From the PX Agency: How we went fully remote

11 min read David Renwick

Note: This article talks about how Optimal Workshop responded to the COVID19 pandemic in New Zealand. You can read more about New Zealand’s response on the COVID-19 government website.

For any regular readers of the Optimal Workshop Blog, you’ll know that we sometimes like to take time out from our user research and UX-focused topics to talk about remote working. It’s a big part of our culture, and we pride ourselves on our ability to do it effectively.

We just recently published a remote working guide as well this co-design article, but today we’re going to do something a little different. We’ve pulled together a few members of our People Experience (PX) Agency to share their thoughts on going remote – and doing it right. 

Optimal Workshop’s tagline is ‘Putting people at the heart of decisions’ and both our People Experience (PX) Agency and Leadership team worked their magic to ensure people were at the heart of decisions when transitioning to working from home full time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A little background

In New Zealand, where Optimal Workshop is based, the government put a mandatory lockdown in place for four weeks earlier this year. For us, this meant we had to go fulltime remote – a setup we’d never tried before. Thankfully, our PX Agency was prepared.

Meet Optimal Workshop’s PX Agency

A picture of Optimal Workshop's PX Agency, with four members lined up next to each other.
Optimal Workshop’s PX Agency. From left: Simon, Eva, Dan and Julie.

What logistical considerations did you work through in the lead up to moving the entire company to remote working?

Eva: We were really lucky in that before it was government-mandated, we had a trial WFH day and ran an asynchronous retro. We then created a document where we gathered information about people’s setups at home and what worked/didn’t work. We quickly realized we’d need to help people beyond supplying just laptops.

Fortunately, about a month before we went remote, we’d had roving work station assessments and many of the staff who worked remotely had recently had laptop stands, external mice and keyboards and other items that were portable and suitable for remote working supplied, so we knew what was needed.

Julie: Stay calm and Stick to the facts. We decided as a team, to be the calm of the company – to listen to people’s fears and to really trust in our government in New Zealand and the medical advice given. This meant listening to people’s fears and calming them, debunking myths, and sending out straightforward, thoughtful communications that mirrored the official advice given. 

Understand that every person is different. We knew that each person is an individual and would have to deal with different issues in going remote. Who they lived with, how many kids they had, how old the kids were, whether they were on their own, whether they had underlying health issues. We started making detailed lists of all these logistics and tackled them one by one – we had parent meetings, meetings with the team as a whole and individually, and we shared information to empower people to set themselves up, but to also get help if they needed it.

Simon: I had put together a survey to try and get a gauge of what people already had, and what they might need both in respect to equipment but also their internet connectivity within their homes. Triaging the needs of key staff as well as problems that might become impossible to solve once we moved remote was important. Getting as many of our staff onto new laptops to have old devices either retired or kept as spares meant that we have not had a single employee be unable to work due to their basic remote working needs.

How were health and wellbeing prioritized? What changes or new initiatives were introduced to support the wider team remotely?

Dan: We had already been planning to change the focus of practice coaching away from the squad focus to individual support. However, the COVID business has just kind of proven that we were/are moving forward in the right way. This change in focus automatically prioritizes the individual and allows for the business to support its people in greater ways than before.

Eva: When COVID-19 hit, we’d had a well established Health, Wellness and Safety team that had been monitoring the situation in relation to NZ and OW and communicating with SLT (and reporting to the board) both via WHO and the NZ Ministry of Health. Information was shared on Slack, and at all OW wider meetings and put up around the office about where to get information, basic hand hygiene, and hand sanitizer stations installed outside all bathrooms. 

Julie: Having mental health first aid training has been invaluable and Eva and I have been sharing those skills and perspectives. We increased the amount for our counseling budget and made sure people who were out of sick leave knew that special leave was available and they should take care of themselves and their families as a priority. Each practice coach kept an eye out for each person’s exercise, sleep, stress levels, and family/flat situation.

We encouraged everyone to be able to share openly the struggles they were having to normalize that and to model vulnerability.

Simon: The company made it clear from the start that the focus was on supporting the people and not on trying to work as if nothing else was different. The support shown to help people WFH earlier than when it was required was important too — it helped us flatten our own curve and avoid a mass exodus of people on the last few days before the lockdown was properly implemented.

How did you go about building the right infrastructure to support a virtual workplace? (collaboration tools, communication tools, to share ideas and to get work done)

Eva: We already had a good infrastructure in place to support remote working, and a strong remote working culture – we just had a crash course in how it all worked in reality with *everyone* working remotely. Since then, we’ve done some serious tweaking of existing company rituals and gatherings to make them even more remote-friendly, and are incorporating more to work in better with our staff who are in Europe.

Simon: We were fortunate in that we were already using many ‘market leaders’ as part of the tools that OW uses (Slack, Zoom, GSuite, etc). This meant that we weren’t needing to invent entirely new processes, just refine and proliferate the ones that we had in place.

