The Quick Pivot to Remote: Lessons Learned from Helpshift

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Keeping our employees at Helpshift connected is always a focus for my team, and never more so than in the last month. 

Back in early February, when the novel coronavirus first came on our radar as a major threat, we already knew there might eventually be a mandate for our workforce to go remote. The initial concern was for our team in India, but as more and more data came in, we saw that the pandemic would quickly be a global issue. By March, the potential of a lockdown became part of our daily dialogue at Helpshift.

When we decided to close the physical offices and go remote, we did so globally—and quickly. We announced the decision on a Thursday, effective Monday, with Friday optional for in-office work. Business continuity was of course an essential consideration, and plans were drawn up to ensure the business could keep going during a very abnormal situation. But beyond that, we recognized that keeping our team informed and engaged was crucial. So we worked together to develop a plan to keep employees informed and their minds at ease while they navigate and adjust to a new normal. 

Today, all of Helpshift’s 171 employees around the world are working remotely. Thanks to the efforts of my People Ops team, we’ve been able to be as proactive as possible under very high-pressure circumstances.

I’d like to share our experience in the hopes it will give you ideas and best practices for your own team. Of course, we haven’t done it perfectly. This experience has been full of lessons for everyone, I imagine. But we’ve been able to transition from an office culture where remote work was rare to one where it’s mandatory, without sacrificing our productivity and without dropping the ball for customers.

Figuring out how to support people

We worried it would be hard for people who thrive on routine and social interaction to make the transition to working from home. Personally, I could certainly relate to this concern! But there was no time to dwell on this. We had to think quickly about ways to keep people engaged and support them both logistically and emotionally. 

Logistics-wise, the day we announced the decision, we encouraged Helpshift employees to take home any supplies they’d need to do their jobs. We made sure we had enough software licenses for each individual. And we conducted both team training and manager training to address any obvious early issues.

During this process, we realized we didn’t have any backup laptops for engineers in our Indian office. That had to be remedied right away!

Keeping culture alive and thriving

Keeping our people productive and effective was important. But equally critical was keeping our community engaged across our different global locations. We’re determined to keep our culture as vibrant as it always has been, and so far, it’s been a lively experiment. 

Every morning, I check in with our Slack channels to see how team members are doing around the world. It’s become a nice part of my morning routine to catch up on the workday-in-progress in India, and it’s given me a broader global perspective of our team.

As a community, we’ve been sharing fun memes and anecdotes on Slack on a daily basis. We’ve also been able to transition many of our standing community experiences to a virtual environment. Here are some of the activities we’ve been able to do remotely that you might draw some inspiration from:  

  • Team lunch – we created dedicated Zoom meetings for each major time zone
  • Book club – recent books include The Sympathizer and The Woman in the Window 
  • Movie night – this chrome extension allows a group to chat and watch a Netflix movie together 
  • Daily “Tea at Three” – coffee drinkers welcome too!
  • “Quarantini time”– replacing our in-person Friday ‘Wine Down’

I think we’ve all gravitated toward the personal stories people have been sharing, too. One of my favorite videos was a customer success team member playing a song with his daughter. There’s a common vulnerability in this time that shines through in conversation, as we get to hear uplifting stories from co-workers. It’s breeding deeper empathy among us all. If there’s a silver lining in this it’s been getting to know the teams better and seeing more engagement than ever.

Learning as we go

We had to kick into action quickly, and my team was incredible at this. The first week was hectic. The second week, we started to find our rhythm and routine, and the third week, we started changing things up and figuring out what was working and what wasn’t. It’s been all hands on deck, all the time, with ideas bubbling up from everyone, everywhere.

A lot of the decisions we’ve made and the protocols we’ve put in motion in the last few weeks have been crowdsourced from beyond our team, too. We knew plenty of neighboring companies in Silicon Valley had already done the work on how to bring a company remote, so we leaned into that knowledge whenever we could. Collaborative knowledge sharing becomes important when you’re trying to surmount a steep learning curve quickly and under pressure.

Next steps and more unknowns

We know we have at least four more weeks of this remote work setup, so top of mind for us is the mental health of everyone on our team. As the weeks go on, our next challenge will be how to ensure that we check on each other and lift each other up as much as possible. We’ve already started across-the-board check-ins. One of our core values is “empower each other, triumph together.” Never has that been a more fitting mandate.

So what will it look like to return to work? It’s too early to say, but we will definitely be throwing a big party to celebrate our togetherness. We’re really looking forward to getting through these weeks, as long as they are, and getting back together.
But keep in mind that remote work will probably become the new normal for some people after all this is over. A lot of companies, including Helpshift, will probably rethink their remote policies. For now, we’re just grateful to have such a fantastic team that has been all in on the transition to necessary remote work during this time. We have yet to be slowed down.

Published April 17, 2020
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