Feb
14
2019
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Zendesk just hired three former Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe execs

Today, Zendesk announced it has hired three new executives — Elisabeth Zornes, former general manager of global support for Microsoft Office, as Zendesk’s first chief customer officer; former Adobe executive Colleen Berube as chief information officer and former Salesforce executive Shawna Wolverton as senior vice president, product.

The company emphasized that the hirings were about expanding the executive suite and bringing in top people to help the company grow and move into larger enterprise organizations.

From left to right: Shawna Wolverton, Colleen Berube and Elisabeth Zornes

Zornes comes to Zendesk with 20 years of experience including time at Microsoft working in a variety of roles around Microsoft Office. She says that what attracted her to Zendesk was its focus on the customer.

“When I look at businesses today, no matter what size, what type or what geography, they can agree on one thing: customer experience is the rocket fuel to drive success. Zendesk has positioned itself as a technology company that empowers companies of all kinds to drive a new level of success by focusing on their customer experience, and helping them to be at the forefront of that was a very intriguing opportunity for me,” Zornes told TechCrunch.

New CIO Berube, who comes with two decades of experience, also sees her new job as a chance to have an impact on customer experience and help companies that are trying to transform into digital organizations. “Customer experience is the linchpin for all organizations to succeed in the digital age. My background is broad, having shepherded many different types of companies through digital transformations, and developing and running modern IT organizations,” she said.

Her boss, CEO and co-founder Mikkel Svane, sees someone who can help continue to grow the company and develop the product. “We looked specifically for a CIO with a modern mindset who understands the challenges of large organizations trying to keep up with customer expectations today,” Svane told TechCrunch.

As for senior VP of product Wolverton, she comes with 15 years of experience, including a stint as head of product at Salesforce. She said that coming to Zendesk was about having an impact on a modern SaaS product. “The opportunity to build a modern, public, cloud-native CRM platform with Sunshine was a large part of my decision to join,” she said.

The three leaders have already joined the organization — Wolverton and Berube joined last month and Zornes started just this week.

Feb
12
2019
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Google takes Hire, its G Suite recruitment platform, to its first global markets, UK and Canada

The recruitment market is big business — worth some $554 billion annually according to the most recent report from the World Employment Confederation. In the tech world, that translates into a big opportunity to build tools to make a recruiter’s work easier, faster and more likely of success in finding the right people for the job. Now Google is stepping up its own efforts in the space: today it is expanding Hire, its G Suite-based recruitment management platform, to the UK and Canada, its first international markets outside the US.

Google is a somewhat late entrant into the market, launching Hire only in 2017 with the basic ability to use apps like Gmail, Calendar, Spreadsheets and Google Voice to help people manage and track candidates through the recruiting process and doing so by integrating with third-party job boards. In the interim, it has supercharged the service with bells and whistles that draw on the company’s formidable IP in areas like AI and search.

These tools provide robotic process automation-style aids to take away some of the more repetitive tasks around admin.

“Recruiters want time to talk to candidates but they don’t want to sit in systems clicking things,” said Dmitri Krakovsky, the VP leads Hire for Google. “We give time back by automating a lot of functionality.” They also sift out needles in haystacks of applicants and surface interesting “lookalikes” who didn’t quite make the cut (or take the job) so that they can be targeted for future opportunities.

And — naturally — while Hire links up with third-party job boards via services like eQuest to bring inbound people into the system, it also provides seamless integration with Jobs by Google, Google’s own vertical search effort that is taking on the traditional job board by letting people look for opportunities with natural language queries in Google’s basic search window

Krakovsky said that the first international launches in Canada and the UK made sense because of the lack of language barrier between them and the US. The UK was key for another reason, too: it gave Google the chance to tweak the product to comply with GDPR, he said, for future launches.

While markets like the UK and US represent some of the very biggest for recruitment services globally, it’s a long tail opportunity, and over time, the ambition will be to take Hire global, positioning it as a key rival against the likes of Taleo, LinkedIn, Jobvite, Zoho, SmartRecruiter and many others in the area of applicant sourcing and tracking.

