When the COVID-19 pandemic finally ends, it will likely be remembered as a time of great tragedy. But like any global crisis, it will also be remembered for the way it transformed society as people found ways to adapt, innovate, and build a new world.
For many companies, the outbreak has forced a rapid, unplanned adoption of remote work. For some, that has meant a radical change in the way they do business. But for others, like global freelancing giant Upwork, it has been just another step toward a remote-focused, more flexible workplace that they have long been building. As the pandemic has transformed the way companies operate, Upwork and its president and CEO, Hayden Brown, have a unique vantage point—both as a company that is undergoing major changes itself, and one that has built a business on bringing remote talent to a roster of 133,000 clients worldwide, and is used by many Fortune 500 firms.
Remote work has been a part of Upwork’s operations for its two-decade-plus history; at the beginning of this year, before the pandemic, more than half of its 600 employees and 1,400 freelancers were offsite. But COVID-19 surprised Upwork as much as much as it did any other company. In March—less than three months after Brown, formerly Upwork’s chief marketing and product officer, became president and CEO, Upwork went all-remote in order to protect its workers. Two months later, Brown announced that the company will become “remote-first” permanently; Upwork also shuttered one of its three offices. Many other companies have recently announced extended work-from-home programs, including Facebook, Uber and more.
In an interview with TIME, Brown spoke about how Upwork is navigating all of this change—and what lessons it can offer to other companies as they navigate our new work-from-home reality. As she explains, Upwork doubled down on remote work because it fits with the firm’s mission of connecting workers to opportunities, and also because it was already working well for the company’s own employees.
“People have reported less-nonessential meetings happening, and they feel like they’re more focused at home, where they don’t have a lot of the in-office distractions,” says Brown. “We kind of have this myth, sometimes, that the office is a really productive place, and in fact, a lot of people say the office isn’t always the most productive. There’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of people that come by my desk.”
While many companies formerly believed in getting “face time” from their employees in an office, an Upwork survey conducted in April found a majority of hiring managers believe their companies will be more remote in the future. In Brown’s opinion, the trend towards remote work is expanding companies’ hiring pools, both for full-time employees and freelancers. That could open up new opportunities for people who live far from urban centers, who have disabilities or caregiving responsibilities, or who simply don’t want a daily commute.
“I think what we’re seeing is this kind of second-order effect, where the remote work comfort leads to people reconsidering who can I work with, and the boundaries of that open up, and that really increases who can participate in the labor market,” says Brown.
Remote work is not without challenges, to be sure—some companies are already reconsidering their work-from-home plans, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing project delays and difficulty in hiring and training new employees. But to make it work, companies need to ensure remote workers don’t get overlooked. When there’s a big group of workers in a video meeting gathered in person, for example, it can be tough for remote employees to get “a word in edgewise,” Brown says. The more the environment favors in-office workers, Brown says, the more you need to make sure to give remote employees a boost. That could involve asking remote workers to speak first, for instance, or asking a person giving a presentation to go in a separate room by themselves, thus equalizing the experience for everyone.
Of course, working from home presents different challenges in terms of establishing work-life balance, further blurring the lines between workers’ two worlds. At Upwork, says Brown, the company has been working to help managers and others communicate about schedules, set boundaries, and clearly communicate when people are off the clock, such as by snoozing notifications on messaging or email.
“So much of it comes down to people feeling comfortable using those things, and feeling like the culture accepts and supports them taking those times out for their family, and knowing that they’re not going to be penalized, because they turned off their phone during dinner, and were not answering messages,” says Brown.
Both before and after the pandemic, Upwork has also found ways to build a collaborative environment that transcends any physical space. Shared Google Docs, a Slack channel where employees are invited to celebrate one another’s work, and a weekly video message from Brown have all helped in that regard, she says.
“It actually has been a wonderful moment for us as leaders and as employees to look at our companies and say, ‘what is our culture, really?’ Because it’s not the posters on the walls, and it’s not whether we have kombucha in the fridge. It’s really something much deeper about how we make decisions,” says Brown.