Navigating the Pandemic: Numenta's Approach

Donna Dubinsky • CEO, Co-Founder

Like many companies, Numenta has found it challenging to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. We transitioned to work-from-home and dealt with our own and our family members’ needs, while trying to keep our company moving forward. Along the way, we’ve found that there are always new challenges and curveballs. Vaccines enabled us to come back to the office in mid-2021, and then just recently the Omicron variant required us to shut our doors and return to remote for a bit. One thing is certain: this pandemic has required us to remain flexible.

We found very little guidance for a small office like ours (under 20 employees), so I thought we would share our company’s COVID-19 protocols and hybrid workplace model in case the information is helpful for others as we all continue to navigate through these challenging times.

We had three goals in defining our company work-from-home policy and COVID-19 protocol:

  1. Enable employees to be effective.
  2. Enable employees to be safe and to feel safe.
  3. Stay flexible; adapt as needed.

Our experience with working-from-home

When we first went remote in March 2020, I thought that we would do it for a week – maybe two – before coming back to the office.  Needless to say, that didn’t happen!  Of course, there have been some advantages to working from home the past two years. Probably the greatest advantage has been the access to a diverse and talented pool of candidates around the world as we’ve expanded our team.  We have had team members working from Canada, Crete, Germany, Hong Kong, and the UK, in addition to many states in the US.

Like most companies, we’ve embraced a host of communication and collaboration tools and tried to stay as agile as possible. Yet while working remotely presents many benefits, most of us feel that we’re missing a degree of creativity, collaboration, and fun.  We did our best to supplement the virtual experience, such as virtual game nights and virtual lunch speakers, but we all felt these solutions missed the benefits of being together.

Virtual game night!

Adopting a hybrid workplace model

Consequently, we decided to reopen our offices in Redwood City, California, in June of 2021, once we felt that vaccines made it much safer to be in person. We adopted a hybrid workplace model that allows the team to collaborate in person, yet also allows individuals to focus on their work where they feel they can be most effective:

  • We request that local employees come into the office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the other three days as optional work-from-home days. Some employees prefer to come in more days because of their personal work-from-home situation, so the office is available to them. Other employees have special circumstances that make coming into work this often more difficult, and we work to accommodate any special needs.
  • Remote employees work virtually, but we’ve designated two specific weeks when we request that all remote employees come to the Bay Area. We’ve asked Bay Area employees to plan for those as “no travel weeks.” This plan lets the whole team be together at least twice a year. On these weeks, we will plan our semi-annual business reviews and performance reviews, as well as social activities.

This hybrid model aims for the “best of both worlds”.  The designated in-office days allow us to consolidate and maximize our in-person meetings while giving people the choice of where they want to work the other three days. It also supports both locally based and remote employees.

Our first day back in the office

Safety is our top priority

Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees (and their families).  Several of our employees have small children or immunocompromised people in their households, so we want to be particularly attentive to those situations.

With that in mind, we have implemented numerous safety protocols to protect our employees:

  • VaccinesWe require all employees coming into the office to be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. This policy might be tricky for big companies but for our small team, I felt confident that all our employees wanted to be vaccinated. Employees are required to submit documentation of their vaccine status, and 100% have complied.
  • Rapid TestsWe request that employees do a rapid antigen self-test at home every morning they come into the office and that they share their test results on Slack. The company pays for the tests, and we keep extra tests in the office for those who forgot to take one. Because of the additional protection of the daily rapid tests, we do not require mask wearing in the office.  Of course, any employee who prefers to wear a mask while in the office is welcome to do so.
Team members share their rapid antigen test results on Slack before they come into the office
  • Visitors – We only allow visitors who are regular partners, such as our outsource IT professional. For the time being, we do not allow unaffiliated visitors.  Visitors also are required to submit evidence of vaccination and take a rapid test.
  • Symptoms – We require that anyone exhibiting any symptoms, even if it’s suspected allergies or just a cold, stays home irrespective of test result. Once the symptoms are resolved, employees may reenter the office if they receive:
    • 2 negative antigen tests two days in a row, OR
    • A negative PCR plus a negative antigen test
  • Cleaning, Sanitation and Ventilation – We have implemented daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols to ensure a sanitary workplace. We ensure that face masks, antigen tests, and hand sanitizers are available on-site at all times, and our workplace is well ventilated, with supplementary portable air filters.

Respond, readjust, repeat

Our experience has been that this protocol is working well.  Most of us have gained a new sense of appreciation for the workplace. We are happy to see people congregate in front of a whiteboard to exchange ideas, or hear people laugh in the hallways, yet still have a reduced commute and flexible work schedule – all while feeling safe.

There is no doubt that when much of the team is together in person, there is a more efficient and free-flowing exchange of ideas.  Our virtual tools have been essential in coping with remote work, but we believe that our projects are well served by some time spent together.

However, there are times when we have to adjust.  Most recently, when the Omicron variant hit and was rapidly spreading in January, we decided that temporarily reverting to all virtual would be the safest course of action.  Fortunately, we have the tools to quickly revert to an all-virtual environment, and we did so for two weeks.

Our COVID-19 rate in the Bay Area has come down considerably from an early January peak and continues to be low on an absolute basis. As of February 16, San Mateo County has relaxed its indoor mask requirements and 88.2% of residents in the Bay Area have received at least one dose of vaccinations. With the encouraging pace of vaccinations in California, the drop in COVID-19 cases, and public health guidance, we have determined that our office can safely accommodate our employees on-site, and we reopened.

We have shared information on these policies consistent with our culture of transparency.  We have had several employees, or family members of employees, who have contracted COVID, although not through the workplace.  With our employees’ permission, we have shared this information with everybody in the company.  This culture of openness has helped us build trust and respect, with everybody recognizing that any individual’s actions affect not only themselves, but everybody else as well.

What’s next?

We will continue to closely monitor local health data and guidelines, and reevaluate our protocols as needed. We are learning as we go and expect to continue to adapt as circumstances evolve. If case rates climb up again, I can imagine closing the office until rates come down.  If case rates stay down, we will likely eliminate the rapid testing at some point, but it is continuing for now.  Although we cannot predict what’s next, we are prepared to face new uncertainties as a team with an agile mindset, open communications and full transparency.

As we steer our way through these choppy waters, I am hopeful that we can emerge stronger, with great flexibility to accommodate the needs of individual employees, while nurturing a productive, supportive, collaborative, and fun work environment.

Donna Dubinsky • CEO, Co-Founder

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