In March 2015 we received the bombshell from our U.S executives that our office in Oxford was to close as part of a long-term global consolidation of sites with some staff being offered relocation and the others made redundant. The products needed to continue, but how could we avoid the remaining time just being miserable?

Staff were asked to complete their current work and assist with knowledge transfer to the remaining development offices in the USA and India. The previous few years had seen good progress with agile and lean software development, customer satisfaction had steadily risen and staff turnover had been extremely low. So the closure announcement was a body blow. The chance of the announcement being taken badly was all too real with the risk of the situation disintegrating into a depressing mess.

The Oxford management team had the difficult task of trying to make the best of the situation and get the best outcomes for both staff and the company. One year on, the results so far have been remarkably positive. We can therefore make some recommendations for anyone else in this situation, some of which are also worth considering for companies during normal operations.

Actions taken

  1.  Long notice period – We managed to agree 18 months’ notice of the final closure.   This was necessary to complete current work and have an effective handover so that the complex medical imaging software products could continue. However, it was a very long time to hope that people would stay so other measures were needed.
  2.  Generous redundancy packages.   These were agreed at a level which impressed staff. With their tax-free nature, this gave people confidence that even if they didn’t find another job immediately, they would not have any financial worries for a few months.
  3.  Relocation support – Real commitment was shown to staff to find them other places within Siemens. This included generous relocation packages, funded exploratory visits for staff and families, advice from locals and flexible move dates. This was not cheap, but the cost was much less than hiring and training somebody new.
  4.  Voluntary end dates – Rather than imposing end dates, staff were asked to openly express whether they wanted to stay 6, 12 or 18 months.   It’s very hard to predict how people will react so it was better to try to align individual’s needs with business needs. Almost 100% of people got they end date they wanted, most opted for the longer duration and the company had adequate cover.
  5.  Keeping a training budget – Staff were given encouragement to still do training and qualifications.  The company would still get some benefit from the training in the short-term, it would help staff with finding a new position, but mostly it helped reassure staff that they could stay and still develop themselves.
  6.  A larger entertainment budget – It was important for people to socialise and support each other so there was an increase in company-funded drinks, lunches and a bigger-than- normal Christmas party.
  7.  Help with job-hunting – Staff were allowed to take some time for interviews and encouraged to have an open discussion on opportunities with support given to try to accommodate people’s wishes where possible.   External consultants were available to advise on interview techniques, CV-writing and job hunting.
  8.  Effective use of employee representatives – Rather than just fulfilling a legal requirement, a real effort was made to engage with the elected employee representatives, create a detailed FAQ for staff and share all information on the intranet.
  9.  Continued staff recognition.   The office was required to operate properly for an extended period so it was only fair that staff should be treated normally and retain the opportunity to still achieve an above-target bonus and the opportunity for promotion.
  10.  Management care – The managers have been very open, honest and helpful to the staff and shown genuine care and empathy for people and their circumstances.  This probably made the biggest difference and enabled so many of the positive results.  A site closure can be viewed by staff as a big breach of trust, so asking staff to believe promises about arrangements during the remaining period is a challenge and requires lots of reinforcement, consistency and ensuring that was is said is done.

Results

  1.  Staff morale – This went through the inevitable rollercoaster of shock, anger, worry then acceptance.   People were annoyed or upset at the decision, but overall viewed the offers as fair and professional.   Staff who had been through a redundancy before thought that the way this was handled was much better. Although losing colleagues is unavoidably sad, people have been positive about making the best of the situation.
  2.  Staff stayed until their agreed date – The long notice period and generous packages meant that most people were fairly relaxed about finding a new position and happy to leave serious job hunting until a few months before their agreed end date.  Whilst, it’s an imposed change for everyone, in some cases, staff have appreciated having the “luxury” of having an extended period with a financial cushion during which to calmly think about what alternative job they would really like to do in future. Staff have been open about their hunting and have discussed mutually agreeable end-dates before accepting offers.
  3.  Results still achieved. Work on products continued at a good level.  Inevitably people weren’t going the extra mile in quite the same way as they used to but were professional and productive.   Staff have been helpful in ramping up new recruits in India and continue to take pride in their products.  There have been no surprise, early, resignations or disciplinary issues.
  4.  A surprising number relocated. 25% of people relocated to the USA which was a lot higher than anyone originally expected since people liked being in Oxford.
  5.  Additional social events – The activity in the office “community” if anything picked up since the news with whisky tasting, a pool tournament, team nights out, a group cycle ride around town etc.
  6.  Peer-to- peer training – Staff have shown a great desire to support each other and proactively run open seminars for others in the office to share their knowledge with others (e.g. Sharepoint, Data Science, Android Programming, Arduino programming, Linux etc)
  7.  More cakes – We’ve always provided cakes on a Friday but the number of spontaneous cakes being brought into the office on other days has gone up.

