We’ve partnered with our friends at Interaction to put together a short series on what the future of workplaces and spaces might look like for leading businesses, by asking those businesses themselves.
For the second feature of the series, Interaction spoke to the founder of Mayden, Chris May, in between lockdowns to see what the future holds. Bath-based Mayden is a thriving company that designs, builds and supports software-driven systems for healthcare services. They’ve always had a strong focus on mental health, something that has been thrown into even more vivid focus during the pandemic.
You’ve got a large and unique workplace in the form of the Old Dairy. How do you see the idea of a “workplace” evolving when things return to a more normal state of affairs?
Just before the pandemic hit, we had planned to extend this building – we were running close to capacity. But now what’s becoming clear is that many of the staff enjoy working at home. We’ve kept productivity up and we’re using Hangouts which we’re all used to anyway, so we hit the ground running when lockdown hit.
We didn’t have to pause and regroup because we have an agile way of working that allows for that to happen. It’s built into our business continuity plan So we literally went home at five o’clock on a Monday night and Tuesday morning, 9:00 a.m. were in full flight remotely. We’ve always encouraged home working at least one day a week, and I think the signs are that people are getting stuff done and they’ve generally settled into it.
However, one of the things I’d love to explore, because it’s not fully apparent yet, is what we’re missing by not being in the office.
I think creativity and innovation are harder; getting people together to generate and share ideas and thoughts and those little informal chats. People get energized in each other’s company. I’m an introvert, but two thirds of the population are extroverts, and extroverts need other people around, because that’s where they get their energy from. Therefore, the extroverts among us probably aren’t getting the energy that they need.
When we did briefly come back into the office after six months, I saw elation on people’s faces – they’d almost forgotten what it was like to be with their colleagues.
Also, we’ve continued to recruit during lockdown and we now employ a dozen people who we’ve never met, and who haven’t ever met us. That just doesn’t feel right. It’s early days but I think in the future we’ll continue to be working out of this office, but hot desking. We may insist that everybody comes in at 1 or 2 times a week, but allowing more flexibility would mean we can double the number of staff in the same building.
So how are you tackling challenges to your workplace culture in this time?
Well, we have a virtual pub, the Mayden Arms, where you can just go into lots of different rooms, and our virtual kitchen, where people can hangout during the day. We also have Good Morning Mayden, which is a short morning Hangout. It’s ten minutes long for anyone who wants to say hi to anybody they might not normally talk to.
The teams communicate all day, every day, but it’s very possible not to encounter someone from another team, so we’ve made these more informal things which no one is forced to go to.
How much longevity do you see those having?
Well, we found that they were really popular initially, but personally I was getting so tired being on hangouts all day; they can be exhausting. I would often end the day with a headache! So we’ve dialled them back a bit, naturally.
I’m trying to be ruthless about what meetings I go to now. Initially, I felt the need to go on lots of hangouts to hold everything together and be seen to be visible, but now I’m backing out more to get things done. I do wonder where we would have been if this had happened ten years ago, before we had video and tech infrastructures – presumably just using carrier pigeons.
One thing that we are thinking about a lot is how people knowledge share in these situations; how do more junior members of staff pick up mentorship and knowledge when not in a shared workspace?
We’ve always run an agile ethos and we’ve got an incredible central system, Orbit, as well as a huge and vibrant Slack community, which is great for knowledge sharing and advice. We have Slack channels for absolutely everything and people subscribe to the channels they want to engage in. There is a huge communication infrastructure here, which facilitates learning and growth.
And in terms of employee mental health and wellness?
Well obviously, that’s an issue that sits right at the core of who we are as a business. We’ve signed up to the various charters, our staff have access to helplines, and we have trained Mental Health First Aiders, but I think the biggest thing is team culture. Nobody gets lost because if somebody doesn’t turn up online one day, questions are immediately asked, and we check in. Where allowed, we opened the office for people who feel really isolated and need to just come in for their sanity.
Our structure means all our staff have access to a coach, so they can go to their coach and find help with any issues. A few years ago, we took all the managers out of the organization and switched to coaches; as an organisation we’re known for innovative ways of working: we’ve currently got four universities studying us!
A lot of coaching sessions are face to face and outside walking. So people meet up somewhere and they go for a nice walk and talk things through, hopefully leaving both in a better place, combining exercise, fresh air and much needed conversation all in one.
Is there any difference between what an employer needs from their workforce now and what the employee needs?
The big issue with all this homeworking is trust, but we’ve not had a problem with that – the whole way we work relies on trust. It’s self-correcting because of the peer pressure element of agile working.
It sounds like for you there are opportunities that have come out of the restraints and the need to think about how you behave and how you do your business. Is there anything interesting that’s come from that?
On every floor we have a clean, tidy office with plenty of desks. I love it like that. Before the pandemic, even the day before, all those desks were full of toys and plastic gizmos and dirty cups. I can’t deny I like it tidy!
However, there’s research to show that when they created clean office spaces, people weren’t as productive because it was a bit sterile. Making it a bit homely increased productivity, being most productive when the staff could create their own desk environment. I’m interested to see how we can balance this with the need for hot desking and clear spaces: an interesting design challenge!
And to my first point, I’m still trying to work out what we’re we are missing by not being in the office. I think creativity is the biggest thing. I’ve had more exciting conversations with people when we’re in the office. People come alive when they meet face to face compared with being on a hangout.
And of course face to face meetings normally involve chocolate. Mustn’t forget that!