FLEX Episode 2 Looking Ahead: What 2021 Holds for the Future of Flexible Work
In this episode of FLEX, we talk with Brian Day, the CEO of Fuze, about his workforce predictions for 2021. He discusses going back to the office, the hybrid work model, and shares thoughts around what unified communications will look like over the next year and beyond.
Alex Campanelli (host): Welcome to Flex, a podcast by Fuze. As a leader in the cloud communication space, we've been passionate about the future of work for over a decade. Join us as we discuss the future of flexible work with industry leaders and subject matter experts. Thanks for tuning in, and let's get started.
Alex Campanelli: Today, I have a very special guest with us, Fuze's CEO, Brian Day. Brian, thanks for joining me on the second episode of our new podcast. I'm excited for today's chat.
Brian Day: Thanks, Alex. I'm glad to be here.
Alex Campanelli: Let's just start things off. Obviously, when we look back on this past year, everything changed for us in early March. I think that Fuze went home from the office on March 9th or somewhere around there. How have you and your family been faring during this quarantine?
Brian Day: Well, first of all, thanks for asking that, because it feels like all anybody talks about the last eight months is how your business is doing during the work from home, as opposed to “how's your family doing”. So that's a really nice question for you to ask there. The answer is, we've been doing quite well. Like a lot of families with kids in their early 20s, my kids came ricocheting home back in March. We have a small place in Boston, and after about six hours in our place in Boston, we realized that wasn't going to work. So we came down to a house down in Cape Cod, and I've been here ever since. It's been nice. My kids stuck around for about a month and a half, two months, and then they figured that they didn't want to be with their parents anymore, so they took off back to New York City and Washington DC, respectively. But we've managed to get through it as well as can be expected. I think it's been a lot easier for my wife and I than for parents of young children. I really feel for them because we have young adults, so they're self-sufficient. If you have young children at home, I think it's tough, and I really feel for those people.
Alex Campanelli: Yeah, absolutely. Looking back on how things changed for us, not only personally, but as a company this year, I would say the transition to remote work was probably one of the easiest parts for me, personally. I know that sentiment was echoed in our first episode, just because we use Fuze every day at our company. What has the transition been like for you and the executive team as you've transitioned to all virtual work?
Brian Day: Well, I think Fuze has an advantage in that we were users of our own technology. We were eating our own dog food, so to speak, for years up until this time. So we have a lot of remote people anyway, as you know, Alex, and even prior to this work-from-home environment, we had at least two, three, four people per week dialing into the executive leadership team meetings every Monday. When we went to 100% remote, it really wasn't all that big a difference. I think probably the biggest difference has been not having, and I've said this before to people, not having the casual interactions with employees. Video's great, audio's great, but there's just no substitute for in-person, face-to-face. The one thing that I know I miss, and I know the rest of the executive team echoes the same sentiment, is walking over to get a cup of coffee or getting a glass of water or grabbing a snack, and you never know who you're going to run into and you just have your casual conversation about absolutely nothing. And there's really no forum to do that. For a while, what I was trying to do, and I applaud myself for the effort, but it didn't work very well, is I would choose five people per day and just call them randomly just to have a chat. But nobody wanted to talk to me. They all kept saying, "Well, why is the CEO calling? Am I in trouble? What's happening?"
Alex Campanelli Am I in trouble, yeah.
Brian Day: After about a week I gave up, and I'm like, you know what, shame on me. It was a good idea, but you can't force casual conversation. So I chalked that one up to good intentions, but I wasn't able to execute on that one. So I'm not sure how you solve that. We've tried a few different things at Fuze, but at the end of the day, there is no more walking around the office just chatting with people. I was in the office in Boston on Monday, all by myself of course. And I walked around both floors just to see if anybody was around, just hoping that maybe I'd run into somebody, but alas, nobody was there. But you do miss just walking around, just chatting with people.
Alex Campanelli: Yeah. And I'll tell you what I really miss is the snack wall that we had in HQ.