Overall it has been a much more positive experience it could have been. The office morale is still good and the staff have received outstanding praise for their continued professionalism and dedication.

The results has been good for the company as there is a smooth handover taking place while ensuring that people are taken care of.   The actions above have not been cheap for the company in the short-term, but are ultimately delivering better long-term value than the alternative of instant site closure followed by disorder and a long period of rebuilding a new team from scratch.

Suggestions relevant for companies not closing

Whilst some of the topics are only relevant to a site closure, some things could be beneficial anytime.

  1. Management openness is always a good thing. It’s easy to forget the importance of explaining plans and listening to feedback. Make sure there’s time for group meetings, 1 to 1 sessions and occasional surveys.
  2. Peer-to- peer training is always very cost-effective so time and support should be given for this. Staff have a lot of varied knowledge and it’s motivating for both the trainer and attendees.
  3. Creative entertainment. It can be an easy area to cut, but pays back a lot. If people have a good social relationship with colleagues, they are much more committed to them and hence also the company. The entertainment does not necessarily have to be lavish e.g. a pool table and     tournament, an indoor mini-golf area made out of office accessories and text books, a pancake- tossing event on Shrove Tuesday etc. Something a bit different every few months keeps things fresh. Cakes, are always good.
  4. Look for the best outcome for both staff and the company given the circumstances. Arrangements with staff have to be fair to get the best results in the long-term.

By: Stephen Wells, Siemens Molecular Imaging, Oxford

Remote Work: Stories of People and Teams Doing Great Things

Apr 29, 2016

Get ready to pack up your laptop and hit the road!

Today, I specialise in facilitating remote work. And it was an experience ten years ago that turned a light bulb on for me — in a way I would have never expected.

I was living in California at the time and belonged to a social community interested in the future, technology, and staying healthy. Every Sunday, we’d meet up for a hike together. One member of the group was particularly interesting to me because he was working on a startup idea I’d never encountered before: he wanted to eradicate death.

To the outside world, it appeared that he was building an online project management tool. That was a very “normal” startup idea, even for ten years ago. But what most people didn’t know was that he was building the tool so that longevity scientists from all over the world could collaborate and solve the “problem” of aging.

He had found that the best people needed for this unusual collaboration were not living in the same place. So his vision was to build a tool that they could use to work together remotely.

It was a true “aha experience” for me. Once we remove the issue of being geographically dispersed, we can gather the best, most enthusiastic people together virtually to work on the most challenging problems imaginable.

I was hooked by the concept and started interviewing people and companies working remotely to see what they were doing. Down the rabbit hole I went!

In the past, we had to go to a specific geographic place in order to access the information we needed for our work. Now, that information is likely accessible from anywhere. And this gives us the opportunity to play with new ways of working and new business models.

I’m increasingly seeing a move from a model of work-life balance, which assumes that work and life shouldn’t overlap or blend, to work-life fusion, where the lines between work and life blur.

Work and Life: No Longer at Odds

Jeffry Hesse is an agile coach working with a distributed development team of approximately 40 people at a company called Sonatype. He loves his work. He also loves mountain climbing, photography, and spending time with his grandmother.

Because he can work from anywhere, Jeffry combines his passions by working while traveling. He started by trying an experiment with his remote team. He spent one month traveling in Argentina — and didn’t tell his colleagues he would be on the road.

He wanted to test how productive he could be while traveling, and if anyone on the team would notice.

Admittedly, it was hard. Finding a decent internet connection in Argentina was one of the most challenging aspects. He tried coworking spaces and staying with friends — and his technical know-how came in very handy while experimenting with various VOIP phones. But while it was hard work, and sometimes shaky, he managed to get his work done without the distributed team noticing that he was on the road.

