The pandemic taught many companies that work-from-home was a viable option for many employees. Some companies went all the way.
In this Tough Things First podcast, Gerry Sweeney, CEO of Hornbill, a cloud-based provider of workflow management solutions, discusses with Ray Zinn, the longest serving CEO in Silicon Valley, how his company cancelled their corporate HQ office lease after a year of COVID induced working from home.
Ray Zinn: Hello everyone, this is Ray Zinn. I’m the author and podcaster for toughthingsfirst.com. And I’m just delighted to have with me today, Gerry Sweeney, who is an entrepreneur and a CEO of a company. And so welcome Gerry.
Gerry Sweeney: Thank you Ray, Thanks. Great to be here.
Ray Zinn: So tell me a little bit about yourself.
Gerry Sweeney: Okay. As you say, I’m a founder and CEO, active CEO of a software company called Hornbill. We’re based here in the UK, but have customers all over the world. We’re a SaaS software company. I founded the company back in 1995 and I continued to operate and run that company today.
Ray Zinn: You must be across the pond from us?
Gerry Sweeney: I bet I am. Yeah, I’m just outside London.
Ray Zinn: Okay. So how big is your company?
Gerry Sweeney: In terms of people?
Ray Zinn: Yes.
Gerry Sweeney: About 70 people currently.
Ray Zinn: Okay, 70 people. And what kind of software do you offer?
Gerry Sweeney: Well, the software is service management software, business, workflow automation, and collaboration, communication software. So if you combine those three things it’s, work management for businesses, typically used primarily in mid to enterprise size companies. We start to have relevance and offer value when an organization is sort of 3 or 4,000 people and above.
Ray Zinn: So how can anyone find out about your company? Where can they go to find out about Hornbill?
Gerry Sweeney: Oh they can just go to hornbill.com. We’re there, we’ve been there since 1995, so.
Ray Zinn: Okay, so you do workflow. So that’s efficiency, production, efficiency, performance efficiency, so forth?
Gerry Sweeney: Exactly. Business efficiency, business optimization, digital transformation. That whole area, service management and so on.
Ray Zinn: And you know, this is a perfect segue into our discussion today. What we’re going to talk about is working from remotely as opposed to working at an office. So, that’s the subject of our podcast today. And tell us Gerry pandemic caused you to kind of shift gears a little bit pivot. So tell us about that.
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. So it was simply one day back in the early part of 2020 and around March, I think it was March 18, actually. We decided based on what the UK government were telling us. To actually just send everyone home and work from home. So we did that. So that was on a, I think, a Tuesday or something like that. I can’t remember now, to be honest with you. It might be a different day, but let’s just say Tuesdays for want of a better day. And everyone went home that day and we have actually been remote working ever since. So, for us and that sounds very sort of chaotic, but actually in reality we’re a software company and our business is in the cloud. Our services are operating out numerous data centers around the world. So we remote manage everything anyway. There was of course challenges, logistical challenges, but actually the transition was pretty smooth. We were back up and running the next day. I would say our customers didn’t notice anything at all actually.
Ray Zinn: So, here we have the pandemic kind of coming to a conclusion, at least it appears that way. And people are beginning to go back to their office, not their home office but their company office. My son works for Apple and starting in September, they will go back three days a week, back to the office and then they get to do one, one week a year. I think they get to work from home remotely. So, tell us about what you’ve decided to do. And now that we’re kind of the winding down of the pandemic. Why have you decided to really just go remote totally?
Gerry Sweeney: Right. So, it’s a very interesting set of challenges. I’ve written about it earlier on in the 2020 period. But for me, what stood out instantly as soon as this happened, as soon as you observe organizations doing this on mass, the question that was forefront in my mind is all right. So how do organizations deal with this from a management perspective? Because by far, first of all if you look at your business, the nature of your business, if you’re an information worker like we are, so a software company, we need a computer and internet and pretty much, we’re good to go. Of course, if you’re a nurse or a doctor or something, you physically need to be somewhere. So, there’s a difference between those kinds of businesses.
So, the first thing to do is identify the kind of business we were. And then in thinking about it on behalf of our customers and other customers, the nature of their business. So in the information worker sort of section, if you like, for me, the most obvious question was wow, how are manager’s going to deal with this? Because most managers fairly typically manage people by presence. You want to meet with people, you get them physically in the location. If you’ve got a kind of draconian management approach, you might want to physically see they’re in the office and they’re clocking in and clocking out almost using the director systems and so on.
Ray Zinn: So are you saying Gerry that we don’t need managers anymore?