Brian Day: Yeah. I've got news for you, it's gone. Alex Campanelli: Rest in peace to the snack wall.
Brian Day: Yeah, exactly.
Alex Campanelli But I agree with you. And that leads me to my next question really nicely, which is, how do you build a company culture when everyone is full-time remote? Because I think those small interactions that you have in the kitchen or in passing or going to get lunch, that really helps build rapport in person, and it helps build a stronger company culture I think in some ways. And so that transition has to be made. So how has Fuze, how have we been doing that as a company? And then what is your advice to other companies to form that remote culture?
Brian Day: Well, Alex, I think we've done a pretty good job at Fuze of that. And we've had a lot of people, especially on the HR side, just say, "Look, we've got to work extra hard to do this. Having people 100% remote is going to be harder than we thought, so we've got to work even harder to make it as seamless as possible." And even then it's certainly not seamless, but we came out with some programs early on. Ask Me Anything meetings I think were a great idea that as a company we came up with. And for a while, we were having two per week. We'd have random hosts and random subjects. And over the course of five or six months, I think we went through all the ideas where we could come up with. And I think probably the next phase of it, it's going to be, you'll probably have Ask Me Anythings with no subjects. And essentially it's set up a meeting, and anybody can join, and you can talk about anything you want to talk about. So it's probably the closest thing to saying, "Hey, I'm going to go over and grab a water. Anybody who wants to meet me and just have a chat, let's do it." And I think that those have been pretty well received. We had a real fun one a couple of weeks ago hosted by two people that have been with Fuze since day one. And they had some photos of the old days. These guys were employees like number one and two, or two and three or something like that. So that was fun. And as the seasons change, we'll probably have other subjects to talk about, like is anybody going to try going skiing this year, and how's that going to work? I talked about doing some fishing. You just have to get away from just talking about work all the time. Just because you're talking to people with whom you work doesn't mean you just need to talk about work, right. There are other things you can be talking about. We've also developed some programs, things like Fuze Connects. Here's something I've seen on my calendar. I haven't participated yet, but I'm dying to. Every Thursday morning there's a yoga class, and I probably haven't done it because I don't want to embarrass myself, but maybe I just need to get beyond that. So there are things like that. There was a product meeting we had last week with analysts, and there was an Octoberfest beer tasting event at the end of it. That was kind of fun. So we've done as many things like that as you can do. But you have to admit it still has a bit of temporary, "We're just kind of getting through this" feel. And then people like to say, "Well, this is the new normal." I hope it's not really the new normal. I hope there's a little more back to the office than what we're going through right now. Because it still feels a little bit forced. And we're doing the best we can.
Alex Campanelli: Do you have any advice for other execs who are looking to maybe continue long term this remote company culture, and how they can continue to build that? Is it just building out the calendar like we've done at Fuze?
Brian Day: I think that's the best thing you can do, yeah, it's building out the calendar, and do as many casual things as you can. Try to surprise people with pleasant surprises when you can. Although again, there are only so many ideas you can come up with there. And I'm not the world's most creative person, so I'm sure there are other ideas I haven't thought of yet. One of the things I came up with last month, and we never really got it done, was I'm like, "Okay, can we have a virtual Octoberfest?" But we looked at the logistics, and getting a bottle of beer shipped to 560 employees around the world proved to be a lot harder than I had hoped. We'll do something around the holidays. It won't be quite the same having an in-person holiday party, but we'll do the best we can.
Alex Campanelli: Yeah. And I have to give hats off to our awesome HR team as well, because they've worked really hard at building out that calendar, especially our Fuze Connect program.
Brian Day: They've been great. I agree. Every week I look and there are tons of events on there. There's a photography class, for instance. There's a coffee hour with the office in Portugal. They've done a really good job with those kinds of things.
Alex Campanelli: Yeah. So you mentioned earlier, just a few minutes ago, you hope that this isn't the normal, that we will get back to some semblance of in-person work. And I think a lot of us have heard already the predictions for 2021. That's going to look like a hybrid work model, so sometimes in the office, sometimes working from home. How do you think work is going to change next year? I'm curious to get your thoughts. Do you think that Fuze will adapt a hybrid work model? Do you think that will become the norm?
