Refactoring the workplace

How a software principle became a way to do business


A Grade 9 typing class was the most important course of Leon Kehl’s life. Clocking in at 38 words per minute, the founder of Boxbrite Technologies was then the second fastest typist in the class, at a time when typewriters were nearly obsolete and clunky computers had begun to take their place.

Then came the TRS-80 computer with its full QWERTY keyboard and 4KB of RAM. Small in size and relatively portable, the Tandy-built machine was one of the earliest mass-produced and mass-marketed retail home computers.

And when he was in Grade 10, Kehl’s high school, a small rural school in Waterloo Region, had one. It was, in fact, the first in the region to acquire one.

“It completely transformed my career choice and my job,” he says, adding things were changing at a high rate of speed in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. Kehl went to university after high school, dropped out after two years and was programming full time by age 21.

“I didn’t learn programming in school,” he says. “I learned it on the job, and I’ve been on the job for 36 years.”

Perhaps it was that sense of being part of something so much bigger that captured him. Perhaps it was the idea that the future suddenly looked far different than he’d imagined, or that jobs that had not previously existed were now an exciting opportunity, or that the pace of change was tangible. Something about that time settled itself in Kehl, in the way he approached work as an employee and eventually as the owner of a solar tech start-up.

Enter 2020 and the coronavirus, COVID-19. The pandemic not only changed our shopping, eating and exercise habits, it also changed our approach to work and leisure, and to our relationships. And while news reports, certainly in the first three months, often spoke of companies “pivoting” their business to accommodate the rush for personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer and face masks, for Kehl it represented something much more significant for his company. A software term came to mind:

Refactoring.

Refactoring takes an existing section of code, or even an entire system, and completely replaces it, but ensuring it still performs the same function. It is typically needed when needs change or outgrow the original functionality.

“Deciding when and how to refactor is often difficult and painful,” Kehl says. “Often you are taking something that is still meeting most existing needs, but you need to completely rebuild it from the ground up.”

It wasn’t clear at the time, but refactoring is just what Boxbrite has done. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the whole team began working from home, meeting virtually. One of Boxbrite’s team members, despite being extremely careful, contracted the virus.

It was lonely for all members of the team at the beginning. Yet for that person who was ill, being able to connect virtually for daily team meetings was critical to fight isolation; even through the coughing, there was a sense of connection with the team. Extra efforts to keep people connected virtually outside of work tasks began to pay off. Virtual tea breaks take place every Friday at 3:30 p.m. The team went for physically distanced hikes once a month.

Over the summer months, Boxbrite’s team doubled in numbers. The company, even if team members had been going into the office, had outgrown its office space. New efforts brought the team together: they met for physically distanced catered meals in the park; dozens of cookies appear on doorsteps; team members are matched up for chess tournaments, or they might play a game or two of Among Us together online.

By October, Kehl made the decision to permanently move to home-centred offices.

“Why do we have to be in a hotel office space in a building? This is my space,” he says by video call, gesturing to the certificates and degrees hung on the wall of his office in his home in Floradale, Ont. “This is who I am. Why do we think office space in a corporate building is important to doing our job? This change in how we work is as important, or more important, than the introduction of the PC. Even then, when the PC emerged, we still went into offices to interact.”

Photo: Members of the Boxbrite team on a physically distanced hike. Photo by LA Livingston


The ability to take work home was limited by the size of the “portable” computers, and permission was given sparingly; employees were expected to be in the office to work. Even as laptops became lighter and easier to carry, they were introduced to improve work-personal balance, but they really just extended the workplace into the home, says Kehl.

“The expectation of jobs, as bandwidth and technology improved, meant that the expectation of your work availability just increased,” he says. “For too many people in these last 25 years, the technology has benefited their workplaces, but how much of the benefit has trickled down to what we say is our most valuable resource – our people?”

While more than 50 per cent of Canadians would like the ability to work from home, less than 20 per cent of employers embrace the idea, according to a survey by ADP Canada and Maru/Blue in September last year. Forty-five per cent of working Canadians surveyed say they would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week.

“Pandora’s box is well and truly open as far as remote, or hybrid, office work goes. There are real, tangible benefits to a business’s bottom line if employees spend even part of their week working from a home office,” says Teresa Douglas, blogger and author of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams. “There isn’t anything magical about sitting next to someone who silently types on their computer all day. The magic comes when we get together as a team to share a meal, or congratulate someone for a promotion or life event, or work through a thorny problem.”

Most remote workers feel a deep sense of loyalty and gratitude toward employers who allow them to work from home, says Douglas, adding she herself will likely never “willingly” work full time from a traditional office again.

“The perks to a home office are just too great. Remote workers are highly motivated to do a good job so they can keep their lifestyle,” she says, noting that remote work increases the importance of the employee/manager relationship. “One’s immediate boss is both the gateway and gatekeeper to the employee experience. This was already true in the traditional office, but in the remote office, unless an employee works closely with other members of management, their direct manager has an outsized impact on how they are viewed in the company, and how they perceive company culture. Good management matters more in the remote workforce.”

For Kehl, the pandemic has also highlighted that safety and risk are important factors to consider in a decision to return to a corporate office building. Companies who want to bring employees back into an office setting do so without understanding why, or what risks their employees may be exposed to, he says.

“We realized that in many ways we were ideally positioned as a business to move forward, refactoring how we functioned and interacted with our customers,” he notes, adding it may not be possible for every company to embrace permanent home-centred offices. “The nature of what we deliver is already remote in nature and we already had all of the internal technical capability to work with each other remotely.”

Douglas suggests that office space shouldn’t be eliminated altogether.

“Employees should occasionally meet face to face in the physical world,” she says, adding, “but when they come together, it should be for a specific purpose.”

There is one more significant impact, a sidebar perhaps, that refactoring the workplace also brings to the surface – it’s a climate action, an unintended benefit to the environment. This is the biggest benefit of remote work, says Douglas.

“Cutting commutes removes cars from freeways, cutting pollution. Eating from home eliminates single-use plastic containers from landfills,” Douglas points out. “It’s also great for animals. One of the more surprising side effects of lockdown is the way it eliminated a lot of roadkill. This may seem like a small thing, but whole populations of animals bounced back because they weren’t getting killed on highways.”

The climate crisis is forcing humanity to refactor how we produce and consume energy, Kehl says.

“In turn, the explosive growth of decentralized alternative energy sources forces us to refactor how we maintain them efficiently. The pandemic is forcing us as a society and as businesses to refactor how we work with each other and with our customers,” he says. “You really have to understand the system and processes you are looking at replacing. You have to understand them completely and experiment to make sure you get things right. So, we are doing that as a company internally but also with our customers, to help them find new ways to work together in this rapidly changing world.”




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