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Innovation Economy

These companies make working from home almost fun

Even before workplaces were shuttered during the pandemic, HubSpot had taken steps to make working from home easier for its employees.
Even before workplaces were shuttered during the pandemic, HubSpot had taken steps to make working from home easier for its employees.

Well before most companies were tossed involuntarily into the world of remote teamwork — that is, March — a Cambridge software company had been giving it a lot of thought. So much thought that at the start of last year, it created a job called “remote work and inclusion manager” and put Meaghan Williams in it.

The goal was to make sure the company, HubSpot, could effectively hire people outside of cities like Cambridge, Dublin, and Tokyo — where it has offices ― and keep them happy and productive. Before the coronavirus pandemic, that remote-worker population had grown to about 300 of HubSpot’s 3,300 employees, Williams says — about half of whom had once worked in a HubSpot office but moved somewhere else, and about half of whom had always been based at home.

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So what has HubSpot learned about making work-from-home actually work?

Let’s start with the most surprising thing: With the entire company working remotely, HubSpot realized it needed to offer online entertainment and educational activities for employees’ children, via videoconferencing. “We have programming for kids ages zero to four, and four to eight,” Williams says. “There are singalongs, art classes, tons of different programming,” taught by a mix of outside contractors and company volunteers.

Executives, including HubSpot’s chief financial officer, are doing weekly “ask me anything” sessions via video. Employees submit questions, and they’re answered live. “There are a lot of unknowns in this kind of environment,” Williams says, “so they’re trying to go above and beyond to make sure employees have access to them.”

In the pre-COVID era, the company, which makes marketing and sales software, had run online yoga and meditation classes and even encouraged employees to run a “remote 5K,” logging five kilometers in their own city and sharing their times.

When a new chief customer officer joined the company last year, “traditionally that level of executive goes to visit all the offices,” Williams says. “But you can’t visit everyone’s house in our remote community, so we ran a remote office visit. Some people toured us around their remote office, and talked about their remote working experience.”

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HubSpot also developed guidelines for interviewing and hiring people without ever meeting them face-to-face, and created a short document for job candidates to familiiarize them with Zoom’s videoconferencing software before the interview, which includes a link to a “practice room” on the Zoom website.

On the messaging system Slack, there is a lighthearted question of the day that anyone can answer, and individual departments at HubSpot have been developing traditions like “family photo Friday,” when family pics — including kids, pets, and even house plants — are shared. On the last Friday in March, there was a virtual happy hour, featuring a short concert by HubSpot employee Ryan Pinette, who has performed at Boston-area venues like the Middle East and the Lizard Lounge. About 175 employees logged in to listen.

Other companies have shifted more abruptly than HubSpot into creating a work-from-home culture. But they’re testing out new software and introducing new practices to try to keep the communication happening and the camaraderie alive.

The car-shopping website CarGurus typically has colleagues teach classes for one another at its East Cambridge headquarters; those now happen via video and include topics like “Cooking at Home” and “Building Resiliency.”

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Novartis’s Cambridge research facility, the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, has long offered access to the online learning site Coursera to its employees. But the company has expanded its contract with Coursera so that employees can share access with family members — like a child who is out of school. The company also offers employees access to an app called Tignum X, which focuses on improving workplace performance, wellness, and work-life balance.

Devin Nash, marketing manager at the Boston venture capital firm Underscore, says that her colleagues use meeting software called RemoteHQ, which blends screen-sharing, note-taking capabilities, and live video, as well as Clockwise, an add-on to Google’s Chrome browser that helps “free up time to do heads-down work” amidst the day’s many videoconferences.

Underscore also uses an app that works with the Slack messaging system, which allows employees to give one another “virtual tacos” as a way of saying thanks. There is a “taco leaderboard” that shows who has received the most tacos. There are plans, Nash explains, for an eventual office taco party to celebrate the person with the biggest taco count, after the outbreak.

At Amica Insurance, headquartered in Lincoln, R.I., a group of employees who own Peloton exercise bikes link up and participate in online rides at the same time. Recently, an Amica vice president offered to donate $2 per mile to the 401Gives fund-raising campaign.

Momenta Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge biotech developing drugs for immune system disorders, has formed online “journal clubs” to discuss new research related to diseases the company is working to address, according to Patty Eisenhaur, vice president of investor relations. The company’s scientists also get together for a weekly virtual conclave that goes over newly published research related to COVID-19, to better understand how the virus may affect patients participating in Momenta’s clinical trials.

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At Synlogic Therapeutics, a publicly held Cambridge biotech, “we like food, and we tend to be competitive, so we started a bake-off competition,” explains CEO Aoife Brennan in an e-mail. Employees received a pancake-making kit at their homes and were encouraged to post pictures of the breakfasts they made. “We had pancakes in all flavors and shapes — from ‘Star Wars’ ships to coronaviruses,” Brennan says, “although the latter may have resulted in loss of appetite for many on the team.”


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner