Intercom’s 2020 people pivot

As 2020 finally nears a close, we look back at this most unusual, challenging year. In this episode, we reflect on how we have navigated the sudden changes behind the scenes.

Throughout this year on the podcast, we’ve talked to people from various companies about how they’ve met the challenges posed by the events 2020. We’ve heard from product leaders, e-commerce leaders, and customer support leaders about high volumes, new working practices, and remote launches.

Of course, companies have had to suddenly reimagine not just how they deliver for customers, but also how they operate behind the scenes. For the people tasked with keeping everything going on an operational and personal level, the shift to working from home demanded swift and imaginative responses.

At Intercom, we’ve traditionally optimized for face-to-face working as much as possible, so the pandemic upended a lot of our ingrained organizational habits and traditions. In today’s episode, we chat to some of the people behind the scenes who’ve had to rethink how their teams operate.

Today we’ll hear from:

  • Stanley Keegan, Recruiter
  • Eve Bulman Murphy, Senior Manager of People Development
  • Padraig Monks, Facilities and Security Program Manager

Between their teams, they’ve managed to maintain Intercom’s strong sense of culture and camaraderie across all of our orgs and offices while we all adjusted to working from home.

Whether it’s recreating the small talk in the recruiting process, onboarding through a screen, or entertaining the masses without defaulting to a Zoom quiz, it’s been a year of shared challenges, so here’s what we can learn from the folks who who have steadied the course.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Dee Reddy: Thank you all for joining us today on this very special episode of Inside Intercom, where we’re taking a look back at 2020 with some of the people that have kept life going for us here at Intercom. To kick us off, do you want to each give us a bit of background on your work and what you and your team do at Intercom? Stanley, let’s start with you first.

Stanley Keegan: Sure. I’m Stanley. I’m one of the recruiters in the Dublin office. Recruiting is responsible for helping teams across the business hire great talents for their teams.

Dee: Lovely. Let’s go to you next, Eve.

Eve Bulman Murphy: Hi, everybody. I’m Eve. I head up the learning team at Intercom. So, we look after all the employee learning. That would include onboarding, IC learning, and manager development.

Dee: Lovely. And let’s chat to Padraig next.

Padraig Monks: Hi, I’m Padraig. I’m part of the Workplace Experience (WE) team based out of Dublin. The workplace team look after all the offices — from events, food, facilities, and security in all of our sites.

Creating new remote experiences

Dee: It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year of massive chaos and change. What happened in your worlds in March? And what’s it been like being tasked with keeping everything going? Eve, let’s start with you.

Eve: How long have you got? What happened in our world in March? I’m taking a big, deep breath… Obviously, the way that we work changed, and all of our offices and all of our Intercomrades moved to work-from-home, remote working environments. So, that had a couple of knock-on effects for the learning team.

“The biggest thing that we had to deal with was redesigning the onboarding experience”

The biggest thing that we had to deal with was redesigning the onboarding experience. The company’s onboarding experience has always been a very personal office space experience. We’ve actually never had e-learning components in the past. We made the move to work-from-home on Wednesday and had two pretty big new hire groups starting on Monday, so we basically redesigned the whole onboarding and learning experience.

Eve: We now have three versions of new hire onboarding. We have a fully self-serve version for when we have very few numbers joining. We have what we call a cohort version, which is all virtual learning, all remote learning, but it’s still a group. And then, we have what we’re calling a hybrid of self-serve and group learning. That brought a lot of challenges for the learning team because we had to ramp up on our instructional design and our e-learning design scale very quickly.

As they say, everything has a silver lining. It did a huge amount of good in the long run in that we’re way ahead now. We have a wonderfully blended learning strategy, which I’m really excited about, that we’ll be rolling out over the next year. And that, in no small part, has been enabled by COVID — it was a necessity, but also valuable to build skills in the group.

Other things that changed have been how we run learning — scaling back the amount of time that we’re in learning sessions, optimizing for a virtual format, both still very much looking to bring people together. Our role in learning is not only about knowledge and skill acquisition, it’s become really important to allow people to take time for social connections. In the early days of March, we launched lots of lunch and learns that focused on mastering and managing remote working. And in some of those sessions, we were inundated, lots of people came to them. And they weren’t necessarily coming because they wanted advice on how to work remotely. They just needed that social connection. So, we’ve paid a lot of attention to that over the last few months. And we’ve learned a lot this year, going into FY22 ready for more and better learning.

Dee: Learning with a group is an incredibly social thing to do. A lot of people would have relationships with the people they onboarded with at Intercom. In the last few months, some of my favorite things have actually been learning courses because it is a unique opportunity to chat with people outside of your team and just do something a bit different. I’d imagine though, Eve, it must’ve been quite daunting for those people onboarding in the early days. Because, not to use the phrase “guinea pig,” but it’s not something that had been done before, and it’s not the expectation that they would have had in starting a new job.

