Getting Teams Back To Work

Note: This letter was written by the Information Ventures Partners team and sent to its CEOs. 

May 13, 2020

Dear CEOs,

As the Coronavirus lockdown eases over the coming weeks and months, the economy reopens, and companies begin to welcome employees back into the office, questions remain regarding the safety of the return to business as usual.

It’s clear that moving to a 100% remote workforce (as difficult as that may have been) was a lot easier than it will be to have our employees return to the office.

With uncertainty still running high, our team at Information Venture Partners, has assembled a collection of the best reopening insights to help guide our CEOs on how to lead their organizations and safeguard the wellbeing of their employees during this unprecedented public-health crisis.

To be clear, we have not been through anything like this before and this guide should not be considered complete. That said we did our best to surface a list of priorities to help you tailor a plan to suit your unique circumstances and company culture.

Here are three key focus areas that CEOs should keep in mind to ensure their workers stay healthy: Effective bilateral communication; Control density and defend the physical and virtual perimeter, and most importantly, the mental health and well-being of your people.

Effective Bilateral Communication:

There have been plenty of examples of poor communication and misinformation throughout this pandemic. In our assessment, nothing is more critical for crisis management than a clear and centralized organizational framework for transmitting consistent messaging, and to process employee concerns.

To this end, CEOs should delegate COVID-related communications and updates to a trusted manager who has sufficient understanding of issues and compliance risks, and who can communicate these issues effectively.

Compliance officers, depending on their bandwidth, may be best positioned to shoulder the load. But if they are stretched to capacity, or if this position does not exist within the organization, perhaps this task could be best handled by the COO or Chief People Officer. We have a host of digital communications to help solicit how employees are feeling (anonymously) and surface issues that may otherwise go undetected. Consider using portfolio company Thoughtexchange or other vendors like Talivest.

Regardless, whoever is tapped to manage the flow of COVID-related information exchange should be a proficient verbal communicator who has a firm grasp of risk management.

Control Density and Defend Physical and Virtual Perimeters

During the shutdown, firms have already become acclimated to conducting meetings through remote work technologies (RWTs) like Zoom. However, just because the office has reopened doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t continue to leverage this tech to mitigate COVID risk.

In fact, platforms like Zoom can enable in-office videoconferencing to minimize the threat of infection that could transpire during non-essential meetings. Ultimately, RWTs can help companies manage in-

office employee density more intelligently and prevent unnecessary in-person interactions between employees.

While always difficult, lay the groundwork for a cultural shift that will support the conversion of remote-work capabilities—many set up on the fly as the coronavirus pandemic spread—into permanent features of the workplace. The move will enable companies to maintain social distancing by limiting the number of on-site employees at any given time, according to Forrester researchers.

It’s also important to remember that just because businesses are experimenting with re-openining, this doesn’t mean that CEOs are obligated to recall all of their employees back to the office. Leaders should still feel empowered to take advantage of RWTs as much as possible.

Stagger Schedules

For organizations that need to have some of their employees back in the office to operate properly, controlling in-office density is key. Consider alternating or staggering schedules to limit the fullness of the office environment. It may also be important to set occupancy thresholds for common areas like break rooms and kitchens.

But again, we advise CEOs to limit in-person attendance to only those employees whose physical presence has been deemed essential. If they haven’t already, CEOs should plan with their fellow C-suite executives to determine who absolutely needs to come in and who can work from home.

Limit Eating Out

In addition to controlling density, CEOs should consider limiting going off-site for lunch. Just like external health facilities and public transit systems, restaurants and other food-service establishments heighten employees’ risk of coming into contact with infected people.

For employees that have meals sent to them via delivery, it is important that companies specify that food be delivered in prepackaged containers or insist on no contact delivery to limit the risk of contamination via the improper handling of food.

Staging Area for Equipment

Based on initial discussions with our portfolio companies we expect engineering teams may be among the first to return to physical offices. Based on research by Forrester, we recommend developing a strategy for sanitizing and maintaining tools—including PCs, mobile devices, monitors, keyboards and mice—to keep them germ-free without damaging them. A potential strategy is to create a staging area that’s outside of the front door of the office where employees can bring their home technology in and sanitize it.