How did Optimal Workshop ensure the team had a good work/life balance during the first 1-2 weeks? What tips and advice were shared via Slack/Notion?

Dan: There has been a greater push at all levels of the business for kind communication – clear, quick, and repeated. I think that has been very good at helping push life/work balance messages better than I have ever seen in my time with OW.

Julie: Work when you can, be transparent on your hours for others to know. Say no to meetings, work asynchronously.

Simon: My focus was on trying to get people the right equipment to not have to worry about their work setup – digitally and physically. I hoped that by having things optimized at work, they wouldn’t need to worry about that, letting them find that balance more comfortably.

What percentage of team members at OW have children? How have they been supported with work responsibilities as well as caring for children at home? (Kiddos channel, “do what you can” etc)

Julie: We have chatted together, but honestly just knowing that each person is different with different kids ages and personalities and house situations, it’s just great to see the people’s kids and dogs on all the zoom meetings really normalized it and allowed people to just be interrupted and/or need to leave suddenly and it wasn’t a problem.

What cultural initiatives were introduced to combat productivity/engagement pits? Initiatives to help employees feel connected; donut pals, Friday demos, Tuesday shout outs, quarantine lunch reviews with Dan, Culture Amp, etc

Dan: The big thing from me was the Quarantine Lunch reviews. I wanted to create a distraction for people based on something that we all had to get our heads around a little more. Creating good lunches when we no longer have external means to rely on like takeaways.

Plus I thought that my skill level is so beginner when it comes to cooking it would be a nice low-pressure way to start some cool conversations. 

Ultimately, the quality of my lunch does not matter but what is important is giving people a space to concentrate on something that is not COVID and universally a source of pleasure and excitement. That is why music is going to be the next series as it were.

Simon: Regardless of the specific initiative, our collective success was a group effort. Everyone chipped in organically and found ways to contribute. Sharing articles and funny videos over Slack, being open to our previous regular meetings (Demo, team lunches, etc.) taking new shapes.Everyone worked together – although PX was principal in supporting OW, it was never assigned to one person or team to solve.

What does ‘putting people at the heart of decisions’ mean to you in the context of this pandemic and the way in which we now work?

Dan: It means kindness. Kindness in understanding that everyone’s situation is unique. Kindness in the way we do everything as a business – understanding that in order to maintain the health and happiness of our people we need to be flexible in our process, in our deadlines and in our expectations.

What I have seen from the company so far is a great level of care, trust and kindness which I think has changed our mindset as professionals over this time. Our new mindset has retained professional care, ambition and duty but with a new lens of realism, flexibility and honesty.

Honesty is the big thing – people are getting better at letting people know when their capacity has been reached. This is something we needed to be better with outside of this COVID situation and to see us getting better at it is a real joy. I believe this honesty will help OW achieve its goals in a sustainable way.

Julie: It has cemented an already well-established company culture that values this.

Simon: We really recognize that the wellbeing of our people is the most important thing. I have yet to be part of a single conversation where a discussion has taken place where we would put the genuine needs of a person below the needs of anything else. From financial, to legal, to product to revenue — each respects that the people are the most important thing.

What initiatives and/or activities have you personally introduced at home to get through lockdown? Netflix binges, FaceWine with friends, exercise, crafts/hobbies, etc.

Dan: Social catch-ups with friends, checking in with family members more often, and generally trying to be a visible presence for people in my life.

I also play a game of I spy every day. Every day, I look around the house until I see something that needs to be done and then I do it. The only rules I have for this game are 1) it is a different activity from yesterday and 2) it will be an activity of noticeable impact. It has been a cool and productive mindset to get into.

Julie: Quiz night with friends. Birthday zooming. Zoom drinks with mates, many groups chats with different friend groups that share jokes and tips. Weekly family catchups on zoom, family walks in the neighborhood, enjoying the children’s baking, date walks with husband, circuits and yoga in the back yard, assault bike sessions in the hallway, pulling the plug on wifi at night, every night we sit together for a family meal and talk about highlights/lowlights and what you got done today. Watching the prime minister briefings together. Get a LOT of sleep.

Simon: Hanging out with friends over Zoom has been fun — watching movies simultaneously or just chatting about great content to recommend. I play a lot of board games and trying to work that out to be remote-friendly has been fun — trying to find a digital solution or just an elaborate set of cameras to play with friends. At the flat, making a point to share meals together and chat about what’s going on has been important — and getting excited about the next big shop is always a hoot.

What would you say has been the most impactful factor on Optimal Workshop’s ability to successfully operate during this time?

Dan: I would say the courageous mindset of our people as a collective has been the most impactful factor. The selflessness and consideration that our people exhibit in their behavior was always there. However, it’s absolutely amazing to see how people have risen to meet the occasion. 

Of course, I am talking about the staff of Optimal above but I also include our wider networks like our family and friends and our customers/industry. In these sorts of times, we realize how much we depend on each other!

Julie: Our commitment to a remote-friendly workplace and people choosing this company because of its people-first mentality. Our product is reflected in the people that build it.