Like you, COVID-19 wasn't in our 2020 plan. But on March 11, it inserted itself. Within a few hours, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the NBA shut its doors, and Tom Hanks announced on social media that he had COVID-19. 

We quickly had to reassess our 2020 plan, revise our budget, and decide how to operate as a company. At the time, we couldn't foresee the magnitude of COVID-19's impact. But we prepared for the worst and planned accordingly.

Now that we're four months into the pandemic, I wanted to talk about how we chose to navigate it. I hope to spark others to share their approaches and experiences so that we can learn from each other and emerge more robust and resilient as a community. To this end, here are the four key principles we used as a guide:

1. Prioritize health

Our team's physical and mental health is our top priority. So on March 12, one day after the WHO declared a pandemic, we announced that starting March 13, our company would operate remotely until further notice.

The majority of startups in Toronto waited a few more days before making this decision. We didn't see the point. It seemed unavoidable, and waiting even one more day would have put our team at physical risk.

But the physical risk isn't the only risk COVID-19 poses. At BenchSci, we recognize the importance of our team's mental health and wellness and invest accordingly. COVID-19 has made this even more urgent. Mental health is at an all-time low. Many employees report high levels of burnout. A number of our team members now have two full-time jobs: working at BenchSci, and taking care of their kids 24/7. Others have been isolating alone in small apartments for months, not seeing anyone. 

So, to further support our team's mental health and wellness, we rolled out the following:

    1. A free subscription to Headspace for all employees
    2. A doubling of available free sessions with our our in-house coach, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology
    3. Regular mental health check-ins with every employee by our People and Culture team
    4. Workshops on managing burnout and stress
    5. A mid-year mini-break, with an additional vacation day after Canada Day that will be available from this year forward 

2. Come from a place of trust

When COVID-19 hit, the venture capital community was very open with its predictions. They immediately recommended that portfolio companies increase their runway to a minimum of 24 months.

Our investors were no different. We had closed our B round just before the COVID-19 pandemic and hadn't deployed the vast majority of funds. We needed to change our plan for that deployment, cutting our budget to extend our runway by six months.

We had two options for this. Option 1: Our Head of Finance and I could go into a meeting room for a few hours and cut everything that wasn't mission-critical. Option 2: We could be transparent, convey the situation to our leadership team, and ask them to work with their teams to make cuts with the least negative impact on business results.

We chose the latter. We scheduled an emergency meeting with our leadership team, explained the situation, and asked for cuts to spending that wasn't mission-critical to achieving our annual goals. (We were adamant about not reducing the ambition of those goals, as we have a responsibility to serve customers working to find a cure for COVID-19.) 

The result of coming from a place of trust was 50% more savings than I could have accomplished with our Head of Finance. And we did this by not letting even one person go due to COVID-19.

3. Be 100% transparent 

We understood that COVID-19 wouldn't have only a devastating impact on the world's health, but also on the economy. And we recognized that uncertainty about the economic impact would be on everybody's mind. If we didn't provide our team with information, they might assume the worst.

So in alignment with our core value of transparency, we were open with our team about things that many other companies avoid discussing. When we announced going fully remote, we communicated our financial health down to two decimal places. We presented our runway, cash balance, revenue projections, planning scenarios, and what we decided to cut to extend our runway. Being open with this information was one of the best decisions we ever made. Everyone appreciated the trust and transparency, and we heard that it increased people's connection to the company. (Click here to view a public version of the presentation.)

To continue this transparency throughout the pandemic, we also set up weekly townhalls in which people can ask any questions they have. We facilitate this with an anonymous form. It's clear from the range of submissions we get (everything from requests for recipes to calls for details on our reopening plans) that being open inspires others to be open, facilitating the transparency we desire and value.

4. Act with speed but don't blindly follow trends 

Speed is one of our core values at BenchSci. But we won't sacrifice making informed, responsible decisions to be fast. We see many trends in the industry regarding work from home and work from office policies. Many companies have made long-term commitments to go fully remote with little data. While we understand that the world will be different post-COVID-19 than before, we aren't rushing the process of making important decisions. This email I shared on the subject sums up our perspective:

Hi Team,

We are all living at a time of uncertainty. Many of our friends and family members don't have clarity about their health, livelihood, and the future of their work environment. This leads to a higher level of anxiety and stress. Since your mental health is our top priority, we would like to provide more clarity on what is to come regarding WFH vs working from the office (WFO).

Our guiding principle here at BenchSci is ensuring our team's safety and health. Therefore, even if the province lifts all quarantine restrictions, we will allow our team to keep working from home at least until 10/1/2020. If we are able to go back to the office beforehand, we will enable that for those who chose so while following the recommended guideline. For parents and other caregivers, we recognize the situation may be more complicated, and we will provide the flexibility needed to continue caregiving as long as schools, daycares, and other facilities are closed or otherwise unable to care for your dependents.

While we would like to provide you with more clarity around the future of WFH vs WFO at BenchSci, we can't do that at this moment. We need more time to gather information. This decision will impact the future of our company and we don't take such decisions lightly. What we can do, is provide more transparency around our process, thoughts, and timing. Please see below:

  • We will make a decision by early Q4 this year
  • In this process, our mission is to create a work environment that reaches the highest level of productivity to enable us to make an impact on the world's health while maximizing our team's health, safety, and happiness
  • The past few months have shown us that we can work well remotely
  • Working remotely has its challenges. Mostly with communication, forming relationships, motivation, and energy. This is something we need to address before making a long term decision
  • Working together will get more complicated when some team members are WFO and some are WFH
  • We were probably too focused on WFO before. A better balance and combination of WFH and WFO is the right decision
  • We will not follow trends and hasty decisions of other tech companies. We will find a structure that works best for BenchSci's unique culture



With all of this said, I don't claim that we've been perfect. For example, we were perhaps too optimistic in the beginning about how soon the pandemic would resolve, and thought we could return to the office earlier. But by developing guiding principles that reflect our core values, we've been able to navigate the pandemic while keeping our people healthy and our customers equipped to fight the virus. 

I would love to hear how other companies have addressed the pandemic's challenges. So if you have examples or ideas to share, please do so in the comments.

Written By:
Liran Belenzon (he/him)