How the Coronavirus threat affected a small 25 year old software firm which has over the years remained a team of about 50, focused on building niche intellectual property in select domains and perform some special financial services – a few observations.
The company founded in 1994, has had an employee strength of around 50, through the 25+ years. Nearly 20% of the employees have been in the company for over 20 years. The team thrives on good personal bonding, built through very warm and informal interactions, promoted by regular events that bring employees and families together. Every year, there is a full day annual picnic. Every quarter, an evening of celebration by the people born in that quarter. Every birthday celebrated with candles and cakes. Professionally, every year there is an awards night, highlighting individual and team achievements; every quarter a meeting to update on the performance of the quarter and a look into the coming quarter. Five or six festivals are celebrated regularly every year. As it is apparent, the company thrived on being together and knowing each other very well. For such a company to suddenly split and work remote was really hard to imagine.
Towards the end of February and early March, we noticed many clients preparing to shift majority of work to be done from home and the warning bells rang. We felt unsettled and started reviewing our own plans for the eventuality. First, we tackled the technical aspects of working remote. Simulating the remote environment, everyone was removed from the in-house LAN and made to work through VPN, using their personal computers and performed various tests. Teams met to discuss, how to work if they are not physically next to each other. How to handle connectivity issues, which may prevent individuals in remote areas, to work effectively. How to handle regular team communications. Which tools will be used for remote collaboration. How will daily allocations be managed? What about daily standup and other team meetings? What happens to over the cubicle chats and clarifications? The teams came up with a draft of revised processes to adopt and discussed them.
Through the second week of March, teams prepared themselves for remote working, while still continuing to deliver their regular work. Atmosphere was more like during final exams in the final year. There was an underlying discomfort at the thought of being away; not coming to a place they visit daily to work, interact and have good time together. As a first step, people from out of town were asked to pack their bags and go home to their family.
Across the company everybody’s physical addresses (wherever they intended to be) and infrastructure available was collected and reviewed. The employees obligations in terms of confidentiality, information security, revised office procedures and communication process changes were communicated and discussed.
On Friday, the march 20th, we had most people working from home and had critical staff in office to sort out any issues in the infrastructure. When we went home on 20th, we did not know that we will not physically return and work from office for months. By the time the Government of India ordered the first lockdown, we were already operational in WFH mode.
As it has been always the case in this company, everybody stepped up to the occasion – a change that was thrust upon us so suddenly.
The first week saw a lot of technical issues. Almost all issues were resolved within minutes by the designated support team. Everyone quickly adapted to the new way of working. There were some pleasant surprises with WFH.
- Everyone started their day earlier than they had been while coming to office.
- Most people enjoyed the absence of painful commute – though there were odd exceptions of people who had used the commute time as ‘me time’ and helped them relax.
- Everyone was happy with the fresh, healthy food they got to eat.
- Everyone enjoyed the flexibility that comes with WFH.
- Many felt they worked longer hours as a result of WFH.
- Everyone became more formal and disciplined when it came to professional interactions – work doubts and clarifications got logged as a routine, which improved productivity.
However, people missed the being together factor. On several occasions, they spent longer with work issues, since help was not physically next to them – you tend to think more before asking your peer/manager who is remote as opposed to when they are physically next to you. The positive twist, you made more independent decisions.
During the very first week of WFH, we decided we will all meet (all hands) everyday at 5 PM and have a general chat about the day, work, life in general – as we used to in office. So, since we started, without fail we have been meeting everyday at 5 PM and the attendance is always over 95% We have activity updates, demos, general discussions, best practices sharing, games, and so on. Every Friday is a Fun hour and many entertain by singing, story telling and sharing jokes. Some family members also join many times. This has been a wonderful fallout of this WFH arrangement. We have unearthed talent like singing, sketching, story telling amongst us. The work demos have become more effective, with more participation and diverse views.
We even had our quarterly review meeting (all hands) online, after completing the first quarter of WFH.
In summary, after nearly four months of WFH, we have learnt:
- It is possible to be effective in spite of being remote and physically alone.
- It is important to leverage tools and technologies to collaborate and work effectively.
- We are still the same people needing connect with our friends and colleagues, whatever the situation is.
- If we are willing to adapt, we can still achieve togetherness amongst teams, in spite of physical separation.
There are still some unanswered questions:
- How do we recruit? Our recruitment process involves multiple levels of filtering and hours spent on each recruit before formally offered employment.
- How do we induct new members into our culture?
- What should we do when pre-corona normalcy returns – even if in parts?
- What would work life be like in the future?
This is just one small company of 50 people. There are much larger companies with larger issues. However, at the root of them all, are the same issues, mostly human that need addressing. Each team has to adopt a method, that suits them technically, culturally, and in a way that impacts their customer positively. Still, there is a lot to be learnt.