“Every new person who has joined the company this year has had an extra challenge in that it’s harder to build relationships, not only within their team but across teams. And they’ve all took to the challenge”

Eve: Oh, 100%. There are lots of reflections that I have on the experience this year. The first is just the willingness and attitude of our new hires. Every new person who has joined the company this year has had an extra challenge in that it’s harder to build relationships, not only within their team but across teams. And they’ve all took to the challenge.

But you’re right. It is really, really tricky. It’s very hard to onboard and to connect with the culture of an organization when you’ve never actually stepped foot inside any of our offices. And we’ve always leaned heavily on the office experience to help grow that Intercom culture. So, there’s a couple of things we’ve had to do this year besides turning the onboarding experience remote.

We’ve actually leaned in way heavier from months two to six. At Intercom, onboarding is traditionally a one-day event. Now, it’s a learning program that runs over six months. And that’s very much because we recognize that we need to stay closer to new hires. We need to give them extra support and keep those social connections and help them build that social network within Intercom. So, there’s a lot more partnership with the Workplace Experience team to run events, to create intentional points in their weeks and months where they’re coming together with other Intercomrades.

And the other great thing that I’ll reflect on is just the will and the concern from Intercomrades about new hires. There was a point, and I think it was around early May, where we had to say to the business: stand down, we’ve got this. We were inundated by employees reaching out. “Oh my gosh. Is everything okay? What about the new hires? How are we supporting them? Are we looking after them?” Which was super. For our team to have that will and that support from other Intercomrades, it was very motivating for my team and, again, just showed the true spirit of Intercom and how we work in these challenging times.

Dee: That’s really cool to hear. And I think it speaks nicely to the culture and the camaraderie that all of your teams have managed to foster here at Intercom.

Office space

Dee: And so, Padraig, to go to you next on that one. Jumping back to those early days in March, what was that experience like?

Padraig: Obviously, it was a very strange one, and a lot of people had to adapt to a new way of working. Our main concern was to provide the equipment for people to continue working as if they were in the office. That meant making IT equipment available to people, working with IT to get that equipment out to people. You would be surprised at the number of people who are lost without a keyboard or a second screen. So, it was all about being in a position to help and support those people.

“It was just a way to try and support those people and make them feel that we haven’t forgotten them. We’re still here to help”

We see ourselves as the first face people see when they come in. It’s all about Intercom’s culture. So, as part of that, we used to stay connected to the people who would have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on within their team, within different departments. We kind of described them as culture builders. And we’d have regular conversations with them just to see what the feeling was on the ground and amongst different teams. We’d all do that individually and we’d share the feedback and comments that we received so that we could try and identify trends and common issues, areas that we could work on and improve people’s experience while they were working from home.

Because, naturally, it wasn’t one of those things that people take to, given their living circumstances, whether they’ve got kids at home or they just don’t like working from home. It was just a way to try and support those people and make them feel that we haven’t forgotten them. We’re still here to help. That was one of the biggest things that we had to support initially. And then, in the practical sense, it was just getting the offices closed, getting them secured, making sure that everybody had what they needed to continue doing what they would normally be doing from the office.

Dee: You allowed me to walk off-site with quite an amount of recording equipment. So, thank you for that. Intercom was one of the first companies I heard of that closed down the offices. So, did it feel a bit strange to be doing it a little bit ahead of everybody else?

Padraig: I don’t think so. From my experience of being involved in how we’ve managed remote working, and even how we’ve reviewed going back to the office, we always take a very cautious approach. Not that we’re just standing in the back, watching what everybody else is doing. Intercom wants to see what works best for them. One of our primary concerns is the health and safety of all Intercomrades and their families because we don’t know what people’s living circumstances are, whether they’ve got relatives who are kind of at high risk, etc. So, that’s one of the reasons why we decided to act quickly and say, “I think the best thing here is to shut down, be ahead, be proactive rather than reactive.” And that way, you’re seen to be safe. You’re not taking any chances. As I’ve said, one of our core principles was the health and safety of every single Intercomrades.

Rethinking hiring

Dee: Stanley, going back then to March again. What was it like for the recruitment team?

Stanley: It was interesting for sure. I think there was a gradual change for ourselves. In the weeks leading up to March, we had started to prioritize moving more towards virtual on-site interviews, for example, or moving larger parts of our process virtually before the offices officially closed down, and then we had, I suppose, no other option. We had gradually been moving towards this.

A lot of our recruiting process as a whole at Intercom, there would be large parts of that that would be virtual. However, when it came to the on-site interviews, obviously, the clue is in the name. The big part of someone getting a sense as to what a new job could be like is getting to visit the office, for example, getting to meet their teammates or their manager in person. And unfortunately, we weren’t able to offer those things to people at this time. A large part of our candidate experience that we would prioritize was based on these elements.

So, when we had to shift to a fully working from home model, we wanted to make sure that we were staying true to the elements of our process that we have built out of the values that we have on the recruiting team, which was arranged to make sure people had a great experience and they could learn more about the role and our environment and culture here at Intercom. This was a big change for our hiring teams. They also had to do remote interviews or interviews while working from home, as opposed to getting to meet people face-to-face and making sure that they had all of the tools and resources to do that effectively.

