“I anticipate that over the next 12 to 18 months WFH will be a dominant model, but that people will actually start missing the office and we will end up with more of a mixed model in the long-term,” says David Hood, CEO at VanillaSoft in this TecHRseries interview where he shares a few thoughts on the top best practices that have helped enable a more seamless work from home culture during the Covid-19 downtime in the SaaS industry while discussing a few thoughts on the Future of HR and Work.
Tell us a little about yourself David…we’d love to hear about your journey running the show at VanillaSoft and how things have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic…
After eclectic university studies – biochemistry, philosophy, political science and international affairs – I ended up going straight into politics. That short-lived career led me to ask myself the question what industry a would-be entrepreneur should bet his few dollars on. The answer took me into high tech in the mid 1990s, a high-flying time when everything was possible and money was plentiful. In the last 25 years I have had a chance to experience the ups, the downs and the many sideways shifts of the industry, and to work with talented people from multiple generations and cultures.
VanillaSoft has evolved considerably over the 15 years that I have been with the company. We started with a few employees located in Dallas,Texas and Gatineau, Canada, and now have more than 60 people in five locations located in three countries.
Although the company has always allowed some work from home, most employees primarily worked out of the main office sites. This obviously changed with COVID-19, and we moved employees to a full work from home model in early March. VanillaSoft offers a software platform that is perfect for remote workers and we, of course, use it ourselves – so the move to home was not difficult for the sales organization. In fact, from a technological perspective the move to remote work was relatively easy for all departments as we had already embraced SaaS products across the board. I think the biggest challenge was psychological, especially during the first four weeks or so. This was not simply a case of working from home instead of the office, it was trying to adjust to working from home while also trying to maintain a focus on work — all while the world around us changed. There was so much uncertainty, and not everyone deals with uncertainty in the same way. This was a particular challenge for managers who, more than ever, had to learn to adapt to each individual employee’s situation in order to help them get back to normal productivity.
For some employees this wasn’t just psychological but also practical. For those with small children and no daycare there were not really a lot of options. Back at the start of VanillaSoft I was working from home alongside four children, ranging from 4 to 11…so in some ways I have come full circle. I know exactly the challenges this situation entails, so I have a full understanding of what some of our employees were going through in this regard.
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When it comes to building skilled teams in a SaaS-based sales tech organization, what are some of the top factors that business leaders should keep in mind?
Diversity, empowerment and values. It is incredibly important to build diverse teams that bring different perspectives to issues and push each other to think outside their normal paradigms. To attract, develop and maintain talent, employees must be empowered. Management provides goals, a shared vision and a framework, but should serve as consultants to their teams in executing upon that, as opposed to directing tasks. Finally, shared common values will ensure the overall cohesiveness of the team and protect the brand of the organization.
With innovations in salestech / HR Tech and even martech constantly changing, how according to you should teams belonging to these segments focus on constantly staying updated on what new innovations do so as to make the best possible use of them in their work?
There are a plethora of sources of information on new technology. People should be in a constant state of self-development and self-education, and it has never been easier to follow thought leaders through podcasts and webinars. It can, however, be a challenge to stay abreast of tech developments without succumbing to the “shiny object” syndrome. It is important for each team to really understand their own main success drivers and ensure that they are evaluating new tech to address their fundamental needs. This is particularly important in the software industry, where we have a tendency to fall in love with technology itself. It is important to remember that these are only tools.
To remind me of this, I keep the plastic Eggies (doesn’t anyone remember these?!) I purchased years back in my cupboard. It seemed pretty interesting to be able to hard boil eggs without the shell, but as it turns out it wasn’t really a fundamental need and ended up being more of a distraction than a contributor to my success in the kitchen.
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How according to you will the general workplace culture for B2B / Tech evolve in the next few years, given the effects of the pandemic and given the changing demands of the workforce (flexibility, work from home options, 4-day weeks, etc) ; what are your thoughts?
I believe that the pandemic has not only accelerated the trend of work from home (WFH), but has likely fundamentally altered it. Tech companies were generally technically capable of handling WFH relatively easily, but the major issues were those of trust and habit. The pandemic forced employees home and so companies had no choice but to manage around it. Based on the number of company announcements that we have seen, it would appear that most have had a positive experience.
