First published: 1:55 p.m., March 17, 2020; updated: 5 p.m., March 18, 2020
Across Waterloo Region, tech companies large and small are wrestling with a new reality as the world’s COVID-19 virus response drives employees from offices, shuts down services and imposes a hastily re-written definition of life-as-usual.
But amid the anxiety and uncertainty, companies are carrying on and, in some cases, thriving. Morale appears high and a collective sense of we’re-all-in-this-together has taken hold. Nimble creativity, dogged optimism and aggressive work-arounds have all been the order of the day.
“In a strange way, this world event has helped solidify our cohesion as a team,” says Kathryn Hodge, Head of People at Waterloo cybersecurity firm eSentire. “We have a long history of facing challenges head-on, together and this situation is no exception.”
‘IN A STRANGE WAY, THIS WORLD EVENT HAS HELPED SOLIDIFY OUR COHESION AS A TEAM.’
Most, if not all, tech companies in Waterloo Region instituted some form of work-from-home policy starting on Monday morning of this week. Many are still establishing procedures to stay in touch with customers and employees. Some, particularly companies that make hardware, such as the smart-glasses maker, North, have instituted a blend of work-from-home and work-on-site.
“The default is for employees to work from home,” says Kelly Daly, Vice-President of People at North. “Our office remains open for those who may need access to lab space and hardware, and we’ve implemented increased sanitization of utilized areas.
“If employees need to take something home [such as] hardware or equipment, they are to connect with their leader first to ensure it can be done safely and confidentiality requirements can be met.
“For the few employees who will need to come into the office from time to time, we are providing boxed lunches [and] have moved away from self-serve buffet style catering.”
As you would expect, there have been challenges, and for most, a process of feel-as-you-go as the definition of “normal” shifts with unprecedented speed.
‘CUSTOMERS ARE STILL RESPONSIVE TO US.’
“I think for us the biggest challenge is probably similar to what you’re hearing from others – the information is changing so quickly,” says Lauren Lake, COO and co-founder at Bridgit, whose 50 employees all began working from home on Monday. “Just ensuring that we’re able to react and make sure that we’re flexible and making decisions that take all these moving parts into account.
“The other piece is just the uncertainty.”
Lake says that, so far, response from customers has been good and she’s “pleasantly surprised” at the level of engagement with customers. Bridgit makes software that helps construction companies manage projects.
“Construction projects are still going on. Customers are still responsive to us,” she says. “They’re still engaged. If anything, now is the time that they need those digital tools more than ever, because people are forced to do more work remotely.”
Kitchener’s Vidyard has seen a flurry of new inquiries from potential customers. Vidyard makes and markets video solutions to help companies engage with employees and customers.
“Since last week, we’ve seen approximately a 50-per-cent increase – daily average – in global inbound inquiries,” says Vidyard CEO Michael Litt via email. “This week, live stream inquiries are up 30 to 40 times [what they would normally be].
“I think teams are turning to Vidyard to support their marketing, sales and internal communications efforts because video is the next best thing to being there in person.”
To that end, Vidyard is, as of Wednesday, making a new video product temporarily available for free that will help businesses adapt to their newly remote workforce. The product will make it easier for leaders to share updates with their company and for teams to collaborate.
‘DON’T LET REMOTE WORK MAKE YOU FEEL REMOTE!’
Litt acknowledges that the challenges of working remotely are ones that all companies are grappling with.
“[Remote work] doesn’t just make work more impersonal and isolating, it limits our ability to communicate clearly, build personal rapport, and share a sense of community with co-workers.
“So much of what we communicate comes through in our body language, our facial expressions and the tone of our delivery. It’s easy to forget that when working remotely, and to revert to text-based emails and chats as our only form of direct communication.” His advice to other companies and employees:
“Don’t let remote work make you feel remote!”
At Waterloo scaleup Shinydocs, which employs AI and machine learning to help enterprise customers manage their documents, they’re taking that advice to heart. Last Friday staff shared photos of their work-from-home setups. And the company has set up a channel on Discord, which is able to simulate the immediacy of an office environment. The company has 32 employees.