“We’ve all struggled this year to find small talk with people, which is really helpful when you’re interviewing people, like, ‘Oh, did you get up to anything nice at the weekend?’ ‘No, I stayed at home’”

There were a lot of logistics that changed all of a sudden that we had to adapt to. And I think everyone responded really well to that, which was a great thing to see. We maintained our momentum in terms of hiring activity and what our goals were and what roles we wanted to fill or hires that we wanted to bring on board. We didn’t let this slow us down. There was a lot of creativity from our core recruitment team, our talent operations and coordination team to make sure that we could offer a great experience to candidates and the business and make sure that we could still evaluate people, that we could still get people to experience Intercom. And all of this was a key part of adjusting to this new way of working.

So, it was definitely a challenge and a bit of a shock for people. I think most of my initial calls with people throughout March and April started with some variation of, “So, you’re working from home?” “Yes. Are you working from home?” and building the conversation from there. I think those elements were important for people to establish because all of this was so unknown.

Depending on what your situation may have been, for candidates coming through the recruiting process, some may be actively looking to make a move, or I suppose, for us, if we were recruiting for niche roles or approaching people about positions, there’s a different dynamic to recruiting at a time like this where face-to-face or seeing the physical workspace, those things aren’t options. And they actually go a long way to helping people figure out, “Is this something I would like to pursue?” So we did have to be creative, but those are some of the ways we tried to make it work and stay true to our values.

“It’s very hard to get that buzz, that bit of a laugh”

Dee: Well, it’s funny what you were saying about the working from home conversation. I think we’ve all struggled this year to find small talk with people, which is probably really helpful when you’re interviewing people, like, “Oh, did you get up to anything nice at the weekend?” “No, I stayed at home.” You’re missing all these crutches that you would traditionally use. But that on-site part, I’d imagine it’s hard to recreate or show to people when they can’t actually visit the space and see what it’s like. And all our offices tend to be really, really lovely. Padraig, did you have anything to add there?

Padraig: So, as part of the onboarding process that we would go through with new hires when we were in the office, we would do a light-hearted side of the onboarding process. Because we’re telling people about what goes on, the events, what happens within the office. But one of the things that people do seem to enjoy is the tour, and we always try and make it a bit of a laugh. We introduce them to their teams as we’re walking through the floors. But even people seeing all the walls and all the Intercomics on it and people going, “Oh, what’s this? I’ve heard about this.” You don’t get that experience now, and that’s difficult, that’s the thing that people do miss out on. Or even getting your swag pack on the day that you arrive. What we do now because of logistics is we send them out every month or every quarter.

So it’s not the same onboarding experience, so I do feel for those people because they miss out on that. And particularly in Dublin, especially people who know the history of Stephen Court’s building, where you bring them down into the basement and they see the vault there and it’s “Oh, this is where it all happened, was it?” So you do get an element to that as well. And there’s been one or two people who’ve got very excited to see the old podcast studio in the basement. There were a lot of people going, “This is where all the Intercom podcasts were made?” They would genuinely get excited by this.

So people do miss that. I know for myself, I’m with Sinead and we’re doing the onboardings for Dublin, and Cashe has the same experience for SF and Sydney, you don’t have that same interaction. It’s very hard to get that buzz, that bit of a laugh. From that point of view, it’s difficult, but you do try and make it as much as an enjoyable experience for people as possible. But it’s not the same as getting what the culture’s really like. Because even being in the office, people see the founders in the canteen, they walk past the bar, the micro kitchens with all the various snacks and people standing around having a chat, they miss out on all that. And from that point of view, it is difficult for people to gauge what the culture’s like in Intercom.

Beyond Zoom quizzes

Dee: Because we’ve always traditionally optimized for working face-to-face, what sort of impact did it have on your team in terms of trying to coordinate that huge shift?

Padraig: It was really difficult. What we tried to do, again, was to rely quite a lot on those cultural pillars I mentioned before. They were the ones that were giving us a lot of feedback. Our main aim was to keep people connected, and it was really hard to do that over Zoom. At the start, it was a big phenomenon, “Oh, this is brilliant, we’ll do a Zoom quiz,” and about three weeks into it was like, “I’m sick of this,” because you’re looking at a laptop screen all day, and in your free time you’re looking at a laptop screen again, and people can get pretty fatigued by that.

“That’s what we tried to do: keep people connected, keep them engaged in what was going on in the office, and try and keep that spirit of our culture still going”

So what we tried to do was try and keep people connected in various ways. One of them would be the wellbeing programs that were designed. And that’s what we tried to do: keep people connected, keep them engaged in what was going on in the office, and try and keep that spirit of our culture still going.

Dee: And speaking about that culture, because aside from onboarding people, there are so many other elements to our culture that people development, Eve, have been involved in. And in the last year, we’ve had a whole review period, as you mentioned earlier, and there have been all these multiple remote courses outside of that. How’s that gone for you guys? And has there been a change in the uptake that you’ve seen from employees taking part in those types of things?

