The past year has proven to be a challenging time for all of us with our working lives having changed considerably since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. Whilst working from home (WFH) was already a common experience for many – and some businesses worked on a distributed model from day one – many had never had to work from home before 2020.
But WFH is now the norm – it’s becoming a common occurrence to onboard new joiners remotely; some people haven’t even physically met their co-workers despite working together for many months, even if they live in the same town or city.
Talking to CEOs in IQ Capital’s portfolio of 35+ deeptech companies, it seems that the challenges are now even tougher in this new phase of lockdown, coupled with the tantalising prospect of a ‘so-near-yet-so-far’ vaccine – which can both raise our spirits whilst also underlining the massive uncertainty of the next six months or so.
But it is also clear that our deeptech CEOs have been quick to build on their experiences of 2020 and are doing a number of things differently this time, to great effect. So we asked them to share their tips that could help founders and CEOs facing similar challenges.
The practical aspects of WFH
It’s normal for internal processes in emerging and early growth tech start-ups to be constantly evolving. However, we’ve always noticed a particularly high degree of adaptability in our deeptech teams, and the current situation is no exception. Most CEOs have revisited what flexible working means, operating hours have been redefined and cultures have shifted to balance individual needs while maintaining productivity.
Teams are re-emphasising their founding purpose, vision and values. Our CEOs agree that employees need to fully understand the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their roles, in order to feel energised, engaged and integral to the journeys of their companies. As Katy Wigdhal, CEO of Speechmatics, said: “A clear vision – combining strong leadership and positivity – is more important than ever, especially with the remote working aspect of this pandemic.”
For Irene Ng, CEO of Dataswift, WFH has always been the norm: she has operated a fully remote team since day one: “As long as the team produced good work, found good internet connections and delivered results, we helped them make their surroundings work for them. Some moved to Cyprus, Tenerife, Tangier. It doesn’t matter which country they are in, what is important is they are happy and productive. These two go hand in hand.”
In contrast, other founders face operational challenges: balancing the need for safe, on-site collaborative working while maintaining connection for those working remotely. Simon Thomas, CEO at Paragraf, is one:“Our major drive has been to try and have as many people on site as we can safely manage, not just to keep the business moving as efficiently as possible, but also to keep personal interaction for all staff to a maximum given government restrictions. We have been rotating on-site attendance to make sure there is direct contact and ensure everyone feels like they are remaining as involved with the company as possible.”
At Wluper, they have now added a few more workflow tools and solutions that will allow them to keep all their processes running remotely, since they want to be less affected by such situations in the future.
Focus on mental health
Many of our companies mentioned that they have updated their employees’ private health insurance, as an additional way of demonstrating that they are supporting their teams and their families in all aspects of their lives. The psychological assurance available through such benefits is reflected in team productivity and success. Most companies have also invested in mental health by providing other forms of support (e.g. free subscriptions to mindfulness apps, online community support, therapies, weekly yoga sessions). Many teams have full access to professional mental health resources (e.g. Spill & Mental Health First Aiders) who are on hand to support all employees. Several companies have Slack channels dedicated to wellbeing. Everyone is likely to be impacted by the crisis emotionally or physically, and it is important to be aware of external help programmes, management support, and measures and activities to sustain positivity through the crisis.
At Audio Analytic, CEO Chris Mitchell made cross-company one-on-one meetings more frequent: “Checking in at least once a month with all staff builds rapport and makes it easier for staff to share worries about their well-being. Also, Hackathons and their newer, more self-organising, alternative Anarchy Days, are helping to build connections in the company – good for technical discovery but just as good for building support networks across teams.”
Concirrus shifted their culture to adjust to new WFH processes. A number of initiatives focus on the teams’ well-being: they have started a #well-being Slack channel where everybody can share resources, positive news and how they cope while WFH, and they have also hosted a FedTalk with a mental health coach on handling pressure, stress and building resilience.
Darko Matovski, CEO at CausaLens, adds: “We actively encourage and remind the team to ensure they include sports and other wellness activities in their daily routines. For example, I book 30 min every day for sports in the middle of the day.”
How communication strategies have evolved
The most common element during the pandemic has been reassurance. Many CEOs and management teams schedule regular one-to-one meetings with all staff – these conversations are to encourage dialogue, to listen and understand how they’re doing, and signpost support.
Some people are starting to feel more isolated than ever – a high volume of remote meetings seems to exacerbate this. The act of taking part in meetings reminds them that they are physically distant from the company and their colleagues, and leaves them feeling even more detached. To counterbalance this, some companies now have a more focused approach to online meetings, making sure they are giving clear and realistic guidance about the number of video calls people have when WFH, respecting employees’ needs for time away from screens, breaks, and personal non-work time.
