Working From Home: Adapting to the New Normal

Alacrity has a very diverse portfolio of companies under their umbrella, all of which are rapidly adjusting to the new challenges presented by the onset of COVID-19.  We checked in with a few of them to get a sense of how they’re coping with the changes presented by this global shut-down. 

  • Echosec – Data Discovery for Threat Intelligence – Paula Hingley (Director of Marketing)
  • Revela – Data Science and Processing – Autumn Umanetz (Cofounder, lead data engineer)
  • Hyas – Pre-zero-day Cyber Security – Diane Kennedy (Executive Assistant)
  • QuantoTech – LED Lighting Grow Systems – Alycia van der Gracht (Founder)
  • Certn – Online Background Checks – Andrew McLeod (C30 – Co-CEO)
  • Pretio – Technology-enabled Performance Marketing. – Tyrone Sinclair (CEO)
  • Open Ocean Robotics – Cleantech Ocean Data Collection – Julie Angus, M.Sc. (CEO)
  • SaaSquatch – Loyalty, Referrals and Rewards for Digital Services – Emily Griffis (Content Marketing Manager)
  • Pani Energy – Cleantech AI-optimized Water Treatment Infrastructures – Craig Thomson (Chief Operating Officer)

Before the onset of Covid-19, many of our portfolio companies already had a flexible approach to working from home. Some allowed for a flexible schedule with employees coming into the office on certain days some allowed for a few employees to stay completely remote, while others allowed it but didn’t recommend it. When it comes to policies on working remotely they can no longer be flexible, and this is the biggest challenge. All communication is currently at a distance. Despite being able to continue working, and the transition going well for the most part, each company also faces unique marketing challenges under the situation. No one knows how long the pandemic will last so they’re preparing for the long haul. Learning to communicate properly, both business-wise and on a personal level,  has been identified as a key need among all of the companies.

Working Remotely 

Some companies were already very comfortable working from home, while others were primarily in-office. Each had a different level of ease in switching to lock-down mode. In the case of portfolio company Certn (a recent winner in the ICT category of the Ready to Rocket List) the need for a comfortable setup was identified early on. Employees were given a budget to produce a workstation at home, while still being encouraged to borrow from the office. Pretio made sure to get everyone set up with a home office before the shutdown to streamline the process. QuantoTech staff usually work from home so they’ve had to make only minimal adjustments. Pani Energy employees mostly had an existing workspace at home so the transition was smooth. At Echosec the well-experienced remote workers are giving the ‘newbies’ advice on setting up home offices, and Hyas has also encouraged the sharing of advice between staff about what’s worked for them. Open Ocean Robotics started to share google calendars so that everyone knows what each is working on and to provide support. Most companies have found the transition somewhat challenging, but smooth nonetheless.

Communication 

Communication is by far the number one priority for each of the portfolio companies now that they’re working from home. Each business has varying ideas ons how to accomplish this. At Pani Energy they continue to use Microsoft Teams as before, and many others have continued using Zoom and Slack, so there’s nothing new to communicating on these platforms. Paula Hingley at Echosec said: “we are masters of Slack and are ready to Zoom at the drop of a hat.” The change, however, is that now these are the only ways to communicate. Slack and Zoom are being relied on for all aspects of conversation instead of a small part, and details can be missed as a result.

Tyrone Sinclair, CEO of Pretio Interactive, said: “Our team has always been fairly good at Slack communications and this situation has actually increased our attention to detail and improved our internal communications.” Employees are making a concerted effort to communicate more precisely because of the current limitations. This applies to emails too. Sinclair continued by saying that “everyone is being mindful to fully flesh out their thoughts and are making sure to keep everyone posted on where they are at.” Everyone knows how to use Slack, but without the added forms of direct communication employees need to be more aware that context can be lost. SaaSquatch has gone “all webcams all the time” for every meeting, internal or with clients. Emily Griffis, Content Marketing Manager at SaaSquatch said that this has “actually really helped to be able to see all the people on the other end. It helps meetings go a lot better to see people’s expressions.” Even though everyone knows how to use these forms of digital communication, it’s important to understand their limitations and try and mitigate them.

Project management

Some companies are satisfied with a scheduled weekly meeting and a few check-ins along the way, but every team has a variety of needs specific to their business.  Some, for example, feel the need for more oversight over the entire workflow. For instance Revela uses Range to add another level of insight to their projects. QuantoTech has a physical product, so despite the fact that most of the employees work from home on a regular basis, it remains an added challenge to have R&D brainstorming sessions around a physical product, but on a screen. As a result they use Webex for screen-sharing, and a web-cam for more mobile viewing experience.

