The phrase “going to work” has very much changed in meaning for millions of employees in recent months. As offices around the world remain shut down, commutes are measured as the distance between one’s bedroom and home office, and “dress for success” might involve putting on a professional-looking top over pajama bottoms or athletic shorts that will be invisible to a teleconference.
“One of the things we've learned during this pandemic is that businesses need to change some of the ways they work, and need to start thinking remotely first,” he said. “Perhaps the most important parts of that — and the two most important areas of focus — are around communication and collaboration.”
Willoughby added that as new and foreign as the current world of working feels, today’s shifts are actually part of a change that was quietly underway long before COVID-19. All we’re seeing is a “massive acceleration” of trends already in place, he said.
The CEO noted that there has been a massive shift over the past two decades toward flexibility and digitization among professionals and their workspaces. He said that’s why WeTransfer began — long before the pandemic — to expand its core file transfer services offering into a full suite of engagement apps that allow professionals to share information, collaborate on projects and interact digitally.
Willoughby said the company’s investments in such expansion have paid off, as WeTransfer has recently seen its base increase by roughly five million new users per month. Engagement with the company’s digital content offering has also grown by roughly 40 percent, as the world of work has changed in a fundamental way.
“If our mental model was: 'The office is the workspace,' that's going to change,” the CEO said. “I think what we've seen in the last few months [will within a year] become the new normal, and we will be having a different conversation about what the next phase of work will look like.”
The Expanded World Of Digital Possibility
During the pandemic’s first few weeks, WeTransfer was all about helping its own staff simply make a rapid switch from on-site work to remote labor. The focus was on ensuring that professionals’ home offices were set up and able to connect, with all necessary functionality in place.
Willoughby said that WeTransfer, which specializes in providing remote-work tools for creative professionals, has been impressed by the degree to which its users have innovated in new and unanticipated ways. For example, the musician Grimes (who recently had a child with boyfriend Elon Musk) has been using the WeTransfer platform to both connect and collaborate with her fans.
“Grimes was collaborating with her fan base by releasing some raw footage of a music video with WeTransfer, then offered it up to that core fan base to play around with and put together as they liked,” Willoughby said. “So, [she was] really tapping into a remote way to engage with a lot more of her fans and followers. And [that’s just] one of the multiple ways we have seen [for] branching-out methods of engagement, as people work from home or work more remotely and have better digital products to enable that experience.”
Moreover, the CEO said that as people settle into their new remote working lives, the tools that make those connections possible will evolve beyond merely enabling connections to capturing the best of the traditional office. He said that’s why WeTransfer has recently developed virtual office spaces, rolling them out for use among the company’s own employees and customers.
Willoughby said these virtual offices allow workers to create a “digital avatar” that enters an online space designed to “replicate pretty well what it's like to come into a busy, buzzing and energized office.” Avatars have to be in proximity to each other to interact, but as they approach each other, they can actually hear others talking as background conversations.
“It was kind of inspired by what workers said they were missing in the social aspect of the office – [the] serendipity of bumping into someone one hasn’t spoken to for a while,” the CEO said. “[That’s] something that gives them a connection back to that business, but also creates a space for them to have those kinds of informal meetings.”
WeTransfer’s experience with its virtual office tool has included employees “meeting up” digitally for drinks after work, having early morning coffee sessions together and even participating in group yoga classes.
What The Future Will Look Like
Willoughby expects that even after the pandemic ends, the future of work will include distributed workplaces and employees spending less time in physical offices. And since the rise of 5G will improve the available technology, things like virtual office spaces will be available in rural as well as urban ones.
As these new technologies take hold, the CEO believes, businesses will make an even more pronounced switch away from physical offices. He noted that WeTransfer has already made a decision to be a “fully distributed” company from this point on. But even some firms that aren't taking such a radical step have been telling workers that they’re free to work from home until at least 2021.
Willoughby believes that ultimately, firms that make such a switch will have an advantage — both in terms of the talent they can attract and the pool from which they select workers. “I think you'll see a more diverse talent pool being selected, because … you don't have to be limited to who is willing to live in a major, expensive city,” he said.
Moreover, Willoughby noted that firms concerned about their carbon footprint will be able to eliminate the biggest causes by limiting their business travel and their employees’ daily commutes. “I cannot envisage that I will go back to making as many international trips as I used to — and I suspect many people will feel the same way if they have a better alternative,” he said.