Even after Covid-19, we won’t be returning to our offices... here’s why
Indi Birdee is the co-founder and head of strategy for AI Music, the category defining adaptive audio platform that leverages the latest artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to generate and adapt music in real-time, for a variety of brand and advertising use-cases. Here he explains why, ’Out of Office’ is now a permanent fixture and what he’s learned from the process.
Like most companies with office-based staff, Covid-19 forced us to embrace home working. However, unlike many companies, we have no intention of going back to the office – even now that we can.
The reason is authenticity. The AI Music core business proposition is about adaptability and flexibility. We help brands create dynamic and context-aware audio ads. In the process, we provide them with a vast range of options and capabilities that flex to their needs. Covid-19 has shown we can work flexibly without affecting productivity. We now want to embrace a new working culture based on these touchstones of adaptability and flexibility. By freeing ourselves of the traditional office, we can unlock new opportunities.
Here’s an example. Before the pandemic, we were getting ready to move to larger offices. The trouble was we needed office space with a music studio attached – a mix that’s hard to find in London. Our new ‘virtual’ approach to work opens up new options for us. Our producers are currently using home studios, but if we decide we want a central studio in the future this will be easier to find separated from our office needs.
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We’re also seeing a beneficial impact on our employees. Without exception, our staff have reported feeling more productive. They’ve also been able to flex their working hours around their home lives and other commitments. Before the pandemic, most of the company was of the opinion that we needed an office to function effectively. Now they are 100% behind our new virtual model.
5 elements to successful virtualisation
As we made the move to our 100% distributed and virtual workplace, we looked at best practice from companies like Zapier and GitHub that have gone there before us. On the basis of that work and our own internal discussions, we identified five key elements to address.
1. Cadence of communication.
With people working in different locations, we want to ensure there are no work silos. We’ve therefore planned exactly when we bring the whole organisation together.
2. Team cadence.
As a small startup, we have to be rigorously action-oriented. We’ve therefore structured a clear team cadence marking our necessary meetings, like morning or end of day stand-ups, once a week planning and goal orientation sessions.
3. Goal setting.
Keeping staff on track could be more of a challenge when you’re not in the same physical space. We’re using an ’objectives and key results’ (OKRs) framework so our people know exactly what’s expected of them and how they can reach their targets.
4. Asynchronous communication.
To ensure people can communicate effectively when their schedules are out of whack, we are enabling asynchronous communication. This means our people can respond to communications on their own terms and in their own time without slowing down project delivery.
To enable productive working, we’ve invested in apps like Slack (which we use for focused instant messaging, rather than an all-encompassing space for anything and everything), Gdrive and Confluence. We also use Miro for whiteboarding ideas and encouraging collaboration in the virtual space.
A question of culture
The above five pillars make distributed working technically possible. However, the model only works if the right culture is in place first. It is impossible to generate a corporate identity and culture off the back of a few Zoom calls. So where does it materialise from?
In our case, being in the same place for at least some of the time laid the foundations. But this interaction can happen outside the office environment. In fact, our strong sense of team owes more or as much to our week-long event in Lisbon last year, our weekly card games on Fridays and our numerous team trips to restaurants than it does to being seated near each other during the working week.
With the AI Music culture already in place, the task now is simply to sustain it. And our distributed model will help in this regard. This is because the money we save on renting central London offices can be invested in team-building activities. There will be more trips like the one to Lisbon and more opportunities to get to know each other without the need for a formal office.
This is important, because we need to ensure that we are able to instil the same sense of culture into new joiners. Indeed, during lockdown we had a trial run of what recruitment looks like in the virtual world when we onboarded Aslan Shirazian, our new business development manager.
Because we had already met Aslan on numerous occasions before lockdown, we already had a strong relationship with him. This relationship meant that Zoom and Slack were more than sufficient for getting him up and running with the company. Aslan explains: “Starting at a new company during a pandemic should have been daunting. However, things couldn‘t have gone better. Two elements really helped: having a line manager to break the ice with that important first introduction to the team and a company culture that nurtures openness and collaboration. However, my position was unusual in that I already knew a lot of the team on a personal level before joining, and that really helped.“
One thing we‘re exploring now and which we‘re very excited about is the ability to have staff work from anywhere in the world. This is a great benefit for our existing employees, who will be able to work from wherever they want. But it will also be a benefit to the business as it will allow us to source talent from anywhere in the world. This may prove important in an environment where travel is restricted. If we have a meeting in New York, we will just send our New York staffer. It’s more efficient, better for our people and better for the environment.
Covid-19 means that the old, commute-heavy, centralised way of working no longer makes sense. People have seen what a better work/life balance looks like and they want more. We’re lucky in that our particular field is well suited to a virtual workforce and we’re excited to see what new opportunities the move opens up for us in the future.
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