Gerry Sweeney: Well, I wouldn’t say we don’t need managers, but I think there’s a lot of middle managers that having to reinvent themselves quite a lot, because, you’re going to transition from, going to saying, okay, well, we need six people to man our support desk, because that’s how busy we are. Any number of calls divided by average call per hour, divided by P you can take that as an example. And in a way it’s a very lazy way of doing it. What’s really difficult to do is I’m sure you know, Ray given your experiences, how do you actually measure people’s value to the business by their contribution, by their output, by a metric other than what time did they get into the office and, how long do they stay after the office is closed to get stuff done.
And, that I think is where your middle management I think have to do really big transition in their thinking. And so for me, that’s the kind of the one compelling reason that is going to bring people back into the office, not the only compelling reason, but certainly one of the main ones.
Ray Zinn: So are we saying, we need less middle managers now, is that what you’re saying?
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah, the nature of management I think has changed. And so I don’t think you necessarily need less middle managers. It’s actually quite possible you might need more management. But the nature of it is very different because if you’re remote working, we know that human beings are social beings and they like social interactions. So, in a way I think companies are going to be obliged to create those opportunities, create those social interactions. Whereas before they kind of got all that for free, just by bringing people through the commute and getting them into the office. And once they got them in there, they know all of these things that are really important to people. They kind of got for free without having to create them.
In a remote working environment, of course the complete opposite is true. You don’t any of that for free and it does matter, even with this relatively small number of people we’ve got. I talk to our people all the time and I’m really interested in the way that they sort of perceive what’s going on and people get used to remote working. However, there’s still a very clear need for let’s meet some more, let’s get out, let’s do something, let’s get some face to face meetings, that kind of thing.
Ray Zinn: So, with the software available to us now to have these virtual communication meetings as you would, be able to get together kind of face to face virtually has really allowed this remote working from home, as you would work, work well. Do you see you doing that more? In other words, do you have a lot of the remote meetings, virtual meetings?
Gerry Sweeney: Absolutely. Definitely more than we have before and tools like Zoom and Skype and Teams or whatever you use have been very useful in this period. The problem with those tools though, is they’re not a complete replacement for face-to-face meetings. I don’t know what it is, people like to physically touch each other or something. You end up sort of looking at your people working with your team as they’re all sort of digital apparitions on your screen. And so the software is undoubtedly critical nowadays, I would say. And certainly we would be using video conferencing type software much more often than we did previously, but there is still a need for face-to-face.
I think the other thing I’d say to our advantage is back in, or I don’t know, eight, seven or so years ago, I transitioned the company away from email. And what I mean by that is we used to have many internal conversations on email as most companies do. And I effectively outlawed that practice in the company and moved everyone onto our collaboration software. And we built our collaboration software specifically to do this. And so all of our internal conversations bar none now are on our internal collaboration tool. So obviously when it came to remote working, actually, that was a very easy transition for us to make.
Ray Zinn: Emails are terrible anyway.
Gerry Sweeney: Awful.
Ray Zinn: I mean, you really can’t get your message across in an email. You can set appointments and you can do some basic communication. But if you trying get your point across, it’s not really good to try it on with-
Gerry Sweeney: It’s not the best medium at all.
Ray Zinn: No. So, now that people are not commuting. What would you say was the average commute time for your company?
Gerry Sweeney: Oh, that’s a good question. I think probably I’d say an hour, an hour to an hour and a half. We’re-
Ray Zinn: Each way or one way?
Gerry Sweeney: Each way.
Ray Zinn: Okay wow, two hours. So are you now expecting your people to work longer hours now that you saved them two hours?
Gerry Sweeney: No, but to be fair to the people that work in my organization, they’re a pretty committed bunch and they do what’s needed to get done. We don’t need to tell them to do that. But, there’s a massive benefit to the individuals because they get an improved quality of life. They get more time with their family. They’re not being forced into packed trains and planes and buses. They don’t have to put up with a commute and find ways of making that time valuable to themselves.
Ray Zinn: But are you getting more time? Or you, seen that your employees, you’re working a little longer because they know they don’t have to commute.
Gerry Sweeney: You know, that’s really harder for me to actually if just on the spot there, because I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve never really looked for it either. I would say we’re getting at least the same level of productivity and output overall. People are definitely accessible and available, which is of course very, very important. People tend not to disappear, which is another big risk, disappear off the radar for long periods of time. So I think without having any sort of empirical evidence, I’d probably say, I don’t think it’s really changed for us.
Ray Zinn: So you’re watching for keyboard clicks or mouse moves or something like that?
Gerry Sweeney: No, no. Absolutely not. No, no actually the complete opposite to that. I think what we’re trying to do or what certainly what I’m trying to do and encourage everyone to do is to measure people’s overall contribution, their value contribution to the business. Not what time they switch on, what time they check in, any of that kind of stuff.
Ray Zinn: Okay. So bottom line, do you see more efficiency or about the same as they did when they were working, face to face in the office?