Cybersecurity Hygiene

The Zoom security vulnerability disclosed last month, which allowed hackers to snoop on unsuspecting users, may have been patched but recent disturbing breaches in Oregon and the UK are a cause for concern. It follows that management teams should conduct a risk assessment regarding the security of their videoconferencing platforms and network access.

One highly secure alternative recently touted by Vice and used by some reputable investigative journalism organizations is Jitsi. While Jitsi does not encrypt its video streams, the app “allows users to run their own server so they can encrypt the video streams to this server, which they control,” according to Vice.

In the age of pervasive phishing attacks and business email compromise scams, managing fraud and cyber risks have become security vectors of existential importance. Sadly, portfolio companies like Verafin and eSentire have seen an increase in the volume of COVID related scams and CTOs must double down on employee education to prevent attacks.

Offer Mental Wellness Resources

During this unprecedented crisis, employees are understandably anxious. Not only are they questioning the resiliency of their personal finances and how they will be able to provide for their families, but they are also contemplating the stability of the world as we know it.

In the U.S., 45 % of adults who responded to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health poll said worry and stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. The Centers for Disease Control advises people to be on guard for the following symptoms of unhealthy stress levels:

• Changes in sleep or eating patterns

• Difficulty sleeping or concentrating

• Worsening of chronic health problems

• Worsening of mental health conditions

• Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

During this time, management teams need to be attuned to their employees’ behavior to ensure they are not falling into any type of abyss, while also safeguarding their own mental health. Key to this is limiting the feeling of isolation.

Although, some people are going to be back in the office, others will still be working from home. As many of you already are, consider hosting virtual office hours on a secure videoconferencing service to nurture the office community and make sure everybody is doing ok.

To this end, management teams should continue offering flexible work arrangements to their personnel. For people that are back in the office, it’s a good policy for organizations to advise teams to regularly unplug from the news cycle and social media, as both can fuel anxiety. Offering meditation instruction and breaks can also help people rediscover their center. Encouraging exercise, yoga, and physical fitness, in general, can also help.

But if things get bad and employees feel like they need somebody to talk to, management teams should be able to send them in the right direction. For example, our portfolio companies Sensibill and Q4 have provided all of their employees with a mental-health resources packet that includes contact information for various crisis lines, along with various informational articles and other resources to help people manage their jitters. Coconut Software and Flybits have been exploring solutions such as Talkspace and Betterhelp for these purposes.

The “Double Double Shift”

While the coronavirus and economic crises have had negative effects on everyone, a new survey and its high-profile advocate — Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — suggest women are being hit hardest by the increased pressures of work and home in the midst of this deadly pandemic.

Coronavirus has exacerbated the stresses and inequities working women were already experiencing, Sandberg said. Working mothers often work a “double shift” in normal times, logging more time doing

housework and childcare than working fathers. But now with schools closed and a lack of childcare, the pressures have compounded.

“The inequality we’ve always had on the balance of work in the home, which has always hurt women in the office, is now getting worse,” Sandberg said. Women are now doing what she calls a “double double shift.” Consider allowing more flexibility for single parents and those families with two full-time working parents.

Other Considerations and Final Words

Beyond safety precautions, management teams and boards need to come together and ensure they are acting in the best interests of their shareholders. This means doing everything possible to keep the company healthy and solvent.

And when it comes to managing supplier relations, companies should communicate with their vendors on how and when they will get paid, in the wake of so much economic uncertainty. For management teams that have preferential relationships with certain suppliers, and who are facing a cash crunch, consider requesting some additional flexibility to honor payment terms.

Doing this proactively can reap better outcomes than just halting payments without notice.

Ultimately, there is much that remains unknown about the virus or how North America and the world will respond to a second wave of infections. It’s important that management teams have a backup plan if the reinstatement of in-office operations hits another bump in the road.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and want more detail than what we have provided here, take a look at the checklist prepared by Stikeman Elliott as a guide to some of the key considerations relating to employee recall, health and safety, responding to employee concerns and other topics.

Of course, we are also here to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us here at Information Venture Partners at any time.

Many thanks for your leadership.


Your Information Venture Partners team