Article

Ask Me Anything: Adapting for COVID-19

By Shawn Slipy, Sr. director, CX communications & relationships

Published May 12, 2020
Last modified July 7, 2020

During our most recent “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) discussion, leaders from the Zendesk Business Continuity Leadership Team shared how we prepared for the unprecedented coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and quickly mobilized our employees to work from home. The virtual discussion also gave our customers the opportunity to ask questions. We know how challenging this time is and we want to help by sharing some of our own experiences. In case you weren’t able to tune into the event, here are some of the highlights:

Tom Keiser, Chief Operating Officer, on adapting for COVID-19

I think we're all in some form of learning right now as we step into this very unusual time. What I thought I'd do is share some of the structures that we had in place to support where we are today, which is in a complete work from home environment.

Zendesk now is up over 3,700 employees. We have over 18 offices around the world so we didn't reach this position lightly. We put a lot of thought into it before we ended up in the place that we are. We're continuing to update our processes and approaches as we learn more information.

There’s a couple of things that we've leaned on as we've gone through the process:

  • One is around employee safety. When the virus started spreading, our employee safety team started monitoring regularly what was happening in the specific markets where we had employees and where we had offices, and working with our site leaders in those offices to help make the right decisions for those offices.
  • Parallel to that, we've had a business continuity team and leadership for most of the four years I've been with Zendesk now. That team, over the years, has met quarterly across all of our functions. They’ve done tabletop exercises to practice and prepare for things like earthquakes in San Francisco. We did have a pandemic preparation as well along the way. We had been doing a series of things to build some tiny muscles of how to coordinate in one of these events.

We moved from employee safety into business continuity planning. The team moved into a cross-functional leadership daily meeting that reviewed the situation and started looking more holistically than just a site by site—looking at our employees, our offices, and our customers around what it is that we might need to do and might need to tell them.

We stepped into an optional work from home as this started to spread and we could see it moving across offices. We ended up doing mandatory work from home for a couple of specific offices in APAC early on. Once it became clear that we needed to do something more holistic, we stepped into a mandatory work from home, taking a couple of days to roll that out as we worked through tooling and processes and the things necessary to support that.

We've also tried to over-communicate to our employee base, leveraging all the things that you would expect in a modern company. We started with leveraging Slack like crazy, Zoom, and email to try to keep our employees coordinated and communicated, and then leveraging Zendesk as so many of our customers and so many of our internal processes and workflows rely on Zendesk.

We're still having a daily business continuity meeting. We feed out of that meeting and update our C-staff each afternoon that may or may not, depending on the situation, lead to actions or more communications. While we try to have the tools and processes to hold our team together and keep as much as possible, there's no way to have business as usual. But we have to continue to provide not just great support, but to build great software to support all of your businesses.

Questions from our customers

Q: For your teams that are accustomed to working in an office environment, what aspects of office life do you feel are important to try and maintain? And what aspects are you abandoning?

A: InaMarie Johnson, Chief People & Diversity Officer

Initially, we thought about our existing culture and our values. I know that may sound principled, but it was a guiding light for us. The things that we are keeping in place are the things that are core to Zendesk's success:

Staying connected and building relationships
Number one, we want to stay connected and make sure that we're building relationships cross-functionally. And of course, if we're doing customer-facing work. We look to move as many of our standard cadences to online meetings, Zooming and connecting and making sure that those would continue.

Providing training and learning
We also wanted to give tips and core training and learning to our managers on how to quickly move into work from home because that's not normally how a lot of our managers work. We already have an online always-on learning platform and offered that content to managers to quickly get their hands on tools and tips that would allow them to keep those cadences going well.

Delivering on our objectives
Making sure that we can deliver on our objectives is imperative—keeping those up close and in front of our folks. We had some creative ideas of how to do so, and they came from our workforce. People came up with virtual coffee connections. Bring your coffee or bring your cocktail, if you're in a different time zone. The main thing is: be present and show up.

Remaining human
Because many of us are now sitting in front of our screens for hours on hours, we're encouraging having non-screen meetings. Take a walk and stay connected on the meeting. Get out (obviously keeping safety and social distancing in mind) and try to be careful with just being in front of the screen.