The pandemic also forced us to question our habits, both from a corporate perspective and an individual perspective. Many employees that may not have thought of WFH before have discovered that they prefer it, and companies have learned that they can gain the benefits of it while effectively managing the negative aspects — the most important of which is probably the loss of informal interaction. However, we may be seeing a bit of a pendulum swing – I anticipate that over the next 12 to 18 months WFH will be a dominant model, but that people will actually start missing the office and we will end up with more of a mixed model in the long-term. The need for in-office presence will also likely be somewhat activity-based and temporal. It is definitely more challenging to carry out the onboarding of new employees at a distance, for example.
With employees facing different constraints at home, I definitely believe that companies have become more comfortable with – or have had to accept – the idea of flexible work. This is obviously not possible in all positions, for example customer-facing employees, but for many employees it simply became an unavoidable reality. With that initial barrier overcome I anticipate that flexible work, condensed work weeks, etc will become more common. As with everything else these new work methods may not correspond well to every individual. The lessons learned over the course of the pandemic will help us develop guidelines as to when, and for whom, they are most applicable. It is also probably still early to really judge the productivity of WFH as well, as we are still living the double impact of WFH and the pandemic and this can skew the results.
Could you share a little about the company and employee culture at VanillaSoft: especially during the current Covid-19 pandemic, what has the team been doing to stay connected and to keep engagement / motivation levels high?
When we moved everyone to WFH in early March there was understandably a lot of general stress and anxiety. People worried about their jobs. They worried about their partner’s job. They worried about their family’s health. We moved quickly in the early weeks to open communication lines. This included a bi-weekly company-wide Q&A with the CEO where employees could submit anonymous questions online, with a promise that all questions would be addressed. We started up a “Thirsty Thursday” Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoons, where employees could drop in and out on a gathering that is often led by a VanillaSoft employee proposing different activities. There is a Friday Zoom lunch gathering to which all employees are invited. Managers also ensured that they reached out frequently to their employees to make sure that everything was going well.
As time advanced and people adjusted to the new communication methods and became more comfortable with the situation, we dialed back on some of the direct outreach but made sure that communication lines were kept open. At VanillaSoft we have always prided ourselves on being family-friendly. I started in the software industry in the mid-90s at a time when the role models in tech were working 20 hour days and sleeping under their desk for the other four hours. You were judged by your absolute devotion and passion for your job. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but at VanillaSoft we encourage employees to take time to lead meaningful personal lives as well. This is one of the values that we look for.
We’d love to dive a little bit into KPIs and measurement metrics, could you share some insight into how the team at VanillaSift measures performance for marketing and sales and also the rest of the team in general…and during the pandemic, how has this changed to suit remote work processes?
We have an established set of KPIs in sales and marketing that are evaluated on a weekly basis. They include both activity KPIs and success KPIs. If employees are missing their success KPIs but hitting their activity KPIs, we can work with them to find the missing link. If they are consistently hitting their success KPIs, we are not as worried about their activity KPIs. If they are missing both types of KPIs, they may not be the right person for the position. This has not fundamentally changed during the pandemic, although we are trying to see how we can replace the dashboard that we had on a monitor in the office and take it virtual.
How would you advise companies to enhance their overall employee experience using a balance of traditional HR practices and new technologies today?
I have always liked the “Management by Walking Around” concept, as it encourages communication between all levels of the company. At VanillaSoft we emphasize our “open door” philosophy, whereby we encourage everyone to talk about what they like, what they don’t like, and how they think we can improve things. No one gets in trouble for raising ideas, and in return they need to be ready to defend their reasoning. With no personal contact currently, we are having to resort to technology to try and recreate this. The company has standardized on Slack, and we have created numerous channels. Some are limited only to people within a department, and that is their safe space to make comments amongst themselves that will not circulate more broadly. Others have a broader reach and can be used to disseminate information or look for feedback. Online general meetings have replaced physical get-togethers and we do them more frequently to help replace some of the informal interaction that has been lost. In sales in particular, we are looking to recreate the team atmosphere at home that you get in the office through virtual dashboards and team chats. It is all an ongoing learning process.
A few general thoughts / tips for businesses worldwide dealing with the current world pandemic?
The impact of COVID-19 has not been distributed equally among companies, so it is very hard to give any general tips. We feel incredibly lucky to be in an industry that can continue to function almost unscathed, whereas others have had to be sacrificed in the interest of the public good. As in the past, however, I think every business should try to protect their workforce the best they can. A recovery will come, and the way you deal with your employees during this time of crisis will have a huge impact on the company’s prospects when things settle back to a new normal. Companies that value individuals today will have greater value tomorrow.