COVID-19: One Year Later

Summary: One year after lockdown, Eko leaders reflect on a year of crisis, growth, and teamwork.
COVID-19: One Year Later

Responding to Crisis

One year ago today, Oakland based Eko and its employees found themselves in a situation they never could have anticipated. The coronavirus had grown to pandemic proportions and made its way to California. Then, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a state-wide lockdown, ordering everyone, save the most essential workers, to stay home and curb the spread of the deadly virus.

Eko co-founder and Chief Customer Officer Jason Bellet recalled the multi-faceted monster quickly developing. "There was this public policy emergency with our supply chain challenges happening at the same time demand was spiking, and the Bay Area was ready to go on lockdown. "

A year ago, most of the company's workforce was based in the Bay Area. About 30% of that workforce was in person, conducting final testing and shipping products to healthcare providers on the front lines anxiously awaiting the digital stethoscopes. But in March of 2020 public transportation was shut down, children were home from school, grocery store shelves were bare and a curfew was in effect.

"Navigating all that was a significant challenge, " said Bellet. 

Nicole Gaskari, Eko's VP of Administration remembers the scramble to change warehouse operations to keep essential workers safe.

"One of the things we did immediately was go on a hunt for PPE gear for our essential team members. At the time, masks and gloves were flying off the shelves. I think the next biggest hit was when transportation lines went down. We had team members that needed to physically be there, but there was no BART, there was no bus, " she said. 

With warehouse operations separated into two shifts to reduce exposure, employees were also working around the clock.

"They were coming in very early and staying late at night, so we had this additional fear that they could get stopped and told to go home, " Gaskari explained. "We wrote letters that said 'this employee is an essential worker as part of this medical device company.' "

The CEO's cell phone number was on that letter. 

The next order of business was implementing a work-from-home policy for all non-essential team members and making sure there was support for those employees. Enter Eko's Head of People & Places, Mandy Adkins. For six months before COVID restrictions upended both work and home life, Adkins had been focused on opening the company's new headquarters in Oakland, a much-needed office space upgrade where the company could grow to 100 employees. As it became clear things were not going back to normal anytime soon, she tackled human resources with creativity, flexibility and empathy. 

"I started managing employee benefits and onboarding, and just the entire employee experience. We took a look at our benefits and revamped them, keeping in mind that people mostly work from home now, so instead of perks like commuter dollars, we included mental health subscriptions and telehealth options. A few weeks into lockdown we sent everybody an herb starter kit and we all watched them grow together, even though we were all apart, " Adkins said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team was coping with record product demand, a new, all-remote work model, and personal lives in a state of upheaval.

"Every team was meeting every morning, " Bellet remembered. "We were messaging like crazy. On Wednesdays we would have a half-day session where we sat on Zoom together and worked through anything. Leadership sent out a lot of material on how to stay engaged working from home but also carving out time for self-care and family. "

Gaskari will tell you she doesn't have a playbook for how Eko pulled off the plunge into 'pandemic mode' with finesse, but in a way, she does. As companies across the world grappled with unprecedented restrictions and safety concerns, open source Google docs were being built on the fly, by communities of people in the HR field.

"You would go into an HR resources toolkit and see that there were 8900 other HR professionals currently viewing the same document, " Gaskari explained. "People were putting in their policies, templates of the emails they were sending, guidelines and links to news sources. It really became this time where everyone acknowledged that nobody knew what they were doing, but that together we would be stronger. We also came together as leadership. We were on the phone with each other pretty much the entire day, early mornings, late night, thinking through does this make sense? Are we sure we're doing the right things with the information we have? "

Eko leaders credit their ability to pivot and adapt quickly to being relatively small and tight knit. But that wasn't the only factor in play. During a time of incredible uncertainty, every employee shared an important sense of purpose: getting critical tools into the hands of front line healthcare providers.

Driven by Purpose

A large part of Eko's success story this past year comes from a high-profile sense of purpose in combating the pandemic. Early in 2020, all of America watched as New York's hospitals were overrun. On the news, doctors and nurses covered from head to toe in PPE charged through packed hallways and COVID wards.Victims were wheeled out under white sheets, on their way to overburdened funeral homes. At the beginning of what would become a year of national pain, mourning and anxiety, Eko workers were able to combat the feeling of helplessness.

