Over the last two weeks, Atomic Object Co-CEOs Michael Marsiglia and Shawn Crowley have logged nearly twenty hours on a listening tour. During these sessions, they meet in small groups with every employee at the custom software consultancy about the future of flexible work at their three offices in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Chicago. One surprising theme has come up across many listening tour sessions: dogs.
“It’s been brought up more than we expected,” says Marsiglia. “After last year, more of our team members have dogs, and their dogs are used to having them at home. It’s a real concern for people. That’s what these listening tours are for: discussing what’s working, what’s not, and getting feedback for the future.”
Of course, it’s not just about the dogs — it’s much more than that. Team members have expressed their thoughts on everything from familial anxiety as Covid bubbles start to break apart, to their love-hate relationships with the daily commute. Conducted in person, the listening sessions are held with small, diverse groups of employees, which has given team members the chance to hear about their colleagues’ lived experiences through the pandemic.
“Common themes have surfaced, but people did have different experiences,” says Marsiglia. “It’s been good for the team to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages their colleagues have experienced. I believe it has helped create shared empathy for each other.”
But if there’s one sentiment all leaders can relate to right now, it’s that things are constantly changing. Just a few months ago, Crowley and Marsiglia had drawn a clear line in the sand: despite the wave of tech companies shifting to a remote-first model, Atomic Object wouldn’t be one of them. Crowley and Marsiglia believe that, as the world shifts back to safely working in the ways they know to be effective, technology consultancies that have formally shifted to all-remote work will be at a competitive disadvantage.
Atomic Object focuses on the early phases of software product design and development, and they believe that collaborative design and engineering will always benefit from being done in person. The nature of product innovation is driven by collaboration, and Crowley believes that a future model of flexibility should be designed around keeping co-location intact.
“We’ve been in business for twenty years and have a goal to be a 100-year-old company,” says Crowley. “Thinking in that timescale, eighteen months of remote work due to the pandemic doesn’t change the nature of cross-disciplined, collaborative, and creative work. Digital tools have reduced friction in doing this type of work remotely, but in-person is still the ideal work modality.”
Marsiglia agrees. “Ultimately, we decided co-location is more effective and efficient. It’s also more of a differentiator than offering all-remote. Purpose is vital to our success, as is creating a sense of place and togetherness. In order to position Atomic competitively for the future, we must favor culture over short-term cost savings.”
Crowley and Marsiglia went to work on a comprehensive plan that offered the team a high level trajectory of ‘Crawl/Walk/Run’ phases, long-term milestones, details for each phase, and commonly asked questions around behaviors and compliance with state guidelines — along with the caveat of Covid-19 and the unpredictability of the virus. Atomic’s plans to return to the office are already in motion across its three offices, moving into its “walk” phase that brings more people into the office for collaboration and coworking as needed.
Although they prioritize co-location, Atomic Object has always had a historically flexible work model. Employees can work remotely when necessary, whether it’s for a doctor appointment or a more disruptive life event, like a sick relative. They certainly never called it a hybrid work model, but the pandemic has fast-tracked the need for open conversations around work modalities.
The more Crowley and Marsiglia talked to the team about their intention to slowly phase everyone back into the office full-time — with plans to discuss a more flexible, hybrid approach in 2022 — it became clear that those conversations needed to happen sooner.
“We’ve all endured enough uncertainty,” says Marsiglia. “As we reestablished our co-located model in our offices, people started to wonder about the future of flexibility at Atomic. That’s why we started conducting listening tours to understand where they’re at and gather feedback. The desire for flexibility and the challenges of remote work is something we’ve consistently heard from our team — it’s an evolutionary process.”
Slowly but surely, Atomic’s offices are returning to the vibrancy of pre-pandemic days. As they move forward with a future model for flexible work, Crowley and Marsiglia are committed to being flexible themselves. They are putting together a loose model for the team to react to, built on and formalizing Atomic’s historical flexibility. They are also adding in dials for enhanced flexibility, such as recurring remote days or even remote weeks, and a core set of working hours for teams.
“When you consider flexibility, you can think both about the time the work is done and the place,” says Marsiglia. “The dials help to create flexibility across both axes, while trying to balance the very real value of collaboration that is optimal in a synchronous, shared space.”
As they move forward with the plan and ask team members to opt in, Crowley is encouraging everyone to to consider the balance between individualism and collectivism.
“Will you give up some aspects of flexibility for the greater good?” says Crowley. “For instance, our ‘core hours’ dial can help strike a balance. One of our senior developers shared that he likes remote work because he can start dinner at 5 o’clock. I appreciate that on so many levels. I also asked him to consider the people on his team and what they can get from him when he’s physically present. We have people with varying degrees of career experience on our team — what would that mean to our more junior team members?”
As their plans continue to evolve, Crowley and Marsiglia are taking it in stride. The return to work plan they presented to the team earlier this year has changed, and their latest approach may very well change, too — all because they’ve chosen to listen to their employees before embarking on a plan.
Guided by Atomic’s core purpose, values, and most of all, their people, Crowley and Marsiglia are working together with the team to reflect on a few key questions: What’s best for the organization? What’s best for their projects and clients? What’s best for the communities they work in? And, not to be overlooked, what’s best for all of their dogs?
“Honestly, I don’t know where we’ll land,” says Marsiglia. “But we’re here to make all boats rise. We believe we do that best together. We should all be getting more than just transactional takeaways like pay from our work — we should be gaining knowledge, skills, and a sense of belonging.”