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COVID-19 showed my company a better way to work—with 50% fewer offices

OpenText didn’t set out to shift to remote work. But it’s gone so well that 2,000 of its 15,000 employees will work from home on a permanent basis.

COVID-19 showed my company a better way to work—with 50% fewer offices
[Source photo: Lukas Blaskevicius/Unsplash]

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot

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We are all navigating the sudden uncertainties of the global health crisis, and none more so than the brave women and men who are serving on the front lines of this pandemic: our healthcare professionals, first responders, infrastructure and cloud experts, food processors and other essential workers who are keeping us healthy, safe and productive. Because of their incredible work, the rest of us are able to work, even if it requires some major adjustments.

In late April, I announced to our employees and investors that working from home had been so successful at OpenText that we would not reopen 50% of our global offices following the COVID-19 pandemic.

If I had gone to my leadership team before the crisis and said, “We’re sending every employee to work from home tomorrow for 60 days,” I would have been laughed out of the room. But that’s what every company had to do overnight. The learnings from this grand experiment have been—for many companies—surprising, powerful, and even an affirmation of our collective resilience.

As a CEO, it’s rare to be afforded a two-month window to test a hypothesis at scale, on something as fundamental as how a company operates. Given this opportunity, I knew it was important to analyze the data, consider what it meant for the company long term, and act accordingly.

It became clear by implementing a new hybrid work model that integrated remote work, we could build a more innovative, equitable, and resilient company that would be better positioned to attract talent, compete, and enable our customers.

This was the right move for the future of the company. Here is how we came to that decision.

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Working from home

Over the course of one week in March, facing a rapidly developing pandemic, we sent more than 95% of our 15,000 employees to work from home. This decision was a relatively easy one. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, many governments were issuing shelter-in-place orders, and it was clear that employees could not safely commute and work as usual.

Closing our offices was essential for the health and safety of our employees, customers, partners, and communities. But flipping the switch to remote work was also a leap of faith. We had invested in our digital systems but had never tested them at this scale before. Thankfully, it was quickly obvious we had the technology in place to be successful.

What would only become clear over the next couple of weeks was just how productive we would be.

Over 45 days working from home, we processed $2 trillion in commerce over our business network, shifted our European user conference to a digital event (with stronger turnout than last year), and launched our largest product release. We also continued to innovate, develop products, support customers, and close business. This has included supporting the documentation of clinical trials to combat COVID-19, assisting manufacturers as they shift supply chains to make ventilators, and helping companies protect their systems from ransomware and online scams as employees shifted to work from home.

This was happening in an environment that was anything but normal. Employees’ homes were transformed into not just offices but also schools, playgrounds, gyms, and places of worship.

But through the daily reports I received from my leadership team, it became clear that despite the challenges employees faced, productivity remained stable across the company, and was even increasing in some places. Most importantly, we continued to meet deadlines, innovate, and deliver for our customers.

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Returning to the workplace

If the decision to work from home was relatively easy, the decisions around returning to the workplace are much more complex. As we started working through the logistics of reopening each office, the questions around the virtual leadership table shifted to whether we should reopen some of our smaller offices, or whether this was an opportunity to look at how we worked in those environments in a new, more holistic way.

Our conversation quickly moved from a practical one about floor plans and physical distancing to a discussion about the potential long-term advantages of adopting a new model. What did we want our workforce to look like over the next 10 years? What kind of company did we want to be?

In the end, a hybrid workforce strategy made the most sense for us. Our national headquarters and centers of excellence would remain an integral part of our operations. For other offices, we considered whether there was a specific reason they were needed, or if employees could achieve the same productivity working remotely.

Using those principles, we decided that we would not reopen approximately 50% of our offices. These were generally our smaller operations, which meant that about 2,000 of our employees would permanently move to remote work.

Long-term benefits

Closing offices will have some economic benefits—but that was not the motivation. These savings will be invested into making our people more productive, whether they are at home or in the office.

This is about having a long-term view of the kind of company we want to be and using this moment to build it. From my perspective, there will be a number of key benefits from moving to this hybrid model, as well as a few pitfalls that we will need to be aware of.

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First, this will open up new talent markets. Even with offices around the world, we were still limited on where we would hire people and how we could compete for talent. By normalizing remote work within the company, we’ll have access to a much broader and deeper talent pool.

And the difference will not just be geographic. I truly believe this gives us the opportunity to tackle a number of barriers that have hindered gender equity in the tech sector. Educating our children on technology, early in their development, is happening at scale. It also remains a well-reported fact that women have predominantly taken on the roles of caregivers at home or have not been able to move to a new location to pursue a job or promotion. If we can put in place the technology and systems to embrace flexible, remote work that takes the realities of personal and family circumstances into consideration, then we have an opportunity to smash gender inequity within our organizations.

This is also an opportunity for us to be more connected with our employees. I am a big believer in traveling to our offices and connecting with employees directly—it is a joy—but there had been obvious limitations to that approach. Surprisingly to me, over the past two months I have felt more connected with employees across the company, and my leadership team has been reporting the same thing. I now host a weekly 30-minute all-hands meeting, which has helped to explain the decisions we’ve made around COVID-19 and allowed me to hear employee concerns and respond to their questions in real time.

As we implement this plan, there are a number of things we will need to keep in mind. First among these are the different living situations and digital access that our employees have around the world. Our corporate systems have proven to be incredibly effective, but we know that some employees have adjusted to remote work better than others. A significant difference is the tools they have and the quality of their personal internet connection. For us to make remote working successful in the long term, we will need to eliminate that divide and help all our employees be digitally enabled and productive.

We will also need to evolve our methods for innovation and development for hybrid work. When I started as an engineer, the waterfall method was the preferred style of engineering. This was reinvented into the agile model. Now, we need to further evolve that method to embrace a hybrid workforce. I think that this will be a federated model, where employees will come into the regional centers to collaborate on occasion, and where we will have digital tools, such as virtual whiteboards and meeting rooms, with smaller, more containerized, independent deliverables. Give me an API, and I can move the world.

Just the beginning

We are not yet through the COVID-19 crisis, and realistically we know there is still a long way to go. The phrase “new normal” doesn’t really capture it. We will get to the other side, and when we do, we need to reshape how we work, how we innovate, and how we communicate. I’m calling it the new equilibrium.

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I would encourage leaders not to miss the moment. Reconsider your office footprint. Invest in your digital systems. Trust your people and embrace new ways of working. This is a once-in-a-generation moment to address the equity, flexibility, and design of our organizations.

For us, this means evolving into a hybrid work company, normalizing remote work within our organization, and taking the long view on how we can reinvent innovation, talent attraction, equity, and communication with our employees. I’m excited to have started this exploration.


Mark J. Barrenechea is the CEO and CTO of OpenText.

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