In January 2020, a couple of months before COVID-19 would become a regular part of our vocabulary, Overstock initiated a series of practice work-from-home days.
At the time, remote work simply wasn’t something businesses with thoughtfully designed workplaces and rich cultures ever planned for. Now, “we very well may become a hybrid,” says Overstock CEO, Jonathan E. Johnson.
After more than a year of some offices remain closed to all but a handful of employees, some leaders like Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith, think this is the future of work. The realization that employees actually don’t mind, or even prefer, working from home has turned the idea of what a successful workplace looks like on its head.
And as more and more workplaces come to terms with the new workplace reality (which no one sees as returning to five days a week in an office), remote work does not appear to be a fad. Rather, for companies such as Cotopaxi, Simplus, Myriad Genetics, and others navigating this new world order, it is a mainstay.
At first, it was about crisis management
Back in January, when Overstock began “stepping into the unknown” as Johnson refers to the situation, the company, with the oversight of Meghan Tuohig, its chief people officer, dusted off its crisis management plan and began, well, planning.
Tuohig and her team put the remote work ball in motion well ahead of emergency orders, hoping that the extra time would give them an edge if the pandemic worsened and people were asked to work from home for real.
Following the practice WFH days, Tuohig says they surveyed the workforce to find out what went well and how they could do better by asking questions such as “how productive did you feel while working from home as compared to when you work from the office?”
By March 16, when Overstock made the official announcement to its staff that they’d be working from home amid the unrelenting pandemic, they thought it would be for a period of about two weeks. Though that mark would turn out to be way off, Tuohig maintains that their pre-planning prepared them for the long haul, a nebulous notion to say the least.
Although Cotopaxi’s transition to remote work, like many companies, didn’t involve the level of advance planning undertaken by Overstock, it was successful pretty much from day one. Ted Forbes, the head of people, puts it plainly: “What we found was that it worked marvelously.”
Forbes cites “the strong and deep relationships” built up between individuals at the company which creates innovative outdoor gear and experiences as a key factor in the success of the transition. People could, according to Forbes, draw from this “relationship capital” when they interacted over Zoom or by phone, instead of via an in-person meeting or impromptu brainstorm by the water fountain.
Execs started changing their minds about remote work
Prior to the pandemic, Overstock wasn’t keen on remote work as an option and Johnson admits that they did not work from home. Sure, he says, on occasion, a person might have worked from home due to a specific need such as a house repair or childcare issue, but it was not by any measure a regular thing.
Overstock, with its beautiful and inviting campus in the heart of Salt Lake City, prides itself on being the kind of work environment where people want to be. Along with a clinic, childcare facilities, juice bar, cafeteria, as well as warm, bright spaces for “serendipitous meetings” as Johnson calls them, Overstock’s campus has been, in a way, Google-fied.
Similarly, Cotopaxi’s culture and office environment played a significant role in the fast-growing startup’s pre-pandemic reluctance to offer remote work flexibility. In fact, says Forbes, “Davis [Smith] was indeed skeptical of the whole concept of remote work pre-COVID.” According to Forbes, Smith valued the culture he himself had helped craft, including a flat organization where, in spite of typical higher-ranking titles, an entry-level employee could drop by the CMO’s office with a question or idea.
But when Cotopaxi had some clarity on the business’ performance in a most unusual economy— it hadn’t degraded as they worried it might—and with anecdotal information from senior staff who said that remote work was going really well, Smith started to believe in a concept he had recently rejected.
For Smith and Johnson, initial skepticism around remote work flexibility does not appear to be linked to a desire to micromanage or wield power over where employees work, rather from concerns around losing a most valuable resource: culture.
However, for Simplus, a software company with locations all over the country and world, remote work is and always has been the way the majority of employees work. Jason Osmond, who works on the public relations and marketing side of the business, says that despite staff working in various locations, “we have a fantastic culture.”
Because many of the hubs (and there is a sizeable one in Salt Lake City) did function as spaces pre-COVID to help to foster a vibrant company culture by hosting such events as yoga and book club meet-ups, Simplus’ move to virtual was perhaps a little less tinged with apprehension.
“We didn’t realize at the time how important that [remote work as the driving concept] would be,” admits Amy Cook, Simplus CMO, who is based in California. Cook, like Osmond, values the flexibility of remote work and can’t help feeling a bit ahead of the curve as more businesses conclude that remote employees do indeed get the job done.
Many, it seems, are also quite content doing so. Jayne Hart, chief people officer at Myriad Genetics, says that “employees have responded very well to having the flexibility of working remotely,” and adds that they’ve “seen a higher level of productivity and engagement from” employees, thanks to the flexibility factor.
Companies are adapting to online culture
Zoom, Slack, Email, Asana, Domo—the tools used for work did not change significantly for many of the companies forced to adapt to a fully remote workplace seemingly overnight. And for Simplus, the overall workplace changes were few and far between, according to Cook, who admits that “everything is just more real now.”
