Lessons Learned From My CEO Roadshow - David Corcoran Hits the Road to Talk to Employees in Person
My family and I spent the first seven months of the pandemic at our ranch just north of Fort Wayne, Indiana. As we were preparing to return to Ann Arbor, I decided to check in with a few employees in the area and see if they wanted to do an outdoor lunch somewhere. We met at a park and talked about COVID, morale, and work in general. I was amazed at how much more willing they were to open up in-person as opposed to Zoom.
After two hours, I realized we had an overdue and meaningful dialogue: I was able to answer pressing questions they had about the business in the wake of our Series A funding round, and I got to share my enthusiasm.
Later on, I spoke with my Head of People, Jasmine Burns, and told her how good it felt to have that conversation. We talked about what we might do to boost morale and facilitate honest dialogue and energy with other employees. Inspired by the thought of Paul Singh's Tech Tour, it dawned on me: I should go on my own journey. Paul brought his VC machine to small towns in America via an Airstream...and I decided I was going to safely visit every Censys employee within a day's drive (the Airstream will have to be an upgrade in next year's tour).
We laid out a travel schedule that included spots in Ann Arbor and its surrounding town, and added in destinations where our employees in the mid-Atlantic region live: Virginia, Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh. I packed masks, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and a box of Quest bars in the rental car and I was off!
I had some apprehension about staying in a hotel, but safety precautions were well planned: people were scarce, everyone stayed distant, and the rooms even had “sanitation seals.” Everything was eerily accessible in the larger cities, which made traveling easier; light traffic in downtown DC used to be unheard of!
To be honest, the most fearful experience I had was during an Uber ride in DC when I asked a question about the Pentagon and my driver proceeded to look it up and read a Wikipedia article to me while blowing through several stoplights and signs... For a few minutes I was concerned about dying, but not from COVID-19!
In the end, I visited over 40 employees in a variety of settings where they were comfortable (for some it was Zoom, which was fine!). I connected not only with them but their favorite places: dive bars with outdoor seating, fine dining on a patio, their front porch...wherever. I saw employees, children, parents, spouses, interns, and even a few candidates. Every meeting was unique and meaningful, and I even felt spoiled: I was greeted with nice cocktails, enjoyed a cheese spread on the bank of the Allegheny River, sipped coffee over some long walks… to say I feel rejuvenated is an understatement.
Talking in person allowed me to read body language, better interpret emotion, use gestures more freely, speak with deeper candor, and to ask and receive tough questions. I heard everything from “I’m concerned about this competitor,” to “I may not want to return to the office” to “I feel burned out.”
I discovered that a significant number of employees do not want to return full-time to the office, which got me thinking about our in-office culture and considering becoming a remote-first company (jury is still out). We will surely go with a hybrid model when we do phase back into the office, and these conversations confirmed to me that we must support our employees and new hires in whatever situation works best for them.
Another realization I had was that pre-COVID, our physically distant, remote employees didn’t have the same opportunities or level of connectedness as the employees in the office. The mandatory change to fully remote forced us to reimagine how we make decisions in, collaborate, communicate, and support a distributed environment, and the result has been an improvement for our employees. (I will say: whiteboarding still needs work. Even with virtual applications, there’s still an interactive part that's missing. Hopefully some fledgling entrepreneurs are working on this).
The windshield time also gave me an opportunity to think about how our office space and commercial real estate has and will permanently change. Just a short while ago, our team was asking about leasing new space due to our growth. Now, not only are a significant number of employees not going back to the office, especially since many of our new hires are not in Michigan, but when we do return, the entire setup will need to change. I'm not scared of it though: honestly, our goal should be to get the best talent - regardless of where they are. Disciplined, hardworking employees committed to good communication can work from anywhere.
So, what does the future hold? Well, for one thing: it holds more road trips. I’ve decided to make my roadshow an annual one, hopefully in an RV with a mobile office. I'm looking forward to planning the Central/West Coast circuit next!
Now, for the takeaways. Some of these are certainly applicable to other companies grappling with workforce changes:
- Maybe you can't swing a road trip to every employee in your company. But you can still demonstrate an open-door policy by making time to talk to employees you don't normally interact with. As an executive, you may learn something or hear themes that your direct reports might not notice or be sharing with you.
- Face-to-face interaction is important! Employees should prioritize the coordination of safe meetups, especially while outdoor locations are still feasible (our midwest employees are winter hardy to Zone 3).
- Management needs to remind employees periodically to separate work from home life; there's a danger of being always at work when you work from home.
- It's time to reevaluate PTO culture. When PTO feels earned and protected, people feel like they can (and should) take it and detach from work.
- We need to further motivate employees to think big even when their world got smaller. Goals and expectations need to be clearer all the way down.
- Teams need proper remote work setups to be super productive (we're iterating through this one).
- Our employees care about diversity, and gave some great ideas about how to achieve our diversity and inclusion goals. A remote workforce can be an advantage here because we are not limited by the demographics within the immediate vicinity of our office. This is a dialogue that needs to happen continuously and throughout the company.
Check out the coverage of the road trip in Crains, too: https://www.crainsdetroit.com/technology/tired-zoom-censys-ceo-hits-road-meet-remote-employees-face-face