How 165 Startups Are Adapting To Work-From-Home
How long will the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis last? What will ‘business as usual’ look like when the pandemic is over? Nobody knows - so we surveyed 165 startup CEOs to find out - and the results were surprising.
If company culture is defined as “the way we work around here” then the one thing we do know for certain, is that the culture of every previous office-based business has changed irrevocably.
If leaders don’t adapt to this reality and start to develop a new culture for their company that fits remote working, it will have a direct impact on their team’s morale, engagement, productivity, motivation, commitment, and their ability to retain their people over the long haul. Ultimately the success of their business. Our survey shows this ‘race to remote-work excellence’, driven by strong company cultures, has already started.
At the end of March CultureGene surveyed 165 predominantly venture backed startup CEOs to find out how they were adapting the way they work to the new work-from-home (WFH) paradigm. This survey request was made within the first two weeks of the UK government encouraging social distancing and shutting down the entertainment and hospitality industries.
Who are our survey respondents? The average founder or CEO who responded leads a startup that has raised £2.2m in fundraising and has a team size of 10 - 24 people. Our earliest stage respondent had a team of 5 - 9 people and was ‘bootstrapping’, and our latest stage respondent had raised over £30m, and had a team of 100 - 249 people to look after.
In short, our survey respondents are a fairly representative spread of the UK startup and scale-up ecosystem, perhaps marginally weighted towards large seed stage companies.
We will conduct a second survey in four to six weeks time to understand how leaders continue to adapt, and how the initial challenges have evolved.
The results we got were interesting, to say the least. If you’re wondering how your team can adapt to work WFH, and looking for inspiration - read on.
A whopping 76% of respondents believe that the change to working from home will benefit their company’s productivity in the long run. And people seem very confident about this already - two out of three of those positive respondents scored this question an 8, 9 or 10 out of 10. We’ll dive deeper into what these ‘productivity optimists’ are doing differently that might drive their optimism later in the post.
Bernhard Niesner, CEO of language learning company busuu describes why the first few weeks of WFH have made him optimistic about the long term benefits, “At first, I was a bit afraid but after the first week I am convinced that this forced remote set-up will help us to become an even better organisation. There will be challenges, but we have the right processes and a strong team culture in place to adapt and become even more productive in this set-up.”
The busuu team on an All Hands call. We think the Cowboy is the winner.
Although the general sentiment about productivity was positive, there were some who voiced concerns that some business units work better, or worse, remotely than others (*cough* sales department). Jo Eckersley, founder and CEO of Bubbl the location-based mobile marketing platform explained, “Our developers’ productivity has gone up but the commercial team has been finding it harder. Sharing our daily targets and achievements is helping. One to one reassurance with myself as founder CEO and other individuals on the team is becoming really important to keep gauging everyone’s well-being.”
Others are pulling together documentation and processes to ensure expectations around company values and culture are upheld remotely as well as in the office. Mike Papageorge, CEO of ISFWatchkeeper the ship management software company, highlighted the potential impact on employee productivity over time, “We are building a remote work guideline document to provide staff with a reminder of the basics of our culture and our values as the core foundations of what we expect from one another. It’s a means of reminding our team of our DNA, the behaviors we expect to see and feeding back on problems and solutions.”
A lot of the communication in an office environment happens outside of meetings in an ad hoc manner. Information is disseminated through watercooler type conversations and random interactions between people. This is a luxury that is no longer available to leaders in the current WFH scenario. Sean Peters, CEO of DryGro the company developing Lemna as an alternative to Soy explains, “Over-communication is key. When people are not physically present, all the little social cues and quick side conversations that help make a company function can't happen as easily as they would when everyone is around a table together. Making sure your team is speaking to each other frequently is critical to leading a remote company effectively.” Of the respondents:
According to Charles O’Neil, CEO of Coinmode, a payment platform for the computer games industry, “We have found that daily stand ups are vital - not just to update on the status of work but also to ensure the team has an ongoing sense of mission and that everyone is OK.” This sense of mission that O’Neil mentions is one of the building blocks of a well-defined culture and is a reassuring constant for the team in a highly volatile and uncertain world.