While being a digital nomad may seem like a radically unconventional way of working compared to the traditional 9 to 5 job, it gives us a glimpse into what’s becoming possible…and increasingly common.

What Does It Mean Today to Be “Present”?

The tools that allow us to work in new ways are developing at breakneck speed. One of the most exciting examples of this is telepresence. Telepresence is a combination of technologies that give you presence somewhere other than your actual location. Your smartphone and standard video conferencing tools — even Facetime — can all be considered forms of telepresence.

My favorite form of telepresence? Robots.

The Revolve Robotics Kubi, for example, allows someone to call in (via video conferencing) to any tablet device. The difference is that you can move the tablet from side-to-side and up and down and control where you are looking from your own laptop.

For instance, if you are a remote participant at a meeting where everyone else is sitting together in a room, you can turn yourself to see who is talking. Other telepresence robots allow you to beam in to what is basically a tablet on wheels, and drive yourself around using the arrow keys of your keyboard. Schools use these for kids who can’t attend classes in person. Museums use these to give remote tours. Even doctors use them when specialists are scarce.

These interactive sensory experiences bring us closer to replicating what it’s like to be together in the same room. And the technology gets better and less expensive every year, opening new options all the time. Holograms are just around the corner!

How Businesses Are Changing

Because of these new technologies, more and more people are like Jeffry, seeking to balance their work with the freedom to pursue their passions. What it means to actually “be at work” is changing rapidly — businesses are evolving as well. Here are three examples:

A Virtual Network With Global Impact

Happy Melly is a social entrepreneurship network of individuals and small businesses dedicated to happiness at work. Supporters include coaches, creatives, authors, speakers, managers, and entrepreneurs. Members of Happy Melly help amplify and globalise great business ideas through virtual and in-person workshops, blogs, guides, books, tools, and videos.

I joined the network to get business advice from people who shared my same purpose and values. With the help of “colleagues” from all over the world, I learned how to structure and scale my company, Collaboration Superpowers, so that myWork Together Anywhere workshop could be offered online and in person around the globe. I’m also now the remote team manager for Happy Melly.

Serendipity Turned Them Into a Team

The team at StarterSquad first started working together (remotely) when a client hired them for a software development project. They didn’t know each other before the project started, but over time, the team clicked.

At one point, the client unexpectedly ran out of money — but the team members weren’t ready to part ways. They decided to find other clients so they could stay working together. They now operate as a self-organised team of entrepreneurs, specialising in building minimum viable products for software startups. In addition, they offer seed funding for startups whose ideas they believe in.

Forget About Facetime

Another company, Teamed.io, prides themselves on having no central office, no meetings, and no phone, Skype, or video calls. The company is made up of a large group of freelance software developers that have never met or spoken to each other. They work entirely through chat on task management systems.

Specific people are brought together for projects depending on the skillset that’s needed. Projects are broken down into very small tasks. Programmers are paid as they complete tasks, and they are not paid if the tasks are not completed. When the project is over, the team is dissolved and everyone moves on to other projects.

Extreme? Perhaps. But it does show ways of working that were never before possible.

Leveraging the Remote Advantage

There are numerous benefits to being able to work from anywhere. Some resonate most for solopreneurs and digital nomads as a source of empowerment to work and travel. Others please HR departments and hiring managers who need to build virtual teams or want to offer flexible benefits to their employees. A few are aiming to raise visibility around worker happiness and the environmental benefits of not commuting.

The ability to tap into information and collaborate with colleagues from anywhere has opened up new possibilities for work-life freedom. People can work on the things they are most passionate about, and businesses can hire people who love what they do versus people who are just doing their jobs.

If you haven’t thought about what’s possible with remote collaboration options in a while, you might be surprised by what’s happening — and what’s possible for you as well! I encourage you to do some more exploring. We’ve come a long way, and it’s only getting better from here.

By: Lisette Sutherland from Collaboration Superpowers

Self selection – How to restructure your team for greater autonomy.

