Responding to new working rhythms

COVID-19 - A measured response

We turned the key to our studio doors on Wednesday 18th March. Click. Only three weeks into this crisis and we're starting to see the positive impacts of distributed teams plus some of the emerging challenges of enforced isolation. But we've settled and the new working rhythms that COVID-19 demands are playing out.

Here’s how Inlight implemented its distributed team model and some of the unusual learnings that emerged through the process.

What if we didn’t have an office?

My question to Patrick Carne (Co-Founder) over coffee. I think it’s worth looking at. I think it has merit. That was 11 months ago. Think bigger. Be braver. Be different. Pat was kind enough to massage my curiosity. So I let the concept percolate. Then, over five days in March, that gnawing itch turned into my number one priority, like so many other CEOs.

Our #in-and-out Slack channel has always been an excellent barometer for measuring the health of our work from home policy. A dedicated channel for location updates using status emojis. A constant flow of updates as people step away from their home desks to grab coffees or take a walk. But we knew that our policy was only fit-for-purpose for short periods. Perhaps a day or two.

My relationship with COVID-19 changed in the week prior to asking the Board to approve Inlight’s three phase migration plan. I watched the anxiety generated by the pandemic evolve in real time through the Slack chatter across our Random and General channels. Content began appearing from a variety of sources, some less credible than others, becoming the trigger that Inlight needed to formalise a broader plan. A more focused effort.

Our team is inherently curious. I felt that we’d lose valuable time through the decision making process if we’d encouraged collaboration. So, over the course of the next 24 hours, we established a small operational group that worked transparently on behalf of the rest of the team.

Our Challenge

Our objective was clear from the start, to maintain a mature and empathetic approach as fast followers. It was inevitable that some of the team’s personal anxieties would emerge. Fast followers choose to watch and listen for a little longer than is comfortable. But we focused on establishing and then adhering to our crisis management principals:

  • People & Families first - Always.
  • Trust - We believe in the team. It’s as much about your personal decision making as it about organisational mandates or opt-in scenarios.
  • No Knee-Jerk Reactions - There is a narrow window to operationalise. Let’s get it right the first time.
  • Guiding Principles - This is not a set of rules.
  • A single source of truth - We will use information from the Department of Health, not from Medium or alternative news channels.
  • WFH ain’t no thing - We’re just supercharging the things we already do.
  • Patient and Professional - Prepare for it to be bumpy and to work with more ambiguity than you're comfortable with.

We had to establish a rock-solid foundation for decision making. That came through a more fully resolved picture of everyone’s individual circumstances. People first. We used google forms to get clarity on how our crew were set up at home for distributed working. How could we destress those environments for each Inlighter? Could we provide a better chair? In some cases, perhaps an entire desk? Then Inlight purchased everything they needed and hand delivered those items to that individual’s house.

Publishing our process was hugely important. It proved to be a grounding mechanism that provided transparency and clarity. Our pursuit of a controlled evolution needed that visual to help anchor each of the stages. Inlight operates with maximum flexibility and agility, and so this more formal articulation helped us to convey how seriously we took our phased approach, slowly the team down and asserting specific language.

We've since learned of course that over longer periods people’s relationship with their home workspace changes. An art deco chair doesn’t suit five hours of desk time. A home desk isn't as good for the wrists because the laptop's probably too high (a personal gripe). So we had to be willing to respond in-flight too. And we did. More desks. More chairs. More screens. More cables.

Developing a Phased Approach

Phase 1 - About personal decision making and preparation (Optional WFH).

In the escalating crisis we had to create a sense of engagement and control. Running too fast would’ve heightened the general anxiety level and over complicated a pretty simple process. At this point and without government mandate, we knew that a trusted team could be encouraged to make decisions on its own as to an appropriate individual response. Inlight would support wherever we were asked to.

Phase 2 - About proactive decision making and social distancing (Enforced).

With board approval we would move to lockdown, and prepare the office for distributed working. Access to a skeleton crew still based in the office would allow for a better transition for the remaining team, getting our final deliveries of hardware and furniture into the field. Project teams would already be collaborating remotely and video conferencing into our clients with updates from our client services team throughout our partner channels. Time to clean the fridge and distribute the milk.

Phase 3 - Will be in response to Government’s decisions made on our behalf (Mandated).

All bets are off, and we’re going to do as we’re told. In hindsight it was a phase that was largely redundant because government announcements bled through over time and we’d already hit our internal response triggers. But another important statement about our intent to respond more formally than we otherwise would.

'Social distancing' was still a relatively loose term even two weeks ago. We felt like it needed clarifying, and specifically how we expected tighter restriction to impact the working day. With the crisis escalating many of these measures changed 48 hours after they were implemented. But with a plan in place and mutual agreement to adhere to the phased approach we were able to help temper some of the team’s broader anxieties. The table below provided the team with some simple clarity on how to approach ceremonies and offsite commitments.

Insights and Reflections

Our fully distributed working model has turned up some interesting insights and reflections. Most emerged in the first two days. We can make more of Slack as a tool but we'd describe ourselves as mature with remote communications and this enabled us to find and then address most of our initial challenges very quickly. Or even to identify trends across channels that the business could lean-in and try and help with some course corrections.

Some of early experiences and course corrections we made may sound familiar to you:

  • It’s really tiring for the leadership in early stages, as excitement and anxieties play out, and normalising is difficult remotely. It’s unavoidably high overhead.
  • We needed to tighten up what a work conversation looks like vs a welfare conversation. It’s ok to jump on a call and get what you need then bounce off. Every call doesn’t have to begin with ‘how’s your day’. Some do of course.
  • We needed to clarify early that WFH means we encourage you to make decisions on start and end times (7am starts for some people) but when there’s a project or comms commitment we expect you to be present for it, and not off walking the dog.
  • Specifically for voice and video calls, we had to ask people to pass the end of the conversation on to someone and name them. This is important for introverts.
  • We maintained our existing rhythms as best we could. We start the week with a video launchpad and every day we have a morning Leadership standup. We close the week out with a virtual Huddle. These are powerful communication tools.
  • A CEO video summary has been a useful way to connect with business performance, understanding cash flow, changing conditions, celebrations of progress without requiring an all-hands gathering.

We're having to lead our businesses by the hour which is an enormous challenge, and for organisations new to distributed teams I have some empathy with the complexity of change. Conventional change management strategies feel largely redundant in the unfolding crisis. Thinking in terms of quarters or even years is an unimaginable timeline to implement tweaks and nurture trust, perhaps even more difficult for sectors that find blossoming unexpectedly (online education, home fitness, toilet paper manufacturers).

For Inlight, perhaps better prepared than most, the team's response to the Coronavirus uncertainty has been impeccable. Patient, graceful and with measured control. We learn more every day but look forward to sharing these experiences as the professional world reshapes around us.

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About the author
Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver | CEO

Mark is the Inlight CEO with more than 18 years leading digital product initiatives, experience design and technical delivery across broadcast, sport, media, retail, finance and healthcare. He has a wealth of experience in the growth of high performing multi-functional technology and customer experience teams through strong collaborative cultural foundations.