At Terramera, the founder and his team have shifted to a blend of remote and onsite collaboration
We asked prominent members of the B.C. business community what they’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic—and how this crisis will change everything from work to leadership. Karn Manhas is founder and CEO of Terramera, a Vancouver-based cleantech agriculture firm.
For B.C. businesses that have survived COVID-19, what’s the most important thing they can do right now to make themselves more resilient to future disruptions?
Mindset is key. Putting the health and safety of employees obviously comes first. And once that has been secured, our approach can be summed up by something Rahm Emanuel said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste….It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
Disciplined flexibility is also important for resiliency, which means staying focused on your longer-term goals but being nimble in addressing short-term challenges like COVID-19. Companies that take this approach can more quickly pivot to address challenges and find opportunities that help them not just survive but thrive.
Finally, it’s important to trust and empower your team, especially during a disruption like COVID. We set up a Back to the Future Task Force to reimagine how the future of working could work, and the vision they created is a blended, flexible and exciting approach.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the pandemic?
That we didn’t actually need the traditional office environment and hours to succeed. Leaning on our team for input, we made numerous changes in support of the new normal. As a result, we’ve moved to a blended approach that allows our labs and tech team to work onsite safely, we’ve doubled down on automation and, for the rest of our team, [moved to] a mostly remote work environment with smaller offices available via a bookable desk system.
The vast majority of our team reports levels of productivity at least as high as or higher than pre-pandemic. We learned that some employees thrive best with nontraditional hours. Some like to come into the office for certain tasks and connection. But trusting our team to be the smart, productive and innovative people they are and allowing them to take more individual paths toward our goals has been an important takeaway for Terramera.
Is there one aspect of your business, or business in general, that you think has changed for good or that you won't be going back to doing the old way?
The traditional office-only environment. We’ll be more flexible and employee-forward about the work environment from here on out. And any office space will be more integrated with our labs, growth chambers and working spaces.
The ability for people to connect from all around the world will change our ways of working in the near term and beyond.
There will be increasing automation of work and experiments so the talent on our team can use their focus and minds on innovation and commercialization.
Over the next few years, how do you expect work to change as a result of COVID?
We’ll need to preserve and reimagine all the creative processes that used to take place in offices and in front of whiteboards. Being on video all day can be exhausting. Spontaneous energy is the source of inspiration for many people, so finding the right mix of technology, tools and collaboration to support innovation in our teams will be essential to maintaining robust R&D and discovery.
With more remote work, we’ll be able to better access global talent pools which is an exciting development. Remote work also allows some team members to be more flexible in where they live, bringing life and economic value to smaller communities that may be struggling. Tools to adapt to a more remote workforce will be essential.
Looking ahead, what leadership qualities will be most in demand?
Leaders who can demonstrate disciplined flexibility, ensuring cohesion, engagement and accountability toward key objectives, while empowering their teams to shape and drive their ways of work, will be in high demand.