Our year working from home

Written by, Tina Phillips (she/her)

A year ago today, we sent all INSHUR team members a text that read something like this: “Everyone who can work from home must do so now. Check Slack for more guidance. Stay safe.”

This text did not come out of the blue. For a few weeks we had been sending out regular comms about how we are addressing the unfolding pandemic. State of emergency was already declared in New York and we had told commuters not to travel to the office (our UK office is based in Brighton and we are privileged that a number of people can get to the office on foot but of course, this wasn’t possible for our US team who already started to work from home more and more as the situation unfolded).

We told people in risk groups or living with those at risk to WFH and made sure everyone had equipment (such as monitors and other desk equipment) at home. The instruction to those who were still attending the office in early March 2020 was to take laptops home nightly – we knew what was coming, we just weren’t sure when.

A week before the UK government’s official lockdown announcement and a few days before New York State ordered all non-essential businesses to close, we decided we could no longer safely wait for the official word.

On Monday, March 16th 2020, we sent the aforementioned text to all. We followed up with a Slack message and we published further guidelines on our internal Wiki.

We were ready. The work continued without any disruption, although many of us had to make big adjustments at home. For the most part, our homes weren’t ready to accommodate what was to become permanent home working and, of course, that same week (and a week after in the UK) the schools also closed. It was chaotic for those of us with kids, and it fast became very lonely for those living alone. Everyone had their own issues to contend with and to address.

The tech served us well. Like most tech companies, we had all the tools we needed and we were well versed using them. We weren’t new to Zoom due to a third of our team being based across the pond, and we were heavy users of Slack, Trello, Asana, Confluence and other tools that power our workstreams and communications. We also stopped up our Always Learning sessions – previously bi-weekly, these have been happening weekly since pandemic started and now represent a vital part of how we come together on a variety of topics.

We made sure we sent everyone who wasn’t fully set up the equipment they needed (this was mainly monitors) and we arranged for office chairs to be delivered to those that required them. Later, we set up a one-off allowance for any additional purchases and later still, we introduced a monthly flexible wellbeing allowance that can be used as a WFH budget or, alternatively, as a wellbeing supplement. We really stepped up our mental health initiatives, sharing tips, resources and arranging talks as well as trying meditation and fitness sessions online – all in an attempt to ensure everyone remains well looked after and healthy.

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Like many, we organised quizzes and online socials, and we utilised a tool called ‘Donut’ that helped us stay in touch with our colleagues ‘watercooler style’ by picking three people at random to have a weekly remote coffee with. We reminded everyone of our flexible working policy to support our team so they didn’t burn the candle at both ends, as with permanent home working comes a real danger of work and rest blurring into one. We encouraged everyone to keep taking breaks, and keep taking time off – even if travel was impossible. This was hard at first as people resisted, thinking they should save their allowance for ‘when this blows over’. Later, it became clear that travel will remain difficult and these days people have adjusted their approach to holidaying by taking regular days off, rather than taking time in big chunks as they were used to.

Our previously bi-weekly All Hands meetings became weekly and, for a while, the leadership team met daily at the end of each day too. We knew that staying in touch and keeping all communication channels open would be vital. Dan, our CEO, started sending out a weekly company address titled ‘Looking back for learning’ on Fridays, which he continues to do today, containing a mixture of personal thoughts on a number of matters and business updates. He also hosts monthly AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions and the two founders have recently taken to doing Office Hours weekly as well, where anyone in the company can book in time to talk with them.

We worked hard to stay connected and while at times this meant Zoom fatigue, I think we succeeded.

We permanently closed our New York office back in May 2020, opting instead to use co-working spaces in the city for in-person meetings when it is safe to do so. We still have our Brighton office in the UK, largely due to the lease conditions we are tied to but also with the hope we can return to a hybrid remote approach as government restrictions ease. When we surveyed our team about coming back to office about 8 months ago, the majority agreed that coming in about twice a week would be more than enough to reconnect with team mates in person and work on projects that could benefit from real-life collaboration. Saying that, a small proportion of our team really missed the office, so we did reopen at reduced capacity for those who were keen to come in from September to October and then again in December 2020. We will survey the team again this month to see if the sentiment has changed and remain flexible in terms of what we offer and ask of our people.

So, exactly a year on, one thing is for sure: while in-person connections matter immensely, there’s nothing we can’t do remotely.

The initial fears that our team’s output or productivity will suffer has not materialised and even the biggest remote work sceptics have seen how adaptable we are. During pandemic, we launched in a new territory and released a new product, hired 36 people and kept our team engaged and, by the looks of things, largely happy – our February 2021 employer net promoter score of 63 is a true testament to this.

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