A year of remote working: What we learnt

Lauren Brown, May 14, 2021 6 min read

2020 was a year where everyone learnt to adapt, change and be flexible with whatever came their way. And in the People Team at Tech Nation, that is exactly what we tried to do.

We were fortunate to have somewhat of a ‘remote work’ culture already in place. With Tech Nationers based all over the country, a number of meetings already on Zoom and the majority of Tech Nation’s tools being cloud-based, we already had a strong ‘remote work’ culture. So, when we safely closed the doors on 17th March 2020 and sent all our Tech Nationers to work from home, it wasn’t a massive shift in the way we operate.

What we didn’t realise is that – excluding a couple of false starts in October – we would still be in this situation over a year later. 

Clarity, flexibility and stability

Within the People Team it has been hugely important to us to provide clarity, flexibility and stability to our Tech Nationers. We quickly realised everyone was on their own ‘journey’ and that no two living situations were the same. It also became clear that there were different tolerances within the organisation – whether it be the anxiety of COVID-19 or generally being stuck inside.

Clarity would be key. We quickly shared with Tech Nationers a clear roadmap with milestones and key dates when we would review government guidelines and make decisions on returning to the office. We sent out surveys regularly to do temperature checks on the team, too. We’re proud to say we scored 90% + on each of these surveys on the question, “I have confidence in Tech Nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.’

Flexibility was recognising the frazzled parents working extra hard to juggle their job with meeting the needs of their children who were suddenly not at school. We made sure to release more emergency leave days – not just for parents, but also for our Tech Nationers who were supporting older parents that were shielding. Since then we’ve carried on releasing emergency leave, as well as supporting an asynchronous approach to how Tech Nationers’ want to manage their day.

And lastly, providing stability. We did this by making sure we were constantly communicating and engaging with the team in a variety of ways. We created new Slack channels: #Covid-19comms and #quarantinedlife, which quickly became the go-to place for news. We also transformed a weekly newsletter from our CEO into a weekly meeting. This helped celebrate what we’d achieved that week, gave us a means for distributing ever-changing information succinctly and allowed us to see all our colleagues face-to-face (or rather face-to-screen), too. We also introduced more regular touch points such as a weekly video update from Gerard (our CEO), as well as online quarterly workshops and all-employee meetings such as All Hands.

An ever-changing year

Throughout the year, so much has changed along the way – so it was only fitting that the approach we took to support and communicate changed and developed a fair bit as well. For the first couple of months, the People Team published a daily newsletter, ‘At Home with Tech Nation’, covering subjects from Netflix recommendations to how to get the most out of home working. It was important to us to express to our people that they were supported and valued.

In October, in line with government advice, we put all the preparations into returning to the office. This was suggested on a voluntary basis, once again recognising that everyone had different boundaries in different areas such as using public transport. We made sure both our London and our Manchester offices were COVID-friendly, and deep-cleaned, and introduced a hotdesk booking system to ensure we kept our Tech Nationers as safe as possible.

We sent all Tech Nationers a goodie bag for the return, with masks, sanitiser and wristbands. We introduced a traffic light wristband measure for Tech Nationers to express their boundaries when it came to social distancing and interaction without having to explain themselves. However, in keeping with the theme of 2020, it wasn’t meant to be. Sadly we only got to enjoy two days in the office before closing the doors once again.

Tackling lockdown fatigue

We noticed in the second lockdown, morale was hit quite hard. And although we had put in online socials and other various measures to keep in ‘touch’, these had dwindled in the summer when everyone wanted to make the most of the weather. Now with the dark nights drawing in, we made a conscious effort to put in socials and implement more initiatives to support wellbeing. We introduced an array of fun activities for the team, such as pottery making, online escape rooms and, of course, ever-popular quizzes.

Supporting wellbeing during the darker months became more important than ever. With this in mind, we introduced Yoga and meditation classes with Tapah Wellbeing, and a platform called Spill where Tech Nationers could book in a therapy session should they need extra support. We also made sure our Tech Nationers knew we had a confidential Employer Assistance Programme (EAP). 

To allow our Tech Nationers to engage with a bit of volunteering, we are piloting a platform called ‘OnHand’ where the team have the chance to give back in a COVID-friendly way. Overall, these tools have been greatly received and we’re so pleased that we could keep providing ways to support Tech Nationers. 

As we evolved the wellbeing strategy we’ve asked everyone to be part of that process. We appointed our first, fully trained mental health first aiders, and formed a mental health committee known as The Village Green Preservation Society (for all you Kinks fans out there). This reinforces the safe haven we’d like to nurture for our people wherever they are in the UK.

Working from anywhere

Throughout this past year, the biggest thing we learnt was that our people like flexibility – there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to COVID-19 and lockdown. Bearing this in mind, in November 2020, we made the big decision to adopt a work from anywhere (in the UK) policy for the next 12 months. Using our guiding principles of clarity, flexibility & stability, we formed an amazing cross-functional team and set to work.

When previously the majority of our roles had been based in Manchester or London, the ‘work from anywhere’ policy allows Tech Nationers to pick where they worked in the UK. It acknowledges that lockdown has affected many peoples’ living situations and allowed people to make a longer term choice about where they wanted to be based. 

This policy also applied to any new hires we made (again, until October 2021), which meant we could widen our talent pool and hire from anywhere in the UK.

To allow people to improve their home working situation, we gave all Tech Nationers an allowance to kit out their home office and, (when and where possible) we introduced a system which allowed employees to redeem 2 passes per week for a co-working space of their choice. 

We love a survey at Tech Nation, so when we asked our people their thoughts on returning to an office, 66% told us they felt comfortable and ready. That means our work-from-anywhere policy is ideal for those 34% of Tech Nationers that want to stay at home a little longer while they get to grips with lockdown relaxing.

Our new ways of working have brought new challenges, but we are deeply encouraged that we’ve seen 26% year-on-year growth during COVID-19 and we are delighted to have welcomed 42 new Tech Nationers in this period, too. This new way of working has forced us in the People Team to look at new ways to ensure our culture is cultivated (including a virtual Christmas party with wreath-making over Zoom!) and come up with innovative touch points to make sure that all interactions aren’t just task-focused. As the situation evolves, so do we as an organisation, and we’re deeply proud of the journey we’ve been on so far.

After what has been a year of immense change, below really summarises what make our roles in the people team really worthwhile:

Having the flexibility to build my own little package around mental wellness has been absolutely incredible. We’re all under different types of stress during this crazy time and with very different needs. For me being able to work from anywhere, as well as having access to emergency parental leave; ad hoc Spill counselling sessions; and yoga classes has been invaluable as I try and juggle homeschooling (and the pandemic in general) with my job.  

I also think there’s a real difference between companies having mental wellness policies in place and actively encouraging people to use them. We’ve all been given the time and space to make the most of the benefits on offer and have been fully supported in accommodating them in our work schedules.There’s a been real feeling of being genuinely looked after and it makes me so proud and grateful to be a Tech Nationer.- Liz Scott, Head of Entrepreneur Engagement


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