Currently, Hire ranks only at number 23 among the top 100 applicant tracking systems globally, according to research from OnGig, but it also singles it out for its potential because it is, after all, Google. For now, Krakovsky said it’s not taking on large enterprises or even tiny mom-and-pop shops, but the very large opportunity of between 10 and a couple of thousand employees.

The bigger opportunity for Google is on a couple of levels. First, it sells Hire as a paid product that helps bolster the company’s wider offering of Google Cloud Platform software and services. These prices range from $100/month to $400/month depending on company size (and you work directly with Google on pricing if your organization is over 100 employees). Second, it bolsters the company’s wider ambitions in recruitment, which also include the API-based Cloud Talent Solutions and its vertical search job boards. It’s a quiet but huge strategy, considering the size of the market that is being tackled.

Google’s supercharging of Hire with AI and taking it international highlights another point. One of the biggest meta-trends in recruitment has been a push to try to hire with more diversity in mind, not just to bring fairness to the process, but to infuse businesses with different ways of thinking and catering to different audiences.

While AI is something that can definitely speed up certain processes, it has also been shown to be a potential cesspool of bias based on what is fed into it. One particularly messy example of that, in fact, came from an attempt by Amazon to build an AI-based recruitment tool, which it eventually had to shut down.

Google is well aware of that and has been keeping it in mind when building and expanding Hire particularly to new territories, which in themselves are exercises in handling diversity for AI systems.

Krakovsky noted that one example of how Google has been building more “understanding” AI is in its searches for veterans, who can look for jobs using their own jargon for expertise, which automatically gets translated into other skills in the way they might be described by employers outside the military.

That’s for sourcing jobs, of course. The key for the tech world, if it wants to build products that will have international staying power to upset the existing “hire”archy (sorry), will be to bring that kind of levelling to every aspect of the recruiting process over time.

Those at the top are not sitting back, either: just yesterday Jobvite (ranked fifth largest ATS tracking platform) announced a funding round of $200 million and three acquisitions.

Feb
11
2019
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Jobvite raises $200M+ and acquires three recruitment startups to expand its platform play

Jobvite, the company that was once an early mover in leveraging social networks to help source job opportunities and find interesting candidates for openings, is today announcing two big moves to double down on its ambition to build a bigger platform for recruitment and applicant tracking.

The company has picked up an investment of more than $200 million, and it will be using the money to acquire three smaller companies focusing on different aspects of the recruitment process: Talemetry (which specializes in recruitment marketing); RolePoint (for employee referrals and in-company moves); and Canvas (a text-based conversational bot to get the screening process started).

Jobvite is not disclosing its valuation with the funding, which is coming from private equity firm K1, but for a little guidance, in an interview, Dan Finnigan, Jobvite’s CEO, said it was a majority stake but nowhere near a full acquisition. (PitchBook’s last valuation of the company, of around $150 million, is very old, dating from September 2014; and it has never been confirmed by the company.)

The combined company will have 2,000+ customers that include Schneider Electric, Lenovo, Santander, PayPal, Genuine Parts and Panasonic.

Finnigan says that Jobvite’s growth, and investor interest in backing that, is happening in tandem with two changes, one technological and another the evolution in how organizations handle human resources.

Several years ago, many companies — hoping to cut costs — merged their personnel and recruitment operations, “and recruiting became an afterthought,” he said. That led to companies tacking on, as a kind of minimum viable solution, applicant tracking software, but little or nothing else.

But more recently, the war for talent has escalated — not just because unemployment is low but because there are now multiple different opportunities and shortages of suitable people for specific, often emerging skills. In turn, businesses have started to realise “that recruiting is the backbone of every company, and that applicant tracking is just not enough,” he said.

At the same time, there have been evolutions in the technology. While a lot of recruitment software (and the recruitment process) has traditionally been quite fragmented, a move to cloud solutions has provided an avenue for consolidating the process and using one platform to manage it. (Google’s launch of Hire, which lets users manage job applicants using G Suite apps; LinkedIn’s recruitment platform; Zoho and SmartRecruiter are all prime examples of how cloud platforms are being used to build more complete sourcing and tracking services.)

Coupled with this is a rising use of technology like machine learning to remove some of the more mechanical aspects of a recruiter’s job to speed up processes.

