A common refrain in the early days of the pandemic was, “There’s no playbook for companies to follow.” Now, months in, we’re seeing top executives articulate strategies that both work for their teams and provide valuable insights for all companies trying to stay the course.
Here’s what they shared at Frontiers 2020, Slack’s annual user conference:
1. Play to your strengths
For six straight years, Arizona State University has been ranked the most innovative school in the U.S. That focus on innovation has led it to achieve carbon neutrality six years ahead of schedule, build the primary camera system on the Mars Perseverance rover, and place second in the world in the 23rd RoboSub competition with its women’s robotics team. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the school didn’t rest on its laurels—it quickly expanded its digital learning options.
And that’s no small task. At ASU, two out of every three classes has its own Slack workspace, where students and faculty can have real-time discussions in channels. That’s now expanded to all of the university’s clubs and processes associated with student life, with the rollout of live-hosted digital classes called ASU Sync.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning online, on the campus in the classroom, or ASU Sync enabled by Slack,” said ASU CIO Lev Gonick, speaking in a Q&A session with Slack’s SVP of Sales and Customer Success, Robert Frati. “While our industry is in decline in terms of enrollment, at ASU we’re up 23% year-over-year with students online, and on campus we’re up 7%. We’re counter-cyclical, and part of it, we’re pretty sure, has to do with the way we’ve responded to the Covid crisis with choice to the customer.”
Jennifer Tejada, the CEO of PagerDuty, echoed the need to dig into what’s working in times of crisis. “We’re already pretty transparent and communicative,” she said in a CEO panel with leaders from Slack, Box and Zoom. “The need to get in front of your employees more effectively, to check in your teams, to connect with folks—ramping that up into a higher velocity came pretty easy to us. I’m pleased that all those investments we’ve made over the years have helped us through what’s been a difficult time for a lot of our employees and a lot of our customers.”
2. Pay attention to culture
During that CEO panel, moderated by Katie Burke, the Chief People Officer at HubSpot, leaders from Box, Zoom, PagerDuty and Slack weighed in on how they could leverage their company culture to alleviate some of the friction of switching to remote work.
Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, thinks companies with ironclad values have had a less complicated time moving to remote work: “If you happen to have codified those values in your cultural norms years ago—and those are reinforced in all of the behavior and actions of the organization—then when you went virtual, in many cases you could continue just to build on that and benefit from that.”
Levie’s virtual co-panelist, Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom, also drew on the importance of helping your teams set boundaries. “I think the employee engagement is also getting better,” Yuan said. To preserve that, he’s on a mission to prevent burnout, even counseling employees not to use weekends to get ahead of work. Don’t use that time to plan meetings or respond to messages, he said. “That’s very necessary. We have to look at everything from our employees’ perspective.”
3. The tools you give your teams matter
No matter how strong your company’s culture or values may be, making changes of the magnitude that remote work requires increases your likelihood of friction—friction in communication, friction in culture, friction in productivity, you name it. As leaders and innovators move toward new modalities, it’s clear that using the right tools is about more than productivity.
Slack is designed to be deeply searchable, and Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield believes that creating documentation has helped teams at Slack get up to speed and stay there. “We already had this habit of trying to document things in a way that was visible to other people and to build an archive,” he said, “so when people join teams, they have a little bit of history and there’s continuity.” While that habit has made it easier for people to stay in the know, Butterfield is devoted to finding new ways to increase the “return on effort” that people put into communication, which means experimenting with new tools and processes.
“I can’t imagine a more interesting or challenging time to lead through this change.”
Amy Farrow, the CIO of Lyft, is keen to avoid the additional friction she’d experienced years prior when Lyft began to rapidly accelerate its growth.
“There are side effects of that,” she said. “We saw a proliferation of tools, and that proliferation of tools ultimately caused fragmentation of communication.” Lyft chose Slack to unify that communication. Doing so has been a boon as the company works through a new challenge: empowering asynchronous work, which Farrow believes is fundamental to creating a diverse and inclusive office.
Even if you’re on the same team, it’s now possible to be in different time zones, with different circumstances, she said. It’s critical for leaders to create flexibility as employees take care of their family, children’s school, and mental health. “With asynchronous work, the work shines. That’s what I’m most excited about, because I can’t imagine a more interesting or challenging time to lead through this change.”
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