Eve: For sure. I’m just listening to Padraig and nodding my head a lot. When I think back on 2020, March to December 2020, I think we’ve been through this journey of, like Padraig said, in the beginning, that sense of we’re in it together, shoulder to shoulder. We all thought we were in it for a few weeks and there’s a bit of novelty and it’s mad and a bit of fun. And there was definitely a push and lots of activity, lots of sign-ups, lots of goodwill, and people coming on things like Zoom sessions and so on. And then there was that point of reality setting in that we’re in this for the long haul. So everything we’ve been doing, we’ve been doing with the backdrop of a global pandemic happening, and how are people doing in all of this?

And some people have done it really well and they love working from home and this is what they’ve been waiting for and it’s given them the freedom to do other things. For a lot of people, that Zoom fatigue, that tiredness… I won’t use the term burnt out, but it’s just that sense of how do I muster up the energy and the spirit and the resilience to keep going? We’ve spent quite a bit of time just trying to support managers around managing through COVID, helping our managers understand what good looks like in terms of how you should be leading your teams.

We spent a bit of time on that in the middle of the year and encouraging people and teams to think differently about how they’re working. And so, not to pick up the way you worked, on the way teams were working pre-COVID and replace it in a virtual format. Teams slowly evolved and started to realize, “Maybe this thing of standup doesn’t necessarily work, or maybe we need to change the cadence and how often we’re meeting.” So there’s a lot of manager support.

And then we realized that because of that fatigue and the busyness of how people are online now, the ability to think and to connect with people pre- and post-meeting has changed. You know that five minutes you get to like, “Oh, can I just chat to you about that thing that we raised?” That’s gone. So people are busier, they’re more active in their calendars, they’re online more often. And that has had a negative impact on sign-ups for learning without a doubt. People still want to learn, but maybe they’re not as available as they were, or they’re jaded and they need to go for that extra walk or spend time with their kids.

“One of the things that we’ve done in the people org this year a lot is trying to promote to our employees all of the awesome support that we have in terms of our employee assistance programs, mental health, and virtual counseling. And just to normalize the idea that it’s okay to reach out for help”

And that was the thing that gave the push for us to properly think about building online learning experiences. So we’ve dabbled with that this year, we’ve launched five core scale tracks for employees, two for managers, with a lot more to come. And that’s actually had a lot of impact in that people have been able to continue their learning journey but in a more self-managed way — it’s accessible, they can do it whatever time they want. For us in learning and development, it’s about striking the balance of building accessible learning that people have autonomy over when and where they do it, but also balancing that with social connections and the peer learning aspects of that. That’s the thing that we’ve got to crack next year.

But one of the things that we’ve done in the people org this year a lot is trying to promote to our employees all of the awesome support that we have in terms of our employee assistance programs, mental health, and virtual counseling. And just to normalize the idea that it’s okay to reach out for help, and our managers are here to support you and we want to support your teams, but we’ve also got programs in place to support our employees through that. So that’s been an added bonus and something that has been utilized through 2020.

The Intercom experience, but make it virtual

Dee: Stanley, just to go back to you, one thing I’ve been so impressed by this year is the consistency of our recruitment processes over that time and a scary time for people. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve adapted and what the key challenges have been in doing it remotely, and whether there are any processes that you’ve adopted this year that you feel you might keep?

Stanley: Yeah, for sure. I think there’s a lot that we’ve had to introduce as a result of the changes, and some of the pieces I mentioned earlier, I think we’ve built out a much clearer structure around supporting virtual on-site interviews, maybe a misnomer, but I suppose what we would do at an on-site range, recreating that virtually, for example. And in a time where people can’t necessarily travel, or there are a lot of restrictions, these are things that we had to think about at the time. Maybe for us, as we’re hiring for our offices, thinking about other logistics that may block someone from traveling to our offices or being more adaptable are certainly things that we have built out here that will enable us to hire more consistently in the face of any blockers such as this.

I think it’s something exciting that these things won’t necessarily slow us down. We’ve seen how we can adapt to ever-changing circumstances. I think that’s a really big win for our team and something that candidates have been enjoying. Hearing how people have been able to connect with their teams, so much of our hiring teams have done a phenomenal job to make the experience great for people and go that extra mile to connect with them on a call.

“We understand that this is a difficult time, we understand that there are constraints right now. But here’s what we’re doing to support our staff and what we’re excited about”

It’s not the same dynamic as Padraig and Eve were saying — some things are difficult to recreate on a video call, but I think our teams have done a great job bringing this together and offering candidates maybe a bit of a different experience, but still, something that’s engaging and that showcases our culture. Our culture is our people and I think showcasing that through a video call and thinking about the dynamic of this has really been a big priority for us. So that’s something that I’m excited about, seeing our success with this across the company as we’re hiring for different offices. This has been a global issue, so it is something that I think has been a really big win for the team.

