It’s probably fair to say that at the start of the year, most organizations fell into one of three categories when it came to working from home: mostly (or even fully) remote; entirely in-office; or trying to figure out how to balance the two.
Until recently, CIRA fell squarely in the latter. As the managers of the .CA domain and the operators of mission-critical infrastructure, we have strong business continuity plans that include operating 100% remotely during an emergency. In normal operations times, however, we hesitated to be all in on working from home.
Everyone knew it was fair game if you had a medical appointment near your house in the middle of the day, or a writing project that needed you to be heads down. It was encouraged if you were sick (but not sick enough to take a sick day). But we didn’t have clear rules around working from home routinely.
Like most businesses in Canada, all that changed for us in mid-March when Canada’s massive work from home experiment started to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
We are luckier than most in that our contingency plan meant we had all (OK, most) of the technology in place. All of our employees have laptops and VPN access. Almost all have company-provided mobile phones.
Our organization provides a subsidy to ensure that every employee has a high-quality broadband internet connection. We have a largely technical workforce that was skilled to get themselves up and running remotely quickly, and our IT team doubled down to help the others (like me).
For us, at least, the technology piece was the easiest.
Adapting our healthy corporate culture, which was largely based on a strong in-person presence and building connections in real life, took more effort and intentionality. Even there, we weren’t starting at zero.
Being deliberate about culture in a remote setting
Although there are only 100 employees at CIRA, we have an enviable internal communications program. We frequently host AMAs (“ask me anything” events), have a monthly peer recognition program, and regularly schedule social events like company workouts and “beer o’clock” on Fridays.
We have found that a robust corporate culture helps build a strong sense of purpose around our goal of promoting a trusted internet for Canadians. Digitally, our workforce embraces online chats (including one channel dedicating to sending all-staff kudos for deserving actions), employee surveys, and – get this – people actually read our weekly company newsletter “This Week at CIRA.”
Taking that kind of connection, collaboration and togetherness to a virtual world was a top priority for us.
One of the tenets of our crisis communications plan is to communicate often, and to be transparent about what we do and don’t know. In the early days, our HR Director reached out to staff daily, providing ongoing information on our plans and status.
Within a week of us closing the office and transitioning to a fully work-from-home organization, we were able to move most of our communications and culture online.
Here’s how we did it:
- We implemented a weekly all-staff Webex meeting, including an AMA where employees could ask questions anonymously ahead of time, or in person at the meeting.
- We created a Virtual Café where employees are encouraged to shoot the, well you know, and have random conversations. In our physical offices, CIRA’s café is central to our culture. It is a meeting place at coffee and lunch time; it’s where staff gather for drinks on Friday afternoons. It’s our physical water cooler. So the first order of business was to establish a virtual water cooler everyone to share weird GIFs and pictures of their furry feline and canine colleagues.
- We quickly built some best practices on remote work that apply to our business, and added some technical how-tos to make sure everyone had what they needed to use our collaboration tools.
- We virtualized some of the things that mattered and were unique to us. Company trivia? Check. Semi-weekly streamed yoga sessions? Check check.
One of the key successes for us is that it hasn’t only been a top-down initiative, but also a bottom-up one. Staff at all levels have come up with ideas for staying connected with colleagues, and run with these initiatives, like trivia or weekly online games.
We’re all experimenting
We don’t think we have all the answers. Like just about everyone right now, we are still learning and adapting.
Our employees are figuring out how to balance work from home with young kids at home, or sick parents in care; how to battle the isolation of living alone; and what to do with your barking dog when your Amazon delivery shows up during a conference call.
What is clear is that the strong personal bonds that CIRA has created are serving us well right now. It is a strong foundation to the intentionality that is critical to making work from home work – any time, but especially now. Just like our global reality, we are evolving every day. We are learning, and adapting. But we’re off to a pretty good start.