At Synthesized, CEO Nicolai Baldin now organises one-on-one meetings more often than pre-pandemic, and has introduced an ‘open-calendar’ policy, where anyone can join any meetings outside of their focus area for educational purposes. Another initiative that Synthesized’s team appreciated was the ‘Buddy programme’, where every new employee has a buddy who has dedicated work time to help them settle in during the first months in their new position.
It is also important to remind different teams within the business of what they are all working towards. Vibhor Gupta, CEO of Pangaea Data, shares this vision: “We reminded the team of the vision we are pursuing – this was very helpful in increasing their confidence and giving the team a sense of security about the company.”
Practical tips from our deeptech CEOs
Plan focused meetings
Many of us are now familiar with ‘Zoom fatigue’; the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual communication platforms. To avoid this and a feeling of meeting overload, several of our companies now encourage use of different channels and methods that work better for the team, so they feel less overwhelmed. These emphasise asynchronous ways of working (lots of Slack channels, etc.) combined with focused meetings that keep them connected but not lost in Zoom. Speak to people directly, do not rely on surveys this time.
Focus on tasks and deliverables
For some teams WFH has become routine, as opposed to a temporary measure. This change of mentality had a significant impact on the way teams communicate and has allowed these teams to better focus on tasks and deliverables. As a result, these teams are communicating a lot more at both personal and professional levels in a positive way (albeit mostly on Zoom).
Leave nothing to assumption
Regular and efficient communication is most important with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders. Do not create more questions than answers, and set clear expectations for everyone. Always seek clarification if there is any room for doubt. A simple instant message or a quick phone call goes a long way compared to relying only on emails and official chats.
It is important to remain positive when communicating across the company, particularly about the future situation. The impact of monthly full company meetings can be highly effective at raising morale and spirits if it is delivered well. For instance, Paragraf has also increased staff involvement in these meetings to increase engagement, in particular with people who are WFH presenting to on-site team members.
Don’t focus on working hours
With teams working across different time zones, CEOs have been more concerned about over-working rather than under-working. The team member’s home life is now part of their work life and it cannot be ignored over such a long period. Some tech teams prefer to work at night, and that has been accommodated in the new flexible operating hours of some companies. Families with small children also need more flexibility, especially with home-schooling. WFH doesn’t mean that all employees are available at any time during the day or night, and that has been reflected in the new practices.
Develop a sense of community
Even with everyone WFH, it’s important to preserve some sense of normality, including in social relations within teams. The Holiday Season had a different feel this December, but CEOs are still trying to boost morale and develop a strong sense of community around important events (with Zoom dinners including food deliveries, coffee roulettes, and more), combined with team building exercises. This has created a space to have fun and relax while being indoors. Some others have dropped very frequent, unstructured socials in favour of monthly, themed evenings which are better attended and keeps the team in touch.
Leverage your team and their talents
People within companies may have talents or resources that could allow them to host a class or create fun activities for the team. Some activities may not appeal to a wide audience, however for those that do attend this could be providing a vital opportunity to connect with others.
Encourage everyone to take their holidays
Some companies now encourage people from mid-year onward to take leave to avoid losing lots of holiday at the end of the year – and have been thanked for doing so. It is about building new habits that people will get better at going forward.
Improve WFH environment
Companies are showing that they care about their employees’ well-being and are setting them up for success. Keep checking in on any resources required and that homeworking spaces are set up correctly (i.e. DSE assessments, which can be done virtually). For example, one company gave everyone a meaningful budget to improve their home offices (SAD lighting, standing desks, better monitors and chairs).
Record important meetings
Recording meetings (especially all-hands meetings) means that no-one ever misses out on important updates.
Continue to balance clarity and transparency
This comes down to focus, and guiding teams laser-like on how to succeed – and being there to support them in doing so. This means zero-basing meetings, refining objectives further and upping the mental support the company provides.
And lastly, say ‘Thank you’!
Recognise good work across the board and make it a daily practice. Appreciation always goes a long way.
A number of our CEOs also highlighted this article which provides some more great guidelines on managing teams during the Covid-19 crisis. And the Concirrus team have similarly shared their tips on finding the right balance when WFH, and how to adapt company’s culture.
The Covid-19 crisis has forced all of us to reflect on and improve our working practices, to accelerate some business processes, and to flatten structures in order to increase information flow and general efficiency. But it has also forced us to be more adaptable, transparent, and human. Now more than ever is the time to make people and strong connections a top priority.
At IQ Capital, strong connections with the founders we partner with are of paramount importance. If you’d like to talk to us or to one of these CEOs, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org