Brian Day: I do think that will become the norm. And I know I'm not alone, I'm definitely in the majority on that one at this point in time. I don't think anybody envisions a scenario where, heck, even if there's a vaccine that comes out and it's a foolproof vaccine, which you know it won't be, I don't think anybody envisions a scenario where 100% of the people come back into the office, like it was prior to March of this year. Although interestingly enough, we've got a lot of customers and partners that we speak with, and some parts of the country, and even some parts of the world have reopened. I was on a call the other day and there were four people in a conference room on the West Coast of the US, which almost seemed a little odd to see. I was a little concerned they didn't have masks on. It was a bit of a surprise to see that. Our office, as you may know, in Australia is open, and people are going back into the office in Australia. If you fast forward to sometime in 2021 when our office in Boston reopens, I think hybrid is going to be the way it's going to be. I don't envision the population being what it was prior to March. Maybe it'll be half staff, maybe 60%, something like that, on any given day, once we get through the whole machinations of the reopening. I think we're also at a bit of a disadvantage because we're in an office tower with other tenants as well, and there are elevator issues you've got to deal with. When I was in there Monday, they've already got signs up, "Limit of three people per elevator." And as you probably remember, Alex, it wasn't exactly easy to get to our office pre-COVID.
Alex Campanelli: Even when you would pack the elevators, exactly.
Brian Day: Exactly. So there are a lot of logistics that need to be thought through there. Which is why I think that best case, there will be a bit of a hybrid environment going forward.
Alex Campanelli: Yeah. And when we think about next year as well, how do you see UCaaS, products like Fuze, how do you see that market evolving?
Brian Day: I think it's a huge opportunity for UCaaS, for a bunch of reasons. One of the things that we saw right off the bat was, and we talked at length about this so I won't belabor this point, but we obviously had a lot of customers that ramped up their services really fast. And that was great. Now, going forward, what we've seen is that I think CEOs are saying, "Okay, I can't afford to be in a situation where my employee communications are cut off again." So if I was thinking of transitioning from my on-prem PBX in 2022 or 2023, I'm probably thinking about doing that in late 2020 or 2021 now. So, the end result is we've seen a lot of activity in the sales pipeline because of that. I also think that there are other opportunities people haven't really thought about yet. Obviously I talk to a lot of the CIOs that are customers, and they're talking about the same kind of thing that I'm talking about, how do you really set your office up to be successful in a hybrid environment? Even prior to COVID, we all knew how miserable an experience it was dialing into a conference room. If you'd attend a meeting that was in a conference room, when there were six people in that room and you were one of two people that were coming in remotely, it was a miserable experience. Generally, you can't tell who's speaking, if someone's talking quietly you can't hear them, there's background noise, you can't really see very well. So I think there's going to have to be some real investment in conference room technology in order to make it more palatable than it has been in the past. Because let's face it, even when the office reopens, the meetings that took place back in March, you're going to have more people attending remotely than you used to have. And if that experience is as poor as it always has been, it's not going to work. So that's a problem that needs to be solved. And there's an opportunity there.
Alex Campanelli: I agree. Brian, what flexible work trends do you think we'll also see come to the forefront in 2021?
Brian Day: I think a big one is going to be flexible scheduling. And we've got a real interesting cross section of people that work for Fuze. We've got old people like me, and I'll put myself in the old category, and we have young people like you, Alex. And we probably have some Gen Zs at this point. If we don't, we will very soon. And it's interesting to me to see how the Gen Zs operate differently than we do. And I have one. My son is just graduating from college next month and he's got his first job. He's all excited. But he's a different character. And my daughter, she's a Gen Y and she couldn't be any different. So, my son is a classic Gen Z. He's a computer science major, so he's got a job as a software developer. And you want to talk about flexible work, the way he describes the job he's going to be starting, "Here's the work that needs to be done. You can work whatever hours, whatever days you want to work, you just need to get the work done, and you need to put in a set number of hours." So I think flexibility in certain positions is going to be the norm. And I think it's been that way for a while, but I think the situation we're involved in right now has just really exacerbated that whole thing. And flexibility is going to be the name of the game going forward.