Gerry Sweeney: So far to me it feels like about the same, which for me is actually a very good outcome. I think, if that’s what we get and people’s quality of life is improved while our costs are reduced that’s an all round win really.
Ray Zinn: Well. You know, they don’t have to get really dressed up. They don’t have to spend a lot more time getting so fixed up as you were to go to work. Get getting a lunch packed, jumping in the car and maybe doing other things. So there is a big efficiency working from home. But do you require them to have a special room or can they still have the family around while they work because not everybody has a home that allows them to have a separate home office?
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah. There’s two, parts of that answer if I may. And I think there’s a really, really good point you’re raising Ray? So the thing is we don’t have any specific requirements. We do from a health and safety perspective, require them to have reasonable working environment for them. Now we don’t know what that means for individuals. Most of our people they are experienced people. So I don’t want to bring age into it, but then, they’re people that as a typical rule of not living at home with their parents, that kind of thing. And so they’re generally independent and they do have the space and facilities.
However, the second part on-site question, which I would highlight is it actually creates a really significant problem when it comes to hiring new talent, particularly what I’m going to term the younger players where you might want to bring people in out of university where they’re not necessarily in a long-term relationship. Possibly living at home with their parents. And those people tend to flourish more having a destination to go. So, you know, because they’ve been at home for the last 25 years or something. So, it’s an interesting challenge that the nature of the people you recruit, the way in which you recruit actually changes quite a lot.
Ray Zinn: Are you going to limit them? And then then the younger set that might mean it might even be sharing a bedroom with a sibling, you know?
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah actually. No, no, not at all. I think one, one of the management challenges I see for us as a company is to try and figure out how we facilitate recruiting people in those scenarios. And that’s very likely to bring us back into some kind of office environment of some form. However, it might be in the form of a training center or a probation center kind of, conceptually I’m sure we could come up with a better name than that. And possibly, we could locate that somewhere far more appropriate for the nature of the people we want to hire. So, some of the big universities, the big schools, we could go somewhere near there, where we like to find the people that would meet that criteria.
Ray Zinn: So, let’s segue into a… We know all the positives. All the positives are very, very obvious. But let’s talk about the negatives. What are some of the negatives that you’re finding working remotely?
Gerry Sweeney: I think the first thing I think I opened with, was developing and executing on management practices that are appropriate for remote working because you could hire an expert manager that’s been managing people for the last 30 years in an office environment. You bring them into an environment where there is no office, actually, it’s a very disabling environment for them. And so I think finding management practices that work and we can enable, for managers and also for staff, I think is a negative and it’s a difficult problem. There’s no, simple answer. People are still learning how to do that. I think another negative is loss of the social contact aspects. These are pretty important. It’s important to people.
We’re fortunate that we’ve got quite a lot of developers and, you know, developers kind of like being on their own as a generalization. And, so that’s possibly not a massive problem for us across the board so, there’s that. The loss of visibility in contact, there’s definitely an element of that. If you feel that, if you’re used to measuring or judging people’s performance on what you physically see and what you observe and the interactions you observe and so on, that’s very difficult to do because you only get to interact and observe people, in planned meetings or on a one-to-one basis on a Zoom call or something like that.
Ray Zinn: Bad habits can really crop up very, very quickly, don’t take long to get set in place. In fact if you’re develop a bad habit, only takes a few days and then it takes hold. So, how do you detect if you see any bad habits developing with your individual employee?
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah. You know, I’d say, I think we’re probably still figuring that out to some degree. If we have good ways of measuring people’s contribution, the way I think about people’s contribution in the company, it’s not, the metrics we can kind of automate and measure that which is another thing. A typical manager would like to do is put stats in and measure that and base performance on that. But so, not things like counting lines of code or numbers of defects fixed, or numbers of calls on a service desk take, and these metrics are no good. I think what are the things I look for? I look for output, I look for visibility. And when I talk about visibility, I don’t mean physical visibility.
I mean, how visible is an employee to the company, not to me as an individual, but to the company. Are there anyone disappearing off the radar for extended periods of time, or those kinds of leading indicators. And then you’re into fairly normal management practices where you got to go and look at them, look at their work, look at their output, look at the time they log on and all that kind of stuff to see if there’s any problems there. So, that’s, I would say that you’ve almost… To be successful managing people remotely or working with people remotely you’ve almost got to not focus on the traditional things, because the reality is when people is at home, their dog is going to get sick or the cat is going to fall off or wherever something’s going to happen.
You know, all the kids are going to be screaming or someone’s going to come to the door, whatever it is. So you’ve got to be able to not worry about that stuff. And you’ve got to focus on the other stuff, which is much harder to measure like contribution, participation, the sort of team visibility and so on, so forth. So, that would be how I would try and think about it. Not that I’m an expert just to say, we’re still learning. So let’s just.
