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Taking your start-up fully remote? Reallocate office savings towards what’s missing

A few months ago, I caught up with a start-up CEO who told me he wasn’t sure what the return to office would look like for his company. Like so many others, his 25-person company had become fully remote when the pandemic hit. They opted not to renew their lease when it came up and told staff that they'd figure out some sort of office space down the road. In the intervening 12 months, they started getting job applicants from far afield and were amazed by the wider pool of talent they could now access.

This is a familiar story. It’s tempting to be seduced by the great talent you can access without physical borders, and the savings realized without paying for fixed office space.  As we know, few things are really free. Sometimes, when you realize savings in one area you may incur a hidden cost down the road.

My advice to companies contemplating staying fully remote is to engage in this thought experiment:  think about the positive elements that an office enables and then brainstorm ways to compensate for, or replicate, them.

Some of the things that might emerge are: 

  • Connection- getting to know people outside of specific work purposes 
  • Fostering relationships across silos, that build empathy for when collaboration is needed, and inevitable competing interests emerge
  • Cracking tough problems with collaborative working sessions, punctuated by breaks of chatting and snacks
  • Having a space to gather for training, team-building, town halls, and shared meals
  • Serendipity- finding commonality in unexpected ways, especially in liminal spaces

Some of these things actively contribute to feelings of affinity, belonging and acceptance amongst employees.  The Gallup Q12 employee engagement survey, likely the most popular engagement tool in the world, includes one seemingly unusual question “do you have a best friend at work?”.  Gallup’s research found that when employees have a deep sense of affiliation with their peers, they tend to take positive actions that benefit the company, actions they may not have otherwise even considered, and they are more apt to stay put.  So it follows that without building intentional opportunities to build bonds, our work becomes less social, more utilitarian and thus, less sticky.  Places with great people that you get to know, learn from and feel connected to are harder places to leave.

Without a physical space, how can we still gather, connect, build relationships and ultimately, build empathy?  During the pandemic, we have all tried to find virtual solutions out of necessity.  Soon, more (and arguably better) options will become available for those leaders who choose to intentionally design for the benefits of the office, without the office.

Here are some ideas for designing your future work environment (virtual or physical):

  • Build in slack.  Allow time and opportunities for connection and fostering relationships.  Don’t make all your interactions only about work, make some of them about learning and caring about each other. An example is starting all meetings with a check-in question that everyone answers.  This has the dual purpose of helping people transition in their focus and presence into the meeting, and also allows folks to get to know new things about each other.  Building in slack time also means that we have time to help someone understand, teach them something new, give them background info before meetings, etc.   
  • Commit to regular team building activities and retreats.  A common pattern companies fall into is having a small group of committed social committee members plan and promote fun stuff.  Often few leaders show up, and many people feel too busy to peel themselves away from the work and participate.  Leaders must role model attendance at social or team-building events because, although they are not directly about the work, they lead to building relationships, trust and empathy, which will make doing the work easier, better and often more enjoyable.
  • Set up drop-in virtual break or lunch rooms. Just like team building and social activities, the key here is ensuring senior leaders periodically show up to these drop-in social settings.  Being accessible, and not too busy to get to know and catch up with team members and peers, can contribute to a climate of equity and belonging. 
  • Renting space.  Consider experimenting with having some kind of co-working space available. If not every day, then at least weekly or monthly for informal gatherings, all-staff meetings, collaboration sessions, or simply a change of scenery.
  • Travel budget.  If you have staff located in different cities, then plan to bring them together on some regular cadence, maybe once or twice per year.  It’s amazing what meeting and spending time together in person can do for the depth of relationships.  This is an investment that yields dividends and needs to be topped up annually at the very least.

Sure, there will be lots of exceptions, and being understanding of individual constraints and ways to adapt will continue to be important.  You might hire a developer from Winnipeg, who can’t travel to your biannual retreats because they are the sole care provider for their child.  You will adapt, accommodate, and cross that bridge when you get to it.  Through it all, budgeting, planning and maintaining the spirit of building and investing in relationships, are the things within your control as a leader.  Those who choose cost savings over intentional design will incur the costs of poor engagement, weak ties and turnover.

Author: Gaby Fisch, People and Culture EIR