The restrictions related to the pandemic forced you to move to company-wide home office. Was it difficult to correctly set up all the company processes when working remotely?
We preventively introduced company-wide home office during the first wave of the pandemic as soon as we identified the first indirect case of COVID-19 in the family of one of our employees. We no longer monitor cases that closely. However, in the beginning, there wasn’t enough reliable information about the real infectiousness of the virus or about the typical course of the disease. That is why we chose to be cautious and responsible. We acted very quickly and practically, and within 24 hours, we had verified whether the company was ready to function entirely online.
There were no big surprises with the shift to working from home, but even with our best efforts, our expectations couldn’t compare to real-life experience.
As far as internal company processes, the change in our regime highlighted many small issues whose importance kept growing as time went on. Ongoing projects and tasks were running smoothly. We learned that if somebody’s tasks, deadlines, and access to information are clearly defined, their place of work doesn’t matter that much.
It’s a bit more challenging to start new deliveries remotely or significantly change the structure of teams. This is something we do quite often as a project-oriented company. Each change requires communication and adaptation, especially in the beginning when there is a need for quick information exchange and feedback. This is much easier when all parties are together in one space without the need to rely on apps or other communication channels (which always have some minor limitations). For the most part, we found that group calls and video conferences demand way more attention, concentration, and time than direct communication in the workplace.
Did the company-wide home office work for you at QBSW?
I’m sure everyone has read articles about how the pandemic reduced prejudice toward remote work, and how with the right setup, remote work can be even more efficient than working from the office. But honestly, which deliveries and projects were finished quicker during the pandemic than before? Are strategic and development activities progressing, or did they get postponed until the situation improves?
For us, the biggest impact from the pandemic was losing the informal component of communication – the socializing, the organic spreading of information, and the real-time feedback. This was a challenge for our company culture, where we attempt to solve all our employees‘ problems and demands individually. We look for new ways to find out what people like, don’t like, and what they are worried about. When everyone is in the office, it’s relatively easy to find out what’s going on if you just spend some time listening to what people talk about in the office kitchen.
Returning to the office from an extended period of working from home is a different case. While the transition to home offices was relatively quick, the wind-down process took weeks. It took considerable time to come to a general agreement about the return-to-office process. We had to take several measures so that our less-flexible colleagues were willing to return to an office environment. The company management did its best. We understood that concerns about the wellbeing of our colleagues and their loved ones require a very patient and tolerant approach. If the approach is like this on both sides, we can always reach an agreement.
Is it possible to maintain the company culture and good atmosphere in these conditions?
I think so, but I have to confess that we weren’t as successful as we would have liked. The coronacrisis manifested itself very quickly in the form of the cancellation of a large volume of deliveries. This, unfortunately, impacted our employees. After a long period of continual growth, the rapid drop in demand was something we hadn’t encountered in our environment for more than ten years. It was a largely unknown situation for many of our colleagues.
We were looking for solutions to minimize this impact. We added new forms of mail campaigns, and during online meetings, we met more regularly and had more people take part in the meeting than when we met in person. During meetings, we used cameras even though we worked from home. Importantly, we didn’t consider non-work topics as a waste of time, but as something that helped us maintain good relationships in lieu of office lunches.
When informing employees about the necessary changes and newly implemented measures, we took the approach of openness and rational argumentation. We tried to replace face-to-face communication by giving our employees high-quality information with as little delay as possible. This helped, although not as much as it could have. Unfortunately, we had to take some very unpopular measures due to the crisis. Understandably, those who were affected did not adopt them enthusiastically. However, from the standpoint of maintaining the viability of our company and our further perspective, they were the most logical solution.
How did you deal with the need to communicate this unpleasant news?
If we were talking about some unpleasant news in addition to positive news, we tried to balance them. However, we went through a period when one problem after another kept coming. The adverse impact on our employees was sometimes inevitable.
Because the space for informal communication, which is an essential part of our company culture, was significantly reduced, we tried to increase the scope, frequency, and timeliness of informing our employees about the current events. We sought out the advice of sociologists, who confirmed that our approach was the correct one. Honest and authentic communication is important, even if the news is bad. It is important to be direct when informing about unpleasant and hard decisions. For people to really understand the changes we are implementing, it is vital to not only announce the decision that is “wise and right,” but also to explain the causes, the circumstances, the alternatives, and the reasons that lead us to these decisions.
Even in the most trying times, the essence is always the same – for us to be able to rely on each other, to listen to each other, and support each other in reaching our common goals. Crises always test the quality of relationships, and I am glad that we are still sticking together.