A year of remote working: What we learnt
6 min read
The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing repercussions were a shock to most of us, and with lockdown, ways of life and work were changed in what felt like an instant. Many companies, both large and small, had to quickly move to 100% remote, presenting massive challenges for even the most experienced of leaders.
But what was it like for companies who were in the middle of a rapid scaling journey? When a business is scaling quickly, it’s an absolutely critical time, and the extra complications presented during the pandemic have meant sink or swim for some companies. Liam Ward, who leads the Upscale programme, said “Rapid growth in demand can almost be as much of a killer for a startup as a rapid loss of business. Without the right processes, operations can break; the team are stretched well beyond capacity and if you aren’t careful, everything can fall over. As some high-street names showed in April/May during the early days of the pandemic, this can lead to irreversible reputational damage and a complete collapse from the team”.
Our Upscale 5.0 programme for mid-stage, scaling companies had only just kicked off back in February, so when lockdown occurred, the peer-to-peer connections and learning became a lifeline for unexpectedly remote founders and leadership teams.
While lots of companies have struggled with the challenges, others have thrived in lockdown, and the last 7 months have been the making of them. To get an insight into the past crazy few months, we spoke to three companies on Upscale 5.0 about what it’s been like to scale in the midst of a global pandemic. Michelle Kennedy, Co-founder and CEO of social media platform for women to discuss fertility and motherhood Peanut, Emilie Vanpoperinghe, Co-founder of ODDBOX – the vegetable delivery box that reduces food waste, and Dan Garrett, CEO at online will writing service Farewill gave us their insights.
When the pandemic hit, reacting quickly to changing circumstances and being flexible became absolutely key. With lockdown, priorities changed fast and, with people being stuck indoors, food delivery (and especially of fresh ingredients) became an immediate concern for millions.
ODDBOX were one such scaling company who found themselves at the centre of attention. They achieved 600% growth year-on-year, and doubled their projected growth forecast. Co-founder Emilie Vanpoperinghe told us “The pandemic significantly accelerated our growth as people shifted to online shopping. When COVID hit, we saw a huge increase in customer orders and are seeing demand continuing to grow as we expand beyond London. Our main aim was to bring fresh fruit & veg to as many people self-isolating as possible”.
“The whole team was incredible in ensuring we could maintain the excellent level of service we provide whilst managing the huge increase in orders. We accelerated recruitment and brought in short-term resources and consultancy support to be able to meet the huge demand for Oddboxes”.
“Since lockdown, we have hired 15 new staff members; almost doubling the size of our team. Our partners recruited 30 additional drivers to meet demand and tripled our packing workforce. Flexibility has been key and we were lucky to have outsourced our packing operations to a specialist fresh produce co-packer last November. This enabled us to quickly increase our capacity”.
Similarly, Farewill had to adapt to fully remote at the same time as they experienced an increase in demand. CEO Dan Garret told us “We’ve simply seen more people come to us. Traditional providers who are more reliant on manual, bricks-and-mortar processes have struggled to adapt to new conditions. We’ve always been digital-first, and our team has been working 100% remotely for more than six months now, with no disruption to service. For example, when customer enquiries increased by over 300% in March, we met the demand without any problems”.
“As a business, we’re all about finding new ways to do things, so we’re used to acting quickly and changing things fast. This year we’ve offered free wills for NHS staff, created a process to fast-track wills for frontline workers, hired more than 20 people, started opening on Sundays and launched a new telephone wills service to serve people who aren’t online or who have complex needs. We’ve been busy, and we’re pleased to say it’s paid off. This year we’ve managed to help thousands more families”.
For Peanut, it was the difficult moments that held the biggest learnings. Michelle Kennedy told us “The outbreak of covid, the election, riots, and the BLM movement have led to some volatility in terms of conversations happening on Peanut. The key for us has been (as always) in the strength of how we value and moderate our community, the core values of the product have never been more apparent. The biggest lesson we learned was to be adaptable and agile; to change your roadmap and build what your users want most”.
While some things will eventually return to the way they were before, other aspects of a post-Covid-19 world look set to change forever. Dan believes one thing that has changed is people’s attitude to death. “The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to think and talk about death much more than usual. It’s highlighted the practical difficulties people face when dealing with the death of a loved one, and it’s shown that the industry desperately needs to modernise. Some of the processes involved in deathcare haven’t changed for over 150 years”.
“The pandemic has thrown issues with costly, complicated, and intimidating processes into the spotlight. It’s exacerbated the need for simpler, fairer and friendlier alternatives that take some of the stress out of the situation – and that’s exactly what Farewill is here to provide”.
“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that when it comes to funerals, one size no longer fits all. Because mainstream options have been less readily available, our customers have had to put thought into every aspect of their arrangements, and created something that works best for them. The impact of this has been huge for families, and no doubt we’ll see this move towards personalisation continue”.
“We’ve seen demand for direct cremations – where people don’t attend the cremation and have their loved ones’ ashes delivered to them at home – shoot up. This means people are saving money – at £980 this option is 80% cheaper than the average cost of a funeral in the UK (£4,800) – which can only be a good thing. It’s unbelievably unfair that so many families need to take on debt when they’re saying goodbye to someone”.