"We had an extremely dedicated team that very easily could have said 'this is too risky for me,' but doubled down instead, " Bellet said. "I think our warehouse team and our supply chain team is intimately aware of the impact that our products have on physicians and patients. "

The sense of purpose extended to everyone involved in the Eko mission. 

"The way we were able to make a difference, shipping tools directly to frontline health workers has helped drive our team through all of this, " Adkins added. "We're all living through this stressful thing, but we're working for a company whose mission we care about so deeply. "

Of course the East Coast wave of the coronavirus last Spring was just the beginning. Over the summer, a nation-wide surge spread across the country as experts warned the Fall would see a dangerous spike if behaviors didn't change fast. That prediction proved true, with daily death tolls breaching 3,000 people as 2020 ended and 2021 began. In California, hospitals were pushed to the max, ICU capacity so high that some COVID patients were forced to wait outside in an ambulance for hours until a bed opened up. 

In the midst of the tightest restrictions in the country, Eko continued to meet skyrocketing demand.

"We immediately started to see the demand from our customer base, from health systems, and from individual clinicians, to have a stethoscope that could help them examine patients better, but help keep them safe, " said Bellet. 

The demand went beyond Eko's hardware line of digital stethoscopes, attachments and ECG monitoring. As the entire healthcare industry lurched into a telehealth-firstcare model, Eko's telehealth solution was suddenly a must-have. To keep pace, Eko found itself in a hiring frenzy along with everything else.

Doubling in Size to Meet Demand

When providers on the front lines started looking for tools to protect themselves and patients from exposure, Eko was waiting for them. For years, the CORE and DUO have been raising eyebrows and gaining popularity among clinicians. Some rave about the noise cancellation and amplification. Others are most impressed by the visualization of heartbeat waveforms on the Eko App, or the ability to record and save vital sounds for teaching. 

In 2020, the wireless factor became a game changer. With Bluetooth headphones, a clinician could screen patients without breaking PPE to put a stethoscope up to their ears. Even more remarkable, a clinician could livestream a patient's vital sounds to a provider as close as the next room, or as far as thousands of miles away.   

"In a way, we got really lucky, " Bellet said. "We had products and a business model that fit this new world. In fact, this virtual-first world was one that we'd been advocating for years. Then suddenly we saw in six months an acceleration of telehealth that would have taken ten years pre-COVID. "

Eko's customer service team tripled as the company was flooded with interest.

"The number of people that were calling in was off the charts, " Gaskari said. Even though she hadn't worked customer service for six years, she leapt to help cover the phones until the company was able to implement some automation.

"We actually created a segmented tree within the phone library to guide people through using Eko products specifically for COVID-19. "

The biggest challenge became hiring. Company leaders were faced with the need to onboard dozens of new employees and have them work remotely, but keep Eko's culture and continuity in place. 

"How do you take a culture of 50 people in an office in Berkeley, California, and then overnight you're going to be a virtual company and double or triple the size of teams without breaking every process that's in place? " Bellet asked.

Gaskari remembers skepticism was high. "There was uncertainty about how we were going to be able to maintain things like culture and connection to the company and the mission and to each other with a fully remote workforce, " she said.

Today, she describes the process as a learning curve, and one that Eko came out of bigger and better. Each employee was welcomed and integrated with care. Virtual team building easily slid into the space of in-person team building. The frenzy of the initial few months calmed down into a manageable workload for each person, the company implementing no-meeting Wednesdays and one Friday off each month to combat burnout. Managers also followed up with each new hire around 30 days after coming on board.

"So far, all of the employees who started fully remote have managed to feel the same connection to the work and the people that I think I felt seven years ago when I joined Eko, " Gaskari said.

Bellet credits the smooth growth to hyper-awareness that every team needs to become in-sync fast.

"I think ultimately we grew very effectively due to every team opening up their arms and being over-inclusive towards new team members, " he said. 

