When they write the book on the history of 2020 what will it be called?
- “Just When You Thought Things Couldn’t Get Any Worse”
- “Twelve Months of Murphy’s Law: It Can. It Did. And it Didn’t Stop”
- “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”
- “What’s Plural for Apocalypse?”
As I write this there are still two months left in the year and it’s hard to imagine things getting worse. But hey, why not?
Meanwhile, if you run a startup it’s your job to figure out how to get on with life and with business. A few months ago we may have thought the new normal would be life AFTER coronavirus, but as we brace for a second and third wave of infections this winter THIS is beginning to feel like the new normal. No one has a playbook for navigating the challenges we will face in 2021, but there are already some clear lessons for early stage businesses.
One of them is figuring out how to be comfortable navigating the unknown. Here are three things company leaders can do now to make sure they’re positioned not just for survival, but success.
1. Keep Company Culture Alive
As much as people will tell you remote working is the future, I don’t believe this is what employees want. Sure, there are people who will be happy working remotely forever. But when Twitter and Shopify declare they’re going all-remote, I’m sceptical.
We humans are social animals and work is a communal experience. That’s particularly true for young people. They join companies to launch their careers and their lives. They build their communities and social networks through work. They often meet their life partners. None of that is possible right now.
When a startup is competing against Amazon and Google to hire smart employees, there are two things small companies can offer that big companies can’t: the opportunity to really make a difference each week, and the opportunity to join a cohesive, happy community of co-workers. It’s amazing how powerful those two things are when you are recruiting top talent.
My company, Trint, has been growing fast since the pandemic began: fifty percent of our employees have joined us since we went remote in March. Our People team keeps track of company culture through a detailed eNPS survey each quarter. We noticed something unusual in our most recent survey. New starters gave us excellent scores, but the cohort that joined us in the six months before the pandemic saw a big drop in job satisfaction. When we dug a little deeper, we found that a major cause was the lack of contact with their teammates. In a remote world there’s no company kitchen, no water cooler and there are no team events. It’s hard to build truly close connections and close friendships.
We’ve put a lot of effort into creatively nurturing and sustaining company culture. Here’s what went well:
- Socially-distanced team events. During the summer, when the weather was good, we hosted what we playfully called “Trintnics,” picnics in parks where people could safely get together. It was uplifting to see the team hang out together, have fun and laugh after so many months apart. New starters finally got to meet their colleagues in person. Now that it’s too cold for picnics we‘re arranging hikes and bike rides – anything that keeps team members safe while fostering interaction and bonding.
- Temporary office space. When the lease on our office in London was up in May we moved out. We saved a small fortune. But we soon found that some team members needed a place to work. They live in cramped quarters, they live with toddlers, they’re alone or they just miss being with other people. As soon as restrictions eased we rented a small interim office in a very bright, happy coworking space. It’s been a big success. Nobody’s forced to use the office, but people who want to come in can. It turns out that never leaving your bedroom gets old.
- Virtual coffee We use an app on Slack called Donut to bring together four random team members once a week for a virtual coffee. It automatically coordinates calendars to schedule the event. No work talk, please.
2. Clean up your communication
Internal communication has always been important, but in 2021 it’s going to be business critical. Not only does it help companies run better, it also helps to sustain positive culture. Companies need to find the balance between not bothering people and imposing too many meetings, between under-communicating and sending too many messages. It’s a really one hard to navigate and both extremes are equally perilous.
Here are some of the things that have worked for us:
- Schedule “no meeting” time There are way too many channels for communication today, and they often get in the way of productivity. Everyone needs time to think, reflect, brainstorm and just do the work. I recommend blocking a chunk of time in your team’s calendar every day so everyone is guaranteed time to focus. Keep in mind it’s not a “one size fits all” solution, since different jobs have different communication needs.
- Create a shared communication language Here’s a little trick that our Marketing team developed. They use “FYI” at the beginning of messages that don’t need a reply. The recipients know that the message is purely informational. It sounds simple, but when you’re in the zone and a message pops up, it’s invaluable to know you don’t have to break your flow to answer. Teams and colleagues should create a communication shorthand for more efficient communication.
- The right information in the right place. We were heavy users of Slack before remote working hit. We prefer it to email. But Slack is only good for information needed now. It’s easy for critical information to get lost and it’s terrible if you’ve been offline for a few days. Email has come back for us, but cluttered inboxes remain a problem. We’re exploring different tools for different kinds of communication and we are building a company intranet page so people know where to look for all the information and resources that need to hang around.
3. Use tech that speaks the same language
You need to figure out what software will help you do the job. There are thousands of technologies offering magic solutions. Once you find the ones that do what you need them to do, you need to figure out if they work with the rest of your tech stack. It’s great if a piece of software solves a specific problem, but does it easily integrate with the rest of the technologies that you’ve already adopted?
This is a really simple solution that I’ve seen work really well:
- Tech request form Require anyone who commissions a new software tool to complete a technology request form. They’ll need to describe what the tech does, how it works with other technologies, what its APIs can do, its data security, customer service, service level agreements, etc. So before analyzing new software, you can simply say, “Oh, this doesn’t have the data security we need. Let’s not waste our time.”
2020 was a learning curve. The world is still learning. Whatever cliche you throw at it – the new normal, unprecedented times – 2021 is going to be really challenging. But there are a few things we know will be important to creating success in 2021. That’s why business leaders need to take action right now. What are you doing to prepare?
Jeff Kofman is CEO and Founder of London-based Trint. Before becoming a tech entrepreneur he spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent and war correspondent with ABC, CBS and CBC News. Jeff won his second Emmy covering the fall of Muammar Gadhafi during the Arab Spring in 2011.