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October 31, 2022

Homecoming: A Return-to-Office Story

It was a Thursday afternoon in mid-March 2020 when the news first broke. Folks started murmuring throughout the halls of our Bitwise Fresno campus, “Did you read the email that just went out?” The email in question was from Bitwise Industries Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Jake Soberal, detailing Bitwise’s decision to transition all operations to remote work for two weeks in order to avoid possible exposure and to help combat the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

But those two weeks turned into a month, which turned into a year—and before we knew it, Bitwise had been working remotely for over two years during the ongoing pandemic.

Throughout the last two plus years of remote work, Bitwise has always held that returning to our physical offices is a priority, when it is safe to do so. So earlier this year, on a crisp April morning, Bitwise Industries finally began its long awaited return-to-office (RTO) process. Fully vaccinated and donning black and white KN95+ masks, exchanging fist bumps and teary-eyed hugs—it was a significant moment for every team member. But to truly grasp the magnitude of this moment, we have to take a look back at what the last two years held for Bitwise and our team members.

The theme of March 2020 was uncertainty, especially as our team began transitioning to remote work. “The last day in office literally felt like a scene from Titanic, with everyone packing all of their belongings, and saying goodbye to each other,” recalled David Ramirez, Graphic Designer at Bitwise.” Like David, Miaka Hardcastle, VP of Delivery,  was also working in our offices before transitioning to remote work. “I was a little shocked, but ready to roll with the punches,” Miaka said. “I was eager to keep the ship afloat.” Transitioning to remote work was just that—a transition. One might assume working from home to be an easier day-by-day routine, but the transition proved difficult for even seasoned remote workers.

“I’m used to working remotely. But not being able to see customers in person was a challenge. It took time before prospective customers were willing to engage in meaningful discussions via video call.”

Tina Robertson, VP of Government Partnerships

Throughout the ongoing pandemic and remote work period, Bitwise Industries also hired a large number of new employees. These fresh faces went through an onboarding experience like none other, coming aboard the Bitwise Industries ship while still in isolation. “Working remotely was an extremely bizarre experience for me,” reflected Ali Thurner, Director of Marketing for Workforce Training. “It was very uncomfortable to be inside my house, alone but working. I think for those of us who started at the same time—we clung to each other and shared that same experience.” The team bonding that would have occurred at lunch breaks and coffee hours was translated into digital happy hours and meet-and-greets. “Our HR team put bonding as a TOP priority for us new hires, since so much of it wasn’t happening ‘naturally’ around the office,” explained Vanessa Rodriguez, Human Resources Operations Manager. “I had video chats scheduled with each person in my department during my first few weeks so I could meet everyone one-on-one or in smaller groups.”

Most of our team members agree that starting at Bitwise during the remote work period was a bonding experience, one that would only be strengthened as talk of returning to the physical offices began in mid-2021. Deciding when to officially start that process depended on a few key factors around health and safety in the cities where Bitwise was operating, along with recommendations from medical leadership at a local, state, and federal level.

First, a city’s vaccination percentage had to be above 50%, and local hospitals must be operational, or not “overwhelmed” to the point of being unable to offer care to non-emergent patients. Additionally, every team member was required to be fully vaccinated and boosted, barring any medical or religious exemption, and wear high-quality KN95 (or better) masks while in the buildings. Even further, building capacity was reduced to 50% for the start of RTO to make sure folks could maintain social distancing practices while in the buildings. Lanyards were provided to each employee, with pins indicating different levels of comfort with physical interactions, e.g.  green = fine with handshakes and hugs, yellow = cautiously comfortable with elbow or fist bumps, red = not comfortable with any physical contact.

When the time came to start preparing for RTO, our teams jumped into action behind the scenes. From basic amenities to building upgrades, a lot of effort went into making sure our physical buildings were ready for our team to come home. In our two years spent remote, our company more than tripled our size, meaning lots of new desks and chairs! Our resilient real estate team—some of the only Bitwise employees who did not transition to working remotely due to the nature of their jobs—was working tirelessly to prepare our buildings to handle the load of returning to in-person work. “We added extra sanitation shifts into normal cleaning rotations, put up ‘Mask Required’ signs throughout all occupied spaces, and added hygiene stations stocked with sanitizer, masks, and wipes,” said Sandi Olguin, Chief Real Estate Officer.

“Additionally, we installed new Merv-13 filters for our HVAC units to reduce recirculation of air particles, and put air purifiers in all common areas—including conference rooms, phone booths, and even the Bitwise shuttle.”

– Sandi Olguin, Chief Real Estate Officer

Even our Technology Services and Information Technology teams put in work to help handle some of the more overwhelming logistics. A platform was built from scratch, integrated with Salesforce, to capture and verify the vaccination status of all employees. And since part of RTO included keeping buildings under a certain capacity, a whole website was built where team members could schedule their in-office hours in advance. This web application was built using Django and React, integrated with Google for employee login and calendar access, and Mailgun for sending confirmation emails. So instead of managing Google Calendars for every team or filling out an ever-evolving spreadsheet, the RTO website keeps every team member up to date on whether they’re able to come into the office to work on a certain day. Simultaneously, Bitwise was also considering the emotional toll RTO would have on our employees. Bitwise has always communicated care for our team members, and knew this period of transitioning back into in-person work would be just as heavy of a load as transitioning to remote work in the first place.

