A teacher works in a classroom. A news anchor works in a studio. A lawyer works in an office. These are a few of the many long-held assumptions about where we conduct work. This year, though, any notions about what a typical day looks like—workday or otherwise—were turned upside down. For teachers, news anchors, lawyers—and for the nearly 500 people who work at my company, Interactions—work was abruptly picked up and transitioned to kitchen tables and guest bedrooms.
Mid-March, when the pandemic really took hold in the U.S., all of our lives shifted to the surreal. At work, I was in the throes of negotiating a 12-year lease for a new 53,000 square foot corporate headquarters—a space we had been planning for since early 2019. After an exhaustive search, we were ready to sign on the proverbial dotted line. But one day, I woke up to more coronavirus headlines and asked myself, “What are we doing?” I called my CFO and said, “Pull the plug.”
Months later, we’ve all settled into a “new normal,” yet uncertainty persists. One certainty I can provide for my employees is that virtual work is here to stay.
Interactions, a conversational AI company that today has eight locations and 82,000 square feet of office space in the U.S., has become a primarily virtual company. This means our people can work from anywhere, and we are in the process of significantly downsizing all of our offices, starting with our current headquarters in the Boston area.
People ask, “Why ‘go virtual’ permanently?” To that, I say, “Before the pandemic, if you told me that I would make Interactions a virtual company, I would be surprised too.” But despite whatever long-held notions we all have about where work should happen, with recent learnings, I am confident that the virtual work model is the right one for Interactions, for a few reasons.
The office isn’t dead—it just serves another purpose
The way my company operates will be forever changed. But in becoming a virtual company, we aren’t abandoning the office entirely. Going forward, our smaller HQ will be a showcase for customers and a place for occasional face-to-face employee collaboration. What it won’t be is a primary work location for anyone, including me. No permanent offices, no packed lunches, and no daily commute.
I still believe there’s a role for the office to play in the execution of our work, but the notion that work must be done in a specific location, physically surrounded by specific people five days a week, is no longer true.
Remote work benefits employees
When my company shifted to remote work with the rest of the country, it was a first for a lot of our staff. Until stay-at-home orders and social distancing were implemented, we were a company that allowed work from home and had the infrastructure to support it, but it wasn’t our primary model. While about 30% of our staff worked remotely, most people were expected to work in the office. I didn’t know what to expect but quickly found that productivity was uninterrupted. In fact, it actually increased.
On top of that, we conducted internal surveys to discover that the vast majority of employees were happy with the new arrangement. Eighty-nine percent of employees reported enjoying a positive work experience from home. There were some initial concerns, of course, but we were able to address them, like the need for ergonomically correct desk chairs or flexible schedules for child care. Ultimately, for employees, we found that the benefits of flexibility while working remotely outweigh drawbacks.
When we sat down to ask ourselves, “Do we need all of this workspace?,” the collective answer among management and employees alike was a resounding “no.”
Company culture is carried by people, not the office
Being a fast-growth technology company, I recognize that there’s a certain idea about what Interactions’ office space should look like: open floor plan; a kitchen stocked with snacks, a break area with a ping-pong table and stylish couches—everything impeccably crisp and branded. Many of these elements were present in our existing spaces, and we planned to spend millions of dollars in improvements to our new headquarters to bring this vision to life.
While the new facility would have been beautiful, this year has reminded me that a company’s culture is reflected in and carried by its people, not its office. We’re shifting all of the energy we would have invested in designing a new headquarters to collaborating with our employees to figure out what a great virtual company looks like. Whether that means hosting virtual dog shows or encouraging colorful Zoom backgrounds for Pride Month, I believe there are many opportunities to build a culture that connects people with nothing other than a videoconferencing link.
Jobs have long been seen as intrinsically tied to where the work takes place. In some cases for good reason. I sincerely hope teachers can return to classrooms safely very soon. And maybe television reporters will be able to go back to the studio. But for companies like mine, with employees that need a computer, internet connectivity, and not much else, virtual work is a valid long-term solution—and to my surprise, a great one.
Mike Iacobucci is the CEO of Interactions.