The Ever-Changing ‘Normal’ Office

by Habeab Kurdi last updated on

Inside the change to GetResponse becoming a remote-first company.

There is no new normal. The only thing that’s ever been normal is change.

Sometimes it’s subtle, spanning long stretches of time before anyone notices. Other times, it’s almost instant, extremely noticeable, and the change evolves right in front of our eyes. That’s when it’s harder to adjust, even as adaptable creatures.

“People are tied to their concepts,” said GetResponse CEO and Founder Simon Grabowski. 

In three months, we’ve changed entirely. A huge decision that would have seemed dramatic before, now seemed like the next natural step forward as companies were forced to become remote-friendly when the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout the world. 

In May, Grabowski and the company he founded from his parent’s attic (technically working remotely) more than 20 years ago, GetResponse, announced it’s changing from being a remote-friendly company and is now a remote-first company.

Bringing the future into the present: Boldly going remote-first

There was and still are a lot of challenges in doing so, but the move is dynamic and the company is providing resources, education and support to help employees establish a home office, even giving them freedom to literally work from anywhere they please (once such things such as travel are possible once again). 

There’s a certain concept of working from home that sounds sexy — but we’ve never been able to test it. Then, you are essentially forced to do it in a week. From that point on, the lesson begun, and essentially we’ve been part of the biggest scientific clinical study since the inception of business.

Simon Grabowski, GetResponse CEO and Founder

Many questions still remain, at-large and inside the move to becoming a remote-first company. What is needed from the employer and the employee, what factors are there to consider and what are the intended and unintended effects? There is a lot of the backend to figure out from a HR and legal standpoint, how benefits and contracts will change, and how to ensure the mental and physical well-being of everyone involved. 

Everything from the real estate market to office supply companies to construction and transportation are already and will continue to be impacted. As normal changes constantly, unanswered questions remain about the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 virus on people, and on business. 

For instance, Google’s parent company Alphabet recently pulled out of deals that would have acquired more than 2 million square feet of office space, which impacts cities that counted on that physical infrastructure, and people working from home won’t just want typical office furniture, they’ll desire something that fits into what their home/office is. 

 Architecture firms are predicting an explosion of what Nena Martin, director of workplace at architecture giant Gensler, calls ‘Swiss army knife’ furniture that can be easily modified for multiple uses. There will be more ‘agile chairs’ with a small surface you can rest your computer on if you want to take notes during a meeting.

Courtney Rubin for the online publication Marker.
GetResponse after becoming a remote-first company.
GetResponse after becoming a remote-first company.
GetResponse office changes after becoming a remote-first company.
GetResponse office changes after becoming a remote-first company.

81% of GetResponse employees prefer a remote-first model 

Laptops, cell phones, hot spots, Wi-Fi, cafes, accessible travel, a myriad factor added up to make made work agile, to make remote possible well before the current pandemic. 

People had already evolved into remote-friendly work in a sense, checking emails on their phone, lugging laptops along on weekend trips to extend them by a day or two. 

Now, businesses are doing the same. 

Behemoth banking institution Morgan Stanley plans to have “less real estate” going forward, while Nationwide Insurance said they transitioned to a 98% work-from-home model. Could employees move to more affordable areas to live, therefore reciprocally bringing down rent prices in the more expensive cities? 

The last 2-3 months, suddenly thousands upon thousands of companies are forced to work from home. When the lockdown finishes, a lot of them will not be eager to go back to work.

Simon Grabowski, GetResponse CEO and Founder

The change wasn’t made by the heads of GetResponse making a mandate and forcing employees to go remote. They conducted surveys, asked opinions, and they let us be a part of deciding the future of this company and of our own livelihoods. 

And the statistics are bearing out that people, even as they cling to old norms and comforts, are actually quite OK with going to a new model as the standard.

When asked the question, “If you were to choose the work mode after Covid-19 pandemic, which way of work would you prefer for a long term: a) Working fully remote; b) Working in a hybrid mode; c) Working from the office”, the overwhelming majority — 65% — said they would prefer the hybrid model that allowed the majority of work to be done remotely. Another 16% chose the fully remote option. The winning hybrid model allows employees to choose the number of days spent working remotely, even 100% remote if desired, with the option to go to the office when wanted.

Table – remote-first work options

The shift was unsettling for some. Suddenly you are given independence and realize the impact you actually have on the organization, and on everyone around you. You develop true trust in what you do, who you are, and how that impacts everyone. Everywhere. We can’t just chirp in (from the next desk) anymore, we have to thumb things out and trust each other to handle it, to trust my own decision. A lot of people will come out a lot stronger on the other side, knowing I have an impact and I trust in myself.