As far as things that we couldn't replicate, we had to help people understand we could not recreate the same office work environment in your home. For example, if you had a big fancy screen or a monitor, we probably weren't going to be able to have that for you. We did give allowances so that people could quickly get up to speed and have what they needed, but it was basic and for the most immediate things.

Q: Were employees allowed to bring home equipment, such as monitors and keyboards?

A: Colleen Berube, Chief Information Officer

We encouraged people to not dismantle their offices and try to take them home for a variety of different reasons. We gave people an outline of equipment that was reasonable to procure for use at home, along with an allotment of funds that would be reimbursed for that, so they're able to get what they need to make their experience at home most successful for them.

What we didn't want to try to do was decide what that would be in their particular circumstances. We know that individuals in every case have a different set of things that they're dealing with. They may have multiple adults in their home that are working from home, or they may have children that are running around now that schools are starting to close. What we tried to do is to provide some flexibility, but limits in that. In some cases, we did have to make some exceptions just due to extenuating circumstances. But in general, we asked folks not to take their equipment home.

Q: Do you anticipate any changes to your support processes due to your business continuity plans?

A: Elizabeth Zornes, Chief Customer Officer

First and foremost, the team continues to be passionate about being there for our customers, and specifically during this time when you need us to be there for you, maybe even more. We continue to operate and execute on our support promises, but some of the things that might have happened in person, we transfer or transpose that to the virtual world.

For example, the team now has an always-on Zoom channel organized by different topics and groups where they know they can get on if they have a particular question where they need help or that requires a resolution in working closely together, replicating some of the things that would have happened in person, in the virtual world.

By and large, from what we've seen in the last couple of days as we made the transition, is that the team is starting to hit their stride. We have seen that we continue to meet our obligations and SLAs in terms of the response time and how quickly we can get back to our customers. In addition to that, we've asked our teams to look proactively into some of the product usage and the volume we see for our customers and do some proactive outreaches for those customers that might need additional help or insights.

Q: Can you speak to how Zendesk has set up redundancy in terms of staffing necessary to keep Zendesk systems running? What if 30 percent of your staff suddenly get sick? If it happened, are you prepared?

A: Soren Abildgaard, SVP, Engineering

Obviously, none of us hope that we get to that point, but it is something we have thought through. We have set up the entire system to be accessible through remote access, so that assumes that everybody is already doing all of these things from home.

We have a robust on-call program that enables us to access all of the workforce globally to jump on things. All our service areas are owned not by individuals, but by large groups of people that have been cross-trained to go beyond the area that they might be working in on a daily basis. There's quite a bit of redundancy built in that way.

If we got into this situation, we would also start to eliminate any work that doesn't have to do with ensuring that our platform is stable and is responsive and doing all the things we need to do for our customers.

Q: What tools or resources have you found most helpful?

A: Colleen Berube, Chief Information Officer

A lot of the tools that we already use have been super helpful. We're accustomed to working in an environment that's made up of collaborative technology like GSuite and Slack. People are increasingly finding that our ability to be effective with those tools and rely on them has been super helpful.

In addition to that, we had just finished up an effort to improve our deflection rate using Answer Bot for IT. That's proved helpful to us because we've had an increase in the number of tickets that are coming internally to IT. We've been able to continue to have consistent response times, even with the increase in volume. Part of that, I attribute to us not having to speak or connect personally with every single person.

Q: Have you changed your approach to protecting data outside of the physical office?

A: Maarten Van Horenbeeck, Chief Information Security Officer

Access to customer service data has always been very, very restricted. So, within the overall employee population, there isn't that much that has changed with individuals working from home. The steps that we have taken to help ensure that as individuals work from home they can still have that same level of privacy and that same level of security within their work environment are fairly widespread.

For instance, employees that are now working from home can expense the basics, such as privacy screens, giving them access to additional information or tools to ensure that, even as they are at home, they maintain that level of privacy.

