There is a lot of conversation out there about how large organizations can manage better. Also, a bunch of tools for Startups to navigate work from home. But I could find very little about tactical things that the management of a 50 people organization can do. Organizations like us are stuck in the middle – not small enough to manage ad-hoc, and not fully established in our systems and processes to work remotely.
Not trying to brag, but I feel that the team at ArabEasy has managed to navigate the work from home situation quite well! I am super proud of them and figured some of this tactical stuff will be useful for others as well, so penning it down here (in great detail)
I. People over Everything else
The lockdown threw up a lot of questions about which part of our business functions to prioritize. We have a lot of stakeholders – clients, colleagues, vendors, partners - all these people are new to the uncertain locked-down world. What could be their insecurities and challenges? How do we address the insecurities and give them confidence? What could we say to our clients that would give them confidence that we will support them during this time?
The way we thought about where to focus came quite simply … The knee jerk reaction was that we should focus on clients but the answer lay in the questions themselves. The big realization was that we shouldn’t address clients first, instead, we had to start inside-out. If the management is confident, the teams will be confident. If teams are confident, the work happens efficiently, and when that happens, clients get confident.
• Management: Every single person was concerned about business continuity, their teams, their futures, families, teams’ families, vendors, clients … the list goes on. Some of these senior people have 10-20 years’ experience and transitioning to a Startup is a risk they may have taken knowingly but nobody can factor in a pandemic. Two things were extremely important – being transparent about the firms’ financials and assuring them that the entire organization's expenses would be managed. The second and more critical task was to align everyone on our priorities – the thought exercise I described above about focusing on people first, was an outcome of this exercise.
• Teams: Everyone is on social media (the engine of anxiety!), so obviously everyone shared concerns about their future and the future of ArabEasy. HODs took it upon themselves to make sure their teams were physically and mentally in a good place. This sounds a lot easier than it was to actually do! Our colleagues at ArabEasy come not just from different parts of the country but also across countries to be in this office. Some of them needed to get back home, others had to make sure they would not run out of food and basic needs during the lockdown. Everyone helped each other out … it was brilliant! One example top of mind is when a member of the housekeeping staff didn’t have enough cash to stock up on ration and a senior member just handed him the cash without even thinking if they would be reimbursed – of course, they were but taking that decision renewed my faith in the caring culture at ArabEasy.
• Vendors: Our business depends quite strongly on our service providers. One of the top things on my list was to ensure that our vendors got paid for all their services rendered so far. Also, we are trying to accelerate payment cycles to make sure they are not strapped for cash in these tough times.
• Clients: With all other stakeholders taken care of, we finally reached out to our clients – mentioned to them the steps we had taken on mitigating COVID such as working from home, and how we had ensured business continuity. Work continued smoothly and reinforced our clients’ faith that they could reply to ArabEasy the same as before, if not more!
All said and done, being in a shared physical space every day, helps. Interactions, coordination and information exchange happens organically. The task at hand was to make sure these things continue to happen remotely. This puts quite a bit of additional burden on the management. I have personally been spending 4 hours additional every day (over and above the usual 12 hours a day 🙂 talking to individuals and teams, making sure they are coordinated and well informed.
• Tracking performance: At the core of successfully managing remotely is our philosophy of tracking performance. We have always believed in measuring outcomes, and not tracking activity. While we have biometric access for security, we have never calculated how many hours people put to their jobs. During the lockdown, several colleagues suggested that we ask teams to be on video conference from start to end of the workday to ensure discipline. While others proposed having people punch-in on Zoho or even simply on Whatsapp. Doing any of these felt like going against our core philosophy of ownership, responsibility, and trusting our colleagues to be honest. In our minds, the key was to ensure everyone was motivated and knew what they were supposed to deliver – just the way we did before!
• Motivation: Most people think it is easy to get distracted when one is at home – “Let me play friends on Netflix while I make this excel sheet”, “Maybe I can play with my daughter while this simulation runs”. We think the opposite! These are all great examples of motivators. It isn’t easy being at home for several weeks and feel sane. We have encouraged people to do whatever makes it easier for them to cope with this situation. They know what they are supposed to do, we trust them to do it and then it all comes together in the check-ins!
