How Abzu adapted to Corona times

Small and large adjustments from a global artificial intelligence startup

March 2020 is a month we will never forget. The world changed quite quickly, and we were all stunned by the severity of the crisis as countries shut down and borders rapidly closed.

Here at Abzu, we are categorically aware that every state’s response is unique. We’re a European company at heart with offices in Barcelona and Copenhagen, and the situation in each country is quite different:

  • Spain was hit quickly and hard with the virus, and a mandate was put in place that required everyone to shelter at home. Our Barcelonian coworkers and friends can only leave their homes to buy medicine or necessary groceries. Schools and the public sector are closed.
  • Denmark has been mostly shut down since March 11th, but it has recently started a gradual reopening. At the time of writing, schools and kindergartens have partially reopened.

Abzu is an international company, famous for our self-organizing culture, and we already have an established culture of running “video windows” the entire workday to connect our two offices and anyone working remotely. We use Zoom a lot for daily check-ins and various pairings or meetings.

Abzoids at home on Zoom
Daily check-ins every morning at Abzu

In the “new normal,” we’ve democratized our “video window”: now we leave a Zoom room open all day, which has an average of eight Abzu faces at any time with various emotions (concentration, frustration, amusement, etc.), or sometimes empty chairs or couches as symbols of solidarity, or the occasional cat or kid vying for attention. Our mics are mostly muted, but it recreates the feeling of being around our colleagues. It’s a small change that has returned large, fuzzy dividends.

Abzoids working at home on Zoom
Human connection during a time of isolation.

But a significant change for us was our decision to alter the launch of our product which we had planned for full release in April 2020. Of course the decision was difficult — especially as plans had been underway for over two years — but it was abruptly apparent that we had to adjust more than just tech use in this “new normal”.

We’ve shifted our plans to an invite-only launch. It’s a little annoying, but we’ll change the face of artificial intelligence with a select group of users instead of the public. And although this wasn’t the big splash we have all been working towards, it has its benefits: white-glove onboarding service, more tailored feedback, and the opportunity to improve our digital communications.

Tom Jelen's desk
Some home offices are tidier than others.

It’s been a privilege to see how well all the Abzoids have adapted to this situation, with children running around them and up and down the walls, and a monumental shift in product strategy. It’s humbling, to say the least. But I am looking forward to our next in-person gathering. We all miss the hugs.

Whatever changes Coronavirus has forced you and your team to make in your culture and operations, don’t underestimate the toll it takes on your employees. Whether they’re still sheltering in place under heavy restrictions or gradually reopening — which has its own set of unique challenges — we’ve found that small and genuine tokens of appreciation and connection go a very long way.

VIctor's desk
When you’re making deadlines, sometimes you need coffee, soda, and beer.

A few tips and techniques that have done more than keep us sane:

  • Enable video for remote meetings. Not only are you better able to interpret emotions, but you have a “video window” into your colleagues’ lives (a sometimes humorous, but always intimate experience).
  • Keep the conference room open after meetings are done. Initially there’s a lot of chatter, but who wouldn’t benefit from a little human connection during this time of isolation.
  • Ask the speaker to pick the next speaker during “round robin” meetings or “around the table” feedback. It keeps everyone on their toes and incentivizes them to participate fully.
  • Mute when you’re not talking. ‘Nuff said.
  • Maintain as many of your routines as possible. (Easier said than done for our coworkers and friends who are still required to shelter in place.)
  • Schedule one-on-one meetups with colleagues virtually. Ask them how they’re holding up. Check on your extroverts. ;)
  • Set daily goals. And give yourself grace if you miss them.

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