Going back to what Padraig and Eve have been sharing about their worlds, so much of their work or these topics have been great things to talk about with candidates as well. Because what I was saying earlier about people thinking about making a move during this time, there’s a lot more that people are considering at this point about making a move, especially if they’re in a job that they’re maybe comfortable or familiar with right now. It’s a big deal to give all of that up. Especially if you’re not in the office, you don’t necessarily get to say goodbye to your teammates in person. You don’t necessarily get to experience the office one last time. And to make a move into a completely unknown environment, I think has been a blocker for a lot of people or has been a much bigger factor in their job search.

We’ve been able to share with candidates not just our recruiting process, but also how we’re supporting people at this time, “If you’re thinking about joining the company, here’s how you’ll get to engage with your future teammates. Here are some of the fun social things that we’re doing to make sure you can stay engaged with the company and that you know who we are and who your wider team is.” I think these things have gone a long way to help people feel a little bit more comfortable about making that move again, depending on what their circumstances are. If folks are eager to be job searching, or if it’s a case where they’ve been proactively approached, for example, there are very different circumstances. And I think it’s important to be very mindful as to what goes into someone’s thought process about making a move and showing them that, “Look, we understand that this is a difficult time, or we understand that there are constraints right now. But here’s what we’re doing to support our staff and what we’re excited about.”

Those are things that I’ve been personally excited to share with candidates, telling them a bit about my own experience or the things that our recruiting, our workplace, our L&D team are doing in terms of onboarding. I think all of those things have been great topics to share with people. Those are certainly some of the things that I’m excited about, and thinking about what we might change or ways we may adapt to in the future.

Addressing concerns

Dee: It makes sense that people would be a little bit more cautious or risk-averse this year, for sure. What are the biggest concerns outside of that that you’re hearing from candidates? And have you gone about addressing them?

Stanley: I think there’s a lot on people’s minds this year with different types of questions that they’re asking. I think people are curious to get a sense as to, “How are employees being supported during the summer? What are you doing differently?” I think it’s something candidates want to get a sense of, for sure. They want to understand what our environment is looking like since we’ve made the move to a more work-from-home model on a longer-term basis and understanding what the dynamic of that is.

They’re also curious to understand what our plans for the future are. We talked about going back to the office, and companies have been doing vastly different things in terms of remote models. We’re hearing very different things across the tech landscape. So, I think this is definitely top of mind for a lot of candidates out there. They want to understand what the future holds, what we’re thinking about in terms of working right now and working in the future. These are things that we’re still figuring out, we don’t necessarily have all the answers. But I think that giving them some context around the way we’re working right now, that’s probably one of the biggest things that’s on people’s minds, for sure.

Candidates also want to get a sense, along with building relationships with their team, as to how they will connect or what has changed in terms of job landscape. We got a lot of people asking about career growth and development, which is a big one. Some of those things haven’t changed but they want to understand if there have been any changes within our environments that have affected how this works. Despite moving to a much more work-from-home model for the majority of this year, we’re seeing so many people in terms of growth and career developments, and these are things that Intercom is doing a phenomenal with. Those would definitely be some of the top-of-mind questions that we’re seeing coming through so far this year.

Dee: That makes sense. It must be gratifying to be able to offer good news to people when they’re raising concerns like that. Padraig, you look like you wanted to jump in there as well?

Padraig: Yeah, just to follow up on what Stanley was saying about how we’re continuing to support people working from home. We’ve put together a package called WE Got Your Back, which was a resource guide for people to work-from-home — tips about ergonomics and exercise and different ways to support your well-being. We also put together packages for our furniture suppliers that we had built up with our local vendors who arrange different packages of proper ergonomic equipment. This goes in line with the questions Stanley was asking, of “How are we supporting our people?”

“One of the things that I’ve enjoyed this year is I haven’t heard any, ‘We can’t.’ That phrase just doesn’t exist at Intercom. What I have heard a lot of is, ‘How can we make that work?’ and ‘What could we do in place of…?’”

But then, just to touch on coming back to the office. Obviously, the world has changed, Intercom’s new way of working with the new work-from-home policy will have a massive knock-on effect on how the workplace will be designed as well. So, in some respects, it’s an exciting thing for the workplace team to be working on, if there’s one positive thing that has come out of COVID. But these are the things that we are looking at — what’s going to happen in the future in relation to our workspaces and how people will work? It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be really good at the same time.

Dee: There’s been so much this year that’s been more like a time machine of moving towards the trends and changes that might’ve happened anyway, but probably would have taken a lot longer to arrive.

Padraig: That’s exactly it. In some respects, this new way of working could be good for people, that bit of flexibility. Some people don’t have to work from home, it’s just the guidelines that will be outlined within the new policies. But I think it’s going to be a change for the good for everybody.

Dee: Eve, you sounded like you wanted to jump in there?

Eve: I was just listening to Stanley, and I think Stanley does a great job of just bringing it all together. We have had better satisfaction ratings from the onboarding experience than we ever received within the office. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about this year is I haven’t heard any, “We can’t.” That phrase just doesn’t exist at Intercom. “Well, we can’t do that.” What I have heard a lot of is, “How can we make that work?” and “What could we do in place of…?” I think it’s a testament to the creativity that’s gone into things. I think a lot of what we’ve built, as you say, we would’ve gotten there in the long run.