Robert Sikorski, Growth Marketing Lead for GetResponse Enterprise

GetResponse itself already houses numerous tools and solutions to help companies work online and to directly connect to audiences and coworkers digitally with webinars, and as COVID-19 forced businesses to revamp operations from the physical to the digital world, they could keep operating and sell products and knowledge to anyone, from anywhere. 

Those same virtues and assets that has helped the company make its own shift to remote work as well. 

In an internal poll of GetResponse’s more than 300 employees, 62.6% said they see option to work from anywhere, including home, as the biggest benefit to remote work. Not having to commute (60.9%) and flexibility (57%) were the two next highest responses.

Switching places gives you more creativity so you can move from one place to another, you aren’t bound to your chair and desk.

Employee and company benefits to becoming a remote business 

A recent study by Go Fish Digital, a DC-based digital marketing agency, found that only 7.4%of respondents said they do not enjoy working from home, whereas 28% said they are enjoying it. 

Digging deeper, that number is much larger actually because 31% of respondents were unemployed or had been laid off at the time, and another 20% reported they had to go into work, meaning that of the people working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, 56% were enjoying working from home.

Twitter, for one, saw the progress and productivity, and even the appreciation and acceptance of remote work and announced their employees can work from home “forever.” 

Plenty of companies out there believe remote-first is the way to go, from global corporations such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook are remaining flexible and plan to assess their long-term remote work strategies later in the year or even in 2021.   

Open office floors have proven to actually be less social, less communicative, and as we have learned, they are hotbeds for spreading germs such as COVID-19. 

So why go back? 

Why go backwards

In a 2018 article titled “The Unintended Effects of Open Office Space,” Harvard Business School researchers found that open office environments reduced face-to-face interactions by appx. 70% and email messaging went up by 50% in that setting.

In the past, when it comes to workplaces, office design (and many other artifacts of organizational life) have catered to the observer and not the observed. Unfortunately, it’s the observed who make our organizations successful. So maybe everything, from office design to people analytics, ought to shift slightly in mindset to optimize for their work more often.

Harvard Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein

Added Grabowski, “I don’t think having an office is a mistake, but it does come with its share of limitations. We are witnessing the scope of those limitations right now — this invisible enemy (COVID-19) that spreads easily in open spaces is a problem, it’s a problem for any business.” 

The offices at GetResponse have swiftly taken on an innovative transformation, from the open office layout to offering several options for employees to still work from the physical location, such as hot desks, comfortable chairs, couches, standing desks, brainstorming rooms, giving people a chance to find what suits them best for the type of work they have, even shifting between the options.

GetResponse's office space after becoming a remote-first company
GetResponse’s office space after becoming a remote-first company
GetResponse after becoming a remote-first company.
GetResponse after becoming a remote-first company.

Hiring and onboarding from around the world 

The move to being remote-first also presents the opportunity to hire anyone from anywhere in the world. To seek out the best talents and find the best fits to add to the team without having to ask someone to relocate if they don’t want to do so. The amount of options and considerations for employees and employers will shift going forward. 

For instance, laws in certain states and countries need updating to fully consider remote work, or telecommuting as it was originally called. GetResponse has seen that companies are more willing to Docusign contracts electronically these days, and there are changes in hardware, onboarding, and even budgets as on-site costs could reduce as well, allowing for more investment in the work-from-home needs and benefits. 

We are going through true challenges in moving from the office to the remote-first way of life, and it’s an ever-evolving situation in which not just productivity, but mental health and physical well-being are being discussed openly. 

“We are still in a process of transformation,” GetResponse Director of Talent and Culture Ola Szlachcikowska said. “Still working on creating new processes but when changes arise, it takes some time to remodel not only workspace but our mindsets as well.” 

Employees are suggesting solutions, are voicing their needs, and in turn, the company is addressing those in a transparent process. 

Our employer branding strategy, perks and benefits, events and team interactions were designed and dedicated for office use mainly. There is a need to change the way we think about work and employees. We need to adjust to new reality as majority of our employees valued the work culture GetResponse offered in the workplace. We must create new culture as good as the old one, only remotely. Give people sense of belonging, joy and work satisfaction they seek.