Ray Zinn: Well this is all very interesting because, with this pandemic and people working remotely a lot, I mean, there’s a lot of companies that are there are still operating remotely. Those that can’t, obviously there’s companies that can’t because they need the interaction with the customer or the client or the patient or whatever. So this is not going away. I mean, we’re going to be saying this remote or a hybrid of this remote going forward.
Gerry Sweeney: Definitely.
Ray Zinn: I’m on the board of a small SaaS company and they don’t want to work totally remotely. They want that presence. They want that customer to see that they have an address and a phone number that looks like a business with a receptionist or somebody that’s answering the phone or whatever. And so they’re really worried about people thinking all, you’re just a little fly by night outfit because you’re working remotely. But I think customers are beginning to understand and accept the fact that the companies are going to be more remote in their work environment.
Gerry Sweeney: Yeah. I think you’re right to highlight that. And I think for startups and stuff, especially if you’re a small say tech company trying to sell to very large companies, I think that that does definitely create a problem. But there is a provenance in any business. Of course, if you’ve been around enough and you’ve got enough exposure in a customer base, you’ll get to a certain momentum where remote working in today’s climate really ought to not be a concern for people. They can generally see certainly in the UK here as a limited company, you have to be of a certain size to be limited company. Then you’re forced to publish your accounts and so on. And so, and that’s all for the public records.
So it’s very easy, to look at a UK company of any kind of substance and get a good sense of how they look. But I think it will be absolutely crazy for organizations now to expect certain kinds of companies to necessarily have a big flash office, a big HQ and all that, because, while that’s great and while it looks good and it’s good for the ego and all that good stuff, the reality is, it’s a lot of wasted money. The worst scenario I think is where you’ve got employees now are going to be almost demanding, I think that they want to work from home some of the time. So if you’re going to force them back, they’re going to try and do that, right?
So now you’ve got to rent office space, which you know, is going to be empty 40% of the time or 50% of the time. And any major city in the world office spaces like the business is single biggest expense by far. And, you’re in a situation where your organization would almost be held to ransom by the property itself because of the cost of holding something that’s largely empty. So, I’m sure businesses will adapt and adjust. And I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. And just as one example, I know we know what the policies are, but I can tell you now me as someone that’s been founder of this company for 25 years, whether I believed it or not, in reality, when I really thought about it, my hiring pool, my talent pool was 25 mile radius of where we’re located, just outside of West London.
During the pandemic, we hired five or six people. None of them are in that distance. In fact, they’re in different countries and everything. So massively positive advantages over sort of being pinned to that sort of central location.
Ray Zinn: Excuse me Gerry but you know that we need to wrap this up. But, in our country, the H1 visa people, which are people that are, coming in to work have to have an office. And so the laws are going to have to change somewhat if we’re going to have H1 visa people working remotely because technically they could be in Timbuktu or as you said that in India, in Russia, Afghanistan, wherever, and there’s no need for H1 visas if they’re working remotely-
Gerry Sweeney: That’s, exactly right. And the laws will change of course, because it’s in the local government’s interest to allow those people to work locally so they can get taxes. Because of course, you as a business, you don’t have to pay employment taxes if you’re employing someone overseas.
Ray Zinn: Exactly.
Gerry Sweeney: Now you don’t have to pay local taxes. So I don’t see that as being a barrier. Of course, it raises a very interesting question, how you bring someone over on an H1 visa, get them into some physical location where they can live and sleep and then work. Of course, that does present a problem. I think that’s very similar to the problem you have trying to hire the students, the younger players who are coming into business where they’re perhaps working from home or sharing a bedroom with a sibling, as you said. There’s challenges around these sorts of areas for sure.
Ray Zinn: Well, this has been a very fruitful podcast, and I really appreciate you coming on today, Gerry, to share these thoughts. I see that and from my point of view, that we’re not going to be going back to the old, as you would office environment. That we’re going to have more of a hybrid or a full time remote access to work. And I think we’re going to have to get used to it. I think there’s some real efficiencies, travel time, having access to people that are not within the physical location of your office to be able to share and to do valuable work. So, thanks again, really appreciate your time today and good luck to you and your company.
Gerry Sweeney: Thank you very much Ray.
Ray Zinn: Yeah. As Gerry said if you want to know more about Hornbill, just look at hornbill.com. To learn more about Tough Things. First, go to my website, toughthingsfirst.com. Read my book, Tough Things First and my new Book Zen of Zinn 2. You can find it in your local or online book retailers. So thanks again, Gerry. We appreciate the time you’ve spent with us today.
Gerry Sweeney: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.