May 16, 2016

One of our largest departments within Ocado Technology recently undertook a revolutionary self-selecting restructuring exercise, changing the entire structure of the department whilst allowing all team members to choose which team they would like to work in going forward. The need came about because multiple teams were stretched, working across two major business propositions and context switching between them. The goal was that following the restructure there would be a clear split between teams working on two different business propositions, such that each of those teams could really focus on that product.

ukteamsanonymous-

The overall aim of this restructure was to achieve greater alignment, autonomy and purpose.

Following the principle that a collaborative and distributed approach is often the best way to solve a complex optimisation problem, we decided to take a full day as a whole department to stop work and have a facilitated event to negotiate the moves amongst the five new teams. We did a lot of thinking and preparation prior to this day and the teams used a set of constraints around team size and experience levels to guide their decisions.

The plan going into the event was shared well ahead of time to allow people to get their questions in (and added to a shared FAQ forum) and to be sure the concepts were clear going into the day. Alongside this, we ran multiple “townhall” sessions where people could air their concerns and ask their questions openly. We hoped that at the end of the process we would have well-rounded, committed teams ready to face the new challenge.

There was a certain amount of ad-libbing and practical adjustments on the day, but on the whole it unfolded according to the plan:

– First, a pitch for each team by the Product Owner, covering the vision/roadmap and why the team is super cool and awesome. There was also a set of target criteria for each team as a guide for what we were looking to achieve in each area.

– Next, multiple iterations where we:

1. Assigned or moved ourselves/each other between teams until we’ve addressed any identified issues in         the previous iteration.

2. See if we had met the pre-defined criteria for each team.

3. Repeat until we run out of time or we meet all of the requirements and everybody is happy and                       committed to the team that they are in.

Fuelled by 18 pizzas, we completed three exhausting rounds of moves and peer voting. At the end of each round, we (everyone, including Product Owners and Team Leads) voted on the viability of each team. From this we measured two scores: an intra-team score (the people in that team scoring the viability of the team), and an inter-team score (the rest of the people scoring the viability of that team). This lead to a few interesting dynamics, for example one of the teams gave themselves a high intra-team score, but scored low on the inter-team vote. They then gave a pitch justifying their viability as a team, and were able to dramatically increase their inter-team score in the next round.

The first round was deliberately obviously suboptimal, so that everyone was motivated to suggest changes and improvements and become comfortable with doing so in a very “safe” way. Naturally, this configuration had dramatically lower scores! This encouraged a large amount of movement in the following rounds, as we had hoped.

votingresultsanonymous

Essential to finding a viable solution was an appreciation from all of the ‘greater good’ of Ocado Technology. On the day, some people chose to make some really big compromises in order to serve the greater good and allow us to form balanced teams that are all capable of smashing out quality software.

After the final round of voting we then took a quick anonymous happiness reading by each dropping a green, yellow or red lego piece into a box. Although they were not perfect, we were extremely pleased the results, considering that our original goals was “at least 50% happy”.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 1.23.46 AM

The very next morning we did a big-bang desk move:

image-resizer

We’ve since kept a close eye on the impact of the shuffle-up by measuring the things that matter most to us: throughput and team happiness. There was an expected initial dip in throughput as many people got up to speed on new products they had not worked on before and as new teams gelled and got to know each other. But the throughput three months on has risen higher than before the change and still rising. Improvements in team happiness (measured before and after by Spotify’s “health-checks”) were noteworthy from straight after the restructure.

In terms of the solution itself: we are delighted. Every team has a reasonable level of experience whilst a healthy number of people have chosen to change domain. It is a vastly better result than we could have hoped for had we chosen a top-down approach and the sense of autonomy it has created is invaluable. It seems that teams and individuals have a stronger sense of ownership than ever before and that they are taking quality more seriously than ever before. This did have an up-front cost in terms of short term throughput, but the long term benefits certainly justify it.

James Lohr, Ocado Tech Department Head

How the Future of Tech Impacts Work Habits

Apr 29, 2016

During the DevExperience conference on the 25th of March, we sat down with one of the key speakers, Lisette Sutherland, to discuss the ways in which technology advancements, and VR in particular, will impact people’s lives and working habits.

Beaglecat: Could you please tell us something about yourself and the company you run?