For smaller businesses where everyone already has a well-defined role and little oversight, Zoom and Slack meetings at various levels of frequency are sufficient because team communication happens more naturally. However in some cases it’s advisable to have additional management tools to manage your team from a distance. Andrew McLeod at Certn suggests leaders “make sure that everybody’s aware of what they should be doing and that you have KPIs or OKRs so that you don’t have people that are twiddling their thumbs.” Craig Thomson at Pani Energy suggests checking in frequently, making sure that expectation and timings are communicated, and follow-up on progress. Since teams rely so much on communication it’s important to establish daily or weekly goals, and have metrics that show when they’ve been achieved. 

Marketing

Most companies have also had to adjust their marketing strategy, finding it necessary to slow down their approach –  and expect a lean year. Each one has been faced with unique challenges according to the type of product they offer. In the current situation Echosec’s clients have found added value to their information gathering services which means they’ve been extra busy providing product support. “Our main challenge now is delivering ongoing education about effective search techniques, like how to build great filters that get relevant results, or how to save searches to get 24/7 alerts,” said Hingley. They’ve also had to change the topics their software accumulates information about, as events and interests have been shifting quickly. QuantoTech and Hyas have adjusted their target market. In the past, QuantoTech focused their efforts on business to business partnerships, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic individuals themselves are showing an increased interest in being more self-sufficient with their food production. This opens a new market for them. Hyas has lost some of the marketing opportunities that they usually relied on because in-person meetings or conferences have been cancelled. According to Diane Kennedy, Hyas has “had to pivot to a more vast online presence for presentations.”

Coincidentally, this same situation has led to an increase in demand for Pretio, since their focus is on digital marketing. Businesses that have in the past relied on door-to-door or retail foot traffic are seeking out their services now. They’re focusing on maintaining loyalty from current clientele versus reaching for new clients. Open Ocean Robotics faces challenges when it comes to raising funding. They are pre-revenue, which means that new sources of income will be harder to come by, and they’ll be postponing the next equity round by six months. Current projects remain ongoing, but CEO Julie Angus said: “We need to think about our burn rate and be able to decrease it so that we’re able to operate more effectively and for a longer period of time taking into consideration that reduced runway.”  Finally, Certn has needed to shift from traditional client pools. Airlines are a large market for them, but since there are no new hires ongoing with airlines they have shifted to client sources related to the pandemic, such as retired medical personnel coming back into the field to support front line workers. 

Company Morale

For many companies, the biggest challenge has been being forced to only work from home. So far no company has seen any reduction in effort or productivity, but there’s certainly concern that morale has been or will be affected. Before the pandemic, telecommuting was incorporated to allow for more flexibility. Without being in the office there was still the option of working out of a coffee shop, or a co-work space, or coming into the office occasionally, or having important meetings in person. Now, there’s no flexibility. Some employees have expressed how it can be difficult to block out distractions at home and how much they miss the office, and still others how much more productive they feel at home. It’s clear how important it is for these portfolio companies to maintain morale during this time. At Revela they “miss getting face time,” and Umanetz said that they find that it requires a more conscious effort to engage with each other. At Hyas, Kennedy reminds people to “have patience with each other while we adjust to working from home with children/spouses present.” However, as much as those with busy home lives look forward to getting back to the office to focus better, those who live alone and are self-isolating may not easily express the difficulty of their situation. McLeod reminds team members to “keep [their] eyes open for those that might be more susceptible to feeling sad or lonely, maybe because they’re single, living by themselves, they’re used to having a lot of interaction and now all of a sudden they’re locked up at home,” and it “could be a pretty heavy experience.” Communication is the theme here, remembering that many of the usual social queues we use are not there so we should be extra vigilant to each others’ mental health. 

Alacrity’s portfolio companies have been proactive about maintaining social communication as well as business communication. In all cases this is based around constant check-ins, whether by phone, zoom, or text. They remind each other to take breaks, drink water, go outside, and move their bodies. Some have organised game nights and Friday virtual happy hours, or more slack channels for fun stuff. Pretio initiated an after work Google Hangout on Fridays, and their CEO personally checks in with every team member during the week. At SaaSquatch Griffis said: “We have a Google Hangout set up at lunch time for everyone and anyone to join. Oftentimes during lunch or after work, we’ll come together on a shared Minecraft server to collaborate on building a virtual replica of the office.”  So far there haven’t been any problems, and in some cases there have been improvements, because the physical distance requires each employee to communicate more than they would’ve otherwise. Angus perfectly sums up the situation everyone has found themselves in: “We’re in a way each other’s support network. The people you work with are often the people you spend much of your time with when you’re in the office. Now that we’re not in the office, we still have those lines of communication open so even though we’re socially distant, we’re all still continuously connected.”

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