Revolutionising workplace culture
While tech shares nosedived, data distribution company WANdisco’s market cap more than doubled during 2022. Founder, President and CEO David Richards tells Lysanne Currie about the big change that turbo-boosted productivity, and how to get the UK economy growing again
David Richards is thinking about property. He’s sitting in Sugworth Hall, the 17th-century Peak District manor house he bought and began renovating in 2019. Richards is now based in the UK, having relocated from San Francisco owing to a combination of the pandemic, his daughter attending university here and a conversion to remote working that saw WANdisco switch to a permanent four-day week. This morning he has been reviewing all WANdisco’s property holdings. The reason? “We don’t believe people will go to an office to sit behind a desk anymore,” he says. “The world has changed radically.”
Sheffield-born Richards co-founded WANdisco – short for “wide area network distributed computing” – in 2005 and floated in 2012. As with all tech companies its ride has been rollercoaster, but it ended 2022 on a high. Its share price has more than quadrupled in value since early May, soaring by 105% on the year as a whole – and that in a period when the tech giants took a stock-market battering. Analysts predict good times ahead: “Its prospect for growth looks quite exceptional,” says one. It has begun the year making business press headlines with a £7.2m contract to provide data migration services, from on-premises to the cloud, to a global manufacturing brand.
So Richards is entitled to be optimistic as he starts 2023 – a great new customer, happy shareholders and a good company vibe, which has seen productivity rise, due mainly to the new four-day working week. While some tech firms are demanding employees return to the office, WANdisco is going the other way. Richards admits he wasn’t immediately sold on home working. “I never believed people could work remotely,” he says, “but then Covid hit and I had to. I was running an international software business from the Peak District. I was more efficient, more productive, more focused. I realised I could do my job from anywhere.
“Before, I assumed any meeting had to be in person. I must have lost hours of my life on trains, fighting through central London. But it’s not just the working time, it’s the stress and mental pressure – I was travelling internationally every two weeks. I can now do 20 times more than I did previously.”
Richards’ personal experience kickstarted a change in culture at the company, but one of organic and collaborative development rather than overnight diktat. “When the pandemic hit, everybody had to work from home. It turned out we were already kitted out for people working remotely,” he says. “Productivity went up 50% straight away. People were working too many hours – they were filling their time by working because that’s what they were interested in doing and there was nothing else to do. Some learnt about art or other culture but most didn’t. They just worked.
“We needed balance, so we introduced ‘Poet’s Day’ every other Friday. I asked HR to organise, for example, the best quiz. We had one guy who was a very keen photographer – he took really close-up images, and people had to guess what they were. On Zoom we had open rooms that people could come in and out of.”
Next, the firm banned internal meetings on Fridays, a decision which started to take it down the path to a four-day week. “Then we just went all-in and said, ‘Right, this is a four-day week.’ And it’s not five crammed into four,” Richards says. He insisted his teams worked regular days the rest of the week, but with further changes: meetings are 45 minutes maximum, and the individual can choose when and if they go to the office.
Which is why Richards is now focusing on property. “We’re going to have loft-style meeting spaces and we’re getting rid of all our buildings that are in boring industrial parks,” he says. “Who wants to go there on their in-office days? Our spaces are going to be in city centres – so their office days can be social. They’ll plan to come to work and then meet friends afterwards. For some people, it’s not feasible to work from home, so we want to make sure their place of work is an exciting place to be. What we get back is enormous.”
As befits a tech company, WANdisco measures everything from coding efficiency to project milestones. “We know productivity grew immediately – even 20% would have been amazing, but it went up 50% – but the mood was boosted, too. The effect of having a three-day weekend [most people take Fridays off, though it is theirs to choose] brings that refreshed, just-returned-from-vacation feeling. It’s like that every single week. It’s nice and our attrition is zero,” he says.
“It’s psychology – people feel a connection with our business and we trust them. And of course they like the work. It’s like a sports team – the most successful ones like what they’re doing. And people do want to do other things with their time, even if it’s just life admin, appointments and such. The hidden efficiencies are enormous – it means people really keep focus at work.”
Richards’ approach to his property search is twofold: “We need an office where you can feasibly get everybody in, but not behind the desk. We’re using a metric that we would get about 25% of the people in the office at any one time.” And he’s resolute about an urban HQ. “I firmly believe city centres will make a huge comeback,” he says.
His aim is an office space akin to “a cool apartment with a coffee shop downstairs”; an environment to stimulate creativity because, as he says, “people are coming into the office not to sit and work alone at a laptop – it’s to meet, throw ideas around and discuss strategy. Our spaces need to nurture a different energy now.”
Reasons to be cheerful
“We’re going to try to do something that has never been done before,” says Richards. “Normally a software company goes through start-up, then the growth phase which needs lots of capital because you’re investing in this enormous sales team. Growth comes at significant cost. But what if you didn’t need to do that? What if you could get hyperbolic growth alongside huge earnings? That’s the Holy Grail. That’s what we’re aiming for this year.”
Paradoxically, WANdisco may be helped in its quest by the tech slump, which saw the sector suffer its worst year since the dotcom bubble burst at the turn of the century. While Mamaa (as the big five – Microsoft, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Google parent Alphabet – are now known) are laying off staff by the thousands, smaller companies are benefiting from the influx to the jobs market. For Richards, who has spoken before of his frustration at the giants hoovering up the best talent, it’s a refreshing turnaround, both for his company and the global economy. “The world has all sorts of interesting problems in computer science, but we’ve been putting these great brains to getting more advertising clicks,” he says. “Now we see some being made redundant, while others question whether they want to work with those companies. It means start-ups can hire the people who weren’t available before. It’s good for the sector.”
Richards believes better tech would be a shot in the arm for the UK too. He says the structural challenges facing the UK economy “have been around for a very, very long time”. One is education: “We don’t teach a skill that is useful for industry,” he says, “and industries aren’t geared up for training. That is a severe problem. I get frightened when I compare us with Germany, for example – their manufacturers are undertaking humongous projects in data science and machine learning and artificial intelligence. I see very little evidence of that in the UK.”
Richards is working with Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to teach data science skills to manufacturers. “But if I wasn’t doing that, I don’t think anything would be happening,” he says. Likewise, he feels VC is run by risk-averse number crunchers rather than visionaries. “Let’s please go back to rewarding innovation and risk taking,” he says. “The VC industry needs people with vision and the government needs to create massive tax incentives for overseas funds to invest here.”
Britain, via Sheffield, was once the world’s biggest steel producer by far, he says, thanks to a generation “that didn’t stop innovating and inventing stuff. But that culture is gone – we have to get it back. We have to create software engineers at a rate we’re not currently doing.”
Richards doesn’t just shout from the sidelines – he has poured resource into solutions. “Fridays is for my philanthropic work,” he says. He and his wife have set up the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation to boost tech and computer study in schools, with a strong focus on creative applications of data science. They also launched Laptops for Kids, sourcing donations, according to need, of 15,000 new and used devices for schools across northern England. (He was recently awarded an MBE for services to IT and young people.)
Then there is his EyUp, “a proud Yorkshire venture which is creating software developers, generating jobs and investing in start-ups across the north”. EyUp Skills runs a 16-week full-time coding course; EyUp Jobs helps graduates find their ideal roles; and EyUp Ventures will provide start-up capital, investment and operating experience to new companies.
“It’s the umbrella thing. It’s great when the sun’s shining – but the UK needs more umbrellas when it’s raining,” he says. “To create companies, we need the raw materials – the people. And then we need to invest in them. You need both to make it work.”
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