This new way of, for us, remote learning, this new way of staggering and onboarding we’ll keep because work-from-home or no work-from-home, it’s definitely created a better experience for employees. It’s forced us to be creative. It’s forced us to get out of our comfort zone. And I think it’s going to help us move into next year and beyond when we return to the office: just more insight and knowledge around how to be agile in the way that we work.

A year of birthday cakes and gingerbread houses

Dee: One thing that has definitely required a lot of creativity this year is socializing. It’s such an integral part of a company culture. Padraig, can you share how the WE, or the workplace experience team, have successfully managed to foster that sense of camaraderie and connection despite the need for social distancing and remote working?

Padraig: What we’ve been doing is we’ve tried to support Inter-communities and the people who lead those different Inter-communities, in relation to the various activities that they’re doing. An example of that would be like Inter-Golf. That’s one of the sports that’s available at the moment. Maybe the Inter-Zen group who do their yoga and Pilates classes and the Inter-Book Club. It’s all about keeping people connected who are of the same mindset, who are into the same thing. It’s a social part of what goes on at Intercom, but it’s really important to us.

We also have various other virtual events — we’re getting back to the Halloween costumes and the birthday celebrations. There was a bit of banter and everybody jumped on board, and no matter how bad their cake turned out, people photographed, and that was all part of what it was about. That’s what’s important, to keep socializing together, keep people together. Some people would not always interact, especially new hires. They see, “Well, is this what goes on in the office?” And yeah, it is what goes on in the office. The latest holiday gift that we received last week, the anticipation of those who hadn’t received it over those who had already received it on the Slack channels, and that, again, created that sense of people being connected and socializing.

“It’s a very simple thing but it brought people together. It got people chatting. It lit up the Slack channels and photographs started coming in. And the kids were all involved. Some of the houses were disastrous. The rooms were falling. But that’s what it’s all about”

Dee: So Padraig, sorry. For the people outside of Intercom, do you want to share what the birthday and Christimas celebrations were? Because they both involved everyone receiving a case to bake something, which is really fun.

Padraig: Basically, within Intercom, we have a couple of big celebrations each year, and one of those would be our birthday celebration, which coincides with our summer party. And this year we weren’t able to do that. So, Sinead and Cole put together this brilliant idea of a birthday cake. The idea was that you would receive an apron and ingredients and instructions on how to cook this cake. It’s a very simple idea, but it created such a buzz: the way it was delivered; the way it was packaged. People opened it up; they didn’t know what they were going to get…

Dee: It was very cool.

Padraig: And as people received them, the Slack channel started to light up with all the various, “Oh, look, what I got. This is great.” As the days went on, people were sending photographs of what they cooked. And as well as that, their kids got involved and it was a virtual social event that people really bought into.

And then the holiday pack, we would normally have a big holiday celebration. And in Dublin, in particular, all our sites would do an end of year review, and they’re always good fun where people come together. We couldn’t do it this year in person, but the holiday gift included ingredients and instructions on how to build a gingerbread house. And again, that anticipation, “Oh, did you receive your packet? No, we didn’t receive it.” It’s, again, a very simple thing but it brought people together. It got people chatting. It lit up the Slack channels and photographs started coming in. And again, the kids were all involved. Some of the houses were disastrous. The rooms were falling. But that’s what it’s all about.

Dee: I believe the gluten-free ones were much more challenging.

Padraig: Yeah, the gluten-free ones were disastrous. There was no keeping them together. But yeah, it was all about just keeping people engaged and that bit of banter, and people interacting with each other that wouldn’t normally interact with each other… Yeah, that’s what it was. It created a good vibe and people were really happy and grateful to receive the gifts.

Dee: It’s always nice to get a gift and they were really, really nice packs. That must’ve been some challenge though, making sure that you got equitable packs sent to everyone from all the different offices?

Padraig: So, that was the thing. People had to opt in. Then, we had to make sure that people got the right package based on their dietary requirements. It was a massive, massive amount of work that went into that. And just to organize it… Not even just to get everything shipped, but to design the package so that when people opened it, it was presented to them in a certain way. Everyone’s package was received in the same condition, the items inside the packaging were all the same, all aligned; so that people had the same experience when they opened it up. It was a huge, huge effort to get that one across the line.

Building Inter-communities

Dee: And outside of that as well, Padraig, there’s been some other great social events. I did a candle making course with a group of colleagues last week, some of whom I’d never met. So, you’re ported straight into someone’s kitchen, and then you’re all melting wax on your hobs together and it’s just great fun. Our team did a clay making course as well as part of our off-site. So Eve, have you done any of these things outside of the baking?

Eve: I didn’t do the baking, but there is a gingerbread kit downstairs, which I promised the kids we’re going to do either tonight or tomorrow. Padraig, when the box arrived, it wasn’t just exciting for me. The whole family got involved in opening it up and I was just so proud to be working at Intercom and for the kids to have that experience as well, so thank you so much and to the team. We haven’t done any kind of formal social event. There’s been a lot of informal coffees in our team. We’ve been doing virtual walks.

