Talking “Virtual First” with QAD’s Laura Stepp
A Q&A with the Summerland-Based Company’s Chief People Officer
By Leslie Dinaberg | June 30, 2022
The headquarters of QAD — a 28-acre hilltop in Summerland, with shimmering views of the Pacific — is one of the most visually spectacular workplaces in Santa Barbara County, perhaps only rivaled by UCSB and SBCC, but without the parking problems. Yet, despite the dreamy locale, employees “voted with their feet not to come back to the office,” said QAD Chief People Officer Laura Stepp.
In a move that punctuates how permanently the pandemic has disrupted the way we work, the QAD campus is now for sale, with the software company’s approximately 150 local employees working primarily from home.
QAD was founded by UCSB grad Pamela M. Lopker in 1979, after her future husband, Karl, asked her to help find manufacturing software for his leather sandal company (that became Deckers, another success story). While the QAD story began in Santa Barbara, they now have 27 offices in 19 countries, with more than 1,950 employees. Stepp — who graciously spoke to me on the phone from Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, where she was attending a wedding — is the strategic global human resources leader for the entire QAD operation.
Tell us about QAD’s initiative to go “remote first” in the Santa Barbara area.
Coming out of COVID, I think a lot of companies started to take a look at their long-term strategies, and what they were going to do. Many of us, just like QAD, had opened offices for people to return, with safety protocols and whatnot. But the offices were open for quite some months, with an open invitation for folks to come back in and re-engage. It was not a mandate, but an invitation.
And what we saw was no one came back, even if they could — even with open opportunities to do so. So they voted with their feet.
How about your other offices?
We also did some surveys, of course, that were global. Although our headquarters is in Summerland, we are very global by nature; we were used to being on phone calls with people all around the world to make things happen. In that sense, going virtual for COVID was a smallish step. The thing that changed was that we used to operate around localized offices as kind of hubs; now we really went distributed. Once we went through that door, it wasn’t going to be simple to come back.
How does this apply to other companies?
I think all companies are considering one of two choices. One is you really bring people back, you expect them to be there or set up deadlines and mandates, and you really pull them back. You’re seeing some of the news covering that. Or you go the other direction, and you say, ‘You know what, we’re going to operate as remote first,’ and then figure out how to build in collaboration and in-person engagement around that.
We went with the second strategy, for a couple of good reasons. One, again, people voted with their feet; people voted through our survey, essentially, for what they prefer. And of course, it’s crazy to maintain the expense of a large, beautiful facility when no one’s in it. It doesn’t make any financial sense. So those are drivers for us around the change.
What’s interesting is we then committed, not to an emergency management strategy but really to a new permanent way of work, because we decided we were no longer in response mode to COVID, but actually talking about how we’re going to operate our business. Then we started to realize we have more work to do in optimizing our work environment for this new reality. That’s what we’ve been working on.
How does that work for QAD?
We have a program team, made up of a number of sub-teams that are working on all sorts of things. Everything from how onboarding and off-boarding changes, to what do we do around community and connection and collaboration? What are our rules of engagement? What do we tell managers? What do we teach managers to do? How do we manage the little things like home allowances and stipends to support our employees who are now permanently potentially working from home, etc.? All those things take a different shape in different geographies. So it’s quite complex.
There’s this whole cohort of kids (class of 2020-21) who are in their first real jobs. They’ve never really worked in an office or never met their co-workers in the way that most people do. Is there anything you’re doing at QAD to address that culture?
You’re pointing to an issue that’s probably on my mind the most. We’re all aware that you learn a lot from working alongside others. What’s interesting is this generation is also the kids who have gone through school virtually, and even before COVID hit, from an entertainment perspective, or a bonding perspective, these kids lived in more of a digital online world than their parents certainly did. So I’m kind of watchful and curious about it. I’ve done some reading that would say that actually the kids find it less of an issue than the older generation does; they’re used to operating this way with each other. So they find the gap’s not as far.
Now, that being said, the truth is that in a virtual world, in order to sit next to somebody or learn from somebody, you have to make an appointment. You have to be on a call shadowing; you have to set up a meeting to be a part of that. So I wouldn’t say we’ve developed a full strategy yet. But absolutely, we’ve been thinking about ways to facilitate mentoring.
With the move toward virtual first, will you have an office?
Although we’re moving out of our big fancy HQ facility, we are going to select and secure a smaller-scale local space primarily for collaboration. One of the concepts we’re using is rethinking the office as a place that you go to. The office is a place where groups get together to do periodic collaboration, whether it be planning, training, or maybe it’s just a couple days a quarter where your team gets together to bond. There’s lots of reasons why now you can intentionally get together. But that means we redesign our spaces for that purpose, rather than to come sit at a desk.
We’re in the middle of reshaping our office strategy so that we have different versions of the offices. Santa Barbara will shift because what we have right now is very much a come-sit-in-your-office complex. The new space will be one that’s designed around collaborative meetings and engagements. We haven’t given up completely on a local space to bring people together.
I would imagine that virtual workplaces will be a very robust topic for your HR colleagues everywhere.
I’ve been in HR now 25, going on 30 years, and I think it’s a grand experiment, right? Some of us have picked the left fork in the road. And some of us picked the right fork in the road. They both have pros and cons. They both have their difficulties, and we’ll see how the world shapes up.
But I think people will self-select into the work environments that they prefer. We’re all competing for talent. We’re making bets on which work environment we think will attract our particular workforces. I think it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime experience and none of us know the answer.
Speaking of talent, for Santa Barbara, do you become open to hiring people all over the place?
Virtual first, not just for Santa Barbara, but for all of our locations around the globe, very much opens up where you can hire talent. So for example, we have space in Mexico City, but we’re building an engineering team down there, and we’re really hiring them wherever we find them. If you’re gonna go virtual first, you want to take advantage of one of the big pros, which is that your potential talent market for hiring is much larger. In the war for talent, which is definitely what we’re in, there’s not enough people to do the jobs. This is a definite advantage.
We do find people will specifically pursue job opportunities with us because of our election to go virtual, for sure. But we’ve also had people who have said, “I really like to be in the office at least three or four days a week with other people. So it’s not for me,” and they’ve just opted out. We’ve absolutely seen that happen in our recruiting process, which is kind of interesting. Back to the grand experiment.
Read all of Leslie Dinaberg’s stories in our special issue, “The Way We Work,” here.
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