Ola Szlachcikowska, GetResponse Director of Talent and Culture

Remote employee advantages and perks

As people have slowly been shifting toward remote for some time, wanting to be able to travel with limited vacation days, looking to mix the two and perhaps set up office from a café in France, a beach in Thailand, a mountain in Austria, the needs and wants of people have changed a lot, too. Now, working conditions have a chance to reflect what current-day people want and to take advantage of all the tools available to make working remotely, digitally, online, possible. 

Sure, we would rather be on vacation during those times, but the option to travel and work at the same time vs. being “stuck in the office” and working during that same time has drawn countless numbers of people to seek jobs and professions where they could pick their location. 

There’s a chance to go to another city for a couple weeks and maybe work a few days, then explore for a few days if they would want (of course, this would be once travel is safe again). 

“Switching places gives you more creativity so you can move from one place to another, you aren’t bound to your chair and desk.” said Ola Korczyńska, GetResponse Director of Marketing. “Having the option to travel and work is a great advantage and boosts your performance as well.

“The only thing you need is Wi-Fi.”

work hard travel harder.

Becoming more connected while distanced 

There is an ever-present fear though that our colleagues can go from being humans we know to bots, bytes and emojis we only interact with digitally. 

The question of how to keep the human element of cooperation going, to still have team morale, for people to pull for each other so that businesses can be a team where real progress is made will be the new challenge replacing “open office vs. cubicles.” 

“We prepared a set of guidelines for our remote employees that will allow people to work effectively and have sense of belonging, that should help to avoid burnout, loneliness, (to) develop time management skills,” Szlachcikowska said.  

GetResponse’s internal survey showed that 97% of respondents felt the company supported their remote work, with the company offering a monthly stipend to cover home office expenses, food and beverage fees, well-being treatments, or whatever the employee wants to use it from. On top of that came a one-time bonus to fund set up of a home office space. 

Everyone has to figure out how this new puzzle pieces together, together. 

The other side of that is people expressing that they don’t feel like they ever leave work in the home-office model, and that a certain amount of loneliness sets in.

“For those that were interested in work from home model (before now), they were anxious, they were anxious about being excluded, about not being part of the mainstream office life and being a little bit detached,” Grabowski said. “I felt like that at times, and I’ve worked at home a lot.” 

The connectivity to the world and ability to interact with anyone, anywhere, to everyone, everywhere, made us remote, but it’s still up to the people to have physical outings for coffee, meet for beers, have a night of bowling, and the things that united us outside of the office already.

In open office settings it was common to see several people with headphones on, and they moved to private rooms to have engaging chats, and the multitasking that goes hand-in-hand with all that can actually create tougher working conditions, according to a study by Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson. 

Boosted productivity and connectivity in a remote world 

GetResponse has seen not just productivity increase during remote work, but calls are more frequent, and more to the point, allowing collaborative workflows to do just that, flow better.

What I see is that we are just sticking to our core values – we evolved, adapted and welcomed change and still providing our customers with best solutions possible. We are in this together, so we do our best as always. We had to learn to dig into the projects remotely. Before we could meet and do it in the blink of an eye.

Marta Wójcik, Head of UX at GetResponse

In the Cornell study, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours showed heightened levels of epinephrine, which is a hormone that is commonly called adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response, wrote Maria Konnikova in an article in The New Yorker magazine

Evans and Johnson discovered employees working in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain, giving credence that people might just have better physical and mental health while working at home. 

I think it’s gonna take a while for us to fully adjust. Especially those of us who have kids, who have those little buggers running around, and just interfering with all the top projects. But isn’t that great though that we can sit down at home and roam the world and have kids around, it does create some good things as well.

Simon Grabowski, GetResponse CEO and Founder

Back to the beginnings 

As he was starting what became GetResponse more than 20 years ago, Grabowski began working alone at his parents’ house. As the company grew, he needed somewhere to “house the talent” and renting office space was the normal thing to do (plus working remotely was much more difficult back then). 

Moving to an office was quite a challenge for Grabowski actually, something he found hard to admit. 

I kind of went against myself, to be perfectly honest this is probably the first time I ever said this, but I went against myself and started these offices and embraced these corporate cultures because that’s not who I am. I like people, but office politics, working 9-5, that’s never been the name of my game, but that’s the nature of the beast. That’s just how it was.

Simon Grabowski, GetResponse CEO and Founder

That’s just how it was is no longer a sufficient answer. 

“I (prefer to) talk more about change really than new normal, because new normal tends to say, “Hey this is the way it’s going to be always.” But as soon as lockdowns expire, there will be a new normal of the new normal, so there will be constant change. 

There are still a lot of unknowns, but Grabowski believes one thing is certain — the impact on all businesses is going to be huge.

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