Adkins is also pleased by the feedback she's getting from everyone who has onboarded fully remotely.

"People don't have very high expectations because they've never gone through it before, and they're pleasantly surprised when it feels smooth and they feel welcomed. "

It's one of several unexpected silver linings to transitioning to remote work. Another advantage is being able to tap into talent pools across the country instead of relying on applicants in the Bay Area. 

"Purely from a recruiting and team building perspective, it's been a huge advantage for us to hire folks all around the country and soon all around the world, " Bellet shared. "We would have had to embrace that anyway, but to do that faster will save us a lot of pain down the road. "

Meanwhile employees don't have to deal with things like long commutes, hard-to-find parking, or distractions that might crop up in shared office space. Eko is fully embracing a future that is virtual-first. The challenge now is emerging from restrictions with grace and transitioning to a model that harnesses the best of both worlds: physical and virtual.

Office Space Time Capsule

California's statewide lockdown went into effect on the day that Eko was set to open its brand new office space in downtown Oakland, a move months in the making. Adkins described it as a major stepping stone for the company, both in maturity and size.

"We built out the whole space with our brand. Then no one ever saw it, " she said.

Adkins entered a strange limbo that now feels normal: the state of not knowing, of being in a holding pattern while the world changes around you.

"It was a weird moment in time for the company, but also we weren't sure what was going to happen, so I was working on maintaining the office and figuring out how we could reopen in the summer, " she recalled.

That never happened. Month after month, the boxes employees had enthusiastically packed gathered dust in the new space. At one point, Adkins opened each box, sent pictures to the owners and asked if there was anything they wanted or needed. Some employees had moved across the country. Some were suddenly juggling work while supporting kids in virtual classrooms. Many didn't remember the items they'd packed before the COVID roller coaster swept them up.

"There was some really random stuff. Lots of dog toys, dog beds. Desk photos. Snacks. Opening each of these boxes was like unwrapping a moment in time. The whole office is like a time capsule actually. "

Eko plans to open its Oakland office as restrictions ease, but it will look vastly different than everyone was expecting. To start, remote work doesn't have the negative stigma it once did. 

"There's no going back, " said Bellet. "People have proven to themselves and their team leadership that they can be just as productive at home.

Some are also finding that despite the distance, they feel closer than ever to co-workers.

"You have people's cats that will jump up on their shoulder during a video call or you see partners walking in the background, " Gaskari described. "All of a sudden you're in a person's living room and it's a co-worker that you may have seen every day, but you get to see them in a different way. "

At the same time, boundaries are being redrawn. Managers are striving to strike the right balance, and in many ways, they are letting employees lead in that process.

"We're listening to employees and seeing what hybrid work model works best for them. There are undoubtedly people that are going to choose to return to the office five days a week. But I think the vast majority of the company will be using our headquarters for collaboration purposes and mainly working from home. In the next year, we're going to see people identifying for themselves what the ideal workplace looks like, and we're going to support and adapt to that. " 

Bellet points out that COVID has pushed leaders in a lot of industries to rethink how best to do things.

"We're not always going to have a pandemic to force us to pause and think big about how we could be doing things on a much different level. It forced many companies, including ours, to figure out what we were doing really well, and what we could optimize. What's unexpected is against all odds, from every perspective—from the output of our supply chain, the quality of our product, the volume of marketing, the sales revenue, the customers we served—on every benchmark, we improved. "

One year later, hope and optimism is starting to replace fear and uncertainty. With three vaccines now approved in the U.S. and case numbers headed down, the company is looking forward to a retreat where everyone can emerge from their individual bubbles and celebrate the work they've done.

"My hope is that we can get the entire team together for an outdoor barbecue, " Bellet said. "It's going to be a sunny day and there's going to be a band playing and delicious food, and I'm going to meet the sixty-some people that I haven't met in person yet. It's funny to end a discussion on the future of virtual work by saying I hope to see everyone in person, but I do. I think the future is a combination of virtual and in-person, and I'm excited to meet it somewhere in the middle. "