We also wrote a detailed guide for our employees on what we expect them to do when they are working in a place that is not the office. While we do have to admit that we don't have the ability to validate every control necessarily to the same level of depth when they're sitting in their home office, we regularly touch base with them and remind them of the duties that they have as custodians of information to make sure that they put those controls in place, within their home environment.

On the security side, we have always built our security programs to not purely be based on the fact that there is a perimeter in place that restricts access from within that perimeter. So, there is not a major difference between the amount of access an employee would have from the office or from anywhere on the internet, such as their home office. Technologies such as a virtual private network access and the different authentication components that we have put in place have always been there with the main goal of ensuring that the same security controls apply, regardless of location. As we make this transition, we commit and adhere to the same commitments that we make to our customers as otherwise.

Q: From business continuity, what are some processes individual business functions, such as customer success, sales, and engineering, have instituted that make sure business continues if employees get sick?

A: Tom Keiser, Chief Operating Officer

We're monitoring closely with our site leaders and then across our leadership team what's going on with our employees based all over the world. And then we’re adjusting. We're all trying to figure out the dynamics in our home, which requires strong, open communication with your boss about how you're going to effectively work, but also be able to take care of your family and everything that needs to be done.

It's going to be a constant form of communication. It's going to be a constant prioritization across all of our teams of what we focus on and how, who we focus on, and what we need to do.

A: Elizabeth Zornes, Chief Customer Officer

In addition to some of the resource planning we're doing from an Advocacy perspective to ensure that the team is available for you as you have questions or as you need us to step in, we are doing daily triages with the team as well as refreshing resource and workforce planning. Managers are encouraged to get information from individuals to find out what their best window is that they are available and what their best channel is. With a small kid maybe now being at home or the home situation changing, we need to be able to stay nimble and to rebalance.

We have stepped up to more frequent and dynamic planning of our schedules, and making sure that we understand what the availability is and who can take which channel at which point in time of the day.

Q: Has Zendesk looked at how to help the community?

A: Maarten Van Horenbeeck, Chief Information Security Officer

Zendesk as a company cares deeply about the communities that we work in. We have an entire team that is dedicated to providing volunteering in the community and making sure that our employees have the ability to engage with the different communities that we work in. That team has pivoted and really tried to find other opportunities for us as a company to be able to continue to support those communities in new and virtual ways.

For instance, nonprofits often need support with things like translation or our employees can provide donations instead of going and physically working together with those teams. In addition, we might have some things in the office that we don't need right now because we don't have people there, and where possible, we've looked for opportunities to be able to share some of that with the different communities that our volunteers and our employees support.

Q: Will you return to office space staff once the COVID-19 crisis reduces?

A: Tom Keiser, Chief Operating Officer

Yes, absolutely. We have been thinking about what the criteria are for being able to return back to normal for quite a bit. But we haven't fully determined yet when we will feel comfortable to do that. And I think anyone who claims that they do have that completely set is probably basing themself on assumptions that are going to change in the next few days and weeks.

I think what is important for us is that we continue to monitor and observe the different things that are happening on a daily basis. We are looking at what recommendations we are getting from the local and federal governments at each of the different locations where we have an office. We are looking at guidance from the World Health Organization and the CDC, and in addition to that, the health organizations of the countries where we operate.

We're also looking at what our peers in the industry are doing and what the expectations of our employees and our customers are. Those are things that we are evaluating on a daily basis. And yes, we, of course, hope to be able to go back to normal as soon as we possibly can. But we want to do so safely. So, we must continue to track those different learnings on a daily basis.

Q: What are you doing to ensure that maintenance staff have continued income during this hard time?

A: InaMarie Johnson, Chief People & Diversity Officer

We are ensuring that all of our staff are still employed and are compensated. While some of our team members just can't perform the work that they would normally perform, what we've quickly done is started to think about the other tasks that these team members can provide during the time that they can't do their exact role. We've created a list and started to redeploy and repurpose some of those team members' times.

For example, some of the team members in our workplace experience are spending time documenting processes and thinking about automation, so when we come back into our normal roles we can do those even better.

Have more questions on how to handle the impacts of COVID-19 on your workforce? We’re continuing the conversation in the Zendesk Community.