The pandemic triggered a new era of remote work, and fast-moving companies were ready to meet the challenge head-on. They already had the technology to support their at-home teams, but they doubled down on its usage, and that agility helped them thrive. By adapting practices and strengthening corporate culture, they’ve made sure that out-of-office doesn’t mean out of the loop.
Slack, in partnership with the Financial Times, brought leaders from three of those companies together for a webinar, “Leveraging corporate culture for competitive advantage.” Sujata Bhatia, the COO of Monzo Bank; Greg Jackson, the founder and CEO of Octopus Energy; and Nadia Rawlinson, the chief people officer of Slack, joined a panel moderated by Dan Thomas, chief UK business correspondent at the Financial Times to share how they have cultivated success in a business world turned on its head.
Their key takeaway is that the right culture is everything. As our home lives increasingly bleed into our working ones, companies need to promote honest, human communication from the top down and make sure that everyone has the tools they need to engage.
Creating cohesion with far-flung teams
All three companies were intentional about adapting their culture to serve their at-home teams. They set up remote wellness courses and offered resources for working parents, while watercooler chats were replaced by virtual meetups. Octopus hosts a company get-together every Friday through Slack, something Jackson describes as “an absolute joy.”
“We’ve had incredible participation, because anyone can come onscreen and chat. It starts in Slack with the Zoom integration and goes back into Slack afterwards in channels. So we’ve got this really smooth ability now to communicate across the whole company. I thought we had it before, but this has turbocharged it.”
Rawlinson believes the hybrid working environment is here to stay, and research bears this out: 83% of professionals do not want to go back to a physical office five days a week. The challenge for companies is going to be facilitating that.
“We’re not going back to the way things used to be. But you have to create the flexibility and the structures and the spaces to make this new way of working possible, and that’s underpinned by culture.”
Leading by example
For Rawlinson, success during the pandemic has hinged on leaders promoting openness and transparency. “It’s important that we model the behaviours that we want to see,” she says. “Saying that I have to duck out of a meeting to turn on a home-schooling class for my 5-year-old shows that it is normal. It says that we are flexible, human and in this together.”
Slack employees are encouraged to share their opinions and speak about problems they’ve encountered, particularly to give voice to groups who have historically been marginalised. “I think it is absolutely paramount that our company culture supports safe communication and disclosure,” Rawlinson says. “You can say, ‘We have great Slack channels where you can tell us your thoughts and feelings,’ but on its own that’s just performative. It has to be backed up by processes and behaviours that promote honest dialogue.”
Slack’s employee resource groups (ERGs) were created to support employees with similar identities, such as race, gender and sexual orientation. They play an essential role in the company’s drive toward diversity and inclusion. “Each ERG has its own Slack channel,” Rawlinson says, “so our people feel like there is a micro-community that they are connected with personally. They are comfortable sharing what they’re thinking and how they’re experiencing the world, which spills into how they talk about work and collaborate with their colleagues.”
Jackson agrees that having an open culture is key. Employees are invited to communicate directly with Octopus’s leaders on Slack, and they have responded with alacrity—over the past year, the company sent more than 11 million messages.
“As leaders, we have to walk the walk. Every week when I talk to the whole company on our big Zoom calls, I’ll ask people to send me a Slack message.”
Responsive customer service turns clients into advocates
Covid-19 hasn’t diminished customers’ desire for swift and efficient service; if anything, it has heightened it. Fast-moving companies recognise the importance of providing a seamless experience, and that starts with ensuring that their company culture works for their customer-facing teams. The teams are empowered to make decisions and encouraged to extend corporate values, such as openness and empathy, to everyone they deal with. They are also given the tools they need to keep the customer front and centre.
Monzo’s social media and customer service teams are ultra-responsive to questions on Twitter and Instagram, and Monzo has integrated the consumer review website Trustpilot into Slack.
“We can receive, sort and reply to all our Trustpilot reviews, all without leaving the Slack workspace,” says Bhatia. “We are triaging issues and providing near-instant responses. It’s given us a really intimate connection with our customers.”
Octopus routes its Twitter and Facebook messages into dedicated Slack channels, allowing the company to quickly take the temperature of customer sentiment. According to Jackson, this not only helps surface customer insights at scale but also plays a role in bolstering staff morale: “When we get a customer message praising our service or one of our representatives, it’s sent into the #bekind channel in Slack, where everyone can see it. It then might spark an idea with a member of our comms team, and they’ll get on to the tech team to see if it’s actionable. That porousness enables us to really engage a lot more people.”
Virtual work that pays real dividends
These companies’ commitment to centring culture paid off during what could have been a dismal year for productivity. They were in a strong position—their values were defined and empowering, and they had the tools to ensure that their teams could live them from any location. Work didn’t slow down when Covid-19 hit; in fact, it sped up, says Bhatia.
“We’ve now got over 5 million customers, and we shipped three major products during the course of the pandemic. I think it shows that effective collaboration and execution can really thrive in this kind of environment.”
Like Monzo, Octopus was well prepared to take on the next normal, says Jackson. “We’ve all phoned a utility or a bank during the pandemic and been told there’s a four-hour waiting time. That wasn’t going to happen for us. The fact that we already had the technology in place gave us a competitive advantage.”
During 2020, Octopus raised $577 million in investment capital and expanded into four new countries. “It’s proof that digital infrastructure is more resilient and more robust than those ridiculous, old-world, everything-in-the-office service systems,” Jackson says.
Rawlinson concurs—Slack now has eight months of data that shows that people can be more productive working remotely. “People may think that it’s just tech companies that are primed for this,” she says, “but I believe that you can approximate it in any organisation.”
The future of work: open, transparent and very human
Even when the pandemic ends, its effect on work will remain. Successful companies have seen how open, flexible cultures have allowed employees to thrive, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The brick-and-mortar office will rise again, but it will never again be thought of as the only place where “the real work” gets done.
While many people are looking forward to the day when they can grab a cup of coffee with a colleague, they are also unwilling to lose the freedoms they’ve gained while working from home. As Jackson says, “What we all want is the best of both.”