Thanksgiving is normally my favorite day of the year.
My mom’s side of the family gathers together for a three-day celebration, and a small year is 40 people. This year will be a virtual gathering; but despite the previously unimaginable hardships and challenges, there’s still so much that I’m grateful for in 2020.
Virtual gatherings have become the norm since the pandemic started , and the whole Embr Labs team has been working remotely since March, 200 plus days and counting. Yet, in many ways the physical distance has brought us closer together. Navigating the adversity and having honest conversations about our fears and feelings has strengthened the bonds between us.
The team during a virtual variety hour in May. Learning to socialize remotely has been a big part of keeping our company culture alive.
Thinking back to March and April, I feel fortunate that we actively made time and space to talk about how scared we all felt. We had spent years creating a culture where our team felt safe and heard, and that translated to open dialogue during the weekly calls we had to check in with one another. Our more senior team members were able to share what it was like to live and work through other moments of great tragedy and uncertainty. They were a voice of calm assurance that, despite not knowing when, this too shall pass. They reminded us that now more than ever, we had to take it moment to moment and day by day, and to set boundaries for social media and checking the news. Many months later, I’m grateful for the collective wisdom of all my co-workers.
In addition to wisdom, the Embr team was also able to offer practical suggestions on working remotely, and once again our more experienced team members who had previous experience in remote jobs were able to lead the way. Simple advice like defining rituals to start and end your day helped, like taking a walk around the block (or in my case, wearing an Embr-branded baseball hat while working), helped us create new structures. Months later, we’ve all found ways to make remote working work for us and to focus on the positives, like not having to commute, being able to take an exercise break during the day, and higher quality lunches.
Social meals were the norm at Embr, and while I miss eating with my co-workers during the work day, we’ve created new norms like a monthly virtual team dinner and fun activity. We’ve done a company variety hour (I never realized how talented my co-workers were until I heard one of them bust out a harmonica song), multiple game nights, and most recently, an Embr version of Jeopardy. We’ve been able to take money that would have been spent on company travel and use it to pay for people’s takeout. While it’s not the same as eating together in person, the events always make me smile and feel closer as a team.
The Embr team has grown this year too, and one of the unexpected benefits of having to work remotely was being able to recruit team members outside of Boston. As a small startup, we never would have even thought to consider hiring people in different states who couldn’t be in the office on a daily basis prior to COVID. Yet as we settled into the new normal by June and met Dr. Pam Peeke during our search for a Chief Medical Officer, we didn’t think twice about hiring her, even though she lived over 400 miles away. Six months later, we’ve added two more remote people to the team and can’t imagine the company without them.
This year has also challenged us to find new ways to deliver for our customers while adapting to unforeseen circumstances outside of our control. Mother’s Day is one of the biggest sales periods of the year, but we were unsure what to expect this past April and May when we launched our sale. When we had the good fortune to see higher sales than we expected, the unexpected side effect was that our fulfillment partner wasn’t able to keep up with demand. While they were able to stay open as an essential business, they didn’t feel safe adding temporary staff and had a much smaller team than normal to fill orders.
Our co-founder and CSO Matt busting out his harmonica chops.
They worked as hard as they could; but when the orders kept coming, it became clear that many hundreds of customers wouldn’t get their Embr Waves in time for Mother’s Day. We did our best to make things right with customers who were angry about the extended delays, but most were understanding of the need to prioritize the workplace safety of our wonderful warehouse staff. Now as we enter the holiday season, we’ve worked closely with our partner to better manage capacity and have better systems in place to minimize delays. Our stumbles back in May ended up making us a stronger operation going forward.
Communication has been the constant throughout 2020. While a combination of Zoom, email, chats, and phone calls have replaced in-person interactions, virtual communication comes with its own challenges. In particular, it's not easy to replicate the casual encounters that used to happen effortlessly when we were together in the office. So, over time, we've had to learn how to balance different forms of virtual communication to meet different needs. For example, we've learned that quick questions, which at the start of our remote work might have gotten lost in asynchronous channels like email or Slack, are often better handled using real-time channels like video/phone calls. Plus, these real-time channels also have the added benefit of providing more social connection and the space to ask each other about our days and connect emotionally. That’s helped us check in on each other’s mental health and wellbeing and have a better sense of when someone needs some time off.
I’m looking forward to time off for Thanksgiving and seeing what a virtual 40-person family Zoom is like. (Lots of people talking at once, knowing my family.) If there is a quiet moment of reflection during the Zoom, I’ll be thinking about how fortunate Embr is to have navigated this year and still be in a position to serve our customers throughout this holiday season and into the New Year. So even though this year is different, Thanksgiving 2020 will still be my favorite day of the year.