With many parents home-schooling their children or assisting with online classes, Cook says it’s not unusual to hear an executive or other team member have to hop off a call to help a kid with something. It’s also become somewhat more acceptable for a person to dial into a Zoom meeting, audio-only, in the case of say, a “really bad hair day,” says Cook.
This is because things just aren’t the same as they used to be. When Simplus’ CEO Ryan Westwood implemented “the hard and fast rule” that everyone have their camera on, that was before anyone knew we’d be living, working—surviving—a months-long pandemic with no end in sight, at least initially.
“We already had that level of engagement online. It was as close to in-person as you could get,” Cook says as others like Overstock, Domo, and Cotopaxi work toward achieving online engagement now that it’s the sole source of communication.
Ray Ball, Domo’s VP of human resources, says the company generally prefers “an office culture and the goodness that comes from in-person interaction and collaboration.” However, in the absence of that, Domo is uniquely positioned to rely on its own platform for communicating, though Ball says they also use Zoom, emails, phone calls, and the like.
And remember impromptu after-work happy hours? Scheduled drink outings with colleagues and across departments? Sharing a beer across a computer screen just isn’t the same as hanging out in person with people. As such, Cotopaxi hasn’t initiated a company-wide darts and drinks gathering or anything like that, but the company has found a way to bring people together in a safe, responsible, and meaningful way.
The Friday morning events, optional, pay homage to one of Cotopaxi’s values: In the Woods Time (ITWT). The initiative is simple: interested individuals meet on Friday mornings outside the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon and pick up trash. It’s an innovative way of encouraging and maintaining ITWT, the company value which encourages employees to spend at least four hours a week outside.
Overstock’s non-work offerings continue to take place virtually, and while the company still holds “regular socials,” according to Cook, it’s also been developing new social activities, such as game nights, scavenger hunts, and escape rooms.
Employees want to work remotely
While few businesses have been as vocal about making the office optional as Twitter or Facebook, many are embracing the reality that this is the new normal.
Pandemic and safety issues aside, there’s the value of not having to commute every day, which Ball says is the number-one benefit to employees. Not being tied to a desk (even in offices where free working spaces abound), gives individuals a sense of control over their schedules, says Forbes. There’s also, though not one of the leaders spoke explicitly of it, the trust factor.
Companies that are doing well, growing, and performing in a decidedly strange economy, aren’t likely to have an easy time demanding that everyone return to the office five days a week, from this hour to that hour. What will their reasoning be if the job can be done from home? If employees are happy with the new setup?
Myriad Genetics doesn’t, in fact, plan to bring people back to the office—unless they explicitly want to return to the office, as some employees have already done in compliance with new health and safety protocols. Hart states simply that “some groups will continue to work from home after the pandemic is over.”
Forbes says a survey given to employees after spending some time in the new remote work environment revealed that people were, by and large, satisfied with how things were going. Forbes reports that 61 percent of employees surveyed says their productivity increased and that 73 percent says that while the first few months were challenging, their overall satisfaction with work had increased.
Ball believes that “employees are also positive about the potential for increased flexibility for remote work, and look forward to learning more as we continue to plan for a post-pandemic return.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is optimistic about making a potential hybrid workplace successful, though no decisions have been made yet. “We know what having everyone work from home looks like. We’ve done that really successfully since March,” he says, noting that the company will take what they’ve learned and form decisions based on that newfound knowledge, which most likely won’t result in bringing everyone back in every day of the week as a matter of course.
Cotopaxi, on the other hand, made a decision over the summer to be remote-first. To wit: The company even began expanding its hiring pool to consider out-of-state candidates. That said, with the exception of people who physically cannot commute to Cotopaxi’s headquarters, Forbes thinks it’s going to be rare that someone living within proximity to the office will choose to be 100 percent remote, though they will have that choice.
“We’re going to give people the opportunity to do what works best for them,” Forbes says, pointing out that because people genuinely enjoy each other’s company, it’s likely many, if not most, will seek out that direct interaction when the offices open fully.
“We are committed to the remote option and we really do see it as a trend with long life,” says Forbes.
Overstock and Domo are still considering a hybrid model with no set plans yet, but Ball says the Domo will “be more flexible than perhaps we were prior to the pandemic,” and acknowledges that “employees are also positive about the potential for increased flexibility for remote work,” without expressly making plans one way or the other.
Forbes expresses skepticism over companies who are still, after all this, anxious to return to the way things were. “The ones that try to pull things back to the way they used to be are going to encounter some real resistance because they have employees who’ve experienced something that works,” he says, suggesting that it’ll be darn near impossible to put the lid on remote work as a way forward.
“If [remote work] worked, why would we go back to the way it used to be? Why not embrace what we’ve learned?”