Andy Wood never loved big city life, though he accepted it as a career necessity.
The native of Carleton Place, Ontario—a town of about 12,000, roughly half an hour southwest of Ottawa—had been living in Toronto for 13 years, spending the previous 6 working for e-commerce giant Shopify, where he currently occupies the role of lead technical producer.
“My wife and I had always talked about how someday we’d love to go back to a small town and leave the city, but we never thought that was going to be possible,” Wood says.
That all changed early in the pandemic when Shopify became among the first major employers to announce a permanent switch to remote work, or as they call it, “digital by design.”
“There was this spark of excitement to think about the possibility of being able to move back home and be closer to family and friends, and live in a smaller community,” Wood says.
Soon after the announcement, Wood and his wife moved back to Carleton Place, but that was only the beginning.
This past January, Shopify made another bold change to its work structure when it dramatically reduced the amount of time staff spent in meetings. Wood estimates that the policy has given him back at least an hour a day, cutting the total amount of time he spends in meetings by half. The policy change also meant that his teammates were more available for more impromptu conversations.
“Now I can just go into my team’s Slack channel and say ‘Hey, who’s around, can we jump on a call?’” says Wood. “It’s a lot more spontaneous, and that actually feels a lot more like the office days, when you could just turn around in your chair and chat with someone.”
The events of the past few years have given companies license to experiment with new practices, policies, and approaches to work that would have been dismissed as extreme or impractical just a few years prior. In Shopify’s case, that meant rethinking two key tenets of the traditional workplace experience: offices and meetings.
“Most companies rely on the serendipity of people running into each other at the watercooler to come up with good ideas,” says Shopify’s chief operating officer and vice president of product, Kaz Nejatian. “That doesn’t seem like a reliable way to build the future—hoping two people with good ideas will get thirsty at the same time.”
Michael Merola, the company’s vice president of employee experience, agrees. “Every organization needs to figure out what is the right ‘future of work’ for them,” he says. “But . . . you need to be very intentional about it; you can’t just cross your fingers and hope it works out.”
Leaders at Shopify say, thus far, their efforts have paid off. More than three years after reimagining the purpose of their offices, and three-quarters of a year with significantly fewer meetings, Shopify is on track to ship 18% more projects this year compared to last.
A MORE INTENTIONAL APPROACH TO REMOTE WORK
Shopify wasn’t the only company to rethink the purpose of its physical offices in the post-pandemic era, but its approach to remote work includes a number of tactics that address common challenges related to loneliness, company culture, and serendipity.
“If you think about the three traditional boxes that you see out there right now—fully remote, fully in-office, and hybrid with some sort of requirement to come in at a certain frequency—we don’t really fit neatly into one of those boxes,” says Merola. “What ‘digital by design’ means is we’re remote first, but to be clear, we still believe that in-person time has great value, so we have programs that encourage real-life connection in a few different ways.”
Merola, who leads Shopify’s digital-by-design work operations, says there are three primary opportunities for employees to interact face-to-face. The first is called “Meetups,” which invites staff to participate in social events with other Shopify employees in the same geographical region, such as a series of barbecues and picnics that were hosted at public parks around the world this summer.
The second is called a “burst,” which Merola describes as a small-scale offsite, where the company covers the costs associated with bringing a small group together to work through problems over the course of a few days. In total, the company of about 9,200 staff expects to host 700 bursts in 2023.
“It is a tool to use when there is a challenge or a deliverable or a strategy that needs to happen, and we think some intense time together as a team is the right way to solve it,” says Merola, adding that organizers need to state the intended outcome, and report on the results. “In the process, we break bread and have meals together and develop inside jokes, but it’s not about coworking together: There’s a specific business purpose for what we’re doing.”
Finally, earlier this year, Shopify announced its Port Local Access program, which opens its former office spaces—now known as “ports”—to any staff who want a place to work with all the classic office amenities.
More than three-and-a-half years since employees were last required to work from its offices, Shopify says 56% of staff no longer live within what it considers reasonable commuting distance from one of its ports.
“It’s opened us up to hire a much wider talent pool, and it’s opened up our employees to live where they wish to live,” adds Merola, who spent four weeks working from Japan this past June during a long-awaited trip to visit family.
A MORE INTENTIONAL APPROACH TO MEETINGS
Shopfiy made waves in early January when it abruptly removed 12,000 regularly occurring meetings and events from employees’ calendars without notice and introduced a slew of new policies designed to discourage them going forward.
“We canceled all current calendar meetings that had more than two people in them, we instituted no-meeting Wednesdays, we introduced asynchronous meeting tools, and we made sure that team meetings could only be held in a very small block on Thursdays,” says Nejatian. “Our goal was to create uninterrupted time for our most precious resources, which is the crafters that build software.” (After two weeks, staff were able to schedule meetings on Wednesdays again, but only after accepting a notification reminding them of the policy.)
To further emphasize its disdain for unnecessary meetings, Shopify launched a new tool this summer designed to encourage shorter time frames and fewer attendees. The Meeting Cost Calculator, which was created by Nejatian and his team as a Hack Day project, was integrated into employees’ Google Calendar app and uses the number of attendees, their salaries, the meeting length, and other required resources to assign a dollar figure to each gathering.
“We knew that meetings had a cost that we didn’t realize, and we didn’t appreciate how expensive they got,” Nejatian explained during a 20-minute phone interview with Shopify’s external communications lead that cost the company $770. “A small meeting with three employees that lasts 30 minutes can cost the company up to $1,600. Those $1,600 are much better spent making Shopify better for our merchants.”
The tool also helps the company quantify savings associated with reducing meeting length and attendee numbers. For example, removing three meetings per employee each week reduces the total cost of meetings company-wide by 15%.
“We looked back in June, and the first five months of the year the time spent in meetings across the company was down 14%,” Nejatian says. “On Wednesdays, meeting time was down 26% per person.”
Nejatian adds that since its release in July many organizations—and even a few government institutions—have reached out to request a Meeting Cost Calculator of their own, and Shopify has given them the code base for free. “We’re happy to share it,” Nejatian says. “If what Shopify gives the world are more entrepreneurs and fewer meetings, we’ll all be very happy.”
Loading the player...
LEAP is changing the game in Saudi's digital transformation. Here's what to expect