Jobvite’s three acquisitions all play into both of these trends. Canvas, for example, uses a bot to source initial information about a candidate to start the screening process before human recruiters step in to take over.

Talemetry, meanwhile, taps into marketing tech to help identify where the most ideal candidates might be in order to better target job opportunities at them, in the form of ads or other kinds of content.

Lastly, RolePoint will add a new feature to tap into referrals from existing employees, and to help manage in-company moves.

Finnigan likens the cloud-based platform approach that we’re seeing in the market to the impact Salesforce has had on the expanding concept of CRM. “We know that marketing and sales software have continued to evolve with new features like content marketing, and the same has happened in recruitment,” he said.

“We are excited to be investing in such an innovative set of technologies,” says Ron Cano, managing partner at K1 Investment Management, in a statement. “The talent acquisition industry is critical to our economy and ripe for disruption with outdated software still prevalent. K1’s investment will create the only true end-to-end talent acquisition platform and will provide our customers with accelerated growth in innovation of product features and services.”

Jan
17
2019
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On-demand workspace platform Breather taps new CEO

Breather’s new CEO Bryan Murphy / Breather Press Kit

Breather, the platform that provides on-demand private workspace, announced today that it has appointed Bryan Murphy as its new CEO.

Before joining Breather, Murphy was the founder and president of direct-to-consumer mattress startup, Tomorrow Sleep. Prior to Tomorrow Sleep, Murphy held posts as an advisor to investment firms and as an executive at eBay after the company acquired his previous company, WHI Solutions — an e-commerce platform for aftermarket auto parts — where Murphy was the co-founder and CEO.

Breather believes Murphy’s extensive background scaling e-commerce and SaaS platforms, as well as his experience working with incumbents across a number of traditional industries, can help it execute through its next stage of global growth.

Murphy is filling the vacancy left by co-founder and former CEO Julien Smith, who stepped down as chief executive this past September, just three months after the company completed its $45 million Series C round, which was led by Menlo Ventures and saw participation from RRE Ventures, Temasek Holdings, Ascendas-Singbridge and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

In a past statement on his transition, Smith said: “As I reflect on my strengths and consider what it will take for the company to reach its full potential, I realize bringing on an executive with experience scaling a company through the next level of growth is the best thing for the business.”

Smith, who remains with the company as chairman of the board, believes Murphy more than fits the bill. “Bryan’s record of scaling brands in competitive markets makes him an ideal leader to support this momentum, and I’m excited to see where he takes us next,” Smith said.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Murphy explained that Breather’s next growth phase will ultimately come down to its ability to continue the global expansion of its network of locations and partner landlords while striking the optimal balance between rental economics and employee utility, productivity and performance. With new spaces and ramped marketing efforts, Murphy and the company expect 2019 to be a big year for Breather — “I think this year, you’re going to start hearing a lot about Breather and it really being in a leadership role for the industry.”

Breather’s workspace at 900 Broadway in New York City is one of 500+ network locations accessible to users.

On Breather’s platform, users are currently able to access a network of more than 500 private workspaces across 10 major cities around the world, which can be booked as meeting space or short-term private office space.

Meeting spaces can be reserved for as little as two hours, while office space can be booked on a month-to-month basis, providing businesses with financial flexibility, private and more spacious alternatives to co-working options, and the ability to easily change offices as they grow. For landlords, Breather allows property owners to generate value from underutilized space by providing a turnkey digital booking system, as well as expertise in the short-term rental space.

Murphy explained to TechCrunch that part of what excited him most about his new role was his belief in Breather’s significant product-market fit and the immense addressable market that he sees for flexible workspaces longer-term. With limited penetration to date, Murphy feels the commercial office space industry is in just the third inning of significant transformation. 

Murphy believes that long-term growth for Breather and other flexible space providers will be driven by a heightened focus on employee flexibility and wellness, a growing number of currently underserved companies whose needs fall between co-working and traditional direct leasing, and the need for landlords to support a wider variety of office space options as workforce demographics and behaviors shift. 

Murphy believes that the ease, flexibility and unlocked value Breather provides puts the platform in a great position to win market share.

