Canadian companies are rising to the challenging circumstances that COVID-19 has posed. In this new series, we discover how these inspiring leaders are helping their community, customers and employees during this monumental crisis. We learn about how they’ve adapted to remote work, and how they predict the future of office occupancy will look like for their business.
Our first episode of Moving Forward is with serial entrepreneur and CEO of League, Michael Serbinis.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you’ve been up to.
I’ve been building companies for the last 20 years. I started at NASA Jet Propulsion lab and made my way to Silicon Valley. The musk brothers and I worked on something called Zip – one of the first search engines. After that, I built a company called Kobo in the e-book space. About 5 years ago I got interested in healthcare and started League with this idea of transforming the future of healthcare.
I think it’s fair to say that Covid 19 took us all by surprise. But we’ve all settled into whatever this new normal is at this point. It’s incredible to see some of the contributions that are being made by companies in support of the relief. Could you tell us a little bit more about what League is doing in consideration of this global event right now?
We’re lucky we were able to move to a work from home model early-on. Thankfully we’ve been very productive. Our team and their families are healthy and safe. We’re also lucky that we have a founding team and a leadership team that has been through 9/11 and the recession in 2008. A big learning lesson from that period was that yes, there’s economic disruption, and to some degree whatever you did before you’re not going be able to do in the future – but we assumed we weren’t going to be selling for a while. And if we weren’t selling, we should focus our efforts, engineers and talent on helping people. Given we’re in the digital health space, we made the bet that coming out of this, there will be no doubt in people’s minds that digital infrastructure around health care would be mission-critical. Knowing this, we went to work and created sample policies and weekly calls and all sorts of content for HR leaders.
We took the base version of our platform and we made it free. We thought; what do people need during COVID-19? They need access to healthcare services in a digital fashion for their employees. They need to give them real-time information about what’s happening and in the pandemic from a credible source. (We are partnered with the Cleveland Clinic – one of the premier health care institutions in the world). They also need to give them monetary support. Most millennial staff live in an apartment where there’s not a ton of room, and there’s certainly not office infrastructure. We made it possible to make those funds flow easily to employees. This ensures their companies can support them in setting up a home office.
This wide range of initial activities and innovation has sort of snowballed and just kept going and now we have all kinds of data-based solutions to help companies now plan to get back to work part of this whole pandemic.
That’s cool and quite multifaceted so good for you guys. Have you had any initial feedback about the way that you’ve modified your offering and the support that you’re giving?
We’ve had a ton of clients sign up. It looks like it’s probably 4x our best quarter in terms of volume of sign-ups. Since that’s complimentary or free initially, we expected that to a degree, but the overall feedback on a platform that you can turn on in a matter of hours, and deliver to all your employees access to healthcare, how to get digital care in a personalized way, and then get data insights to help you make smart decisions on back-to-work, forecasting costs, news benefits that you should offer – that feedback has been awesome so far. And the good news is we’re just going to keep innovating.
I think from the largest companies in Canada and the US on down to the smallest companies this idea for how we go back to work is kind of a tummy rub right now.
I think from the largest companies in Canada and the US on down to the smallest companies this idea for how we go back to work is kind of a tummy rub right now. We’ve never gone through anything like this. What we’ve presented to business leaders is a data-driven approach based on real-time COVID data, location data, contact tracing and then of course employee health data to keep everybody safe.
Can you talk a little bit more about how League has settled into this new normal and what unique measures you’re taking to support your employee’s productivity and their mental well-being?
We saw this coming. Maybe not to this degree, but we did predict that we were likely to go into a full work from home model. Among my co-founder team, one of the guys was like “all right no problem let’s do it we’re ready”. We had to slow down because we have people that are new managers, 50% of our staff started in the last six months. We were barely holding it together in the office let alone sending everybody home and just hoping it all works! We started to identify the key processes that we needed to work virtually. In that first week of March, we started cycling teams one at a time or two at a time to work from home. Then we implemented a weekly survey as we went fully remote. We made a bunch of mental health services available for free as a part of our core benefits. We already had great benefits, but we upped it and we actually extended it to people’s families, their dependents and anybody that they’re taking care of.
