A Peek at Stillwater’s Office-less Culture
May 6, 2020
by Megan Boutwell
In 1998, Dave Hackett started doing some consulting work out of his home office. For most of his career in transportation energy, Dave commuted from various homes in California, Connecticut, Virginia, and (again and finally) California to Mobil Oil offices in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Fairfax, back to Manhattan, and Long Beach. For his new venture, Dave leveraged the power of the internet to provide his wealth of expertise without having to sit on the 405 Freeway for two hours a day…every day. In the 22 years since then, Stillwater has grown to include 30 employees and associates all working from home offices across North America. We’re all pretty happy with our commutes.
When lock-downs due to COVID-19 began and many began working from home, we realized we were ahead of the curve and at an advantage. Our technology and communications infrastructure were already in place. There have been no interruptions to the regular work we do for our clients. We have this work-from-home thing down, but we recognize it can be a challenge, so we thought we’d let you in on some lessons we’ve learned over the years.
First, cloud computing has come a long way and is now the norm for most companies. In the early days we were using a hodgepodge of personal email and chatting via Yahoo! Instant Messenger. After a frustrating DNS attack that slowed our email and web traffic to a trickle, we realized we needed to invest in software with a little more muscle. We chose Microsoft Office 365 and have been using it to collaborate on projects for several years. Housing projects and documents in SharePoint makes life a lot easier. Because everything is in the cloud, we have a pretty strict rule for internal email – NO ATTACHMENTS. We encourage everyone to share document links rather than attaching the file to the email. This cuts way down on version control issues and also keeps our e-mail inbox sizes reasonable by eliminating unnecessary bulky attachments.
Our accounting is also in the cloud with QuickBooks Online. That way it can be shared with our accounting firm without having to pass attachments back and forth.
While most of Microsoft’s cloud computing software meets our needs, MS Teams never really took off. We did test it out for a while, but found we liked our other communications solutions better. We began using Slack about the time Yahoo! Instant Messenger stopped working on Apple products. Slack is Stillwater’s communication hub and virtual water cooler. Here you will find conversations in channels for each individual project and topics of interest where we work out analysis, offer encouragement, share jokes, memes, worries, and triumphs.
When it’s time for a call, we turn to GoToMeeting (GTM). We have tested other web conferencing tools over the years (including Zoom and MS Teams) but none had the reliability and functionality that we have come to rely on with GTM. One thing we don’t generally do on GTM is turn on the cameras. Camera use is a Zoom workplace trend that I resist whenever possible. For one, video bogs down the stream, and we found this to be a thorn in the side of our associates in more remote areas with slightly slower internet connections. It’s not that we don’t like seeing our co-workers; we’ve just found that it’s easy to get distracted by your own image. It’s also easier to manage kids, spouses, pets, a ringing doorbell, etc. if people can’t see you multi-tasking. So, cameras off, mute button on, unless it’s a virtual office happy hour (which we highly recommend), then we toss out all video restrictions.
While we continuously look for tools that will help support the work of our amazing employees and associates, at the end of the day, an office-less culture does not work without excellent communicators. We work hard to communicate our goals and analysis thoroughly via email, Slack, and during GTM meetings. When we find a break-down in communication we assess, fix, and if needed develop new strategies to ensure we catch it the next time. This process has made us really good at cutting through extraneous issues to get at the heart of a problem. The way we communicate internally is also reflected in the clear, concise, and expert analysis we deliver to our clients.
Contact us if you have questions about the tools and processes Stillwater uses to support our office-less culture. We see things others miss, and we might be able to make your work-from-home experience a little easier.