Working from home was pretty much exactly as possible, at least technically, for years before covid-19 even existed as a disease. The main barrier was corporate employers who didn’t trust their teams to be productive unless they were far from the distractions of home. Whereby, a video meeting platform founded and headquartered in Norway, was an exceptional. It’s product enabled remote work, and remote work has been the standard at Whereby since it began as a separate entity within the Nordic telecom company, Telenor.
Of course, in the year since the pandemic began, it has been widely proved that all the reasons corporations gave for not allowing remote work were unfounded. As organizations scrambled to shift teams to remote work, Whereby, with a long established WFH culture, was ideally positioned. The company, with more than 4 million active users across 150 countries, has seen a 450% increase in users since the start of the pandemic and a 180% growth in annual recurring revenue (ARR) since March alone. In the last 12 months ARR has grown by 500%.
We checked in with Øyvind Reed, CEO of Whereby, to get his insights on the emergence of work from home as a global norm, and what it takes to compete in a market where most people only know the name of the dominant company.
GD: Zoom is now used so commonly that the word “zoom” has morphed into a generic term for video meetings. What distinguishes Whereby from Zoom?
Øyvind Reed: Whereby has been ranked “easiest to use” by G2.com and “crowd favorite” by New York Times Wirecutter, as you don’t need an app or an install to use. Unlike other platforms, customers have their own permanent room with a personalized link that opens the meeting directly in browser – on mobile or desktop – with only one click. Whereby lets you brand the meeting rooms with your own logo and background color/image, so guests feel like they are meeting your company, not your video provider. With interactive integrations like Google Docs, YouTube, Trello and Miro whiteboards Whereby also helps engage participants and create the same opportunity for creativity and collaboration as an in-person meeting.
GD: Whereby puts a big emphasis on privacy features. Is that because it’s a European company subject to GDPR? What does Whereby have that is missing from competing platforms?
Øyvind Reed: From day one, ensuring the privacy and security of our users has been fundamental to what we do. We want to be a European privacy-friendly alternative. Of course, we use data to keep improving our service. But we try to give users as much control of their own data as possible. We don’t sell our data to anyone – our business model is about providing the best possible service and experience to our users. Customers who struggle to comply with EU data transfer rules will also benefit from our setup which prevents call data travelling to the US if participants are located in Europe.
GD: Over the course of the pandemic there have been many incidents of people, whether relatively benign pranksters or for more sinister motives, “Zoom bombing” meetings and school classes. Can Whereby protect against that?
Øyvind Reed: We take abuse on our platform very seriously, and we are trying to protect our users against it. But it is impossible to completely remove the risk of abuse. There is a trade-off between providing an easy-to-use and flexible service with respect for privacy on the one hand, and preventing people from making bad choices and abusing the service on the other. We try to strike the right balance and to become better over time and ensure everyone can lock their rooms, given them full control over who can join their meetings as individuals need to knock before they are allowed to join.
GD: Your company has published research by Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, which found numerous shortcoming of video calls compared to in-person meetings, not least being that two-thirds of people admit to multi-tasking during video meetings that they would not attempt in-person. Is there a solution for that, or is it just human nature to goof off more when observed less?
Øyvind Reed: At the start of the pandemic – when everyone switched to working remotely – there was a tendency to just move every single meeting into a virtual format, without really considering whether that was the appropriate method of communication. As a result, many people were often faced with back-to-back meetings and no real time to get on with work. Ultimately, this leads to lack of focus and people trying to check their emails while on a call.
The solution is actually really simple – we need to get better at conducting meetings. Good virtual meetings begin with thoughtful preparation and clear goals to ensure that everyone gets the most out of the time. I’m sure we’ve all come off a call and felt like it was pointless so by having a clear agenda, everyone can go away feeling as though they have achieved something.
Keeping meetings short is also a great way to keep people engaged. Long meetings run the risk of increasing fatigue and reducing the levels of engagement as the sedentary nature of video meetings paired with feeling constantly watched on screen can be incredibly draining and lead to distraction. If you can’t shorten the meeting, try and schedule breaks where those taking part can actually check emails or make a coffee. Knowing a break is coming up will really help keep them focused.
GD: What adaptations have companies made during the pandemic you think will last?
Øyvind Reed: Last year, we conducted a remote work survey. It found that more than half of business owners felt remote working had increased productivity – which was reassuring as it’s not always easy to be certain of the benefits when you can’t physically see what employees are working on.
We also found more than 80% of businesses were considering policy changes to allow people to work remotely. This will bring huge benefits to employees, particularly those living with young families.
Of course, it’s natural people will be concerned that remote working may blur the line between the personal and the professional. Here, using tech to over communicate will become even more important. Setting boundaries is crucial – at Whereby, we use Slack to say ‘good morning’, explain what we will be working on and update when we are away from our desks so it’s clear when to expect a reply.
With remote working, the problem is people often work too much rather than too little. So employees using technology to communicate when they transition between work and personal is super useful in avoiding burnout and ensuring people aren’t constantly ‘plugged-in.’
GD: Which won’t?
Øyvind Reed: At the start of the pandemic, everyone was guilty of turning face-to-face meetings into a video call rather than taking a step back and assessing whether a quick email or slack message would work instead. As we return to normal, I imagine the adhoc video call check-ins will drop off as people start to rediscover those natural water-cooler moments that happen organically. The last 12 months has also educated people on how to have better meetings, meaning that the wall of calendar invites will gradually ease off as individuals start to reprioritize their time. By stepping away from our calendars we can open up time for more spontaneous catch ups that often emerge when making a coffee or even at the pub after work.