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How knowledge platform Guru is helping Shopify embrace remote working

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 22, 2020
Shopify's embrace of remote working began as long as five years ago in its customer support function

Shopify sign on its HQ office in Ottawa © Paul McKinnon - shutterstock
(© Paul McKinnon - shutterstock)

Shopify's decision that most of its 5,000 employees "will permanently work remotely," as its CEO announced on Twitter yesterday, is a big step for the fast-growing e-commerce provider. But it's one for which it is well prepared, with many functions already experienced in remote working.

Customer support made the switch as long as five years ago, says Dana Tessier, the company's Director of Knowledge Management, with most support agents working remotely. Speaking to Guru CEO Rick Nucci during its online event earlier this week about Shopify's use of his company's digital knowledgebase tool, she says that when lockdown began, she was able to carry on just as before:

Most of us were remote but I was not. I used to walk 20 minutes down the street to the office every day. But being a technology company, we all have fabulous laptops that we were given on our first day, and it's set up to access everything remotely. So when the call came to start working from home, I opened my laptop and continued as normal.

No longer a shoulder tap away

This is a common story among Guru's customer base, says Nucci, where remote or distributed teams are already common, including at high-flying digital brands such as Slack, Spotify, Square and Zoom. Others have always worked entirely remotely, such as app integration platform Zapier, whose CEO Wade Foster talks about the need to build documentation into the fabric of teams that are "no longer a 'shoulder tap' away" from each other. Without the in-person network of an office, distributed teams need some other way to share knowledge, says Nucci:

With everything changing, companies all around the world got thrust into this remote work context. I think it's led to increased recognition that a system to capture and share knowledge becomes very critical to a company, period. The ability to just shoulder-tap across a room is no longer feasible in this context.

The Guru platform aims to fill that need. It is designed to easily capture and validate answers and how-to advice and then make the information available in the flow of work, helping quickly resolve issues raised by customers or colleagues. At Shopify, it is used by all customer support agents (coincidentally known as Shopify gurus) and for sales to larger merchants that have more complex needs, as well as some internal functions. Guru is used in 3 out of every 5 customer support interactions, says Tessier.

Finding answers in the surge of messages

At other Guru customers, the sudden switch to remote working in response to stay-in-place orders has brought a surge in the use of messaging platforms such as Slack and Zoom. Workers are seeking digital alternatives to the 'shoulder tap' method of finding information, and Guru then provides a structure that makes it easier to organize and find those answers. Sara Davatelis, IT Specialist at identity management vendor SailPoint provides a case in point:

Before the stay-at-home order we had an average of about 35,000 Slack messages a day. We saw an overnight jump to about 60,000 messages per day after the order was issued. That's 25,000 shoulder taps, in-person chit-chats that overnight started happening in Slack.

Guru is helping to capture and distribute that knowledge, making it easier to manage the flow of information, she explains.

People are now referencing Guru cards more than they used to, throwing them in chats and Slacks and sending them over email. Working from home became easy because we were so prepared for it with Guru.

The new normal at Shopify

At Shopify, these new work patterns are set to become the new normal. CEO Tobi Lutke says its offices will remain closed until the end of the year while the company redesigns for a "digital by default" mindset, with only 20-25% of their former capacity. When they reopen, employees there will access the exact same digital workspace as remote workers:

But that new normal will still be different from what people are experiencing now, which as Tessier points out has put exceptional demands on people:

Working remote now is not what working remote actually feels like. Folks are challenged with a lot of different distractions, a lot of problems that don't normally come up — they've got kids at home, all sorts of things like that ...

It's particularly challenging given that Shopify is experiencing exceptional demand for its e-commerce platform, she adds.

We're trying to balance a really busy time where our customers really need us. It's challenging trying to be there for everyone right now, but everyone's doing their best. We're just saying do your best, and that will be fantastic.

New starters at Shopify are encouraged to refer to Guru to find answers. "You don't need to know everything, but you need to know how to look for it," says Tessier. She also aims to foster a culture of knowledge sharing, to ensure that all reusable information is added to the knowledgebase. "If they learn something, we want them to share that," she says.

Most of the content however comes from other functions such as product management. She worries that as Shopify introduces new features in response to the current market, there's even more than usual for people to take in:

Something I am concerned about, especially as we're introducing new features so fast at the moment, is do you have enough time to learn what you need to know to do your job?

Team communication is crucial when everyone is under such pressures, she says, and Shopify is currently holding twice-weekly AMA sessions from which the knowledge management team then summarizes answers to common questions to ensure the information isn't lost.

My take

As companies rapidly embrace remote working they're quickly discovering that it takes a lot more than video meetings to do it well. Even a messaging platform like Slack or Teams can only go so far — there needs to be much more of a formal structure for managing the flow of work and knowledge — something that at diginomica we've defined as the collaborative canvas, with eight distinct components.

Guru provides a unique knowledge fabric that sits across that collaborative canvas and connects people to the answers they need. Thinking back to the struggles that knowledge management professionals have had over the past few decades trying to get people to share what they knew, it's intriguing to see how Guru have gone about solving this problem. It's still a struggle — Tessier mentions the notion of "the 'undernet', the knowledge that is beyond the knowledge manager's reach" — but Guru is harnessing connected digital technology in imaginative ways that surface as much of it as possible.

Now companies like Shopify, having already rolled out many of the essential tools for digital teamwork, are finding the transition to remote working relatively painless. In contrast, the many organizations who have delayed their move to digital working must feel like the naked swimmers in Warren Buffet's famed analogy about the tide going out. These are trends that were already visible, they just got fast-tracked to the mainstream by the pandemic. Including peak city.


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