“You can call out someone’s name and it’ll feel just like walking to their desk,” says Joanna Woo, Shinydocs’ Director of People and Culture. “This keeps things a lot more personal. We have virtual meeting rooms set up in Discord as well.”
The team holds a daily standup in Zoom “and we all turn on video,” she says. “We start off our day getting to see everyone’s faces which has been nice.” Daily company-wide pushups follow the standup and a plank session is held at 1:30 p.m.
“We keep each other accountable as we count total number of pushups per month as a group and we individually log numbers every day.”
The company held a video conference call Tuesday for a remote St. Patrick’s Day celebration and it has moved its usual Wednesday board-game session online.
“Overall, the actual working part hasn’t been hard, as people are used to being productive while working from home,” says Woo. “We’ve been more concerned around the isolation and mental health aspect and how to keep everyone connected, so think we’ve been able to cope with that quite well.”
Vidyard and Waterloo’s SkyWatch, like Shopify, have provided employees with a $1,000 stipend to help offset the costs of setting up and maintaining work-from-home capability.
SkyWatch CEO James Slifierz says his team has implemented a daily video conferencing “social hour” in order to maintain connections and keep spirits high. The company, which brokers access to satellites and data for the remote monitoring of assets, has also transitioned its monthly “lunch and learn” sessions to an online format.
“SkyWatch has always been flexible around remote working, which really helped us with the transition to full remote working for all employees for the time being,” says Slifierz.
“We are also lucky enough to be one of the few businesses that offer a product that retains value in these difficult times so we want to do our part and help the community around us.”
Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride says that “98 per cent” of his company has transitioned to work-from-home, with its manufacturing division being the exception. Miovision specializes in IoT infrastructure and helping cities generate efficiencies by connecting roads and intersections and turning them into “smart intersections.”
‘COMMUNICATE CONFIDENCE AND EMPATHY. AND OVER-COMMUNICATE.’
“We are expecting fairly major impacts as municipalities shift their focus to health and safety away from traffic operations,” McBride says.
To help maintain morale, the company has implemented “happy hour beers over Zoom.
“The team has done an amazing job of pulling together,” McBride says.
His best hack/tip for others?
“Communicate confidence and empathy. And over-communicate.”
And McBride makes an optimistic observation – that technology is being leveraged to help defeat the virus.
“[Viruses and sickness have] been a part of the human condition since the start of the human condition,” he says. “This is the first time, however, that information has been able to spread faster than the virus.
“It gives us a leg up against the little bastards.”
Other responses from around the region:
- The Accelerator Centre in Waterloo has implemented mandatory work-from-home. All events have been cancelled or moved online and clients and tenants have been advised to work from home, although they can still enter with access cards. Communal dishes have been locked away and coffee services have been suspended. Public access has been withdrawn.
- Matt Gardner, founder of Kitchener’s RouteThis (which helps ISPs and smart home companies improve support for the connected home) began work-from-home on Monday and he says it’s “been an interesting transition for a team that didn’t typically have [work-from-home] options prior to this week.” Transition they have, however, with help from a Medium post by Graeme Harvey, a Waterloo-based engineering manager and friend of Gardner’s, titled: Advice from a work-from-home manager.
- Scott King, a front-end developer who works remotely from Waterloo Region for Cupertino, Calif.-based SugarCRM, says he finds a pre-work routine helps set him for a day’s success, including getting changed out of pyjamas, which is “a bigger deal than you think.” He freshens up, makes a smoothie, and sets his laptop up close to a natural light source. “I find it helps sustain energy during the day.” He says it’s important to disconnect at lunch, and to set up a dedicated work space “so you can mentally detach from work” at the end of the day.
- Kitchener-based startup Sociavore, which builds websites and e-commerce solutions for independent restaurants, has quickly responded to an urgent request for help from Gordon Food Service. Gordon’s restaurant customers are being squeezed as people stay home and self-isolate. Sociavore came up with a gift-card and on-line ordering solution for independent restaurants, which will help them to generate revenue now and tide them over until people can once again dine in.
Editor’s note: If you lead (or work at) a Waterloo Region tech company and have any COVID-19 stories or advice to share, feel free to contact the writer of this story, Craig Daniels, at email@example.com.
Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto. This article originally appeared on their site.