CHAMPAIGN — While the coronavirus has forced more people to work from home, one local company has been proudly doing it for years.
Wolfram Research is headquartered in Champaign, but nearly half its workers aren’t located here — instead working in 33 countries on six continents.
“We’ve had a distributed workforce, which often involves people working from wherever they’re located,” said Danielle Rommel, director of outreach. “In the last couple weeks, we’ve gone fully remote.”
Its CEO, Stephen Wolfram, has long worked remotely, and being in a college town lent itself to remote work, as many employees may start working in Champaign after college but then move elsewhere for various reasons.
Without remote work, “you would lose that employee, and you would lose all of that investment that you’ve put into developing that employee,” Rommel said. “We’re in a college town. Not everybody stays in a college town for their whole life. But we want long-term employees. So if somebody’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to move,’ then if we can, we make it work remote.”
‘Pretty used to it’
For a long time, most of Wolfram Research’s remote jobs were technical jobs.
“Folks that are working on coding, you know, it’s a pretty solo task,” Rommel said. “They’ll join meetings when they have to, but for the most time, they’re just on their computers writing code. So that lends itself very easily to remote work.”
Over the past three to five years, a wide variety of its jobs have gone remote, Rommel said.
Wolfram outpaces the country when it comes to remote work; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of employees work from home.
Wolfram Research has even hired some folks entirely remotely.
“We hire people from food nutrition experts, to physicists, to some of the most obscure fields, and they have to meet a very certain set of requirements or whatever it is that we’re working on for that project. So sometimes that person might be based in the Swiss Alps,” Rommel said. “I have one person on my team that I’ve never met.”
Some managers are more acquainted with having remote employees, but Rommel said, “overall, our managers are pretty used to it. Almost everyone has somebody on their team that is remote.”
Over the years, Rommel said the company has learned a lot about how best to manage a remote workforce and last week published an article with tips for companies that suddenly moved to working from home.
That includes ...
— Use a messaging service to keep in touch with your employees, and for your employees to keep in touch with each other.
“Any messaging app that allows you to just do a quick touch-base, something you might have hollered across the office to somebody to answer. Those one- to two-sentence type of questions and interactions, we try to rely heavily on chat for,” Rommel said.
— Check in with your employees.
“Words of encouragement and just checking in with people like, ‘Hey, how are you hanging in there?’ really does make a big difference,” she said.
— Treat remote employees to feel like full employees.
“That’s a really nice unintended consequence of the situation that we’re in — everyone’s in the same boat now,” Rommel said. “Before, sometimes it was a challenge. We would have a birthday celebration or we would do a Pi Day celebration in our flex space. We did start doing Zoom sessions for those where people in remote offices could Zoom in and see what the space looks like and interact with people in a social environment.”
— Expect hiccups.
Even though Wolfram Research has years of experience, moving everyone remote at once in the past couple weeks hasn’t always gone smoothly.
“We’ve had obviously some hiccups when employees don’t want to work from home,” Rommel said. “Just spending a little extra time with them, making sure they know how to use all of the tools and making sure they feel supported and feel connected.”
And “some folks were really missing that interpersonal interaction, so getting little things set up like coffee time: We have Q&A sessions that we host where people from all over the globe will join in, turn on their cameras and show their work set up at home and how they’re doing,” Rommel said. “Getting a glimpse that we’re all in this together has helped mitigate the fears.”