“Breather has built a remarkable commercial real estate e-commerce and services platform that offers one-click access to over 500 workspaces around the world,” said Murphy in a press release. “To our customers, having access to workspace that is turnkey, affordable, beautiful, productive and that can flex up and down based on needs is a total game changer.”

To date, Breather has served more than 500,000 customers and has raised more than $120 million in investment.

Jan
15
2019
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Box hires former SAP exec as chief information security officer

Box announced today that it has hired Lakshmi Hanspal to be the company’s new chief information security officer (CISO). She boasts 20 years of security experience, including holding executive security roles at SAP Ariba and Bank of America. She also spent time in a senior role at PayPal.

In a blog post announcing the hire, the company defined her role this way: “In the role of CISO, Lakshmi will be responsible for Box’s cyber security practice, security operations and data and platform protection.”

Hanspal sees similarities in Box from her time at SAP Ariba, but she recognizes that she will face a different set of challenges. “My role at Box is similar to what I focused on at SAP Ariba with the biggest difference being Box’s geographical footprint. Box is a born in the cloud company and expanding rapidly globally, so my focus will also include securing public cloud operations (future stack) and risk transparency for our customers,” she told TechCrunch.

She said that will involve improving service maturity and sustainability through automation, while continuing to ensure the highest level of security of both Box corporate and product platforms.

Box CEO Aaron Levie indicated that security is central to everything Box does, so finding the right chief information security officer was absolutely critical. “Not only does Lakshmi bring with her an impressive and diverse leadership experience from her time at SAP, PayPal and Bank of America, but she’s an incredible team builder and culture add for Box that will take our security team to the next level,” Levie said.

Hanspal is the third woman on Box’s executive team, joining Stephanie Carullo, who was hired as chief operating officer in 2017 and chief people officer, Christie Lake.

Jan
07
2019
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HQ2 fight continues as New York City and Seattle officials hold anti-Amazon summit

The heated debate around Amazon’s recently announced Long Island City “HQ2” is showing no signs of cooling down.

On Monday morning, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) hosted a briefing in which labor officials, economic development analysts, Amazon employees and elected New York State and City representatives further underlined concerns around the HQ2 process, the awarded incentives, and the potential impacts Amazon’s presence would have on city workers and residents.

While many of the arguments posed at the Summit weren’t necessarily new, the wide variety of stakeholders that showed up to express concern looked to contextualize the far-reaching risks associated with the deal.

The day began with representatives from New York union groups recounting Amazon’s shaky history with employee working conditions and questioning how the city’s working standards will be impacted if the 50,000 promised jobs do actually show up.

Two current employees working in an existing Amazon New York City warehouse in Staten Island provided poignant examples of improper factory conditions and promised employee benefits that never came to fruition. According to the workers, Amazon has yet to follow through on shuttle services and ride-sharing services that were promised to ease worker commutes, forcing the workers to resort to overcrowded and unreliable public transportation. One of the workers detailed that with his now four-hour commute to get to and from work, coupled with his meaningfully long shifts, he’s been unable to see his daughter for weeks.

Various economic development groups and elected officials including, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, and New York State Senator Mike Gianaris supported the labor arguments with spirited teardowns of the economic terms of the deal.

Like many critics of the HQ2 process, the speakers’ expressed their beliefs that Amazon knew where it wanted to bring its second quarters throughout the entirety of its auction process, given the talent pool and resources in the chosen locations, and that the entire undertaking was meant to squeeze out the best economic terms possible. And according to City Council Speaker Johnson, New York City “got played”.

Comptroller Stringer argued that Amazon is taking advantage of New York’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP) and Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP), which Stringer described as outdated and in need of reform, to receive the majority of the $2 billion-plus in promised economic incentives that made it the fourth largest corporate incentive deal in US history.

The speakers continued to argue that the unprecedented level of incentives will be nearly impossible to recoup and that New York will also face economic damages from lower sales tax revenue as improved Amazon service in the city cannibalizes local brick & mortar retail.

Fears over how Amazon’s presence will impact the future of New York were given more credibility with the presence of Seattle City Council members Lisa Herbold & Teresa Mosqueda, who had flown to New York from Seattle to discuss lessons learned from having Amazon’s Headquarters in the city and to warn the city about the negative externalities that have come with it.

