Virtually Successful: Tech, Culture, and Work From Home

Lizzy Wang
Mar 29 · 5 min read
Photo by Grovemade on Unsplash

A new era of corporate culture may be dawning on us.

Just last month, Spotify announced its new “Work From Anywhere” policy: after the pandemic, all of the company’s employees from across the globe are no longer required to work in an office during a work week.

This announcement signified that working from home is becoming a more permanent feature of the tech industry. Even more so, it’s pushing tech companies to invest more in building a better work culture outside the office. Doing so will help employees maintain productivity and boost morale in a difficult time. How are tech companies implementing this change and how successful have they been?

Before the pandemic, the office was an integral part of company culture. Its design often reflected the company or the industry’s values. Having an open office with unlimited snacks and ping pong tables created a very different atmosphere when compared to more traditional spaces with cubicles, confined spaces, leather chairs. Now, with employees scattered across space and time zones, companies must recognize that culture — and subsequently workplace incentives — can no longer be built the same way. With the pressures of the pandemic, companies either bend or break.

Human Capital

IBM, for example, successfully weathered the transition to a strong remote-work culture. Arvind Krishna, Chairman and CEO of IBM, shared a “Work From Home” pledge in May 2020 that specified how employees could support one another in balancing work and life responsibilities while working remotely. Employees were encouraged to stay virtually connected to one another via Slack. Others even volunteered to help other colleagues’ families by picking up groceries — demonstrating how collaborative a strong culture could be. Overall, IBM reinvested in its employees by reaching out to them more often and being more explicit about the purpose of doing so.

While these efforts certainly cannot replace the value of in-person interactions, companies are actively creating new ways to demonstrate company values to their current and future employees while providing support.

“Oh, to zoom rooms you’ll go!”

Onboarding new-hires and getting accustomed to the company culture used to be one of the most important in-person events held by many firms. The pandemic challenged tech companies to rethink their onboarding methods. Slack, for instance, would fly all new-hires to their San Francisco headquarters office to engage in a week-long training program that ends with a 90-minute Q&A with the CEO. This setup provided an invaluable opportunity for new-hires to engage with executive leadership, learn about the culture, and connect with one another. However, this approach is unworkable during a pandemic.

To adapt, Slack changed the process dramatically. All paperwork and learning sessions went fully online. Orientation content was aggressively cut so that only the most vital information would be conducted live over Zoom. Other sessions like guest speakers and compliance seminars were pre-recorded, though the Q&A with the CEO still happens live.

As a result, Slack was able to quickly adapt and hire 25% of its workforce since March 2020. Slack’s swift action, inquiring for feedback, and seamless collaboration between teams ensured their success. They’ve compiled the lessons learned into a guide so other companies may replicate their work. Slack’s success illustrates how tech companies are willing to be innovative with their operations in order to fully provide new employees with a remote onboarding experience that mirrors an in-person one.

Closing the Valve of the Talent Pipeline

Cultivating robust and attractive internship programs also presents an additional challenge to the industry. Summer internships are often a foundational part of the early-talent recruiting pipeline. For example, a Candor.com article claims that as many as 50–90% of interns get re-hired for full time positions at Amazon, where the firm hosted about 8,000 remote interns last summer. While return offer statistics are not public, it’s undeniable that interns who return as full-timers constitute a sizable portion of new hires.

Because of the pandemic, college students missed out on the experiences of working along-side professionals and moving to tech hubs to spend their summer. How can companies create a welcoming experience for interns when the same interns are not allowed in the office? Similarly, how can interns decide if they want to work for a company full-time without ever setting foot in an office?

In a blog post dated April 2020, Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s executive VP and Chief People Officer, said that while the summer 2020 virtual internship is not what anyone expected, they’re embracing the opportunity. The company was committed to create a “meaningful and fun internship experience” and emphasized the importance of staying engaged within the intern community. In addition, Hogan reassured the interns that they will have the opportunity to “shape our virtual experience” and make a lasting impact on the program in the years to come.

So how did Microsoft’s goals live up in reality?

According to an Explorer Intern who wrote a Medium article on her remote experience, some of the spotlight events offered by Microsoft were:

  • Organizing an intern hackathon
  • Assigning interns into small-group “pods”
  • Having product group inclusion conversations
  • Encouraging interns to set up 1:1 meetings with full-time employees
  • Lots of on the job learning

Overall, this strong push towards connectivity resulted in an inclusive environment for interns — personalizing the inherently impersonal experience of working from home.

What the Future Holds

While most companies are still uncertain about whether to bring interns back to the office for summer 2021, it’s clear that the pandemic has set a precedent for remote internships in the future. Many universities in the U.S. have offered hybrid styles of instruction (a mix of in-person and virtual learning), and this setup may be an option for future internship programs as well.

With Spotify taking the lead in making Working From Home permanent, I would expect more tech companies to follow Spotify’s footsteps. However, for industries where operations are best done in-person (Wall St, looking at you), firms will most likely slowly return to in-office work.

Solidifying remote-first culture won’t be perfect on the first try, and the executives know that. It will take companies creativity, connectivity, persistence, and more feedback to build a good WFH culture while preserving their corporate values as if everyone is back at the office.

Published exclusively in the Brown Technology Review

Brown Technology Review

Technology coverage by Brown students, alumni, and faculty

Lizzy Wang

Written by

@BrownUniversity 2021, Brown Technology Review, Software Engineer

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

Lizzy Wang

Written by

@BrownUniversity 2021, Brown Technology Review, Software Engineer

Brown Technology Review

Editorially independent of the university, Brown Technology Review explores developments in technology and considers the economic, social, and political impacts. BTR pulls insight from both industry and academia, aiming to provide readers a holistic perspective.

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