Alex Campanelli: I would agree 100%. We've seen this previously in the software industry particularly, but I think that companies will continue to adapt to more flexible schedules for their employees. Hence why we're talking about flexible work.
Brian Day: Exactly. But with that, as we've also talked about, comes some problems. The work-life balance thing is a real issue. And unfortunately, people seem to be erring on the side of work and not on the side of life. And I put myself in that category. It's so easy to just, you work all the time and you don't unplug. And really, we all need to make an effort to say, "Look, I'm going to unplug, and take seven hours away from my phone." No, it's a problem. And we haven't come up with a way to solve that problem yet.
Alex Campanelli: I think with remote work comes that difficulty setting boundaries. And I just echo everything you're saying. I think I have a hard time stepping away from my laptop at the end of the day. I'll look up and it's like seven o'clock and I'll say, "All right, got to put this away."
Brian Day: Yeah. I'll tell you, last night I sat down, and I got tired of watching the election news, because there really was no news. So I turned on a football game, but my wife said, "Well, what are you doing, you've got your laptop open." I'm like, "Yeah, I'm just catching up on some email." And she's like, "Okay, well, it's 9:30. And you've been working since seven o'clock this morning. You couldn't have caught up with your email during the day today?" I'm like, "No, I work during the day, and at night I catch up with my email." And it's sad. but it's the way things have become. And I know I need to do a better job of managing the work-life balance, which tells me I'm sure there are a lot of other people out there in the same position as I am.
Alex Campanelli: So, just shifting gears a little bit, I know in our internal meetings you've talked a lot about the need to focus. Regardless of industry, I want to leave this as a last question with our listeners. What do you think that enterprise leaders need to focus on in 2021? What are the critical areas?
Brian Day: Well, when I say we as a company need to focus, I think what I really mean there, is that companies can't be all things to all people. And you've got to pick your spots. You get to choose your spots. I remain convinced that best of breed is going to win the day, and a general solution for anything, it may be okay for a while, but in the long run it's not good enough. So for instance, a product that's designed to really perform well in a financial institution setting probably isn't the same product that's going to be just as strong in a healthcare setting. So, what we need to do as a company, and we've been talking about this a lot with our product people is, look, we've got to pick our spots. There are certain industries that we really do well, and there are certain industries we probably don't do as well in. And when we invest in new ideas and new thoughts and new products and new concepts, we need to keep in mind, okay, what's the target audience for that? And let's make sure we're not trying to be all things to all people. Because at the end of the day, you just can't do that. There are very few examples of companies that have been successful by just satisfying the masses. And granted, if you can do it, you're hugely successful, but it's really hard to pull off, and it comes with a lot of risk. There are a lot more examples of companies that have done a great job just focusing on what it is they do really well, not getting distracted. Because there are always distractions out there, right? There's always a shiny new object that looks a little shinier than what you've got. And we've all in the past, I know I've been guilty of it, you run for that shiny new object, you get there and you look at it, it's like, it's not so shiny after all. In the meantime, not only have I not done what I needed to do, but the opportunity may have passed me by, on what I'm focusing on. So I think we just as a company need to remain steadfast in the focus we've got on what it is that we're doing. I think that same rule applies to most businesses. And I think if you look at most successful companies, they've followed the same line of thinking.
Alex Campanelli: I like that, really focus on not being all things to all people. All right, well, I think that's all the time we have for today's chat, Brian. I want to thank you for joining me.
Brian Day: This has been great, Alex. Thanks for having me.
Alex Campanelli: Thanks everyone for listening. We'll talk to you next time.
Alex Campanelli: Thanks again for listening to Flex, a podcast by Fuze. Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, and rate and review us.
For more information, visit Fuze.com, and follow us on social media @Fuze. See you next time.