How the pandemic helped us become a better company.
Creating world-changing energy storage tech is tough. Doing it during a pandemic is even tougher. Here’s how The Engine’s portfolio company Form Energy is pushing forward amidst global uncertainty.
By Ted Wiley, Co-Founder, President & COO of Form Energy
We founded Form Energy with the assumption that the R&D of our core technology must be done by a team in the same space — shoulder to shoulder in the lab. In the beginning, none of us thought remote or distributed teams could deliver novel hardware that would rely on both materials science and engineering innovations. How would we integrate remote team members into the culture of our company? How would we communicate with the speed and freedom that startups require? How could remote employees stay plugged into rapidly changing experimental designs?
The pandemic forced us to not only challenge our assumptions but find ways to categorically disprove them. Where it was once a thought experiment, our future as a company now depends on inventing an entirely new way to work. Perhaps someday we’ll look back on this period as the beginning of a fundamental shift in how Tough Tech companies collaborate and build the next generation of world-changing technologies.
Remote, but for how long?
Form Energy’s pandemic story starts on a Thursday in early March. Our executive team held an emergency meeting to discuss the rapidly growing number of global Covid-19 cases. At the time, we had an inkling that the growing public health emergency would come to define the year and likely the decade. After briefly outlining the scenarios, we agreed that the safety of our people would govern all decision making from that moment forward.
We deemed Friday, March 13 the team’s last day in the office for the foreseeable future. By Wednesday the following week, Massachusetts was shut down by an executive order from the governor. While we had more than a year of cash on hand from a recent fundraise, it was all earmarked to support technical progress in advance of our next fundraising cycle. We didn’t know how long it would take to get back into the lab, but we did know the survival of our company would depend on the decisions we made next.
Creating the new normal.
At first, we set out to reproduce our old way of working by creating a series of video calls to replace experiences that used to be in person. We had filled every minute of each day with scheduled meetings. However, we had not recreated the spontaneity and informal problem solving of an in-person office. It was also exhausting and left little time in the day for individual work. We could not replicate the old normal. So we began to create a new one:
We started with a lot — a lot — of meetings. Over the next six months, we were forced to rethink our traditional approach and developed this series of guidelines:
- Hold as few meetings as possible
- Rotating note-taker assigned at outset
- Detailed notes with action items circulated immediately following the meeting
- Agenda and materials circulated in advance
- Video always on
- Questions by chat for discussions with >6 participants
- Mute by default
- Double down on existing collaboration tools like Gsuite and Asana
- Find new tools like Jamboard and Mural to recreate the whiteboard experience
Before the pandemic, we had 50 people in the office and up to 25 going into our lab on a given day. As work in the lab resumed with restrictions, we started with 2 and eventually grew to 10. Every moment in the lab counted (and was accounted for)!
- Covid-19 protocols co-created with team members who use them and sourced from trusted third party resources (CDC, MA Dept of Public Health, peer-reviewed research)
- Detailed weekly pre-planning of experiments
- Weekly cross-team prioritization system for in-person work accounting for every person-hour available in the lab
- Extended hours to enable smaller shifts: 5am-1pm and 1pm-6pm shifts
- The last meeting of the week is a lab retrospective to look at what to sustain/improve/change and act as a pressure relief valve for people who are going into the lab
13 new team members have joined the company since March. We have never met 9 of the 13 in person. This was a scary prospect — especially as a team with very high standards. We had to get comfortable quickly with remote hiring.
- Initially, most hires were known by a team member or a direct network connection of a team member
- Increased weighting placed on the opinions of team members who have worked with a candidate in the past
- More PR engagement than before Covid-19 — specifically to increase and diversify candidate pools
- Significant increase in the quantity and thoroughness of reference checking
Learning to be effective at a distance.
If we can have an engineer meaningfully contribute to our team’s progress five blocks from our lab but working 100% from home, why not 500 miles. Or 5000? While we still prefer to be in person, Covid-19 has proved effective remote work is possible. More importantly, it has forced us to develop and adopt the systems to make it possible.
In the long run our team will be more aligned, focused, and productive as a result of the creation of those systems. We will also be more capable of operating across multiple locations and therefore gain access to a broader talent pool than would have been possible in our pre-Covid-19 mindset. This is a modest silver lining in a time of great uncertainty and suffering, but one that has fundamentally changed the way teams like ours will collaborate.
Major challenges remain.
Every day brings new challenges, and each change described above comes with added overhead and difficulty compared to pre-Covid-19 times. Being on video for 8 -10 hours a day is exhausting and has been isolating for many of us. The social bonds that were so strong and important to the fabric of our company feel distant now. Team members who are going into the lab are trying to get as much as possible done during their precious in-lab hours in full PPE while simultaneously trying to stay connected with colleagues operating on full virtual schedules. In practice, it has been difficult to get this balance right without in-lab people working much longer hours than before.
One of the biggest challenges we are still struggling with is childcare. Team members at all levels of the company with children are in a uniquely tough place. Schools and daycares are operating at reduced capacity or not at all. It is stressful and exhausting for those team members and their families. We are trying to make extra allowances to support those folks, including flexible hours and encouraging people to take time off. Still, the demands of a startup make it difficult to unplug completely — especially in this new remote environment. If this is to be sustainable, we will need to make further changes to avoid burnout.
The way ahead.
We’ve come a long way since that fateful Friday in March, and I’m hopeful that we will continue to improve our way of working in the shadow of Covid-19. Breakthroughs will continue to happen, new science will continue to get done, and teams across the world will continue to build the solutions to our most challenging problems — Covid-19 has made Tough Tech even tougher but hopefully, our community will emerge stronger because of it.
About Form Energy:
Form Energy is developing and commercializing ultra-low-cost, long-duration energy storage systems that can be located in any market and scaled to match existing energy generation infrastructure globally. These systems have the capability to reshape the electric system, making renewables fully firm and dispatchable year-round, extending transmission capacity without building new wires, and completely replacing the need for conventional thermal generation. Find more information: https://formenergy.com/