In March of 2020, we sent the Species360 team home to avoid the risks of public gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Attempting to be conservative, we said we hoped to see everyone in person again at the end of April, knowing that global pandemics don’t just blow over in a week. We were so naïve.
We were also very fortunate. A week later we would have been signing a lease on office space that would have increased our office footprint and rent by over 50%. Because of the pandemic, we paused that plan. The pause continued well past our proposed April return date.
A year later, in Spring of 2021, having never signed on to the office expansion, we were scheduled to renew our existing lease. Vaccines were on the way, which would certainly end the pandemic quickly (more of our skills in naïveté), and yet we were doing well.
In fact, our team appreciated working from home. They appreciated having no commute, more time with family, and some flexibility in their day for childcare, petcare, or other personal needs. And while the pandemic-caused chaos was very real, especially for families with kids in school, our productivity was as good as ever. So, why disrupt a good thing? We let our lease expire, thinking we would work from home for a year or so and reassess space needs when the time came.
Months passed, and it was still going well. Don’t get me wrong, we did miss seeing each other. We have a tight team that cares about our non-profit mission, our members, and each other. But day-to-day work was going well. Very well. In the summer of 2021, our leadership team started discussing permanent remote work. We didn’t take the discussion lightly because once you go remote, and you start hiring remote staff, or your local staff relocates, it is almost impossible to return to an office. But it felt like the right thing to do for so many reasons. We discussed the change with our board of trustees and obtained their full support for our well-structured plan.
Fast forward to Spring of 2022. Our ability to hire great talent has grown exponentially. As we’ve come out of our extended pandemic hiring freeze, every one of the staff we’ve hired in the last year has come from outside the Minneapolis area, the location of our former headquarters. We’ve added four new staff in Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and in the US we’ve hired staff from California, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Retaining great staff is also critical to our mission. Now our fantastic team can stay with us if they relocate to locations that better fit their family or their passions (Seattle, Sacramento, and Texas as some have done). The tough trade-offs about who you work for and where you work are gone. Yes, this adds an administrative burden, but that overhead is small compared to recruiting and onboarding.
Our culture is changing to fit a remote organization. I say that in the present tense because, while we’ve been doing this for a while now, we are still evolving and learning. Continuous improvement is so important. How do we build personal relationships via Zoom? Can we use collaboration tools like Slack and other cloud-collaboration services to communicate better, more asynchronously? How do we avoid the trap of becoming too meeting-centric? How can we optimize our limited travel budget to see each other AND to complete our necessary business travel? For the most part we have very positive answers to these questions… but not always.
I love that our team has created social channels, virtual game days, remote exercise sessions, remote brown bag lunches and breakfasts. We try to keep meetings informal, save time for Q&A and social banter, and we keep our cameras on so we can see and react to each other.
We’ve always had some remote staff, so annually we pull our team together for an all-team retreat. Scheduling in-person, smaller team meetings will help, too. They take time, effort, and budget, but it is impossible to replace the value of in-person brainstorming, whiteboarding, and simply getting to know each other.
Perhaps one of the best positives of going fully remote is that we realized we don’t have to meet in person to get things done. With 1,300 members in over 100 countries, a global board of trustees, and a long list of partners, collaborators, and friends around the world, we always struggled in the past to stay connected. With a remote office we’ve found it doesn’t take a conference and a carbon-heavy plane flight to meet each other. A simple Doodle poll to schedule a Zoom meeting across diverse time zones can make that happen overnight. We are better for it.
We also realize that for most of the members we serve, going fully remote is not an option. Zoos, aquariums, rescue centers, wildlife sanctuaries, and other conservation-focused organizations have a very physical job to perform. They have carrots to cut, animal enrichment to craft, enclosures to clean and maintain. We are thankful for their commitment and all they do to care for their animals and fight the ongoing biodiversity crisis.
As we watch other organizations struggle with decisions about bringing staff back to the office, how to organize a hybrid model, when to allow and not allow for remote work, or how and where to hire in today’s competitive environment, I am thankful we’ve taken this step to be a remote team. And I am immensely thankful for a strong, talented, and dedicated team that rolled with the punches of the past two years. If it weren’t for them, we could not have made this change.
For others making tough decisions about how they will work in the future, I wish you the best. This is a unique decision with unique trade-offs for every organization. That said, I encourage you lean heavily towards trusting your team, give them a bit more freedom and flexibility. They deserve it and will repay you many times over.
I am curious to hear from you about how you or your work has changed. Let me know if your organization has changed as a result of the pandemic and what the effects have been. Let us know on my LinkedIn Article here.