WFH Office set up
Enabling everyone on the team to work from home effectively is key. 68% of respondents have provided their team with work from home equipment like monitors, keyboards, mobile phone package upgrades, and where possible, faster internet connections. One such founder who responded, Marin Bek, cofounder and CEO of Ascalia a company that simplifies control and management of IoT systems, explained why. “Based on our experience I can say providing people with their office equipment is a must. If possible, help employees get good internet access. Your company must have the right infrastructure and your team must have the right equipment to work effectively.”
Some companies are going the extra mile for their teams, 21% of the respondents say that they make people feel recognised and connected by arranging for perks or treats to be delivered to their employees; ranging from flowers, pizzas, a bottle of wine or a hand-written thank you card. This personal touch makes people feel connected and part of the team even though the team is not sitting there with them as usual.
Culture Building Initiatives
Lots of entrepreneurial creativity shone through when the leaders talked about what their companies are doing to help employees overcome some of the challenges experienced in a WFH environment. Scott Phillips, CEO of RiseArt, the curated online gallery for professional contemporary artists said, “Each member of our team is currently facing challenges. Working at home with their kids, or making sure their parents are ok, or finding space to work in a cramped flat share. Introducing ways to add fun, and levity to the workday has been well received. We strive to do daily simple social activities, from instituting an "MTV Cribs" adaption where the team shows off their working environment, to "coffee talk" where people share their favourite mugs. These simple things have helped to reduce the distance between us and helped to keep the team together.”
72% of respondents mentioned trust as an essential component to transitioning successfully to a WFH culture. Micromanagement is hard to do in a WFH scenario, it doesn’t take the complexities of working from home into account and is an incredibly effective team demoralizer. When trust is present, the need to micromanage falls away, which both frees up a manager’s time and attention while simultaneously treating their direct reports as empowered individuals. According to Adrian Shedden founder of Lumio, the next generation personal finance app, “Some people love WFH, but others struggle, so we're using this opportunity to bring out the human, helpful side in everyone and trust each other to do the best we can. We communicate as much as possible and trust people to do what's best for them to then support their team.”
Do the productivity optimists have a winning edge?
Intriguingly the CEO's who think their team are going to be more productive in the long run (see point 1) aren't just thinking differently - they're acting differently in the way they engage their teams, with certain activities correlating strongly with team leaders being positive on productivity. Assuming that our 'optimist' CEO's are basing their optimism on their experience of working from home thus far, it's possible these activities could (stress on could) be one's to think about adopting.
Potential culture initiatives linked to being positive about team productivity:
- Companies that had instituted Paired Working were 30% more likely to view work from home positively in the long run
- Respondents who had delivered treats and perks to their team at home were a massive 60% more likely to be long on team productivity
- A meeting to institute:
- Respondents who did daily standups (meetings under 15 minutes) were 20% more likely to be positive about productivity
- A meeting to avoid:
- People who hate long meetings might be right - respondents doing longer whole team daily meetings (more than 15 minutes) were a whopping 40% more likely to be negative about work from home productivity
The Culture Imperative
We don’t have experience navigating global pandemics, but we have known for some time that company culture is key to a company’s success.
How will different individuals adapt and deal with the stress? How will people’s personal lives be impacted? How do we do layoffs effectively and respectfully? How do we deal with the psychological effects if this goes on for three or six months, or more? How do we keep employees engaged? How do we keep morale high? How do we keep productivity high? How do we hold onto our best people?
As Lorenzo Brewer, founder of Nkoda, the subscription digital sheet music library put it, “The reality is that remote or distributed work will be a reflection of the quality of your company culture.”
Culture is the glue that helps the team achieve peak performance and keeps the team together during tough times. If you have not yet done so, now is the time to start to define and embed your culture, to strengthen the glue between your people.