Karen Scott, who was working as the Director of Bitwise Oakland at the time, began noticing the need for a wellness support program among team members. “I first connected with Talisha Brantley, VP of Events, who mentioned having a supportive space for employees who were suddenly scared, isolated, and facing profound uncertainty in the face of remote work was important,” Karen said. “We started offering virtual well-being groups, and by listening to these groups Talisha and I heard firsthand the many fears and excitements people had about returning to office.”

“People would say, ‘What if I can’t handle the stimulation of office work? I’m immunocompromised, how will I stay safe if not in isolation? I’m not the same person I was before all this started—will people expect me to be?’”

– Karen Scott, VP of Well-being

Karen stepped into a new role as RTO ramped up, acting as both an individual resource to team members and an important figure in managing the well-being of our team in the process. Being an Occupational Therapist, Karen was very much equipped to handle the shaping of our well-being program. “The RTO process required a lot of details, because it was following major growth, national expansion, and changes at Bitwise.” Karen recalled. “We now had OGs and newbies. Introverts and extroverts. Immunocompromised folks. Employees in Fresno and countless other cities across the U.S. No one was going back to the Bitwise of before.”

All of this work, preparation, and care culminated on that April morning, when Bitwise’s doors opened again to our team. Bitwise employees who were coming back into the offices felt a fond nostalgia as they found their way to their desks (some in a completely new building!), while our new hires experienced the Bitwise magic for the first time. The nature of the work we do at Bitwise relies on in-person work. Our teams need collaboration, creativity, and the ability to solve problems in real time. Those processes benefit when we are allowed to work alongside each other in person, rather than stumbling through the myriad of roadblocks remote work presented to our teams.

“During remote work, there was a huge sense of urgency when we needed to troubleshoot issues, since I couldn’t meet on the fly, face-to-face with my team. Now, I can simply solve problems or address a question while passing a pal in the hallway on the way to get coffee.”

– Miaka Hardcastle, VP of Delivery

In addition to all the business benefits working in person allowed our employees, our events team also planned out a whole slew of extracurricular events designed to help folks meet each other, bond, and celebrate coming back into the offices together. “With an increase in new hires over the past two years, we knew lots of folks were anxious upon returning to the office,” explained Bianca Camara, Events Market Manager for Bitwise Industries. “We announced a welcome back plan that included tons of wellness support, community, and themed events for our pals to enjoy.”From guided meditation and yoga sessions, to the return of FortNerf (our community Nerf battles), and community lunch gatherings, our Events Team focused on creating a space at work for folks to bond and get to know each other during the RTO period. “We knew the transition back to ‘normalcy’ would be a challenge for everyone,” Bianca continued. “We chose to focus on fun and engaging outdoor/indoor and offsite activities to slowly entice the team to come to the buildings.”

Before we knew it, the first day back had arrived. “My first day was exciting, and also surreal,” said Giovann Mena, Media Production Assistant. “I remember feeling like this company really cares about its employees after seeing all the hard work done to make our new office area feel comfortable, safe, and fun to work in.” Team members volunteered as our “Welcome Crew,” stationed outside each building to offer a warm welcome to every person coming into the office, while also providing some help to folks who might seem a bit lost or overwhelmed during those first few days. “My first day in office was quite fun, but a little disorienting because I hadn’t met a number of people in person,” said Brit Shlessinger, Client Success Manager. “I wasn’t sure who I knew and who I didn’t know. It took a lot of folks coming up and introducing themselves—even if we’d talked every day online!”

“I remember feeling so excited, but nervous for my first day. But when I showed up, music was playing and people were hanging out together—instantly any feelings of anxiety or doubt left my body. I kept thinking, ‘This is what I’ve been looking forward to all along. This is home.’”

– Tim Woudenberg, Executive Assistant for Workforce Training

In the months that followed, every team member found their footing during their own individual transition back to working in our buildings. It wasn’t without struggle, as for many employees leaving remote work meant leaving a sense of familiarity and comfort they’ve lived in for the past two plus years. Folks were constantly reminded to be flexible, adaptable, and gracious to one another as we figured this whole thing out together. “I am thankful for the support during RTO,” said Stasia Allen, Employee Relations Specialist. “I also really appreciate the honesty around what productivity should look like after RTO and the understanding that it may be a little different than it was before.” Especially with our new hires, folks made an effort to make them feel welcome even though they had never been to our buildings before. “It was awkward for all of us that had been hired during remote work,” said Cory Wyse, RED Analyst and Due Diligence Coordinator. “But the veteran team members and managers made a special effort to make us feel included.”

Throughout the past two years, our entire team got to experience what’s at the heart of working for a company like Bitwise—a place where you are truly and holistically cared for. In fact, those well-being groups that sprung-up at the start of RTO? They’ve become a bedrock for our team members, and now occur regularly for anyone and everyone to participate in as well as almost daily events happening that people can take advantage of. It’s just one more way our company is about humans—not just the work they do, but as the incredible people they are.

“We endeavor to create the conditions for people to feel safe, empowered, resourced, and agentic to care for their whole selves,” explained Karen. “Because as humans, we are each deserving of a healthy and peaceful experience. And at Bitwise—we are a bunch of humans trying to make significant change together. The more okay those humans feel, the more of this work we can do together.”

Leah Sadoian is a Content Writer for Bitwise Industries, who primarily writes marketing material, website content, and narratives for Bitwise Stories. In her free time, she enjoys Law and Order SVU reruns, a good weightlifting session, and spending time with her cat, Marge.