Herbold and Mosqueda focused less on an outright rejection of the deal but instead emphasized that New York was in a position to negotiate for better terms focused on equality and corporate social responsibility, which could help the city avoid the socioeconomic turnover that has plagued Seattle and could create a new standard for public-private partnerships.

While the New York City Council noted it was looking into legal avenues, the opposition seemed to have limited leverage to push back or meaningfully negotiate the deal. According to state officials, the most clear path to fight the deal would be through votes by the state legislature and through the state Public Authorities Control Board who has to unanimously approve the subsidy package.

With the significant turnout seen at Monday’s summit, which included several high-ranking state and city officials, it seems clear that we’re still in the early innings of what’s likely to be a long battle ahead to close the HQ2 deal.

Amazon did not return requests for immediate comment.

Dec
17
2018
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The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies, including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the U.S.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: Not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence and so on, but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to show them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,” said Alda Leu Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours’ notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: Many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business from) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is a potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers’ other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

Aug
18
2018
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Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics

When we think about designing our dream home, we don’t think of having a thousand roommates in the same room with no doors or walls. Yet in today’s workplace where we spend most of our day, the purveyors of corporate office design insist that tearing down walls and bringing more people closer together in the same physical space will help foster better collaboration while dissolving the friction of traditional hierarchy and office politics.

But what happens when there is no office at all?

This is the reality for Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, and Matt Mullenweg, Founder and CEO of Automattic (makers of WordPress), who both run teams that are 100% distributed across six continents and many time zones. Fried and Mullenweg are the founding fathers of a movement that has inspired at least a dozen other companies to follow suit, including Zapier, Github, and Buffer. Both have either written a book, or have had a book written about them on the topic.

For all of the discussions about how to hire, fire, coordinate, motivate, and retain remote teams though, what is strangely missing is a discussion about how office politics changes when there is no office at all. To that end, I wanted to seek out the experience of these companies and ask: does remote work propagate, mitigate, or change the experience of office politics? What tactics are startups using to combat office politics, and are any of them effective?

“Can we take a step back here?”

Office politics is best described by a simple example. There is a project, with its goals, metrics, and timeline, and then there’s who gets to decide how it’s run, who gets to work on it, and who gets credit for it. The process for deciding this is a messy human one. While we all want to believe that these decisions are merit-based, data-driven, and objective, we all know the reality is very different. As a flood of research shows, they come with the baggage of human bias in perceptions, heuristics, and privilege.

Office politics is the internal maneuvering and positioning to shape these biases and perceptions to achieve a goal or influence a decision. When incentives are aligned, these goals point in same direction as the company. When they don’t, dysfunction ensues.

Perhaps this sounds too Darwinian, but it is a natural and inevitable outcome of being part of any organization where humans make the decisions. There is your work, and then there’s the management of your coworker’s and boss’s perception of your work.

There is no section in your employee handbook that will tell you how to navigate office politics. These are the tacit, unofficial rules that aren’t documented. This could include reworking your wardrobe to match your boss’s style (if you don’t believe me, ask how many people at Facebook own a pair of Nike Frees). Or making time to go to weekly happy hour not because you want to, but because it’s what you were told you needed to do to get ahead.

One of my favorite memes about workplace culture is Sarah Cooper’s “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” which includes…

  • Encouraging everyone to “take a step back” and ask “what problem are we really trying to solve”
  • Nodding continuously while appearing to take notes
  • Stepping out to take an “important phone call”
  • Jumping out of your seat to draw a Venn diagram on the whiteboard

Sarah Cooper, The Cooper Review

These cues and signals used in physical workplaces to shape and influence perceptions do not map onto the remote workplace, which gives us a unique opportunity to study how office politics can be different through the lens of the officeless.

Friends without benefits

For employees, the analogy that coworkers are like family is true in one sense — they are the roommates that we never got to choose. Learning to work together is difficult enough, but the physical office layers on the additional challenge of learning to live together. Contrast this with remote workplaces, which Mullenweg of Automattic believes helps alleviate the “cohabitation annoyances” that come with sharing the same space, allowing employees to focus on how to best work with each other, versus how their neighbor “talks too loud on the phone, listens to bad music, or eats smelly food.”