Dee: Lovely.

Eve: I’ve loved that. I’ve got a couple of standing meetings with folks in the team and we’re just connecting, but we’re going for a walk, so it’s funny because you’re panting as you’re chatting. Just to savor that connection and that keeping the lines of communication open. And be nice to also have those points in the calendar where you’re just building the relationship as much as having a hard output necessarily or a hard agenda. But yeah, there’s been so much happening. As a parent at Intercom, I think it is probably worth talking a little bit about…

Dee: Well, I was going to say, you’re involved in Intercom’s parenting group, Inter-Parents, and you guys have been very active this year and done some great projects.

“To be honest, as a parent, I have opted out of some of the more social events by choice, purely to quieten down my world. Because through all of the change, I had three kids and homeschooling going on”

Eve: Yes. Inter-Parents is one of the ERGs, or employee resource groups, at Intercom. We’ve got Inter-Women, Inter-Diversity, Inter-Parents. You mentioned the book club, there are lots and lots of them. But the ERGs are specifically for the minority groups or underrepresented groups, parents being one of them.

So, for me, to be honest, as a parent, I have opted out of some of the more social events by choice, purely to quieten down my world. Because through all of the change, especially earlier in the year, I had three kids and homeschooling going on, and they were here for months and months on end, which was tricky.

Parents have had a hard time through this, and so the Inter-Parents group have leaned in to try to be, first of all, the voice for parents and try and help advocate for what it’s like to be a parent during COVID and what it’s been like to actually be working and parenting and schooling at the same time.

We’ve also leaned into to try and create more resources and support specifically geared towards parents. We launched a couple of podcasts earlier in the year just to see if we could build a couple of resources. They were really well-received and we’ve actually had a whole series. We just shipped our seventh episode. We’ve had external speakers join us in conversation. We’ve had internal panels.

And we’ve just kept, I suppose, the lines of communication open, lots of activity in our Slack channels just to create that connection and a safe place for parents to share. And it’s been really quite inspiring and empowering to see not only how other people are managing, but also to see that other people are struggling as well. There have been days where people have been having a bit of a whinge and other Intercomrades have rallied and helped and cared for each other. And that’s been a lovely thing to be part of.

We’re finishing up the year with an end-of-year video. I won’t give too much away in case internal people are listening to this before Christmas. But it includes kind of a montage of videos from different Inter-Parents around Intercom talking about things that they’re grateful for this year. It brought a tear to my eyes, it brought a tear to many of our eyes when we watched it. But we’re coming out of this stronger and better.

Staying connected

Dee: Oh, that all sounds amazing. And what about you, Stanley, have you managed to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, or what socializing events have you gotten involved in?

Stanley: Yeah, for sure. I also did the candle-making course, which was phenomenal, great fun.

Dee: It was great fun.

Stanley: Yeah. It’s nice to have a finished product at the end of doing a course like that. So I really enjoyed that one. We’ve been doing a lot as a team in terms of very regular coffee chats. We got into a regular cadence of doing it every day or every other day, just to allow us to get together. The recruiting team is not especially large, but we would have great banter or just kind of casual conversations at our desks or pods, so we were trying to recreate that, give a bit of time each day to allow us to stay connected with each other.

“It’s not just a case where you can rock up to someone’s desk and have an impromptu conversation. That element has been taken away”

And I think that went a long way to help us stay social and keep us connected and just not lose that sense of team. I think that was a really important thing to prioritize and I’ve loved how it’s kind of become a core staple of our daily or weekly routine at this point. That’s something that I personally really enjoy. We tried to do other things over the year as well. We also tried to do some virtual walking meetings. Michelle on the team came up with a great idea for a fitness club and we’d assigned a daily routine that we’d all have to do. So it was either a five or ten-minute specific challenge, or you could do it for as long as you wanted. And we all had to stick to it. There may have been a Coda doc with this as well, so it was very serious.

I think things like that to help us stay together were a really big priority for us, and that was a lot of fun. It’s hard to stay connected with people because, to connect with people, it has to be a call. It’s not just a case where you can rock up to someone’s desk or just run into them in the canteen and just have an impromptu conversation. That element has been taken away. So for there to be a kind of social event, it has to be something almost planned or kind of put in the calendar to say, “Yes, we’re going to connect at this time.”

And that’s not always conducive to how real, natural human social interaction works. So we tried to keep it relatively casual. I think there’s no heavy sense of commitment with a lot of the things our team has built out. And I think that’s gone a long way to allowing it to gain momentum. It’s not something that you have to do, it’s something that if you want to do, and if you have the time, that you can take part in. And I think that’s something really important for people. Our calendars are so full these days with calls that we have to take between your managers or teammates, our stakeholders, whoever it might be. And I think it’s nice to have an option to either just chill out or have a kind of natural, casual social interaction.

