Published in Economic Development

YETi CGI’s experience offers lessons on productivity for virtual collaboration

BY Sunday, May 10, 2020 05:54pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Josh Freeney has a decade-long head start on all the professionals who are just now being thrust into a situation where they’re working remotely. 

Freeney, a co-founder of tech firm YETi CGI Inc., and his partners have been working on projects from various parts of the country since the company’s inception. 

Josh Freeney, co-founder of YETi CGI Inc. COURTESY PHOTO

“For us, this has been business as usual,” Freeney said. 

In that decade of remote work, Freeney and his partners have learned myriad lessons about how to collaborate effectively and be productive by leveraging technology. One of their key lessons is that video conferencing  — including software like Zoom that has become part of the post-COVID-19 office lexicon — “doesn’t get the job done.”

“The companies that have not been focused on remote collaboration and productivity are being sold a bill of goods around remote communication,” he said. “What you’re seeing is all of these companies right now are being handed tools like Teams, Zoom, things like that. Their schedules are filling with meetings, and the productivity is tanking, and the ROI is going to follow.”

The reason: Being on video conferencing for hours on end is exhausting and leads to burnout, and does not create an environment conducive to collaboration, according to Freeney. Instead, he recommends turning off the camera, maintaining an audio connection and leveraging a shared whiteboard platform such as Loom, Miro or even a Google Doc where all the people involved can participate simultaneously. 

Freeney said those collaborative platforms are more productive and useful than situations in which one person shares a screen, “which turns it into a presentation.”

“It took us four years to get to what we call the ‘nod-and-grunt’ level of communication over the phone,” Freeney said. “It takes a lot of practice because you have to recognize that you don’t have the capability of signaling with your hands or your eyes, so you have to actually create space in the room to think, so people can interrupt and go through the natural processes.

“If your remote session is not generating useful data, you are not working, you are talking about working.”

Perhaps the partners’ aversion to video conferencing could have been predicted by the intentionally low-profile company’s credo: “We’re the hairy guys in the woods doing all the work but there’s no photographic evidence.”

“You will not find the demo reel on our site,” Freeney said. “You will see a list of customers that’s fairly impressive, and those are all very real.”

The customer list spans recognizable brand names ranging from Google, Mattel, Crate & Barrel, and Fisher-Price, to Nickelodeon, Steelcase and National Geographic. 

As more companies pay attention to the need for collaborative user experiences created by remote working, YETi CGI has seen an uptick in business. 

“A lot of the cases we’ve been making have become a lot more palatable because we were talking about ‘what ifs’ before and now we’re talking about a lot of realities,” Freeney said. “The way I think about it is human beings need space to think, work and play. We just got cut off from a lot of those spaces right now. What that means is we need to invent new spaces. That’s what we see a lot of our customers coming in and trying to ask for, but they don’t actually know the words for it.”

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