Additionally, remote workplaces free us of the tyranny of the tacit expectations and norms that might not have anything to do with work itself. At an investment bank, everyone knows that analysts come in before the managing director does, and leave after they do. This signals that you’re working hard.

Basecamp’s Fried calls this the “presence prison,” the need to be constantly aware of where your coworkers are and what they are doing at all times, both physically and virtually. And he’s waging a crusade against it, even to the point of removing the green dot on Basecamp’s product. “As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care.”

There is credible basis for this practice. A study of factory workers by Harvard Business School showed that workers were 10% to 15% more productive when managers weren’t watching. This increase was attributed to giving workers the space and freedom to experiment with different approaches before explaining to managers, versus the control group which tended to follow prescribed instructions under the leery watch of their managers.

Remote workplaces experience a similar phenomenon, but by coincidence. “Working hard” can’t be observed physically so it has to be explained, documented, measured, and shared across the company. Cultural norms are not left to chance, or steered by fear or pressure, which should give individuals the autonomy to focus on the work itself, versus how their work is perceived.

Lastly, while physical workplaces can be the source of meaningful friendships and community, recent research by the Wharton School of Business is just beginning to unravel the complexities behind workplace friendships, which can be fraught with tensions from obligations, reciprocity and allegiances. When conflicts arise, you need to choose between what’s best for the company, and what’s best for your relationship with that person or group. You’re not going to help Bob because your best friend Sally used to date him and he was a dick. Or you’re willing to do anything for Jim because he coaches your kid’s soccer team, and vouched for you to get that promotion.

In remote workplaces, you don’t share the same neighborhood, your kids don’t go to the same school, and you don’t have to worry about which coworkers to invite to dinner parties. Your physical/personal and work communities don’t overlap, which means you (and your company) unintentionally avoid many of the hazards of toxic workplace relationships.

On the other hand, these same relationships can be important to overall employee engagement and well-being. This is evidenced by one of the findings in Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report, which surveyed over 1900 remote workers around the world. It found that next to collaborating and communicating, loneliness was the biggest struggle for remote workers.

Graph by Buffer (State of Remote Work 2018)

So while you may be able to feel like your own boss and avoid playing office politics in your home office, ultimately being alone may be more challenging than putting on a pair of pants and going to work.

Feature, not a bug?

Physical offices can have workers butting heads with each other. Image by UpperCut Images via Getty Images.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapier employees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency. At Basecamp, there are no all-hands or town hall meetings. All updates, decisions, and subsequent discussions are posted publicly to the entire company. For companies, this is pretty bold. It’s like having a Facebook wall with all your friends chiming in on your questionable decisions of the distant past that you can’t erase. But the beauty is that there is now a body of written decisions and discussions that serves as a rich and permanent artifact of institutional knowledge, accessible to anyone in the company. Documenting major decisions in writing depoliticizes access to information.

Remote workplaces are not without their challenges. Even though communication can be asynchronous through writing, leadership is not. Maintaining an apolitical culture (or any culture) requires a real-time feedback loop of not only what is said, but what is done, and how it’s done. Leaders lead by example in how they speak, act, and make decisions. This is much harder in a remote setting.

A designer from WordPress notes the interpersonal challenges of leading a remote team. “I can’t always see my teammates’ faces when I deliver instructions, feedback, or design criticism. I can’t always tell how they feel. It’s difficult to know if someone is having a bad day or a bad week.”

Zapier’s Foster is also well aware of these challenges in interpersonal dynamics. In fact, he has written a 200-page manifesto on how to run remote teams, where he has an entire section devoted to coaching teammates on how to meet each other for the first time. “Because we’re wired to look for threats in any new situation… try to limit phone or video calls to 15 minutes.” Or “listen without interrupting or sharing your own stories.” And to “ask short, open ended questions.” For anyone looking for a grade school refresher on how to make new friends, Wade Foster is the Dale Carnegie of the remote workforce.

To office, or not to office

What we learn from companies like Basecamp, Automattic, and Zapier is that closer proximity is not the antidote for office politics, and certainly not the quick fix for a healthy, productive culture.

