It might be true to say that all great companies start in a garage, not quite with Otonomee… but it did start as a thought, around a kitchen table, a desire to change something that didn’t work, a desire to create a North Star, a common purpose, to achieve a different way of doing things.
Otonomee was created from one simple idea; to provide autonomy to employees and customers alike and in doing so, to solve a problem. In fact, to solve several problems…
In December 2019, Aidan exited as managing director from Voxpro/TELUS International after nearly 20 years in the BPO industry. He had worked with global players to provide outsourcing solutions, the biggest tech giants in the world had started small and had scaled……Stripe, Airbnb, Google. To achieve this, he had solutioned across the world, Europe, North America, South America, Asia. He managed thousands of people in large facilities but, he knew that something was broken and that he needed a solution to fix it.
In early 2020, the world changed dramatically.
A once in a hundred-year event in the form of the Covid Pandemic dealt society, how we lived and how we worked, a huge challenge to overcome. The pandemic forced us to retreat to our houses, travel stopped…in some sense the world stood still. We found ourselves at the kitchen table, the new board room you might say. The idea to harness the opportunity we saw unfolding in the BPO space, began to set seed. We looked back over our own careers, we had travelled the globe, some might say living the dream, airports were pit stops, big cities were where it was all happening and we told ourselves that the grind was the way of the world. Whatever it took, we did. If it didn’t work for our life...we had tough choices to make.
In my own career, I had faced those tough choices often. As a commercial lawyer, with ambition, I hit my first hurdle when I moved from Paris to Cork. Geography dealt a detrimental blow to my career advancement, talent was not a commodity that could move locations, it was fixed and restricted to large cities with thriving business districts. My job in Investment Funds didn’t exist and so I pivoted, I moulded into what was available in that market, but I knew I was compromising. I hit the second hurdle when a young family came along, 4 kids in close succession, flexibility to combine work with a very young family was not only frowned upon by law firms, it was viewed with shock. The answer quite firmly was that the Client would never stand for it.
However, we had noticed that in the years preceding the pandemic, that a change based movement had already been brewing within organizations. Personal technology and digital connectivity had advanced so far and so fast, that people had begun to ask if we really needed to be together, in an office, to do our work. Conversations were taking place about the division of work into task based work and collaborative based work and whether both streams needed to be done in the same location. Organisations were questioning whether culture was created and maintained by sitting in an office next to each or whether a disco ball, vending machine or a pool table, really were the big attractors that Silicon Valley once thought they were.
As the pandemic raged, the strategizing at the kitchen table became more focused. We recognised that there were several challenges for the BPO industry which were exacerbated with scale, instead of being solved. We knew from experience that the challenge for the outsourcer washow to attract, onboard and retain staff. The sheer size of the entity meant that it only attracted equally large customers, who required customer, language or technical support seats. The challenge for Customers was time, the need to scale was urgent and yet because of shortage of talent combined with the long relocation and onboarding time, this immediate response to their needs was not available. The option to outsource was not available to every customer – early stage, scaling businesses had no opposite number in this space.
The challenge for employees was that it was one hurdle after another, in some ways they were sold a dream, a promised land of milk and honey, however in reality they uprooted where they lived, only to arrive in a strange city with problems of its own - no place to rent, no direct transport. A large city can house millions of people but can also be one of the loneliest of places to find yourself. Trust in how to perform your work, autonomy to chose where you worked and flexibility to decide how you worked, (as I well knew only too well) was non-existent.
Commentators now say that the pandemic, while devastating lives and businesses alike, has been the single biggest driver of industrial change, some say since the Second World War. As Governments around the world directed all employees to work from their homes and not from the large facilities, global tech companies were forced to trust that the same calibre of work could be achieved outside these facilities, as from within them, without the need to supervise or clock in clock out. This was big. Huge.
Today, autonomy and trust seem to be mainstream corporate values. However, for large global organisations where employer employee relationships had been traditionally based on presenteeism or the “clock in clock out model”, being forced to trust that an employee would be productive at home was a huge concern. IT security was the other huge threat and in an age of cyber threats, this was a palpable fear for the large tech companies – their own inhouse tech was going to be put to the test.
Trust was the key driver of change here, a value that Otonomee was founded on. The concept was a brave one, just because the pandemic had forced the hand of play did not mean that there was an acceptable business comfort about this new norm.
Was it crazy in March 2020 to think that a digital outsourcing company could operate on a “geographically friendly” model, yes perhaps it was.
Was it crazy to think that you could trust people to deliver the best work because meaningful work happens where people find meaning, yes perhaps it was.
When I look back, I can only think of what Steve Jobs once said….
The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.