The Distributed Org Dream
At Chargebee, we hope to become a fully distributed organization someday.
In response to the rising health and safety concerns of employees due to COVID 19, all of us at Chargebee switched to working from home starting March 13, 2020. The switch was almost overnight.
We were, at the time, optimistic and hopeful about moving back into a physical workspace. In fact, we were looking forward to moving into our brand new office space, much larger, more spacious and convenient, on the 11th Floor of the World Trade Center Building on the Old Mahabalipuram Road in Chennai.
But things have changed since. We did not anticipate all the things that have since transpired. Today, we’re contemplating turning into a fully-distributed organization, with teams spread across the world. Project Kintsugi, a System-Design-driven initiative, aims to deep-dive into understanding and researching remote and distributed workspaces to make our transition into a fully-distributed organization a reality.
Where it all began
Going fully-distributed was something that we had thought of in the past and always excited us. The COVID situation was the opportune moment. But, for a 400-employee organization, the decision to go remote does not come easy.
We had to factor in a lot of things. It required us to consider infrastructural factors, think about the logistics of winding up our existing office space, employee safety, and of course governmental regulations that newly required employers in the IT sector to enable all employees to work from home to help bend the curve of the spread of the virus. We also did a Business Continuity Planning (BCP) for various teams to make sure we’d be prepared for any contingency.
Two weeks into going completely remote, we noticed that:
- Productivity wasn’t dipping.
- The flexibility worked for many employees — men and women.
- Employees were safer in the sanctity of their homes.
Successful transitioning into being a fully-distributed organization wasn’t going to be as simple as setting up the IT infrastructure to support working from home or office and making sure employees have access to all the tools they would require to do their work. We had to look into the mental and physical well-being of employees, equip them with the right work-from-home setup, set up adequate communication channels internally, and more. All this and keep the momentum going.
Taking stock of things
We began to consider the following aspects first:
Our ‘work’ culture
For us, our workspace is the sanctum santorum of focus, diligence, hard work, team spirit, community, and more. It’s where we bring our best selves forward to work towards a common organizational goal collectively.
Our approach has always been to enable people to find their own trajectories, even if it may require the occasional nudge in the right direction. We believe in enabling people to find their strengths and then align those with our objectives and common goals.
Our culture is infused with our organizational values of customer-centricity, curiosity, empathy, and bias for action. And a physical workspace offers the conveniences of community centers, meeting rooms, and hallway conversations that enabled these values and belief systems to be propagated consciously and automatically.
We had to, therefore, think of ways in which these value systems could continue to find their way into our everyday decisions and actions, as we gradually progress into becoming a fully-remote organization.
We used at least 3 tools for internal communication. Different teams preferred different tools. The majority of the organization preferred Slack over emails and Hangouts. However, there were still teams that used Hangouts. We needed to ensure that all communication within the organization happened on a single platform.
A conducive work-from-environment enables you to work at your optimum. We knew that not all employees had work-from-home conditions that were conducive to focussed work. We also considered the fact that most homes are shared spaces and that there would be ‘other-people-at-home’ factors involved.
We got in touch with employees to understand what their work from home setup was like. We also frequently posed questions and shared information about working from home, productivity, etc, during our All-Hands and other org-wide meetings to understand the sentiments around remote work.
Evaluate the possibility of a physical workspace?
We did not want to completely rule out the possibility of setting up physical office space for employees who prefer to work out of offices. Afterall, the idea is to provide a convenient workspace for all. But this isn’t something we plan to do immediately.
Opening up to being a ‘FROG’
Today we are a ‘FROG.’ We have always been an organization that has recognized the perks of remote work. But it’s the ‘distributed’ dream we’re chasing. While ‘FROG’ need not necessarily be our organizational model forever, it’s a significant step towards realizing our dreams of being distributed.
With the pandemic, most organizations have had no choice but to go remote. Getting used to working remotely can take time. People who are used to working synchronously and prefer face-to-face conversations may find it challenging to switch to an all-remote setup.
Some of our early challenges were:
- No ‘documentation’ culture — documenting decisions, MoMs, and other practices that enable effective asynchronous collaboration.
- Language barriers — Asynchronous work requires average to good communication skills. We found that only 35% of our people had good spoken-communication skills. The numbers then for written communication would be far lower.
- No intranet for org-wide for info material — We did not have a single source of truth for storing all the documentation that we were encouraging people to create.
- Burnout/Anxiety — We’ve had employees reporting burnout due to lack of socialization, zoom fatigue, too many meetings, too many calls. We’ve also had reports of increasing anxiety, uncertainly, etc.
These findings helped us introduce some ‘remote work can be fun’ initiatives:
Four-day work weeks
We don’t work on the first Friday of every month. Zoom fatigue is real, folks.
Focus Wednesdays are no-meeting days. We don’t set up meetings or accept invites on Wednesdays. The idea is to let folks spend a good workday solving problems without everyday disturbances.
Employee Assistance Program
Staying at home for long hasn’t worked well for many of us. We empathize with that and have partnered with a third-party agency to help employees combat mental-health issues, if at all. The program offers up to 6 therapy sessions free.
All-new leave policy
We revised our leave policy to make at least 10-days of leave a year mandatory for all. We had a take-it-if-you-want-it kinda leave policy earlier. There was no restriction on the number of leaves. But this didn’t work for some folks who took no leaves at all! So we had to impose mandatory vacations.
We all deserve a break. From work. From the toil. As they say, there’s nothing as refreshing as a good vacation.
We have also introduced a couple of other ‘fun’ initiatives such as the ‘noodlehead’, trivia quizzes, etc, for that much-needed break between work.
The beginning of a new era
Today, we’ve been fully remote for over four months. Like most organizations, we are also trying to build processes and practices that are conducive to remote working. A hybrid model is what we are looking at, something that will enable us to reap the benefits of remote organizations as well as the traditional setup.
At the moment, we are focussed on streamlining our internal processes, practices, and systems to adapt to remote working. We are working on making asynchronous work easy and are exploring tools that will enable effective documentation and reviews. Our org-wide intranet, the single source for all our resources and documentation, is also in the making. Additionally, we are thinking of training programs to improve communication across the organization. More importantly, however, we are looking at how our culture and value systems can be passed on to new employees who join us now, in our brand-new ‘distributed’ avatar.
Written for Project Kintsugi — a System Design @Chargebee initiative. Thanks to Sana and Lavanya G for their inputs.