How Canada’s tech ventures are keeping workplace morale up — from a distance

How Canada’s tech ventures are keeping workplace morale up — from a distance

As the COVID-19 crisis rolls on, Canada’s tech ventures face a new challenge: maintaining their dynamic cultures as the novelty of remote working wears thin.

Tech ventures prize their collaborative workplaces — the notion that creative spaces encourage smart ideas is central to startup culture. For these businesses, a lively office isn’t a perk, it’s the plan. But with their offices closed and teams dispersed, these companies now have to find new ways of working. The solution? Do what tech companies do best: pivot.

Offer flexibility

Drop, a rewards platform with more than 3.2 million users, began transitioning its staff to working remotely in early March. In normal times, office life is a huge part of Drop’s ethos: staff bring their dogs to work, colleagues gather for catered lunches and people often play foosball during their afternoon break. “We are definitely feeling the difference of being at home,” says Alisa Antinozzi, Drop’s manager of people and culture.

To maintain morale, the company quickly set up online equivalents of regular events: its in-office yoga classes are now virtual sessions, movie nights have become Netflix parties and the communal lunch table is an open video conference.

Drop is also leaning heavily on the virtual collaboration chops it developed through its long-standing “work anyway” policy. With basics like VPNs, communication platforms and designated contact points for each department already in place, the company was able to focus on adapting its remote working practices for a protracted period. Antinozzi says managers already knew their teams’ working hours tend to change when operating remotely, so Drop has asked employees to be online during the core period of 11 am to 4 pm, while offering flexibility to log on and off around that. To stave off disengagement that can come from isolation, staff have been asked to use video during calls, and managers are setting their teams short-term goals, often with deliverables at the end of day.

At 67 people, the firm is still small enough that usually anyone can speak up at meetings to get buy-in for an idea. Although the company has kept its schedule of all-hands and one-to-one meetings, managers have been making extra efforts to reach out for suggestions to keep the ideas flowing.

Finding ways to connect

PowerHub, a Toronto-based renewable energy management platform, has also moved to recreate the social parts of office life for its 50-person team. Family and camaraderie are major parts of the company’s culture, says CEO Etienne Lecompte, and he looked for ways for that to continue.

Soon after moving to remote working, PowerHub held a virtual happy hour where most of the company showed up — including an employee who had joined that week and has yet to meet colleagues in person. It also created a “Remote Chocolate Bowl” Slack channel and always-on “virtual kitchen” video call to provide space for the impromptu chats that used to happen over the snack table.

League, a digital employee wellness platform, has started holding daily stretch classes, a cooking club (CEO Michael Serbinis kicked off the initial meeting by making chicken tagine) and even hosted a virtual talent show featuring employee’s kids. “It’s a way we can show our appreciation for each other, and get through this situation together,” says Rebecca Orellana, League’s director of marketing.

Stronger together

With many businesses in survival mode, leadership teams may be tempted to hunker down and try to solve problems themselves. But that would be a mistake, cautions Manda Cuthbertson of MaRS Venture Talent Services.

She advises CEOs to embrace the open and honest corporate culture that got them this far.  “Communicate like you’ve never communicated before,” Cuthbertson says. Leaders should reach out to workers throughout their organizations to keep the lines of communication open and to harvest good ideas. “You hired smart people, so let them be part of the team and the response,” she says.

Managers are keeping a close eye on the chat channels and reaching out to anyone who seems unusually quiet — especially those who live alone. “It’s about caring,” says Lecompte. “To us, mental health is important, and we talk about it openly.”

Smart companies are also embracing the unavoidable glimpses into colleagues’ lives that working from home affords. Lecompte has led staff meetings with his young daughter on his lap.

These windows into colleagues’ worlds are why Antinozzi feels “social distancing” isn’t the right term for what is happening: “It’s physical distancing, but now more than ever we have the opportunity to be truly connected.”