Lisette Sutherland: I am the director of my own company, Collaboration Superpowers. Myself and other licensed Facilitators give online and in-person workshops to help companies work better together remotely. I am also the remote team manager at a company called Happy Melly – a global network of businesses that are focused on making people happier at work (included are Management 3.0, my company, LeanChange.org, Improv Agility, and others).

BC: Do you think in 5-10 years we will have offices like we have today or do you think everyone will work remotely?

L.S.: Technology is making the traditional ”9 to 5” schedule unnecessary and less attractive for more and more people, especially the younger generation. The most important thing is working from where you are the most productive. Some people work better on the road, some at the beach, some from the office, some from the comfort of their own home – everyone should choose what works best for them.

BC: Do you think that we will be able to work using Virtual Reality in the near future?

L.S.: They’re already doing it. Virtual worlds have existed for more than 20 years now. People are going to school and earning degrees in VR. People are going to conferences in VR. The military uses VR for simulations.

The only issue is that navigating in VR is very difficult, it’s like learning to play the piano. That’s why it’s not so popular. It’s worth trying it out to see what it’s like to be in a virtual world. For example, you can create an account in SecondLife. When you log in, you are placed on a “newbie beach”, literally a beach for new people. Then you have to learn how to move your character and interact with the world and find your way to the place you want to go (like a conference).

BC: I am guessing that 10 years from now this is going to grow. How do you think this is going to impact us?

L.S.: One thing to be careful of is getting enough real life social activity. Technology has an addictive, unhealthy side to it. Each person needs to create healthy boundaries for themselves. The exciting thing is that with technology people can get together from anywhere in the world and solve interesting and challenging problems. I used to work for a company that was developing an online project management tool. The CEO was building it because he wanted to solve the problem of aging. He was frustrated that longevity scientists all over the world couldn’t properly collaborate together and easily share data. So he set out to build a tool they could use to collaborate at a distance. For me it was an ‘aha’ moment. I realized that if we could get the right people together, we could do great things like curing cancer or stopping global warming, or aging.

BC: What do you think the world will look like in 20 years?

L.S.: It is hard to say because if you asked someone 20 years ago what the future would look like today, they would have probably envisioned it completely different.

I recently held a workshop in Lebanon from the Netherlands using a robot – so I beamed into Lebanon, talked to the people as if I were there in the room. Drivable robots are also available now. For example, my friend from Canada beamed into one of these robots in Las Vegas, I beamed into another one from the Netherlands, and we both attended a conference as if we were in Las Vegas together. We visited booths, saw a presentation, had tea together, all from the comfort of our own living rooms. If you had told me I’d be doing that 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

When borders dissolve, the possibilities really start to open up. For example, someone in Romania can work with a team in San Francisco, or a team in Vietnam. Sometimes you need that one guy or girl with that unique skill that nobody has – and what if that girl is not from the city you are working in?

There are also many people in the past that have been limited by location. For example, military spouses, disabled people or retired people. Military spouses have a hard time finding stable work because they are constantly moving. And there are many people who have retired, but still want to practice their craft or continue working somewhere. Because of remote technologies, there’s a whole new pool of people to choose from for the work that needs to get done.

BC: So do you think that in the future robots will do everything?

L.S.: I think robots should do the boring work and humans should do the interesting work. And maybe in the future not everybody will have to work full time, and maybe that’s ok. Do we have to work 40 hours a week? Why? That was a random number set by Henry Ford. Maybe we could work 20 hours a week and the rest of the time we could travel, or work on our hobbies, or spend time with our family, or just do whatever we want.

BC: What do you think is the influence of technology on productivity?

L.S.: Recently, I see a lot of companies struggling to go from being time-oriented to results-oriented. When we can work from anywhere, the focus is more on what you get done, not how long it takes you to do it. Spending the whole day at the office only means that you spent the whole day in the office, not that you were productive.

Summing up, the good thing about technology is that it dissolves borders but it requires a new way of working. What it means to be “present” at work is changing, and it’s opening a lot of new opportunities. A lot has happened in the last five years. I encourage people to explore some of the new tools and think about how they can use it in their own lives. My Work Together Anywhere Workshop is a great place to start.

Lisette Sutherland is Director atCollaborationSuperpowers.com, a company that helps teams work together from anywhere. She is also the remote team manager for the all-remote freelance team at Happy Melly.

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