As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in early March 2020, it became clear to me that Atomic was going to be facing months of uncertainty, change, and stress. We’d have a lot of important decisions to make and many opportunities to lead by example. I had high confidence and trust in our entire team, but I was concerned about the amount of stress, fear, and conflict that can emerge during a crisis.
We’ve found that, in times of crisis, it has been incredibly helpful to have guides and constraints when making decisions — a set of principles that won’t change when everything else is in flux. Mike Marsiglia, Carl Erickson, and I discussed this need, and we agreed to use three bodies of work as navigational tools to guide Atomic during this crisis:
- Atomic’s culture framework (our purpose, traits, values, vision, and mission)
- Atomic’s architecture of Atoms, Teams, Offices, and the Company (ATOC)
- Our accountability chart, which shows who is accountable and responsible for particular functions or areas of concern in the business
As I write this in late April, we are entering our seventh week of remote work, and Michigan’s stay-home order (which started March 24) has been extended to May 15.
We have had time to see how our tools have served us and how this new reality has put pressure on historical thinking. Below, I’ll share examples of how each tool has served us and how it has also been stress tested.
Spoiler Alert: Our culture foundation has been the most solid, guiding force in our entire toolset.
1. Culture Framework
How it has served us
Atomic’s culture framework has been the greatest aligning force throughout this pandemic. I see its elements alive every day throughout the organization, in our discussions, decisions, and actions.
Being a source of fulfillment and force for good is the core of Atomic’s purpose. And in the midst of change and stress, Atoms have continued to show each other respect, recognition, and appreciation. I see examples during:
- Our daily virtual office standup meetings
- Slack conversations, which include a continuous stream of kind words and praise
- Our Friday afternoon Atomic Toast (a company-wide virtual meetup where each person shares kind words about another Atom)
We have focused on continuing to be a force for good during this time:
- We decided that maintaining jobs and income is one of the best ways to be a force of good during this time of economic uncertainty. Keeping jobs and income allows Atoms to support their families and communities.
- We’ve reached out to our current and historical customers to share perspectives and learn how we might help them during this time.
- We’re being active in our professional organizations and sharing perspectives and practices to help other companies get through this crisis.
- We’re building a framework for managing any idle time and considering how we might use our skills to help community organizations.
I’ve observed Atomic’s traits shining brightly in our people and teams. There are four traits I’d like to highlight:
- Tenacity – Our teams have adapted quickly to remote work and have continued to serve our customers in the midst of adversity and change. Our marketing and sales teams have been creative and tireless in their efforts to serve our customers based on what matters most during this time.
- Connection – Atoms have stayed virtually connected across teams and offices throughout this crisis. I’m grateful for our Friday afternoon Atomic Toast meetings. Even after everyone gives thanks to another Atom, many of us stay on Zoom for open discussion well past 5 p.m. We see windows into one another’s homes, occasionally getting to see family members, including pets. I feel like we are building even stronger relationships through this adversity.
- Trust – I’ve felt that trust is high throughout the company. Early on, we made some uncommon financial decisions, like holding back owners’ distributions and some profit-sharing cash in order to be extremely conservative in preserving cash, avoiding layoffs or furloughs, and maintaining salary levels. We did this immediately as a no-brainer buffering measure and then quickly moved on to longer-term cash modeling. Everyone understood the logic and extended trust that we were making the right decisions to get through this uncertain time.
- Generosity – As we prepare for some possible non-billable maker time, we have created a process and opportunities for community organizations to work with us for free.
I’ve observed Atomic’s values demonstrated in our actions and decisions. Highlights include:
- Give a Shit – Atoms have stayed highly engaged, continued to serve our customers, and delivered success on their projects even though working from home presents unique challenges. We track our time closely and see consistent levels of effort compared to normal times. Some Atoms are putting in more hours than usual in order to rise to a particular challenge or opportunity. I feel an “all hands on deck” attitude throughout the company as we work together to find success.
- Own It – I was blown away by how our teams owned the objective of transitioning to remote work. We basically went remote overnight, starting on March 11, 2020. Everyone found a solution for their unique situation, and we banded together to help one another. Leaders in the company have been taking on complex work and bringing order to chaos at extreme levels of speed. Examples include FFCRA communication and activation, Payroll Protection Program pursuit, new risk management and project continuity practices, remote work security practices updates, and re-evaluation and updates to our business continuity plan.
- Teach and Learn – The pandemic has put an even stronger emphasis on ensuring active project continuity and sales management. We transitioned to running several meetings a week that include our managing partners, members of our company team, Mike, and me. The amount of information and experience sharing in these meetings is high. A few weeks into doing these meetings, I realized how much teaching and learning is happening across our team. We effectively created a high-paced classroom for sales, scheduling, and customer management.
- Share the Pain – I see this value lived every day as team members jump in to help out one another. Mike and I have been staying more actively involved with our managing partners, and it’s great to see how they are helping with sales or project staffing efforts across offices. We are still keeping sight of our ATOC architecture and management of separate-office teams, but we have the holistic view in sight too and are working to help everyone.
- Act Transparently – Atomic uses open-book management practices and is transparent about financial performance with all Atoms. Mike and I decided to add a new practice during the pandemic due to the uncertainty and pace of change. We started doing a 30-minute update and outlook video meeting every Monday at noon. During these meetings, we share high-level information on pandemic-related changes, what we see coming for Atomic in the near term, and a log of weekly snapshots of Atomic’s high-level financial condition. We also take time for open Q&A.