“In the last 6 months, we’ve seen demand for our will-writing service more than double, with three times as many under 35s making their wills in 2020 compared with last year. And while confronting death and planning for it is difficult, it’s also really sensible. It makes it much easier for the people who care about you further down the line”.
For Peanut, they saw the way people used their platform evolve in real-time. “We’re seeing a huge shift in what people want and expect from social networks. it’s no longer enough to build for growth and scale at any cost. We have to build with moderation, safety and authenticity in mind. As we see the unbundling of other social networks really accelerate, those who haven’t been watching closely in terms of protecting the values their users rate most highly will be impacted in their engagement and retention”.
The change in circumstances not only changed how ODDBOX customers were behaving, but suppliers too, “We had a lot of growers reach out for help to rescue produce which were destined for food services and hospitality but suddenly had no market”.
“Being supply-driven meant that we could support growers and importers in taking surplus stock and offer a financial return for their produce to compensate for the loss of business. Whilst retailers reduced their range, we increased the variety in our boxes to offer an outlet for produce meant to go to food services and hospitality. We rescued 20 tonnes of mixed salad leaf grown for restaurants and several sea freight containers of produce already in transit to the UK when lockdown happened”.
“Over the past 4 years, ODDBOX has delivered over 1m boxes, rescuing close to 6m tonnes of produce from going to waste. ODDBOX has also been supporting the community. Since we launched in 2016, we have been donating our own surplus to amazing partners: the Felix Project and City Harvest. During lockdown, we increased our donations and started donating 100 boxes a week to the NHS and other charities, overall donating enough produce to make over 2m meals for vulnerable people”.
Culture and employee satisfaction is a difficult one to tackle when your business is growing quickly; it’s one of the biggest challenges cited in the Upscale programme. And when people are unexpectedly remote it’s an even bigger challenge.
Dan Garret put it succinctly “The pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, and one of the difficult things for us has been figuring out how to support employees without being in the same room as them. In person, all kinds of cues help you pick up on this stuff. Working remotely, that’s obviously much harder”.
Emilie says “During the week lockdown was announced, we saw an influx of 10 times the average daily order volume, resulting in having to shut down the website for 3 weeks as we worked on building a strong supply chain foundation for scale. Our team had always been working very flexibly however this wasn’t normal circumstances with the fear, uncertainty and huge work pressure”.
“With employee wellbeing as a priority, we introduced a ‘Creative Working from Home Budget’ for employees to pursue their passions outside of work. In addition to work-related virtual team meetings, regular non-work virtual catch-ups such as pub quizzes and lunch chats via Google meet and Zoom became the norm. One customer even kindly offered yoga lessons for ODDBOX staff as a thank you”.
Dan Garrett: “ We’ve been deliberate about coming together for remote socials (and imaginative about the form they take!) and we’ve had lots of conversations about mental health. One of our company behaviours is ‘be you’, and that means we lean into open, honest sharing. No matter what your position or what difficulty you’re facing, we talk!”
“We also have an external wellbeing line that’s available to everyone here, for times when advice from colleagues won’t cut it. We work in an emotionally complex area, pandemic or no pandemic, and it’s on us to make sure that our people are well supported”.
As the pandemic looks set to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable, the challenges of scaling don’t let up. But the lessons learned during the last 7 months will be absolutely vital to continued success.
For Michelle Kennedy, it’s been the perfect time to build a strong team and galvanize what their network stands for. “We’re very fortunate, we’ve used the unfortunate market condition to maximise on our growth by hiring exceptional talent. We’ve also really been able to communicate the message of Peanut, the social impact, the need (particularly in light of challenges being faced by other social networks at this time), and how big our opportunity really is”.
“With the incredible dedication our team has shown, we’re listening more closely to our users than ever before”.
Over at ODDBOX, Emilie is hoping the changes in some consumer behaviours will have a wider, more permanent resonance. “It took 25 years for online grocery to reach 7% of the overall grocery market and just a few weeks to double to 13% and there is no sign of this trend reversing. Another huge positive was the increased awareness of the value of food with food waste at home significantly reducing”.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve increased our social media engagement via a mix of entertainment and education, and are seeing increased interest in home-cooking and buying local and seasonal. There is increased awareness around sustainability and a growing sense of community and citizenship which we see as a real sign of hope for the future of shopping and consumption”.
For Dan of Farewill, it’s all about keeping those important conversations around death going, expanding on what they offer, and giving back to the community. “We expect growth to continue for Farewill. We’ve become the biggest provider of wills in England and Wales, writing 1 in 10 wills, and with our latest £20m fundraise, we’ll continue to build our world-class team and launch more services to help people plan for and deal with death”.
“In the coming months we’ll offer LPAs (lasting power of attorney), expand our telephone wills service, and give customers the option to organise attended funerals”.
“We’re passionate about holding on to our culture as we grow, and we also want to continue blazing a trail in legacy fundraising. We work with over 70 partners and charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support and Save the Children, and so far, we’ve raised over £265 million in pledged income for charities. For a business that was only founded five years ago, we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved”.
We’re currently looking for applications for the next Upscale 6.0 programme, so if you’re a UK tech company who is VC backed, having raised a Series A round, or revenue focused and generating £1.5m – £5m, get your application in before they close on 27th October.