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Here’s why OpenText decided to shut 50% of its offices and go remote

Chris Plunkett, OpenText’s Vice President of Global Communications, on his company's pivot to a hybrid model that includes more remote work.

They’re one of the biggest tech companies in Canada and one of the biggest tech stocks on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They’re known around the world for their information management solutions. By just about every measure, OpenText is a leader.

Now they’re leading the charge by moving to a new hybrid model of work.

This is the second edition in a new Waterloo EDC series on remote work. Stay tuned for posts featuring a variety of perspectives on the subject and read our Q&A with SkyWatch for lessons from a digital native company.

In late April, news broke that COVID-related work-from-home was working so well for the company and its 15,000 employees that they have decided to not re-open approximately half of their offices. Instead, they’ll shift to a hybrid model that includes more remote work.

In the last edition of our Q&A series on the shift to remote work, we spoke with SkyWatch – a tech organization with 20-30 employees – but how do remote work considerations change when the company becomes many magnitudes larger?

We asked Chris Plunkett, OpenText’s Vice President of Global Communications, about the decision to make remote work more common, how the company measured productivity and what this means for the company going forward.

Q: What does this hybrid work policy mean for OpenText? How broadly will it affect operations?

PLUNKETT: In early March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 95 percent of the company moved to remote work.

We’re obviously not in a normal ‘remote work’ situation right now, with employees having to reorganize their lives around home schooling and sheltering in place. This hasn’t been easy for anyone, with added stress and a greater need for flexibility and understanding. But, even with this upheaval, remote work has gone remarkably well.

During this time, we’ve been able to analyze the productivity of teams working remotely and see how successful it can be for us.

Based on this, the leadership team took a look at our current work structure and made the decision to not reopen approximately 50% of our offices, moving to a hybrid workforce model and shifting approximately 2000 employees to remote work permanently.

Our corporate headquarters in Waterloo and larger offices, like the one in Richmond Hill, remain central to our hybrid plan. For these offices, we will be shifting office configurations to increase physical distance and ensure employees can safely return to work when the time is appropriate.

Q: We’ve seen plenty of articles floating around predicting a permanent shift to more remote work, but OpenText is one of the first big businesses to make this type of announcement. How does a company the size of OpenText make such a big decision?

PLUNKETT: The first factor was that remote work was incredibly effective for OpenText. We had invested in our digital systems – and they performed well, even with nearly every employee moving to remote work over the course of one week.

We were able to see that not only did our digital systems hold up, but our employees were productive. In the first 45 days of remote work, we processed $2 Trillion in commerce over our business network, shifted our European user conference to a digital event and launched our largest product release ever. We also continued to innovate, develop products, support customers and make sales.

This success allowed the leadership team to consider whether this was an opportunity to look at how we worked in a more holistic way. What did OpenText want our workforce to look like over the next ten years?

Our national headquarters and centres of excellence were an integral part of our operations, but for other offices, we considered whether there was a specific reason they were needed, or if employees could achieve the same productivity working remotely.

Using those principles, the leadership team decided that we would not re-open approximately 50 percent of our smaller offices, and those employees would shift to remote work.

We have invested in the technology and tools that our teams need to collaborate and innovate at scale, and over the last couple of months we’ve proven them to be effective, so we plan to take advantage of this going forward.

Q: The most obvious benefit to remote work – for companies – is cost savings, but in his article for Fast Company, OpenText CEO Mark Barrenechea hardly mentions savings. Can you provide some additional context around the reasons that OpenText made this move?

PLUNKETT: Closing offices will have some economic benefits, but these savings will be invested into ensuring employees are productive and have the tools they need, whether they are at home or in the office.

This decision was made with a long-term view on how we wanted to build the company, and what we wanted our workforce to look like over the next ten years. This move will increase productivity, improve the resilience of our organization in the face of other potential disruptions, provide greater flexibility to employees and increase our ability to hire top-level and diverse talent.

Although OpenText has offices around the world, we were still constrained to hiring at those physical locations. This will provide us with access to a broader base of talent and also give us the opportunity to attract more diverse talent who may not have been able to commute to an office or move physically for the opportunity.

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Q: Two weeks ago, we spoke with a smaller tech company, SkyWatch, who offered remote work even before the COVID-19 crisis. A tech startup/scale-up is a different situation than OpenText, where you have thousands of people working in marketing, sales, human resources and finance roles. Do these types of roles lend themselves well to remote work? Will they be part of OpenText’s new policy?

PLUNKETT: Technology is a team sport that requires collaboration across disciplines like engineering, computer science, marketing, sales, finance, customer support and professional services. For us, each of these teams have moved to remote work – and have continued to collaborate successfully.

A great example is our marketing team, who only had a couple of weeks to shift our big European customer event to a digital event. To do so, we created a platform for engaging customers in compelling digital experiences – the OpenText Digital Zone. This platform enables events, demos, architectural design sessions, pilots, customer support, deployments and customer operations.

Using this platform, we were able to host Enterprise World Europe for more than 10,000 customers and have now launched OpenText Digital Zones for Content Services, Business Networks and our SAP partnerships.

Teams across the company have been discovering new ways to excel remotely and employees across all teams will be involved in the more permanent move to remote work.

Q: As we said, OpenText is really taking a leadership position here. There aren’t that many companies with 15,000 employees that are publicly announcing plans to make a permanent shift to remote work for a portion of its staff. Do you have any advice for companies that might be interested in following your lead?

PLUNKETT: For companies that have made the investments to digitize their operations, the shift to remote work has largely gone very well. For companies who had been putting off these investments in digital transformation, this is a wake-up call to make those investments as soon as possible.

There have been a number of fundamental shifts that are likely to remain – including greater direct to consumer sales, contactless retail, smart and flexible supply chains and greater demand for remote work. Companies will need to adapt to this new equilibrium quickly.

Part of this will be interrogating their office footprint. For OpenText, this has meant a hybrid model – because we believe that our larger centres of excellence will remain important for the company. But each company should look at what makes sense for them.

As our CEO, Mark Barrenechea, has said – he would prefer to invest in people, rather than bricks and mortar.

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