Why we’re now working remotely, and how we’ll make it work

by Rakuten Kobo’s CEO, Michael Tamblyn

At Rakuten Kobo, we’ve been watching the unfolding of the COVID-19 story over the last few weeks. All of our discussions have been about how to keep our employees and their families as safe and healthy as possible as this situation develops. More than fulfilling our mission of making reading lives better, more than making our numbers or building great things, that’s the main objective right now. So, I’m making what I think is the best call for right now, based on what we know today.

After a successful practice run on Tuesday, starting next week and continuing until at least March 29th we’re implementing a universal remote work period: our offices in Toronto, Dublin, Taipei and Darmstadt are all included. We aren’t going to lock the doors — if anybody forgets something or needs to do something, they can still get in and out of the offices, but we’ll be keeping numbers in each building low just to be on the safe side

We’ve all got our instructions about what to do if we’re experiencing symptoms or otherwise come in contact with COVID-19, along with the best practices to avoid infection (Wash. Your. Hands.) Those are all still in effect, as are all other normal health and safety protocols.

This is how I’m thinking about the decision to go remote:

  1. I’d like us to be running smoothly as a fully virtual office before something happens that forces us to do so. It is much easier to fix things that aren’t working and deal with any technology issues or logistics problems if we aren’t trying to do it under pressure.
  2. I don’t want work to become a risky place to be. Right now, we are asking people to make two commutes, often on public transit, each day, plus time in the office with everyone else. Today that’s fine and low-risk based on the best data we have. But our experience in Italy tells us how quickly that can change. I don’t want people affected because we were slow to react.
  3. “Social distancing”, i.e. not clumping together in big groups of people, is (after hand washing!!) one of the best things that can be done to slow down the spread of COVID-19 if it shows up in a city. This keeps Kobo from being a place that could put staff and families at risk. I love seeing everybody every day, but I’ll find other ways to do that.
  4. For our office in Canada, spring break vacations are starting. That means that many people in Toronto are going to be going through airports, getting on planes, going to other countries, and coming back. It’s going to make the whole situation much more complex, with the weeks after the break being particularly risky and hard to manage. This creates some buffer around that time, just to be safe.

As for making remote work *work*, these are some things I think everyone needs to pay attention to:

  • Share remote work tips and gripes in a dedicated space — we have a Slack channel set up for that purpose. We are all learning as we go, so constructive discussion can make adapting to the remote working experience better.
  • Our Employee Experience team will have a webinar out shortly gathering up our best suggestions on making remote work better.
  • Know your working style and adjust accordingly. Do you work best when you can talk to someone and bounce ideas off them? Find a virtual way to do that. Do you rely on having someone check in on your progress and remind you of deadlines? Make sure to talk about what you need from your manager or your team. There will be lots of little adjustments to make. Just be generous with each other while everyone’s figuring it out.
  • Pay attention to the social dimension. I heard some great stories in our Work Remote dress rehearsal about people just getting together on video just to chat and catch up for a bit. It’s part of what makes work fun. This is no reason to give that up.

Advice to managers:

  • If it isn’t a part of your team’s daily routine already, a daily or twice-daily video stand-up helps teams feel more in touch.
  • Know your management style and adjust accordingly: if you are a manage-by-walking-around-and-talking-to-people kind of manager, you are going to need to find a new way to stay engaged with your team.
  • If you manage contractors and other people who might not be included in regular lines of communication make sure they know what’s going on too. That includes cleaning and maintenance staff, delivery people, etc.

A couple of final thoughts. My goal for Kobo is not for us to just tough it out and soldier through this. I want us to learn how to be great at working this way. We are basically running a giant experiment on how to be a more decentralized workplace, to create more flex in where and how we work. That’s a good thing no matter the reason. And the work we are doing matters — as we saw in Italy, eBooks and audiobooks can be a huge help for people who find that their mobility is limited during a situation like this. I don’t want us to slow down or lose a step. It’s time to adapt.

We are going to learn a lot as this unfolds. Many companies are going to have a hard time in the coming weeks or months, but I have absolute faith that we will be okay, because we have the most incredible team there is, and it has never been defined by offices or desks. Just amazing people doing incredible work. I’d like to be able to make decisions knowing that I and the exec team have already done everything we can to keep you, our people, your families, safe and healthy. I want you to feel cared for and cared about. That’s our first priority. Everything else we can figure out as we go. And I’m sure we will.

Time for a new adventure. Go Kobo!

We make reading lives better.

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