• Check-ins, lots of them: This has been the single greatest tax that working from home has had on our teams, particularly the management. Pretty much all senior people are spending most of the first half of their day in meetings sharing their priorities with peers. Projects team needs to be in tech team check-ins, sales HOD needs to be in Projects team check-in. Technology HOD needs to be in the AI team check-in, Sales needs a separate check-in with Ops and I need to be in all of them! But this is how everyone knows what to do, what has been done, what needs not to be done. As I said, the single biggest tax!
• Spans & Layers: While in office, it was easier for a single person to manage a large team, during work from home, it was tough to do so. The magic number we arrived at was 5! If someone was leading a team of people they were able to guide, problem-solve, and coordinate across. So we quickly made ghost teams – any team, greater than 5 people, was broken into multiple teams of 5 or less. They chose one person to represent them and a pyramid structure was created for coordination – while still maintaining our flat reporting structure with 3 layers – team-members, HODs, and me.
One silver lining is that we have structured some of the less organized processes, particularly information flow, cross-department coordination, and decision making. While this may be a tax, for now, this challenge has definitely set us up to be able to grow more easily. I am quite certain that some of these practices will become a habit and great management tools as we grow!
III. Remote Socializing
This is Critical! Just as it is in the physical office. And often gets ignored, just as it does in the physical office. We have an office party once every 4-6 weeks. So many reasons for it – when in the office we are mostly talking about work, but we are humans, not machines! Sometimes people have issues, arguments, fights, and grievances - parties grease resolution! Work is hectic, life is overloaded, we all need the break! Even these parties are not just to meet after work and grab a bite. EZ parties start at lunch so colleagues who need to go back home in the evening can still be present. We usually have some activity that engages different senses and reinforces our values –in March we planted a tree each, one time we had a sculpting and art workshop where colleagues made paintings together. Our holiday party in December was legendary. And what do we have now? Our colleagues are close friends, who like to work together. Many of them travel together, and their friends are envious of their jobs!
For an organization such as ours, lockdown means being away from friends, from people we care deeply about, people we enjoy being with. This was, and still is the biggest barrier we will need to overcome to thrive during the lockdown. I say it still is because overcoming this barrier requires constant active engagement – which isn’t an easy task to do for 50 people – requires creativity and planning. I was also unsure that a video conference for 50 people would be effective. To get the remote socializing going, I experimented on 1st April. I invited everyone to a video conference and counter to my expectation there were 50 clear crisp videos. It was such a pleasure to see everyone’s faces again! So I wished them a Happy April Fool’s day and announced our first online party for the following Friday. We planned fun trivia, and people were given a budget to bring their own drinks and snacks. The party was emotional and quite a success!
IV. Also, Information Security
Here, I would say we have been plain and simple lucky! We completed the audit process and were granted ISO 27001:2013 certification for Information Security a few weeks before the lockdown. We are in the business of dealing with confidential client data so information security has been at the core of our operations from day one. We have in-house tools to control access to confidential information, we have digitized our workflows, secured our servers, and all our endpoint devices (laptops, desktops, mobiles, etc.) are protected behind a firewall with top of the line software.
That said, I can share some things I have learned along the way
• While it is an expense, please make sure your team is not using personal laptops. If you don’t want to buy, you can rent laptops quite inexpensively. If you rent, ensure that your vendor is supplying you licensed software – they can sometimes “forget to mention” these details to you 🙂
• Setup a firewall on your internet. Even if you are at a coworking space, you can request them for a dedicated connection and set up a firewall on the router. For remote work, you will need a VPN – get it – trust me, it's worth the money. A single data leak will ruin the reputation of your business.
• Purchase your own antivirus software – go for the ones that come with the ability to lock USB ports. Setup the firewall and antivirus to block torrents and other avoidable content, as well as log activity of each device.
And finally, the most important thing – talk about information security, all the time! More systems are broken due to human loopholes than system loopholes. If your people understand the importance of information security, the system will work, otherwise, all your investment in IT is pointless.
Turns out I do ramble a lot! I thought this would be a 500-word primer but this is looking more like 2000. Regardless, hope this is a useful read and at least some of you will benefit from it. Do reach out if you wanna know more or share your ideas and experience. Anything to help us come out stronger on the other side of COVID.