Global Tech Site Leaders: Lessons Learned During COVID-19 Virtual Realities

Engineering, Tech Leadership, Technology AdobeStock_333624067 [Converted]

In early March, little did I know that a short business trip from Intuit’s Israel Development Center to our Mountain View headquarters would turn into an indefinite stay. When I first boarded that United flight, I could not (even in my wildest dreams) think of a scenario in which world travel would temporarily come to a halt. Or, that my 50-lb/20-kg suitcase would have to last me three months (and counting).

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out, health and safety are foremost in everyone’s minds—for ourselves, our loved ones, and people everywhere. At the same time, we’re facing unprecedented challenges in our personal lives, our work situations, and our businesses. 

For many of us lucky enough to be safely working from home, our personal and professional worlds have converged. Traditional work schedules shift as parents juggle childcare with work responsibilities, share broadband with children taking remote lessons, and adjust to sharing makeshift home office space with spouses while coordinating Zoom meeting schedules.  This unprecedented virtual workplace reality is offering glimpses of colleagues’ personal lives in brand new ways (e.g., “cameo” appearances of family members beloved pets in view of video conference cameras). 

In this changing world, engineering organizations are adapting to new ways of working in support of our employees and customers. 

As Global Site Leader for Intuit’s development center in Israel, I’ve been especially interested in seeing how Intuit and other global tech companies are rising to the challenge. How are companies rethinking their customer priorities? Continuing to deliver on innovation? Adapting to the surrounding environment? All while not losing touch with employees and the foundation on which a company is built? 

Here are five realities I’ve witnessed—along with a few lessons learned—for anyone leading engineering teams during COVID-19 and beyond.

Reality #1: Maintaining an engineering culture is trickier from home

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the engineering culture at tech companies like Intuit evolved in an organic process, relying heavily on physical interactions. These were made possible with an open space floor plan to foster collaboration, huddle rooms for smaller thinking sessions, and meeting rooms with whiteboards for heated technical discussions. Video conferencing tools such as Zoom or BlueJeans were customarily reserved for work with remote teams. But with COVID-19, that remote team scenario is… well, our new reality. Everyone is essentially remote and in their own virtual huddle room. That makes maintaining a strong engineering culture somewhat trickier.

This new reality requires us all to rethink how we bring our teams together—using the same engineering culture best practices we preach. For example:

  • When it comes to tech conferences and meetups, a strong focus at Intuit Israel, our teams have taken the lead in organizing virtual events that bring together a panel of experts to discuss a topic for our local tech community. This allows us to continue with our external outreach efforts while leveraging our employees’ work.
  • Intuit has repurposed one of our 2X/year events, Global Engineering Days, into a lighter, virtual format known as Project INgage, a 4-week optional coding experience for people who want to code together. This new format allows teams from across the globe to work together on the kind of experiments that are normally put aside, due to priorities and bandwidth.
  • One Intuit Israel team completed a consolidation and roadmap planning project in a much shorter time frame—speeding up by a full quarter—due to the greater flexibility offered by working from home. 

The lesson: If you adapt your tech culture to new forms, employees will rise to the challenge and continue to innovate.

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Reality #2: Employees yearn to feel part of a community, even from afar

In well-run companies, employees share not only office space, but a sense of purpose. Now, without shared physical places to gather—a kitchenette, game room, meeting room, or even the restroom—how can they continue to absorb a common culture? The first step is understanding that employees are now trying to play many additional roles at the same time. They are parents, teachers, caregivers, chefs, partners, family members, dog walkers, roommates and much more, all in parallel. Displaying empathy for this is crucial. For example: 

Intuit has worked hard to show our employees that we fully understand the challenges of adapting to this new workplace dynamic, and want to help: 

  • At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Intuit introduced a program offering a new, temporary time off benefit for all employees. Employees were also permitted to take paid time off if their childcare or child’s school shut down, or if they were restricted to their home but unable to perform their job there.
  • Upon Intuit’s decision in early March for all employees around the world to work from home, the company made it possible for employees to set up workspaces in their homes with all necessary equipment (monitors, peripherals, accessories, etc.). And, to do so ergonomically and productively, with a full reimbursement. At our new internal microsite, employees could easily find Q&A, work-from-home tools, and other resources to deal with all aspects of the transition.
  • On a local level in Intuit Israel, we’ve bridged the gap between physical and virtual by sending care packages to each employee’s home—something we’d previously done at our site-wide meetings on campus—so employees can continue to feel that same warm connection.
  • Online engagement activities have brought us together and helped us relate by sharing snapshots of our new routines—whom we’re quarantining with, favorite tips to “survive” a full house, celebrating holidays while social distancing, among many others on Slack channels, Facebook, etc. 

