Corona Times: Working From Home – A Startup CEO’s Perspective
“Things do not change; we change.”
Henry David Thoreau
I am pretty sure it was early February, I was on my way to work and heard on NPR that there was a chance that the Tokyo Olympics might get postponed this year. I laughed out loud, and I was 100% sure that this “coronavirus crisis” would be long gone by fall. I had the highest confidence in how the US healthcare system was so much better than Italy’s healthcare system. I just couldn’t see how we would “shut down” our economy because of a “stupid virus.” Also, I was “sure” that this virus would find a cure by the time it reached the United States.
During the month of February, we launched our “lunch and learn” program. This program provided all employees free lunches and we used this time to train the staff on different core technologies they needed to succeed at N2N. I certainly won’t claim that we conducted this training with the premonition of the impending office shutdown, but this training helped prepare us for the incoming tsunami.
I also had a nagging feeling that I was just being hopeful and wanted to prepare the company in case of a contingency. During one of my all-hands staff meetings in February, I informed the team that we would ensure that every team member would get a work-from-home device in preparation for this potential event. I had been discussing the coronavirus and its potential impacts on our offshore operations. We were worried about the proximity of our offshore development center to China, and the possibility of widespread infections if the epidemic reached India because of the overall population, population density, and just the cultural aspects of the country.
Though I was getting them the devices, I was worried about whether my company was ready for a scenario where everyone worked from home. I wondered aloud about the impact it would have on married employees with kids, and employees who lived with roommates, and whether they had suitable conditions to maintain a strict schedule and professional work environment. I was frankly hopeful that we could just maintain the status quo of allowing people to work from home on an ad-hoc basis.
During the early parts of March, as we heard more news about the impact of Coronavirus on Italy, it became clear that this pandemic would impact the US. I started discussing with my Directors and the team on a more regular basis how we could prepare as a team for this incoming disruption. While we made preparations – I was still in denial that this was inevitable. I was frankly hopeful that our geographical separation from Europe could protect us from mass casualties and societal disruptions. I think I was just refusing to see the facts at this point – ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, just because I did not want to face a total disruption of my personal and professional life. I was also concerned about the lives of my employees and their families in this process. Little did I know that our whole nation and worse – our executive leadership was much less prepared than we were. One can argue that they were similarly optimistic and hopeful that the virus would “die” before it reached the US, or it would disappear because of the summer, or that it was just like the flu, and nothing to worry about.
I have to agree that executive leadership of the nation and I were equally in denial about this crisis on March 15th. When one of my employees sent me an email that she wanted to work from home for a couple of weeks, I lost my temper completely. I am embarrassed with myself now – but at that moment, all I could think of was, how could someone shut everything down and not go out of their home, in fear? Why would we let fear dictate our lives? What’s the point of living if we cannot live freely? All of these were thoughtful questions to an emotional predicament, and I did not come to terms with it then. I openly inquired about these conditions in the most indifferent way possible. I was adamant that we needed to continue the status quo, and we shouldn’t give in to fear. Despite all these rejections – as I saw the news trickling down from Seattle and California, I started coming to terms with this new reality – that we would very likely have a significant portion of our staff working from home soon.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor E. Frankl
After much resistance, I decided to take time and document all my concerns and discussed potential remedies for each of these concerns. Based on the input from my directors, we formulated new work from home policies and created guidelines on working from home. We shared this with employees and explained it to them in detail over a couple of Zoom sessions. We used these sessions not only to illustrate the guidelines but detail the management concerns on the reasons for these policy positions as well.
By the end of the second week of March, schools started shutting down, and that was when we knew we were in for the long-haul. We bought new laptops and distributed them to our staff by the end of the third week.
During the last two weeks of March, we had a few more work-from-home requests come in and accepted them with some deliberation and resistance. I continued in my position that having everyone work from home was “unhealthy” for the company and disrupted our team dynamic. As a result of this prejudice, I was quite reluctant to shut down the office – even when all the evidence alerted me to do otherwise. I was outraged about how this was impacting everything I had planned for this year and was still negotiating with each employee on their WFH request, the length of stay, and personally approving each request. I am not proud of this behavior. Frankly, I am embarrassed about how I behaved during this period.
