Lockdown and stay-at-home orders in March forced companies to switch up their working practices and go remote. But as the UK prime minister Boris Johnson tells people they can go back to working in a physical office space from August 1, not everyone is so happy to go back to the old ways.
According to research by cloud communications platform Twilio, four in five tech companies have “definite” plans for remote work. Just this week, Google announced its staff will be working from home until summer 2021 and many more are considering the transition.
From Silicon Valley tech giants to London start-ups, meet three companies that are planning on going out of office forever.
The one that’s always done it: Degreed
Lifelong learning platform Degreed’s HQ is in San Francisco, but it has offices in New York, the Netherlands and London. The company’s head of comms and client advocacy Sarah Danzl lives in none of these places, preferring to call Boulder, Colorado her home. A flexible working policy has been intrinsic to the success of Degreed, which Danzl says comes from the company’s co-founder David Blake.
“It doesn’t matter to him where you were, he just wanted the best talent and the person with the right skills for the job in the role, no matter where they were located, if it was domestic or abroad,” she explains.
It helps that the staff like it. In its annual feedback survey, Degreed always scores 90+ per cent on its flexibility policy, which helps the company to retain staff and keep up regular engagement.
When Covid-19 came around it didn’t lead to a massive disruption. All that has changed for Danzl over the past few months is no business travel and more Slack and Zoom. Different teams hold virtual happy hours, as well as playing games together online. Every Thursday, the whole company comes together for one hour, sort of like Google’s TGIF events. There are guest speakers, from emotional intelligence training, to client speakers, as well as colleagues who share what their team is working on. This transparent approach is what keeps everyone on the same page.
“We talk about funding, roadmap, hard things and private financial information that I have never heard a CEO share,” she says. “The transparency and flexibility allow people to know where the company stands are times, but then you can also feel free to be a family person and work at the same time.”
When it comes to Danzl’s team, the marketing team has no internal meetings on a Friday. “It means we actually have time to catch up, get real work done, and stay focused so there’s not such a burnout culture.”
The London start-up: Zenzic
For Zenzic, a London-based organisation which brings together all the companies and institutions involved in the UK’s self-driving revolution, the past four months have seen the 12-person strong team be more productive than ever before. “We haven’t had that pressure and imperative to try to be co-located, we haven’t been around the country and the world in physical meetings,” explains CEO Daniel Ruiz.
At the start of the pandemic, the team came together to agree a playbook for their new working days, such as ensuring everyone has a decent webcam and holding an informal coffee chat at 9.30 every day. Tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp are integral for communication. “The key thing is creating a bond and maintaining the culture of the company which happens sort of naturally if you’re all locked in the same room everyday.”
As the lockdown eases and people start to return to normal life, Zenzic is staying remote. It’s already seeing the benefit when it comes to hiring, as the company’s new marketing executive lives in Manchester. Ruiz says the company plans to hold off-site days once a month to bring the team together, though in the future it may bring together individual teams one or two days a week. But it could mean a re-think of the one central London space.
“Say the technical team may live in an area that is within five miles of Croydon town centre, could they meet there? At the same time, the marketing and communications team may be congregated around Leamington Spa, could they congregate there? We need to look into how that flexibility can come in without the cost.”
Ruiz is positive about the potential this could have for his team. “We spend the vast majority our our waking hours working. The manifestation of that at the moment is the fact we can get up from our desk, go do some exercise, do something that refreshes the mind and body and not spend however many hours of the day travelling. As an executive, I feel morally bound to try and find ways of preserving many of the benefits we’ve enjoyed over the last few months.”
The tech giant: Square
Like most companies,f fintech Square had a relaxed policy to working from home. People would take the odd day, say they needed to be at home for childcare or for someone fixing the plumbing, but it was still a change in play when the company went remote in March. That being said, Aaron Zamost, the company’s head of comms, policy and people, says it was easier than he thought it would be.
“Communications and policy, and for the most part the people side, can be done anywhere, over video chat or over the phone. Doing the work is actually pretty easy, the stuff that required extra thought was how do you create a shared community and purpose amongst an organisation, to say nothing of my team, when no one is working together physically,” he explains.
Square’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced a permanent WFH policy in late May, whilst a recent workplace survey found that 20 per cent of Square respondents say they plan to continue this after the pandemic. There’s been a focus, in particular, to create the same sense of culture virtually. The tech the company uses is an important component, things like Slack and Google Hangouts.
Recently, the comms and policy teams came together for their bi-annual summit, which usually takes place in San Francisco, but this time was virtual. Dorsey dropped by for a Q&A as well as CFO Amrita Ahuja. There were team brainstorms, and mini breakout sessions where different members of different teams came together for 30 minutes. “It was harder to do the social element where we all go bowling, but for the most part we were still able to come up with things that created a shared sense of community,” says Zamost.
It helps when everyone at the company has a shared mission. For Square, it was helping the thousands of small businesses that use its tech around the world to open online stores for the first time, or offer delivery and contactless-free pickups, so they could keep going during the pandemic. “Everybody wakes up every day during normal times and thinks, we’re here to help small businesses. But during a crisis like Covid, it’s just so much more obvious what our jobs are and what our tools are for. And I think the shared sense of purpose goes a long way.”
Whilst the US tech companies gained a reputation for their fun offices with free beer and ping pong tables, Square’s HQ wasn’t like that. “My office now has way more toys than it ever had in it because I have children. I might not have a ping pong table, but I have a bunch of lego,” jokes Zamost.
Surprisingly, Zamost says he does miss the commute time as it often gives him the space to think about his day and what’s ahead, though not having to take the BART — the San Francisco version of the tube — to get to work is a benefit. Though the company has been hiring more remote staff in recent years, the pandemic has helped Square to push forward this idea of a distributed workforce more. “I think that bright spot of all of this is it will push us forward five years oin five months. Hiring managers now are having conversations with recruiters about their willingness to list their jobs in cities that they wouldn’t perhaps have done previously.”