Like many companies, business integration vendor Tibco had no choice but to rapidly adapt to the shutdown of its offices in the COVID-19 lockdown. Managing the reopening of offices has been a much lengthier process, not least because it remains unclear what the new status quo will be, says the company's COO Matt Quinn:
We're evaluating whether this is office 3.0, or whether this is actually the end of the office and we're looking at a post-office scenario, where an office is really just one tool amongst many tools, rather than being a staple in our arsenal.
There's no definitive answer to that dilemma at the moment, and in any case it seems to vary by region and by job function, he says. Engineers are quite happy working from home, but architects, product managers and project managers still see value in being in the office, as do people in customer-facing roles. It also depends on what people's situation is at home, with those in more junior roles preferring the stability that the office provides, while more senior staff are generally happy with home working. Overall, the data is inconclusive, making it difficult to plan, he concludes:
That post-office versus office 3.0 [question] does keep us up at night. Not just from the tooling that we use like Slack, but how we roll out different technologies, what protective mechanisms we have to put in place — all of that comes into play.
It's harder to reopen than it was to close
None of this is helped by the fact that there's no consistent gameplan for returning to the office — or whatever the final end-state proves to be — and employee sentiment continues to shift. In one office that reopened early, a survey at the time found that 30-40% of staff were eager to return. But even those that were willing to go back to the office ended up going very infrequently, perhaps once a week.
It was very clear that they were using that as a place to go and to meet for a specific reason, rather than a place to go and work ...
We've thought of offices as a place to go to work. Now, that's no longer the case. It's a place to go do something, but it's to do something very, very specific.
Differing conditions depending on the location also have to be factored in. In some countries or states, local authorities have encouraged reopening. Elsewhere, it's been more fragmented. In those circumstances, it's proven impossible to have a global stance. Instead, Tibco has gone for a "surgical" approach, says Quinn, relying on local teams in each of its major offices around the world to liaise with local authorities and inform staff accordingly. But with guidance changing rapidly, it's often difficult to provide a consistent message.
You would have thought that closing down offices would be harder than opening them back up. But with the regulatory environment and the shifting elements of the pandemic, opening back up has certainly been more complicated ...
Here in the US, we've got the federal government, we've got state governments, and then you've got county authorities. All of them are doing a really good job of trying to not run over each other. But when you're trying to open an office, you want clarity, and you want surety. And just because of the nature of the pandemic, with the shifting winds, and with a complex regulatory environment, trying to find out who's on first can really be a tough one.
A common platform for collaboration - and integration
It's fortunate that Tibco decided to roll out Slack to the entire company around six months prior to the arrival of the pandemic, he says, because it meant that people were already starting to get familiar with using digital teamwork tools. The platform has provided a common point of contact for people to stay up-to-date with information.
Tools like Slack have been invaluable, because not only are they communication devices at multiple different levels of granularity, but they also are great from a transcript point of view. People are able to go to channels and see what the last talk was on opening up certain offices, rather than having to always be in the room, or being on the Zoom call, to find the latest and greatest message.
As a company that specializes in integration, it should come as no surprise to learn that Tibco has eagerly connected Slack into other applications. The first department to adopt Slack, long before last year's company-wide roll-out, was engineering, where it proved invaluable in supporting agile teamwork across multiple timezones. It wasn't long before these technically adept users started expanding their use of the platform, says Quinn.
The next step, as you can imagine, being a company that really helped invent integration, was we integrated the hell out of it. Every aspect of our development tool chains were aggressively integrated.
Once Slack was rolled out to other departments last year, one of the surprises was to see the same pattern taking hold among business users.
We started to see the same kind of desire for automated workflows across functions like sales, marketing, pre-sales and support — the ability to, within a conversation, a group or a direct message, [be] pulling up data from say, Salesforce, has been huge for us.
We use our own integration technology to pull that data from Salesforce, insert it into the conversation when requested, from within a Slack channel or a conversation. That's been huge, because then we can actually see what's going on, from a customer point of view, much more readily than having to go back into Salesforce and rummage around. [There are] literally hundreds and hundreds of these [integrations], and the appetite for more has grown.
How Slack has changed behavior during lockdown
When lockdown began, the existence of these integrations meant that distributed working was a lot easier than many had expected, because so much functionality was already available in the messaging channel, he adds.
Organizations that felt like they needed to come into the office are finding that they don't. That's again fueling the, 'Well, hang on, I can do just about everything that I need to do, except for one or two things in the office. Why do I want to come back? What's the purpose of an office now?'
Behavior has changed in other ways, too. Another unexpected side effect of more widespread use of Slack, for example, has been the interest shown by other teams in consulting the runbooks kept by Tibco's site reliability engineers.
We assumed that the runbooks would be something that our cloud SREs would use, but no one else would be particularly interested. We've found a huge amount of interest — from our pre-sales, from our implementation partners, and even from sales — wanting to know what's going on and really starting to participate in those processes.
[This] has built new connective tissues across the company that just simply didn't exist before, because they were in silos, because they were in offices. So there's been some weird benefits to this work from home, that I'm hoping, that as we pivot back to whatever we pivot back to, we don't lose those gains.
These examples show how the disruption of enforced working from home, combined with the catalyst of a company-wide collaboration platform, has opened up new pathways for knowledge sharing and skills transfer across the organization. It's not something Quinn wants to lose.
The collaboration tools that we've selected, Slack being the primary of those, have really helped create that backbone for those new learnings to take root.
My big fear, and it's something that I think we all have to collectively work on, is that as we go back to that office culture potentially, let's hope that we don't lose those pathways and that people don't go back to what they were doing before.
Learning to live with distributed teamwork
The experience of being able to quickly pivot to new processes during lockdown has also raised the profile of integrations in Slack. They are now seen as worth putting in place even if there's no immediate business case, he says.
We've integrated just about as many business processes and systems into Slack as we possibly can, even to the point where even if there's something that doesn't have a direct business value this day, if we think that it's relevant, we'll still go ahead and do it because you never know when these things need to be turned on or become useful at a moment's notice.
Having to respond quickly to lockdown tested long-established processes that were heavily standardized but difficult to change, whereas less formalized processes were easier to adapt.
The processes that were half-baked, that relied upon people communicating and collaborating in an ad hoc fashion, tend to survive because those processes are a little bit like magpies — throw a new situation at them, and they'll just use whatever to get it done.
But that doesn't mean the ad hoc processes can't be improved. One of the challenges enterprises must now face is how to manage these new distributed teamwork processes at scale, he points out.
While those very brittle but great operational processes in the office were good until they weren't, they did have the benefit of scale. It's something that we're going to have to relearn, which is how do you sustainably scale in a post pandemic world?
This is a fascinating account that touches on several themes I've been following. The rapid introduction of new ways of working during lockdown that are now here to stay. The beneficial impact of putting in place an integrated collaborative canvas for enterprise digital teamwork. The need to move beyond ad hoc usage of collaboration tools to build more mature patterns of digital teamwork. Whatever the future of work looks like once the current crisis has passed, there's no going back to what existed before. As Tibco has been discovering, in many ways that's a good thing.