The lesson: Remote work doesn’t have to stand in the way of a thriving company culture.

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Reality #3: Communication is king, now more than ever

Effective communication becomes even more critical during times of crisis and uncertainty. When a shift from in-person to screen changes the dynamics, it’s imperative to maintain a variety of routine approaches, fostering a feeling of connection for teams and keeping everyone in the loop on a company and local level. This includes key information related to COVID-19 information, as well as looking ahead at how we’re continuing to deliver business outcomes. Finding the right balance also means avoiding #ZoomFatigue!

At Intuit, leaders at all levels communicate frequently, across multiple internal channels, to keep nearly 10,000 employees in the know. For example:

  • Intuit’s CEO holds regular company-wide virtual town halls, sends ongoing update videos, and posts often on the company’s internal blog platform. Important updates from other CEO staff members go out via the company’s COVID-19 microsite and cross-company Slack channels.
  • I’ve also led several site-level town halls where local employees can ask questions and share their sentiments. Nearly 100 percent of our people choose to attend, with many sharing with their managers how much they appreciate the open dialogue.
  • To ensure consistent touchpoints across our site, we’re launching a new bi-weekly all-hands for Intuit Israel to connect, share site highlights, news, and project updates.
  • When there’s nothing new to say, we sometimes just share our personal daily challenges and work-from-home nuances to remind ourselves that we’re all in the same boat. 

The lesson: Leaders should continue to stay present while physically absent. Keep finding opportunities to connect with your teams. Sometimes just checking in on a human level can speak volumes. Literally.

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Reality #4: There’s no such thing as “business as usual” with customers

Our customers are overwhelmed on all fronts, including incessant news cycles predominated by COVID-19 updates, and they’re turning to us—among many others—for support and advice. This is a moment of truth for many brands, an opportunity to prove your value and “live” your mission. Rather than taking a “business as usual” approach, let customers know that you have their back by using your resources and talent to help them solve problems and address their challenges and opportunities. Customers appreciate transparency and authenticity, and the tactics you use now will define how you interact in the future. 

As a fintech company, Intuit has focused on helping consumers and small businesses get the money, information, and support they need, when they need it most. For example:

  • To connect our customers to all the emerging information, we’ve developed a microsite where they can access the latest data, relief programs, and resources.
  • In addition to external customers, we have internal customers and partners who rely on us to continue driving outcomes and delivering services. Reaching out to them now is more important than ever as we find new ways of working together to ensure the continuity of their line of Intuit’s business.
  • Ongoing check-in calls with our internal and external customers help us better understand how they’re coping and to come up with relevant solutions and approaches to address their challenges. 

The lesson: Be there for customers in their time of need. Their success is your success.

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Reality #5: Adversity can mobilize engineering innovation and creativity 

In times of crisis, it’s amazing to see how people come together to support each other. Organizations around the world are now cooperating to find innovative ways to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on public health and local economies.

At Intuit, our engineers pushed for a grassroots approach supporting customers’ businesses on both a global and local level. For example:

  • On a US level, Intuit partnered with the US government and launched Intuit Aid Assist, a free website to help small business owners and the self-employed. Our artificial intelligence teams took the engineering technology used by TurboTax to simplify the tax code and repurposed it to build an interactive tool that assesses eligibility for relief, estimates loan amounts, delivers a personalized recommendation, and more. 
  • On a global level, Intuit co-founded the Small Business Relief Initiative with GoFundMe to help small businesses struggling to pay employees and business expenses during the pandemic. All Intuit employees received a sum of money to support a small business of their choosing, and were encouraged to share the fundraising campaign within their circles of influence. The program was launched in the US, Canada, Australia, France, and the UK, and our team in India initiated a similar campaign with a local partner, Milaap
  • In parallel, employees began driving community outreach programs, which included volunteering to shop for essentials for the elderly, tutoring children learning remotely, and much more. Employees have also made donations, matched 2:1 by Intuit, to many global organizations on the front lines of the pandemic, and Intuit donated funds to the United Nations COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The lesson: When companies collaborate with employees, creative and innovative solutions can emerge.  

The truth is, we’re all learning as we go. I don’t think anyone can claim to have a manual on how to deal with COVID-19 (otherwise, that like toilet paper, would be in hot demand). These are unprecedented times, which requires leaders of global tech companies to think in unprecedented ways. 

When it’s time to fly back to Tel Aviv, I look forward to repacking my suitcase (this time I’ll need two or three), and to getting back into the physical world. But until we return to our new normal, may we leverage the virtual realm to ensure we return to a stronger physical tomorrow.