- Think Long Term – Most of our focus has shifted to navigating the changes coming at us daily and weekly. But long-term thinking is at the heart of our actions. For instance, our top business goal is to preserve jobs and income for our whole team. This not only helps all Atoms now, but it puts Atomic in the best position to serve our customers when we begin to return to normal economic conditions.
How it has been challenged
I’ve found our culture framework and its elements to be the tools of highest value and durability while we’ve been working through the realities of the pandemic. I haven’t felt any tension with (or questioned any element of) our culture framework.
Every day, I purposefully look for the silver lining in the midst of adversity. I’m grateful to see our culture framework serve us through this extreme stress test. To me, this means the framework is applicable during both good and challenging times. I’m also seeing that the framework is truly more than just words and abstract thoughts; the culture framework is alive and active in us as people.
2. ATOC Architecture
How it has served us
Our ATOC architecture helps us see how Atoms, Teams, Offices, and the Company (ATOC) are structured within the organization. This architecture helps us make and talk about decisions and gives each office the ability to do sales and build project teams across all disciplines. This is different from other approaches where sales might be centralized at the company level or development might be done out of a centralized, lower-cost geography.
Our architecture stayed useful during the transition to remote work. We are being intentional about maintaining structures and subcultures related to individual offices. Examples include:
- We are still forecasting and managing capacity utilization at office levels
- Managing partners are responsible for the team and individual needs of their offices
- Each office runs its own virtual morning standup meeting
How it has been challenged
I’m seeing us programmatically adjust our behavior (due to the remote work change) and more closely manage the holistic financial performance of the company. For example:
- Managing partners are still mostly managing team allocations for their offices, but cross-office projects are being considered as all Atoms are now working in a remote context. We are optimizing to best serve our customers.
- We are doing active project and sales status meetings with company team members and managing partners so we can manage a holistic view of the various incentives and options we are offering our customers.
- Collaboration is higher and more frequent between team members and managing partners as we live our values and focus on serving our customers and one another.
- I’ve been able to easily jump into either office’s virtual morning standup meeting. I’ve really enjoyed this and have been feeling more equally a part of each office.
- The Friday afternoon Atomic Toast meeting has strengthened the bonds between Atoms across offices. The bonds seem to be building more deeply as we see windows into one another’s homes and lives.
3. Accountability Chart
How it has served us
Our accountability chart has the spirit of our ATOC architecture baked into it, and it gives us a more granular view of roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities.
The chart continues to have high utility as we consider who should take on what initiatives as pandemic-related changes come at us.
Teams have continued to lead, manage, and have accountability for their client projects. Managing partners have done the same for their offices. Our company team leaders have kept their areas of focus on people, marketing, service delivery, IT, etc.
How it has been challenged
I have observed many Atoms flex to support other areas in the accountability chart:
- Elaine Ezekiel and Lina Miller in marketing have become more near-term focused and have been working on resources to serve our active customers. They have also been developing tactics, toolkits, and playbooks to help our managing partners with sales.
- As chairman, Carl has become more near-term focused and has been advising and supporting Mike and me with resources to help us see the big picture and gain wisdom from many business networks.
- Company leaders and managing partners have tirelessly supported Mike and me with feedback, helping us tune our communications with the company. We know transparency builds trust. We also know people can read and hear things very differently.
- Mary O’Neill and Micah Alles have flexed from their operations, people, service delivery, and IT responsibilities to support an incredible amount of change over a short period of time in order to support our customers and people.
- Mike and I have been more directly involved with our managing partners in sales support.
Many Atoms have taken the initiative (based on living our values) to lead and manage considerations that affect the whole office or company. Trust is high, and our smart people are delivering on their good ideas:
- Jason Porritt developed considerations and proposed actions for managing paid time off in 2020.
- Joe Chrysler organized and runs our Friday afternoon, company-wide Atomic Toast.
- Kaitlin Diemer organizes and runs our virtual morning standup meeting in Grand Rapids. This meeting has up to fifty people in attendance. Kim Crawford is creating mood-lifting weekly themes (e.g., concert series, vegan recipe sharing) for this meetings.
- Dylan Goings organizes project show-and-tell sessions during the virtual morning standup meetings in our Ann Arbor office.
- Flexing outside of their maker roles, Bella Olszewski and Marjie Kneep have helped us pursue new types of sales opportunities.
Gratitude and Optimism
I’m grateful to see that our navigational tools are helping us keep organized during this time of change and stress. But I’m most grateful for the team at Atomic. It’s inspiring to see the quality of everyone’s individual character shine brightly during this time of adversity. I genuinely feel a shared sense of responsibility to get through this together.
It’s the people and actions I see within Atomic, our families, and customer relationships that inspire me and give me optimism for our future. Our hard work, traits, and commitment to purpose and values will get us through.
- Atomic’s Co-CEO Model, Part 1 – Rationale - October 8, 2020
- Keeping Sight of True North During a Crisis - May 4, 2020
- The case for detailed time tracking, part 5 – Growth - March 28, 2018
- The case for detailed time tracking, part 4 – Sustainability - February 9, 2018
- The case for detailed time tracking, part 3 – Fairness - December 20, 2017