Main illustration: Ryan Ormsby
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a sudden shift to remote working in one of the largest global experiments in the history of work. As parts of the world reopen, the experiment moves to its next phase – adjusting to a post-pandemic reality in which remote and in-office work are no longer “either/or” alternatives.
The transition to remote work proved employees’ adaptability – now the looming return to the office offers companies another chance to embrace the unknown. This time, they have the benefit of months instead of hours of planning. After more than a year of unparalleled circumstances, what’s now unprecedented is the flexibility on offer to many employees around the world.
Thinking big, starting small
At Intercom, we’ve invested a lot in deciding how we’ll work moving forward. The choices we make now will affect our long-term productivity, culture, employee experience, collaboration, and recruitment. It’s worth getting it right, and it will take some experimenting to find our ideal solution.
We think big and start small – we’ll embrace this core value as we build an entirely new way of working. Over the next few years, we believe a company’s most valuable qualities will be its openness, adaptability, and willingness to listen to its employees. We’ve leaned on all three to begin creating our vision of hybrid work for Intercom.
We asked our employees how they want to work
Last August, and again in December, we asked employees to take a survey to build our understanding of how their perspectives towards in-office work had changed. The feedback we received confirmed what was already becoming clear. Employees have made dramatic changes to their lives to adapt to a COVID-impacted world – whether that meant relocating, caring for family, or better prioritizing their mental health. These mindset and lifestyle shifts must influence and inform the way we as a business help and support both current and future employees.
“We have the old world, we have the current world. But the one after this is going to look different because everyone’s expectations and understanding of what’s possible have shifted” – Tom Oliphant, Head of Strategic Planning & Operations
As Tom Oliphant, our Head of Strategic Planning & Operations, summarized, “We have the old world, we have the current world. But the one after this is going to look different because everyone’s expectations and understanding of what’s possible have shifted.” Flexibility is no longer a bonus, it’s now a necessary element of an employment offer and a crucial consideration when structuring how we work together.
Over the past year, technology has facilitated this flexibility and opened our minds to new opportunities. We recognize the incredible benefits that remote work offers, but we also don’t want to give up the magic that happens when we come together. Intercom’s mission is to make internet business personal – our product is built on the belief that automation and technology work best in some situations, while others require a human approach. We’re applying that same belief to our workplace as we move towards a hybrid activity-based working style.
We’re introducing an activity-based working model at Intercom
Our survey found that most of our teams’ ideal week featured part-remote, part in-office work.
We’ll welcome many of our employees back to each of our five global offices for at least two days per week, starting from October. Some will remain fully remote, others will choose to be in-office full-time – most will fall somewhere in the middle.
But a flexible work week is one thing – we want to return to a flexible workspace, too. In our employee survey, the top reasons for working remotely were increased focus time, productivity, lack of commute, and work-life balance. People rated in-office work highest for culture, connection, and collaboration. We were keen to capitalize on the advantages of both, while optimizing the office for a wider variety of work styles.
“In old-world offices, space typologies – that is, types of workspaces available – were very limited” – Niamh Flannery, Senior Design & Construction Project Manager
The open-plan office didn’t suit everyone, and it certainly didn’t suit every type of work. As Niamh Flannery, our Senior Design and Construction Project Manager says, “In old-world offices, our space typologies – that is, types of workspaces available, were very limited… We were already thinking about how we could be more effective with our space, even before COVID.”
We asked ourselves how we could activate our workspaces in a way that’s mindful of the diversity within our workforce – being inclusive of everybody’s desires and situations and considerate of the business goals we’re trying to achieve. When we return to our offices across the world, we’ll embrace the activity-based working model.
What is activity-based working?
Activity-based working (ABW) was pioneered by architect Robert Luchetti, and the term was later coined by Eric Veldhoen. Workplace software supplier Robin defines ABW as “the entire philosophy of creating a flexible environment for employees in an office setting which recognizes that certain activities require specific settings and gives employees the freedom to choose when, where, and how they work. It’s the practice of providing employees with a choice of office settings for a variety of tasks and activities throughout the workday.”
We want our offices to accurately reflect the work people do there, and to broaden the traditional default of “one employee, one desk” to embrace a more flexible way of working, offering employees workspace options that cater to a variety of work styles. Whether folks want to run a brainstorming session or spend time on solitary, focused work – we aim to provide the appropriate workspace.
“Instead of going directly to a desk, people will begin to plan based on the nature of the work they’re doing”
Leslie Chung, our Senior Director of People and Places, and her team are working to help evolve employee expectations of what a day in the office looks like. Instead of going directly to a desk, she says, people will begin to plan based on the nature of the work they’re doing. “‘When I go to the office, I want to be as productive as possible with the work I need to get done today. What are the options available to me?’ That’s the shift in mindset we want to help employees embrace so our activity-based working style will be effective for them.”
We’re making plans to optimize the way we work together in a hybrid style
In the coming months, we will look to shift some of our working norms and expectations as we get ready to return to a hybrid workspace. How will a hybrid meeting run? How can managers quickly update their team when some are in the office and some aren’t? How can we operate in a way that’s truly inclusive of every work style, every day? Most importantly, how can we make sure everyone can excel, regardless of how and where they work?
We know that some people will need or want to be at home more than others, and we’re determined that this choice won’t affect their position or progression at Intercom in any way. Intercom’s leadership team has raised this as one of their main priorities. We want to help our employees to do the best work of their careers in whatever way works for them – so while hybrid working will be our primary approach, the option for some employees to work remotely full-time will also be there.
Our next steps
As with everything we do at Intercom, we’re thinking big and starting small – and we’ll ship to learn. As restrictions relax across our five global locations, we’ll be running a phased office reopening.
Welcoming back small numbers of employees gives us an opportunity to learn from the way they interact with the office and the fluidity of operations under our activity-based working model. It also gives our employees a chance to tell us how they like this new approach, what’s working for them and what needs to improve. Do they look forward to coming into the office, or do they find they get their work done more easily at home?
We’ll continue to take an iterative approach as we go forward, using workplace technology to monitor how space is used and relying on that data to tweak our spaces and inform new designs as we grow. This is an entirely new way of working for us, and there are so many day-to-day details to iron out – we’ll definitely make some mistakes along the way.
As Tom Oliphant explains, “There’s a lot left to figure out, and this will be a good chance to employ our ‘think big, start small’ value. Our best guess of what it’s going to be like post-pandemic is constantly evolving – eventually we’re just going to live it. This is not a case where we’re going to perfectly anticipate what the world’s going to look like and write the policies that represent it. Instead, we’re going to need to have a North Star and clear principles and then actually get into it and start changing as we go.”
“We’re excited to embrace hybrid work, and take the greatest elements of remote and in-office work to create something new, flexible, and intrinsically ‘Intercom’” – Karen Peacock, CEO
Karen Peacock, our CEO, says: “We’re excited to embrace hybrid work, and take the greatest elements of remote and in-office work to create something new, flexible, and intrinsically ‘Intercom’. We’re building a special, long-lasting company, and that means adapting to changing circumstances with positivity and optimism to go after the big opportunities in front of us, do things that haven’t been done before, create a great working environment for our team, and deliver breakthrough value to our customers.”
Our company’s mission is to “make internet business personal” – as we always have in the past, we’ll lean on both technology and human interaction to navigate this next stage of Intercom’s journey.
We’re hiring! If you’re interested in learning more about how Intercom is adapting to hybrid work – or thinking about joining the team – we’d love to talk to you.