We are a technology company, and well-suited for everyone to work from home. However – we had hired a few employees during Q1, and I was worried about their proper onboarding if everyone was working from home. I was also concerned about the boundary between my personal and professional lives. As a single dad, with kids at home, I was selfishly thinking about my ability to operate the company working from home. My resistance consumed the second half of March to the new norm – that everyone would be working from home for the next few days. I was trying to deny, resist, bargain, and use every trick in the book of a CEO. Despite these denials, the more I saw the news, the more I was convinced that this was unavoidable and that it was only a matter of time before we shut down the corporate office. I reluctantly prepared for this moment, but still hoped that it would never come. By the end of March, we were down to 25% of our staff working in the office. The rest were working from home, and I was able to understand why. We began making preparations to close down the office by the end of the month. I felt like we were ready, as we shared and explained the WFH policies, bought the needed infrastructure and provided training to the teams during the months of February and March. The “lunch and learn” training we had conducted in February served as a core foundation for all the staff members when we closed down the office at the end of March and allowed everyone to work from home starting April 1st, 2020.
We implemented tactical policies to meet every day at 9 am as a whole team instead of meeting twice a week. This daily meeting allowed us to get our days started with the right priorities. We are a flat organization at N2N, with a highly matrixed organization. I was concerned that our matrixed team approach would fall apart in this new model.
One of my biggest concerns about this work-from-home period was the potential loss of integration between the new employees and the staff that joined before them. I decided to bridge this gap by announcing a fun internal hackathon called N2N Exemplar to build applications using the Illuminate, Dell Boomi, and Ellucian Ethos platforms. The teams and projects selected by executive management and each side had two resources. The resources were asked to design, develop, present, and document their project to the whole staff. I frankly did not know what to expect when we kicked off the project, but I had hopes that this project would allow team members to collaborate and build products. Most importantly – this would create a sense of interconnectedness in this new normal. I also found a way to address my skepticism and lack of confidence in this new modality by creating a common platform to evaluate all my employees.
At N2N, we pride ourselves on building applications and software to transform education delivery, and the overall student experience. The last two months have revealed to me that I have a lot to learn about how my kids use their devices. I can only transform the student experience of the world if I learn how they operate. The quarantine period allowed me to see this firsthand.
The last two months have been very revealing to me on my own personal front as well. Working from home, with kids at home, was challenging during the first week, but we eventually made a schedule and set our boundaries for work and play. My son, daughter, and I have had many vacations over the years and traveled throughout the United States and some parts of Europe. However, the last two months of quarantine have transformed our relationship with each other in more ways than I can articulate. I detailed some of these experiences in my recent posts on LinkedIn.
On a professional front, I have been super impressed with my team on many fronts. They willingly complied with the policies and procedures and recommended additional strategies as well. Most importantly, some of them rose to the challenges of this new environment in ways I did not expect before. The Exemplar challenge revealed their professionalism and their collaborative spirits as well. I feel strongly that the last two months have made us stronger as a team and allowed me to have a deeper understanding of team dynamics and leadership strengths of individuals.
By the end of the month of April, we were more connected than ever, had built stronger inter-team relationships, and had broken down the boundaries between new employees and the rest of the staff. The staff also provided me with the needed confidence that we can work together no matter where we work from, and we can rise to any challenge, no matter how onerous this task is.
I remember a discussion I had with my college friend, Ravi Pydi, who advised me of their company policy; He suggested that “Working from home should not just be a privilege, but it should be a right for any employee that works in a software company.” I did not accept this policy when he told me this, but the last two months of forced lockdown and the mandatory work-from-home system allowed me to see the beauty of this statement and the power of the new normal. If I trust my employees, and if I believe my ability to monitor their performance, it should not matter where they work from and when.
Thanks to this crisis, I will be embarking on creating a Work From Home policy based on trust and respect, instead of relying on the old system of skepticism and privilege.