happy

Originally founded in Florida and now headquartered in Jersey City, my company, PuppySpot, has a legacy of bringing people together across distances via connectivity tools and collaboration software. Nobody was totally prepared for this pandemic, but the fact that our first office was in Florida — which has been in the path of many hurricanes — taught us that we should always be ready to continue business operations without access to our office. However, that didn’t mean we encouraged work from home. Instead, we allowed it on a case-by-case basis.

One of the things I’ve focused on since taking the helm as PuppySpot’s CEO was bringing as many of our employees as possible to one central location. I believed — and still do — that there is power in seeing each other every day. The act of physically being together helps create a cohesive community for colleagues. Still, our company was spread across a few locations, so we had geographical barriers to deal with.

Given our multiple offices, we were all familiar with the connectivity tools we needed when we moved the company to 100 percent remote work in March. In fact, it was a seamless and smooth transition. I was concerned about how everyone would handle distributed work while also managing their personal lives, but it turned out my team was able to adjust on the fly. In truth, they have risen to the occasion well beyond what I had expected.

To some degree, I credit the structure and standards we put into place for our success. We have tried from the start to keep to our normal routines whenever possible. For instance, instead of our customer-facing team convening in person for daily huddles, they come together on Zoom. In a time of great uncertainty, with updates streaming in multiple times a day, the huddles serve as a critical core function for us. They connect our team on a professional and a personal level. Similarly, across the company, regular one-to-one meetings and coaching sessions are carrying on like normal.

Where I believe the real innovation is taking place, however, is across geographic divides. In the past, I’ve noticed that cross-functional communication is lacking and worried about the efficacy of our communications. Over recent months, that concern has been allayed. Here’s why:

Farther Apart, But More Closely Connected

When a majority of your team is all physically in one place, they can and will bring people from other locations into important meetings via video technology. Realistically, however, a lot of the conversations that start in these meeting continue on outside of them — in the hallway afterward, at lunch, on Slack, etc. Those well-intentioned discussions can sometimes exclude those stakeholders who happen to be seated elsewhere.

With everyone moving home, we’re all on equal footing now. Everyone has the same access to formal and informal information; there is no after-meeting chat by the water cooler. We make decisions in meetings, get aligned, and move forward. I’ve heard from a handful of permanently remote workers that they feel more included, involved, and incorporated in the everyday mix than they had in the past.

There are also some other, smaller benefits. Cutting out the daily commute not only gives us back time, it eliminates one of the main pain points of the day, which can leave someone in a bad mood when they come to work. Our team is noticeably more chipper these past few weeks when they log in, a result of getting to sleep more or spend more quality time with their families — and their French bulldogs, too.

Balancing work and home life has always been a challenge for parents in the modern era. Seeing people blend the two for the first time, I’ve noticed it brings unexpected advantages. Employees are staying happy and focused despite what’s happening outside. Meeting the children who are hanging on their parents during meetings has now become a welcome staple of our daily work. Work is still getting done — in fact, I’m seeing it happen at elevated levels.

Zoom yoga sessions and virtual happy hours that bring the whole team together have been especially popular. Even though we sit apart, we’re arguably spending more time together these days than we were before, and we are getting to know each other on a deeper level.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s in store for the future of PuppySpot. We are not ready yet to say we will ditch the office and adopt a full work-from-home policy going forward. Nevertheless, I am willing to admit that some of my beliefs about company culture requiring us to congregate in person every day were a bit outdated and misguided.

The old way of approaching “company culture” conflated it with “office culture.” In truth, it’s never been about the office. The culture you have is a product of your team members and their ability to connect. Now that I’ve seen the improvements that have emerged over a short period of time while everyone has been at home, I consider these connections differently and realize that, in some cases, they are stronger because of the new world we live in.

Our physical footprint will remain, but it will look and feel different than it did prior to this pandemic. As we weigh the costs and the risks that come with moving back to an office later this year, I want to find ways to hold onto the progress we’ve made and the processes we’ve put together on the fly. Amid all the adversity we’ve faced at PuppySpot, we have set a new standard for company culture to uphold in the future.

Jonathan Cherins is CEO of PuppySpot.

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