Dee: I think you’re right there because one thing we haven’t mentioned and a big, lovely thing about Intercom is the number of friendships that people forge across organizations and teams. So one thing I think people missed earlier this year, before we got into our flow of doing those events, was those spontaneous chats that you’d have, even if your work didn’t bring you guys together or you didn’t have an excuse to work together on a project. So it’s nice that we have found ways for people to maintain those connections without defaulting to Zoom quizzes. Because notably, none of you have mentioned them as part of the socializing culture, which is brilliant.

“What a year for sourdough”

Eve: We actually have a cocktail evening on Friday. I should say that there’s a box that I’m not allowed to open until Friday that has all the ingredients for cocktail making. And it’s kind of just a bit of fun, but there’s plenty happening. In the early days, I did hear of a few teams who were sharing pictures of their lunches. So there was a little bit of a culinary, “Look I’m missing my lunch in the office, but look what I made.” And there were a lot of bread baking competitions going on as well.

Dee: So much bread-baking, my goodness. What a year for sourdough.

Recognizing achievements

Dee: But folks, we’ve focused a lot on the challenges and the successes of 2020 in our chat today. But I would love to finish on the most positive note that we can. So I just wanted to ask each of you, what’s been your Intercom highlights of this year? So, Padraig, might we start with you?

Padraig: I suppose, for me, the reopening of the Sydney office. And we did that remotely. Obviously, with COVID, there were a lot of restrictions. It was a really positive thing for me this year. And it kind of gives the rest of us stuck with a bit of hope that we’re getting there. We will be back in the office. It’s still a few more months away, but it’s coming down the line, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. So, that was a great success. There was a lot of work involved — with time zone differences, we were taking calls at all hours of the night until early in the morning. It was a lot of work, but it was great to be involved in because it was something really positive for us to focus on and share with the rest of the company, “We are going back to the office. Look at what we’ve just done in Sydney.”

And then, from the team’s point of view, I suppose, the way we were able to continue keeping people together with all the virtual events, the Christmas gifts, the birthday celebrations and all the Mingle events we’ve spoken about earlier such as the candle making. They’re very simple things, but they’re really important. For me, that’s what Intercom’s about. Coming from a very different working background, when I joined Intercom, I was taken aback. They do exactly what they’re assigned, the team. They don’t just pay lip service to it. So from my point of view, they are my highlights of this year.

“It’s still a few more months away, but it’s coming down the line, there’s light at the end of the tunnel”

Dee: Stanley, what about you?

Stanley: I think, overall, there’s been a lot of great things this year. From a team perspective, it was really great to see that we were able to keep up so much momentum around the goals we had. And helping our teams hiring great talent during this time is a real win for us. It was so great to see so many people joining us throughout the year. We’ve had more than 100 people, I suppose, hired for roles across our offices since March. So we haven’t slowed down. I think that’s just been such a positive thing to look back on that we’ve achieved this year. That would definitely be my top pick.

We have an annual tradition at Intercom around an end of year review, which we just had for Dublin last week. And I think this was just a personal highlight for me. I love that, it’s one of my favorite traditions here, getting each team to talk about their achievements. It’s usually region-specific, so just for Dublin. But just hearing all of the amazing things that people and our teams achieved throughout this year. And it was kind of wrapped up in this fun package. Obviously, it looked a little bit different this year, but I still think we were able to capture a lot of that magic, and again, take the time to highlight that this has been a difficult time, and still, here is all we have achieved in the face of that.

I just love that Intercom celebrates these aspects of our work culture, to call out when things are tough. We acknowledged that, and we’re still positively looking forward. I think that’s a personal highlight for me, just taking part in that.

Dee: That end-of-year review ended in the most chaotic sing-song that I think I have ever witnessed in my life. And I’ve visited a lot of karaoke bars in my time. So that is saying something. But they are, as you say, Stanley, they’re brilliant, brilliant fun. That would definitely be a highlight for me as well. Eve, what about you?

Eve: It’s like Stanley, I’m sitting here thinking about my highlights because there’s a lot of great memories that I can bring from this year. Being given a blank page around how we do learning has been brilliant. We had lots of challenges, but loads of opportunity. Changing the way we’re learning remote onboarding and thinking about how we do our leadership development stuff has been really cool. And I’ve relished that a lot.

This year has definitely confirmed that Intercom is a great place for me to be. The amount of support and camaraderie around has been great because we have all managed programs and drove change in the business and evolved. So all have been adapting to this, working-from-home and COVID situation. I’ve loved supporting other people, and I’ve loved my peers’ and my colleagues’ support. And the last thing is Inter-Parents. It’s been a joy to be a part of that: to be creative and do the podcast and learn about this new way of sharing information. But also just being part of that group knowing that this is a good place to be as a parent at the moment, for sure. Having all that understanding around the place has been fabulous.

Dee: What a lovely note to end on. And I definitely agree, Eve, there has been a lot this year that would certainly reaffirm or cause people to celebrate their decision to work at Intercom. And that’s largely down to the work of all of your teams. So thank you so much for that. And thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

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