Much of last year was spent reacting to a changing workplace. This year, we’ve recognized that flexible work is here to stay. As a result, we’ve shifted focus to optimizing company culture, productivity, and employee engagement in a model where teams operate from home and office locations distributed across several time zones. This flexible approach is often called the hybrid work model.
To support their hybrid work environment the team at productivity insights leader ActivTrak has adopted a “remote-first” philosophy, whereby all employees commit to work habits that enable productivity and collaboration from anywhere. We spoke to ActivTrak CEO Rita Selvaggi about strengthening team connectivity and keeping employees engaged in this new model. Not only has she experienced this shift first-hand as a software company leader with a distributed workforce, but ActivTrak’s experience with its thousands of customers offers a unique macro, data-driven perspective into larger work trends. Read below for her insights.
When businesses had to quickly go remote last year, leaders realized the importance of developing a tight connection between managers and their teams. But it can’t stop there. As teams schedule remote events and digital touch points to stay connected, it’s easy to forget about the importance of connectivity across and between departments and functions. These relationships beyond one’s core team often form organically as part of the office setting, but they have to be built intentionally and thoughtfully in a remote-first world.
Once you’ve identified the challenge of supporting business and human connectedness across a remote workforce, the solution lies in thoughtful investment in both software and people alike. ActivTrak’s operations team implemented a virtual hub, which serves as a centralized resource for access to all data across the organization. The team harnesses its own productivity insights software (this practice is often referred to as “dogfooding”), to understand the level of interconnection across teams and give employees more control over their day.
They also introduced a “Productivity Lab,” led by an organizational design expert, to understand new ways of managing and supporting a hybrid workforce and defining metrics to track how these new “experiments” and models perform over time.
Thoughtfully defined focus time is a key component in this new model. The great thing about tools like Zoom and Slack is that they enable instant connectivity across the world, at virtually any time of day. The bad thing is that they can mean an employee’s day gets consumed with meetings and check-ins, leaving little to no time for focused work during normal working hours.
To manage this problem, ActivTrak has implemented an internal program to support and prioritize focus time for employees, which is defined as the minimum of 20 minutes that employees need for “deep work” when tackling a problem or a creative deliverable. The team doubled down on this by implementing “Focus Fridays”—where no recurring meetings are allowed, and a Slack channel status indicator for Focus is used for those trying to get deep work done. Everyone across the company is asked to be especially respectful of their teammates who may be working on a project that requires focus time. The goal is to support teams in reclaiming time during the workday, so they don’t need to work on a night or weekend to get deep work done. It’s also designed to provide a respite from the digital exhaustion produced by endless Zooms and constant interruptions in these digital days.
A sudden shift to working remotely has meant less than ideal office setups (the Room Rater Twitter account has certainly showcased the wide spectrum of home offices). In this case, a stipend enabling ActivTrak employees to outfit their remote workspace to meet their productivity needs has gone a long way toward filling the gap.
Keeping existing teams humming in this hybrid work world is one challenge, but bringing new employees into it is an altogether different one. ActivTrak promoted an existing employee to a role where she is responsible for the new employee onboarding experience, including establishing and brokering connections across the organization for colleagues and introducing new hires to the company culture from day one. The individual had previously been the office manager and has the perfect personality for the role, in addition great relationships across the organization. If you opt to ultimately fill this role with a new hire, they can provide first-person insights into how successful the onboarding experience is and what needs to be fine-tuned.
We all took for granted the organic moments that help a new employee get to know their team, as they were built into the day-to-day experience of working in an office: getting lunch together, swinging by each other’s desks, connecting in the kitchen, and so on. These interactions need to be designed more intentionally in an online world. ActivTrak sponsors virtual happy hours and online exercise classes to simulate these gatherings. The app Donut has enabled them to connect employees for quick meet and greets to help build this shared sense of community.
Rita herself hosts a monthly, informal virtual lunch meeting (or breakfast, depending on the time zone difference) with new hires, providing them a gift card in advance. ActivTrak has grown rapidly in the last 12 months and as a result, Rita has yet to meet a large number of new hires in person. It hasn’t necessarily hurt the dynamic, though. “We’ve gotten to know each other’s homes, pets, children, spouses over video in a way that none of us ever anticipated,” she says.
The challenges of COVID thrust remote work into most tech companies’ daily realities. While adapting culture and processes for this new paradigm takes dedicated and deliberate effort, the benefits are significant. For one, there is an acceptance of each other’s personal lives outside of work. Zooms interrupted by kids and pets are now a fixture of the work day, and no one is judged for it.
Better yet, access to talent across zip codes and time zones means that teams can find the best talent to fit their needs, often without the inflated costs of living associated with the traditional top tech hubs. This enables bootstrapped startups to grow and hire efficiently, and employees to have high quality of life in less expensive markets while still doing work they love.
It is possible to build a great culture where productivity can thrive while accessing the efficiencies and new possibilities that remote and hybrid work bring—leaders just have to be intentional about where to focus their efforts.