As you, know, mental health at this time is super challenging. It’s challenging for every one of us at the moment. We all need some support and we’re all feeling a lack of connection. We’ve provided funds for people to set up home offices and introduced all sorts of new things so a lot of parents new especially new parents. We have folks working at home with their crying kids freaking out, not able to handle just being a kid and needing support. You’ve got kids that are being homeschooled. But I’m not a teacher! I don’t have that kind of patience.
So we instituted what we call float time. It’s two hours a day where no meetings get booked at League. For whatever you need to do to take care of your kids, your elderly dependents, each other, – go take a walk do whatever you’ve got to do!
We started to make certain key processes like onboarding hiring work even better. Frankly, they work better now that they are virtual.
We started to make certain key processes like onboarding hiring work even better. Frankly, they work better now that they are virtual. We’re learning and instituting new things every week. We’ve also taken spare laptops and made them available for parents to take home to kids or support people in their neighbourhoods that don’t have access to computers.
I did a cooking class one day at lunch, I actually taught the class! We’ve got morning workouts, afternoon spin classes, the range of different innovations beyond the structural ‘keep productivity going’.
It’s no coincidence that a company who is in the benefits world knows how to do it well! Kudos to you guys. I think that it’s probably hard to predict with any degree of accuracy at this stage what the future of work is going to look like, but I do feel that you’re in a unique position given your tenure as an entrepreneur. I would like you to take out your crystal ball and give us some of your insights notably about how your company might start to interact with the built environment going forward.
Some major themes that is that there will be an accelerated move to the cloud for infrastructure. Tech companies like ours run almost everything in the cloud but that’s not the norm.
A month before this happened, I was lamenting with our Chief People Officer about hiring in Toronto, specifically engineers. Even if you’re a leading company, and you find people that are passionate about your mission it is still super competitive. We weren’t hiring engineers outside of Toronto a month ago and that’s all changed. Distributed hiring and virtual teams will be more normal.
Employee health is something that will change. I’ve been in this space for 5 years, and companies can say all kinds of nice things about how employee health is important. But usually, when the rubber hits the road, it’s about benefits vs costs to most companies. For some, and they’re the leading forward-thinking ones, it’s about culture and productivity. But for most, it’s about costs. What we’ve seen is healthcare is now mission-critical for everybody.
I don’t think we will be more than 50% of our existing staff in the office at any one time until December 30th.
For us, we had planned an office expansion to double our space in Toronto. We’ve put the brakes on that. I don’t think we will be more than 50% of our existing staff in the office at any one time until December 30th. I sit on a bunch of boards of some of the largest US tech company CEOs and they were calling September 30th originally as a return to work date. That’s with the beginnings of those first flattening the curve projections coming out. I think it’s changing all of our ideas on how much space we need and how we will work in the future. We’re finding through this process that tech companies feel they just don’t need to be in the office as much as they once thought. That’s not only small tech companies, that’s the largest investment banks like Morgan Stanley – their CEO James Gorman highlighted “yeah we’re going to think about this differently going forward.”
You’re clearly thinking about the future of work all the time?
Companies have to keep going. You can’t be hanging on the White House’s or Trudeau’s every word. We have to assume that help may come or it may not come. We just need to survive and thrive on the other side. Those companies that don’t make these decisions early-on tend to flatline on the other side. That’s not going to be us.
As an occupier of space, how do you see this shaking out? What are you going to be looking for from your landlord to support your operation and keep your staff safe?
We know that we can operate at nearly 100%, if not better in some circumstances, from home. We are going to be slower in returning to work than whatever the public guidelines are. We don’t need to take the risk – so why should we?
