to personal interests like cooking, pets, and recharge activities. The recharge channel is an important tool that helps to normalize and encourage work/life balance with employees to share the fun activities we do outside of work.”
“Not only do we allow and reimburse things like headphones, good monitors and webcams, we also created the ‘HONOI (Home Office Nonessential Office Improvement) Fund,’ which can be used by employees to make their home office more pleasant. Our employees have used it to buy unique lamps, office plants, desks and other design elements that make their workspace more pleasant.”
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Faisal Pandit, Panasonic: “Like many organizations, we had to quickly shift to a fully-remote base and prioritize digitally transforming existing IT infrastructures to support our workers and customers across a global network. In an all-remote work situation, we were forced to reevaluate business processes to determine where improvements and efficiencies could be made not losing sight of the importance of enhancing our customer connection and engagement.”
Chris Port, Boomi: “I was fortunate to have an easy transition to work-from-home. My children are teenagers and largely self-sustaining. But for a lot of other people working at Boomi, it was much more challenging. Young parents lost childcare. Many young professionals lost a network. It’s paramount that leaders are very flexible. We’re guiding employees through a, hopefully, once in a lifetime situation that’s different for everyone. You need to embrace everyone’s circumstances; ensure everyone is taking care of themselves, mentally and physically; and lead by example.”
Will work from anywhere/home still be allowed on a mass scale once Covid is behind us?
Shamia: “We don’t plan to have a traditional office again, as we learned for the first time in working remotely that all employees are more equal when it comes to communication flow and meetings. A pre-pandemic meeting often involved five people in a room and one or two people on the large TV which meant that we were more likely to focus on the people near us and less so on remote employees. Today, everyone shares the same office space on a Zoom screen, which means everyone is prioritized equally.”
“It is probably the best way to enable diverse hires. Working remotely is easier on parents, people with disabilities, introverts that may not like noisy offices, and people of color worldwide. There may not be enough diversity in San Francisco, but there is much more if you expand your search to the entire country, which remote work has made possible.”
“Most employees are also happier since they can do things they could never do before. One of our teammates moved temporarily to Joshua Tree to be with his girlfriend while working on an art project. I spent a few months in London with my wife while she was completing her MBA. Because of remote work, people can mix life and work, and not everything has to be placed on hold. “
Port: “What I know of the future is that Boomi is not going to be a 100% office-bound environment. We also aren’t going to be a 100% work-from-anywhere company. We’re going to make a way for everyone to get what they need most from work, in office or outside of it.”
“I believe we’re actually going to see productivity spike in a sustainable way after the pandemic. These past few months, we’ve learned what works best for us and when. Some people need to be in the office, at a desk five-days a week to be productive. Others don’t. Some need it now, but won’t in the future. Certain customers will want you to jump on a plane to help them in-person, others have found they don’t need that. All of this is valid and expected and when Covid is behind us, and daycares and schools reopen, and we regain structure in our lives, I think you will see a productivity spike.”
What technologies have proven to be most effective for these arrangements?
Sharmia: “Almost a year in, I am surprised to discover that the most essential products we used before are still the same we use today. Slack is still our primary way to communicate, we continue using Zoom to have meetings, and we still use wikis, email and calendar to manage our time and internal communication. We have tried using digital whiteboard products, and some team members enjoyed it. We also implemented a virtual office product that allowed us to create rooms and drop in for impromptu conversations. The idea was very promising, but it was not widely adopted.”
“Another tool that didn’t stick was an online icebreaker game. People loved it at first, but it quickly became old. The main takeaway is that expanding the way you use the tools you already have is better than adopting a new and narrow tool that can only do one thing. The cost of deciding which tools to use coupled with learning new tools, can become counterproductive.”
Pandit: “We introduced many digital elements, including virtual tradeshow booths and an interactive customer experience center. We also focused on providing the necessary platforms for our sales teams to engage with and for our customer service centers to function remotely, ensuring our customers, especially first responders, experience the same level of support they’re used to.”
“What we learned is that having the skills necessary to navigate this new environment is just as important as having the right technology in place. While existing in this virtual world, we’ve been pushed harder to innovate how we connect with our coworkers and customers. A big part of that has simply been embracing empathy, understanding that everyone has a lot going on both personally and professionally and having the right platforms and digital content hubs to offer an accessible line of communication is critical.”
Port: “We’ve relied on a lot of collaboration and white boarding tools during the pandemic. But what I’ve found important for remote work isn’t whether technology lives up or down to expectations, it’s how we integrate it into our culture and truly connect with one another. Those connections are both at the core of our technology, and it’s at the core of our work culture.”
What has been the impact on corporate culture and hierarchies? Are companies flatter, more network-driven as a result? Or is communication/openness stifled?
Shamia: “Organizations didn’t become flatter or more networked; the only thing that changed was the intentionality of workplace communications and relationships. As a CEO, I would have a chat with the intern we hired in the San Francisco office during lunch, but not the one we hired in Toronto. Now, I make sure that I meet every new employee or intern in a planned meeting. Everyone has the same access to information which means not being in the office is no longer a career-limiting move, and it opens up exciting opportunities. If you love to ski, you can live in Tahoe; if your parents are older, you can visit them more regularly. “
Port: “Boomi has become a flatter culture since the pandemic began. A great example is how we put out a call to action to all employees on how we could help customers, each other and our broader community during the pandemic. People from all over Boomi came together, and we created solutions like ‘Answers on Demand.’ We’ve strengthened our entrepreneurial roots at Boomi even more over the last few months. Everyone who has an idea is encouraged to bring it forward. All employees have a say in how we can make the customer more successful and how to make Boomi a better place.”