Millions of employees are working at home, and some may never return to onsite offices. For many entrepreneurs, that raises the distressing prospect that the company culture they worked hard to create is now destroyed forever. Not so, says Rich Barton, founder or co-founder of Expedia, Glassdoor, and Zillow. Instead, he says, this is an opportunity for companies to rethink their culture, and to make more personal connections than ever before.
Barton took part in an online event held last week by the Seattle technology news site GeekWire. "This is a very challenging time and a human tragedy for many people around the world, and I don't want to make light of that," he said. "But I'm a disrupter -- I don't really love that word anymore -- I am a person who thinks about catalysts for change. My whole career has been about identifying those transition points where technology was just going to rewrite the rules and give power to the people and this is one of those moments. Just as it's offering some businesses [such as Zillow] real opportunity, it's also an opportunity to rethink and revolutionize culture."
Rethink it how? To begin with, by using the online collaboration tools that have been developed over the past few years, he said. "My biggest takeaway is just how amazing these tools are that people have been working on all these years. That there was all of this infrastructure for a dynamic work environment -- a work-from-anywhere environment -- already in place. It took this shelter-in-place to light all that up. And, lo and behold, it works. It works really well."
Using these tools, he said, "I'm able to teleport around the world and drop in on any meeting. I'm meeting more new people and feeling closer to my team than I've ever felt." There are obvious challenges, he acknowledged, particularly for employees working at home with children. Still, he said, "this is a really interesting opportunity to rethink everything about how we work, where we work, who we work with, and how much satisfaction and productivity we get from our work."
Other tech CEOs disagree.
Two other high-profile Seattle-area CEOs appeared on the panel with Barton, and they didn't agree with his view that the new work-from-home reality is good for a company's culture. "We have always been a very work-from-office company, and I am personally a very work-from-office guy who loves to walk about and chat," said Samir Bodas, founder of the cloud-based contract-management platform Icertis. "When we went fully work-from-home, we saw a tremendous increase in productivity. But it feels like the joy from working together is missing." Human beings are social by nature, he added. "The energy we draw from gathering and brainstorming and social interaction is substantial."
"We all as leaders get a ton of joy around those moments in the kitchen or over coffee," said Elena Donio, CEO of the on-demand legal services provider Axiom. "That is hard to replicate in this digital world, where everything is so much more scheduled and formal."
To fight some of this formality, she said, Axiom's R&D team is doing partner coding, where two or more people just leave a video chat meeting open while they work. "They'll punt questions back and forth," she said. "It's using the tools for organic collaboration versus planned, orchestrated, calendared collaboration."
Bodas counteracts the formality of online meetings with a very 20th-century tool -- the phone call. "I walk around and drop by desks to say hi, so now I'm just calling people," he said. "They say, 'Why are you calling me?' 'I'm just calling to say hi, how are you doing?'"
Meanwhile, Barton says, "We're seeing a blossoming of creativity in a whole new dimension that no one even knew existed, like a capella groups coordinating songs." The desire to connect in a time of social distancing and the dearth of things like live music gatherings and art exhibits have led some employees to share their creative work with one another. "Who knew how many musicians and artists we had at Zillow?" Barton says. "And now look, they have this canvas."