We have a return to work plan already that calls for slow progression as we see R-naught values for transmission rate on the virus go down, and as we see testing go up. You can imagine a very simple model as we’ll have a small percentage, let’s say 25% in the office by the end of the summer. They will be socially distanced from each other so we will reassign seating. We will cycle those people, recognizing that some are more vulnerable and more susceptible to contagion than others. We have the infrastructure and the data to do that now.
Before we shut down and moved everybody at home we had already asked for an increased frequency on cleaning services. We’d even got to the point of choosing the disinfectants and the kinds of chemicals and cleaning products that would be required. We had a no visitors policy or by-appointment-only with a screening downstairs at the elevator bank. We would expect the building to provide overall restrictions and set of guidelines including temperature screening at the lobby, masks and sanitizer. If you recall, many buildings in downtown Toronto were running out of sanitizer! The building needs to spend a little bit more money on having some of these safety measures in place. Otherwise, companies like ours will feel there’s just no point. We will stay at home. I’m not taking the risk if I don’t have to.
You recently went on John Stackhouse’s podcast with RBC where you talked about the fact that we are in the middle of a full global reset. You stressed the importance of a beginner’s mindset which I completely agree with. I think it’s important to be that way as an entrepreneur even in the best of times. You also stated you would not be making a bet on commercial real estate going forward, stating a massive pullback from companies regarding their commercial real estate plans. In light of these comments, if you were to give property owners advice on how to be more agile with their buildings and their lease structures to respond to this global what would it be how would you encourage them to take a beginner’s mindset?
I would encourage them to just throw away all old assumptions. I’ve got leases in Toronto in Chicago and other places and, let’s be real, the world just totally changed. I could become not a good customer, or I could become a good long-term customer. The difference is really and frankly how you adapt as a landlord. We’ve had examples were landlords are innovative and they’re taking that beginners mindset. They’re saying “we’ll give you rent abatement during this period but you know, we’re a business too and we need to figure out how to make some of it up and so let’s look at changing the structure of the existing arrangement”. They’re thinking outside the box.
You are going to have fewer people in the office for the foreseeable future. That means less infrastructure costs and there are ways to modify the service arrangement that the building had planned. Plan A is out the window! You need a new plan. This fundamentally resets what companies need not only in terms of the actual space but the services around that space. Everything is going to be different. Transportation patterns are not going back to what they were for at least two years. Maybe longer.
This fundamentally resets what companies need not only in terms of the actual space but the services around that space.
The concept of a beginner’s mind explains why I don’t like the word pivot. I think successful entrepreneurs the ones that make it to whatever you know unicorn status, IPO or however you define success – they’re not the ones that ever stick to a plan. They’re the ones that are constantly adapting and evolving. Every Monday morning, they could throw out the entire playbook and start again. I know that’s easy to say for someone that does it all the time and someone that’s small. and growing. It’s harder to adopt if you’re large and you’ve got big immovable objects like buildings to deal with. I think this agility that I’m talking about is necessary for commercial real estate holders if they expect to thrive on the other side.
Do you anticipate valuing flexibility in lease terms more and would you pay a premium for that flexibility going forward considering this crisis?
Short answer: Yes, and Yes. We had already been doing that with WeWork as we launched in the US. We started in a small footprint and we scaled with them. I think flexibility and being able to be agile and change is frankly a quality that I’m looking for in every partner. Can they move at our speed or not? Because if they can’t, they’re likely not going to be my partner for long.
I want to reference that CBRE Forward is all about supporting Canada’s innovation ecosystem. What’s the best way for our community to champion what’s important to League as we continue to weather this storm?
Everyone needs to adopt the idea that employee health and our own health is now a mission-critical. We’ve just learned that literally everything has just stopped worldwide because of something that has an infection rate slightly higher than the flu, and a mortality rate that’s slightly higher as well. We’re flying blind ss countries and as businesses. The idea that we’ll all have the data about this in the future to help us make better decisions is what League is all about. We’re offering our Health OS for free. Companies can get it can check it out at league.com/getstarted and you can get started in this new way of working today.