2021 Resolution: Strengthen Remote Work Culture in North County

Best practices from two local companies

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and economic uncertainty mounted, A.J. van de Ven, CEO of Carlsbad-based Calsense, prepared his team for the worst.

What happened next blew him away. A massive percentage of Calsense employees volunteered to take unpaid time as a way to offset cash. They took their own financial hit to not only support the company, but also colleagues who couldn’t afford to take time off.

“It says a lot about the culture we had before COVID-19,” said van de Ven. “The thought of losing that terrified me.”

He felt this ability to adapt and pivot to any situation made Calsense successful in maintaining company culture amid the pandemic. Before the office closure, teams were in close quarters – working side-by-side in 8,000 square feet, until March 13 when all, but manufacturing, were sent home for a “couple months.”

“The first, most successful thing we did was engage employees in the process by asking how they needed us to communicate with them remotely,” van de Ven said, adding that they found employees needed transparency, human connection, and support.

Calsense – which specializes in smart irrigation controllers, water/labor saving accessories and advanced water management – moved quickly by leveraging tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. The company encouraged Facetime calls between staff; added virtual bi-weekly all-hands meetings with questions curated ahead of time; and launched a weekly themed happy hour, which they call a “quarantini.” Team members also meet regularly for virtual yoga and meditation.

Calsense President & CEO A.J. van de Ven. Courtesy photo.
Calsense President & CEO A.J. van de Ven. Courtesy photo. 

Continuing to adapt, Calsense even changed its annual five-day, in person meeting to a series of truncated Zoom sessions, chock-full of virtual games, catered meal delivery, and an esteemed guest speaker, Mark Manson, author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.”

Van de Ven likes to share advice with leaders from a book he picked up 14 years ago called “Smart & Gets Things Done” by Joel Spolsky. “Make sure you give employees everything they need to be successful and that’s not just a laptop,” he said.

Calsense outfitted the team with high-quality ergonomic office chairs that employees took home, along with anything else they needed to be as productive virtually. It’s no surprise that Calsense has been successful retaining and hiring people.

“Our culture is not just about connection. It’s also about making employees feel valued,” van de Ven said. Feeling valued is what instantly connected van de Ven to Innovate78, particularly important during a pandemic.

“Innovate78 helps businesses, their leaders, and their teams throughout this region be better, stronger, and more resilient,” he said.

Reimagining the future of work

The NewRocket team at its most recent lunch and learn. Courtesy photo.
The NewRocket team at its most recent lunch and learn. Courtesy photo. 

Nathan Firth, President of Vista-based NewRocket, purchased an office building in January 2020, got the keys in February…and you know what happened in March. Yet, going remote wasn’t a sweeping change for the five-year-old software and design company, as employees had already been working from home twice a week.

“I don’t think leaders should look at remote working as a temporary Band-Aid while the world calms down. This is the way things are going to be from here on out,” Firth said.

He feels like remote work is something that needs to be embraced. Firth encourages leaders to make the necessary investments, especially in technology, so employees can flourish and succeed anywhere in the world.

For example, an employee asked Firth if he could join a group called “Hacker Paradise” and travel abroad while still working for NewRocket. After the all-clear, the employee spent nine months working from Italy, Spain, Asia, finally landing in South Africa – joining their morning meetings at 2 a.m. Another employee temporarily moved to Brazil to be with family.

“Remote is remote. What is the difference between working in Oceanside or Brazil when we’re so interconnected?,” Firth said.  

NewRocket Founder and President Nathan Firth. Courtesy photo.

The company uses cloud-based platforms like Slack and G-suite to communicate in real-time; holds daily morning huddles; plays quarterly Zoom competitions like scavenger hunts and “Fibbage”; and hosts weekly lunch and learns and a book club to keep employees engaged and excited. 

Further, Firth still keeps their new office accessible to the whole team, in case employees need a place to get away. “Most software companies padlock the office door and it’s not there if you need it. We’ve left it open as a resource when people need to collaborate while still distancing,” he said.

Given the company’s spike in business in 2020, NewRocket brought on many new staff, and has plans to double in size this year.

Firth said Innovate78 helps set NewRocket up for success through networking opportunities, company promotion, and economic research. 

“For such a small startup based out of Vista, it’s been incredible having the opportunity to work with some of the largest brands from around the world,” he said. 

NewRocket is one of hundreds of startups and small businesses that call the 78 Corridor home. 

“North County has remained resilient in a time of economic crisis,” said Bree Burris of San Diego Regional EDC. “The creativity and innovation demonstrated by our local businesses and governments has helped set us on a path to economic recovery.”

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