Maintaining a healthy culture takes work, with deliberate processes and planning. Remote teams have to work harder to design and maintain these processes because they don’t have the luxury of assuming shared context through a physical workspace.

The result is a wealth of new ideas for a healthier, less political culture — being thoughtful about when to bring people together, and when to give people their time apart (ending the presence prison), or when to speak, and when to read and write (to democratize meetings). It seems that remote teams have largely succeeded in turning a bug into a feature. For any company still considering tearing down those office walls and doors, it’s time to pay attention to the lessons of the officeless.

Aug
07
2018
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InVision hires former Twitter VP of Design Mike Davidson

InVision continues its slow march toward design world domination, today announcing the hire of Mike Davidson who will take over as Head of Partnerships and Community.

Davidson was previously the VP of Design at Twitter, where he built a 100-person team that was responsible for every aspect of Twitter’s user experience and branding, including web, mobile web, native apps and business tools.

Before Twitter, Davidson worked at ESPN/Disney until 2005, when he founded NewsVine, which was purchased by NBCNews in 2007. Davidson then took on a vice president roll for five years before starting at Twitter.

At InVision, Davidson will oversee partnerships, product integrations, strategic acquisitions and community building. This includes leading InVision’s Design Leadership Forum, which hosts private events for design leaders from big companies like Facebook, Google, Lyft, Disney, etc. Davidson will also work with the new Design Transformation team at InVision to help create educational experiences for InVision’s customers.

Davidson says he plans to spend the next 30 to 60 days talking as little as possible, and listening to the feedback he hears from his team around what can be improved.

“InVision has a seamless workflow that includes everyone in the company in the design process,” said Davidson. “If there’s one goal I’d like to realize, it’s that. Design is a team sport these days, which wasn’t the case 10 or 20 years ago.”

In Davidson’s own words, the position at InVision is “less about business to business and more about designer to designer.” Davidson will be meeting predominantly with the design teams from various companies to discuss not only how InVision can help them build better experiences, but how InVision can incorporate those design teams’ personalities into the product.

InVision was built on the premise that the screen is the most important place in the world, considering that every brand and company is now building digital experiences across the web and through mobile applications. CEO Clark Valberg hopes to turn InVision into the Salesforce of design, and partnerships, acquisitions and product integrations are absolutely vital to that.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have an authentic leader like Mike step into this role to help us further build out our design community — which is as important to us as our product — and to help drive design maturity inside of every organization,” said Valberg. “Digital product design is shaping every industry in the world, and as the leader in the space, we see it as our responsibility to support and foster community and advanced education.”

Aug
01
2018
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Altru raises $1.3M to improve recruiting with employee videos

Marketers are increasingly looking for social media celebrities and influencers who can promote their products with more authenticity (or at least, the appearance of authenticity) than a traditional ad.

So Altru CEO Alykhan Rehmatullah wondered: Why can’t businesses do something similar with recruiting?

And that’s what Altru is trying to accomplish, powering a page on a company’s website that highlights videos from real employees answering questions that potential hires might be asking. The videos are searchable (thanks to Altru’s transcriptions), and they also can be shared on social media.

The startup was part of the recent winter batch at Techstars NYC, and it’s already working with companies like L’Oréal, Dell and Unilever. Today, Altru is announcing that it’s raised $1.3 million in new funding led by Birchmere Ventures.

Rehmatullah contrasted Altru’s approach with Glassdoor, which he said features “more polarized” content (since it’s usually employees with really good or really bad experiences who want to write reviews) and where companies are often forced to “play defense.”

On Altru, on the other hand, employers can take the informal conversations that often take place when someone’s deciding whether to accept a job and turn them into an online recruiting tool. Over time, Rehmatullah said the platform could expand beyond recruiting to areas like on-boarding new employees.

Since these videos are posted to the company website, with the employees’ name and face attached, they may not always feel comfortable being completely honest, particularly about a company’s flaws. But at least it’s a message coming from a regular person, not the corporate-speak of a recruiter or manager.

Rehmatullah acknowledged that there’s usually “an educational process” involved in making employers more comfortable with this kind of content.

“These conversations are already happening outside your organization,” he said. “In the long-term, candidates expect more authenticity, more transparency, more true experiences.”

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