Six Strategies: This Is How Founders Are Returning To The Office

Picture this. You’re a founder. The world’s been turned upside down by a strange disease. But there’s no such thing as remote working and the internet doesn’t exist. Your weekly routine involves heading to the office with your team, despite the risks.

That was 1918.

Fortunately, startup CEOs today are better equipped to cope with the pandemic, mainly thanks to WFH – working from home. Remote working has been vital in keeping teams going and companies moving in the past 6 months.

Then Boris Johnson lifted the lockdown and encouraged us back to the office. But now we’re working from home again.

Understandably, most founders are trying to make sense of the uncertainty. (Not to mention, grappling with what the “Rule of Six” actually means.)

Still, many startup leaders are planning how to return to the office once we get the all-clear. Which means they're asking themselves:

  1. “Shall we even go back?”
  2. “If we do, how shall we do it?”

Helping you make sense of your options

This is the first time anyone has navigated a WFH-to-office transition. So we surveyed a sample of 31 founders from our portfolio to find out how they’re tackling the return.

Read on to find out about:

  • Founders’ feelings on returning to the office
  • The role of remote working, and
  • Founders’ plans for going back.

How founders feel about returning to the workplace

Working from home is not working for everyone

Before Covid-19 hit, nearly all startups were mixing WFH with time in the office. In fact, you’ll probably know of some teams who already treated total remote working as the norm.

But for many, long-term WFH has made collaborating hard. Office vibes have been replaced by Zoom fatigue. And employees without a suitable home office set-up have struggled.

You might be tempted to just “get back to normal” and pick up where you left off. But this unplanned stay-at-home experiment has changed the way people think about where they work.

To return or not to return?

Sure, nearly a third (28%) of CEOs we heard from have gone back to the office (at least part of the week) or will do by mid-October. At Forward, for example, we discussed the pros and cons, had an independent risk assessment done and have now been half-office/half-WFH since the start of September.

But the other 72% of founders in the survey are in no rush.

Some 21% are aiming to be back before the end of the year while 28% are waiting until the first half of 2021. I’d assume some are holding off for a few reasons:

  • total WFH is working well enough for now
  • some CEOs are rethinking what kind of office they need
  • some are pausing to see how the next few weeks pan out.

Then there’s the 21% of teams who aren’t even planning to head back before the start of 2022.

My sense is some of those CEOs will probably never go into a company office again unless they absolutely have to. Once you’ve adapted to all-remote working, maybe gone through a remote hiring process and got rid of your lease, full WFH will likely become permanent business-as-usual.

Whatever you choose, no one is pushing an office-only approach: 100% of founders will continue with some level of WFH for the long-term, with 8% even making some amount of remote working compulsory.

The role of remote working

The ins and outs of WFH

For first-timers, going full WFH was never going to be seamless. But many have adapted so well – despite the initial hurdles – that we found a few remote-working converts in the poll.

For example, one founder saw how much her company gained from the new set-up, revealing “the shift to complete WFH … has enabled our business to perform better than ever. There is no way we’re going back to the dark ages”. That echoed another who said “the benefits have been huge”.

These positive reviews matched up with the group generally too: 46% of founders have seen WFH boost team productivity and 35% noticed employee morale was up.

One CEO told us that “since going remote and changing our company processes, our employee eNPS score is the highest it's ever been”.

Still, the move to a remote Monday-to-Friday hasn’t been good for everyone: 10% of the group felt their teams were less productive and 28% sensed their colleagues’ morale had dropped.

Same, same but different?

What’s interesting is this: some CEOs felt the lockdown had no overall impact - 42% felt it didn’t change productivity and 35% saw no difference in team mood.

There’s a curious nuance to dig into here though.

For example, take one startup founder who said “morale has been affected, yet [it’s] not … been negative or positive. It has been different”.

Another CEO felt similarly too, mentioning that “enforced WFH has had a net neutral effect on productivity and morale – bad for team comms, cohesion & culture, great for work-life balance … not quite the same as no effect”.

Of course, full WFH can be amazing for some teams and working in the office isn’t a must. But let’s remember that some teams really value a physical HQ, even when long-term remote working could work out fine. We heard from one CEO who said the lockdown shift had been “broadly positive” but “we’ve lost something by not being together in person”.

Maybe your team collaborates best that way. Maybe training new joiners has been a struggle. Or maybe the vibe just isn’t what it once was.

Whichever it is, enforced WFH has uncovered something new: teams who may have never tested long-term remote working now know what’s possible. Startups have a choice. As one CEO put it, “the ‘one size fits all’ […] approach [is] over. COVID has forced us to give people autonomy and it works”.

How founders are planning to return to the office

First, here’s an idea of what we’re doing at Forward to give you some context (you know we’re a startup too, right?).

Forward’s approach

The 2:3 hybrid model

Forward have opted for 2 office days (Monday and Tuesday) and 3 WFH days.

Since we share the office with a few companies in the portfolio, we’ve gone for a "2:3” model so they've got space to come in the other half of the week. Wednesday is open if we need to be in the office for meetings or run interviews, but it’s generally a WFH day along with Thursday and Friday.

In terms of hygiene, we’ve adapted to some new rules too.

  • We’re sitting at alternating desks and we’ve limited how many people can be in communal areas so we can keep 2m apart.
  • We have our own designated desks, equipment and mugs to avoid sharing.
  • Visitors have to have temperature checks and fill in COVID-19 forms.
  • Meeting rooms are at 25% capacity.
  • We sanitise shared items after we use them (like meeting room equipment).
  • We have deep cleans between Forward office days and portfolio office days.

The plan isn’t set in stone though: we’re ready to adapt the model as restrictions change.

The CEOs’ return strategies

Let’s now shed light on some of the CEOs’ return strategies.

  1. Make the return optional

More than half of founders in the poll (57%) are offering their teams an “optional return” to HQ – at least initially.

As one CEO put it, this means opening the office for “people who want to return, to return”. Another told us the “majority of the team would like the option to come involuntarily when they want”.

Even if this eventually transitions into a mix of remote and office time (see below), “a very remote-friendly […] core model” is a popular approach.

One CEO said “regardless of Covid-19 we'll have a remote-first culture. Going to the office is optional, apart from regular scheduled meetings”.

  1. Combine WFH with compulsory office days

32% of the CEOs we polled are going for a combo of WFH and compulsory office time.

This could be for many reasons. For instance, 39% of the poll are worried about a gap developing between people in the office and those working from home. So office days will get teams working together again in a way they couldn’t online.

Others may want to bring back the buzz and energy from before lockdown.

One CEO is going for the hybrid model to solve her “biggest challenge”: “integrating new starters without being in one place regularly”.

Whatever the driver, a common approach is “making some days mandatory”. One founder is opting for “summits twice a quarter where we bring everyone together” but many in the poll told us they’re introducing 1, 2 or 3 compulsory office days per week.

  1. Keep your distance

How you open the doors again will also depend on how big your office is.

You might be lucky enough to “have space to have everyone sat 2m apart so [we’re] not restricting numbers”. But not everyone has that option.

Some CEOs have responded by cutting capacity and brought in “weekly scheduling” or a “sign up and rota basis” to make sure their teams have enough room to keep their distance.

  1. Kick start team collaboration

A common theme in the poll is the importance of in-person collaboration, particularly between individual teams. Yes, a digital whiteboard session can be productive but CEOs also want to return to using the “office … as a collaboration space”.

If there’s room, this could mean getting the whole business together for “regular scheduled meetings”.

Otherwise, one CEO is offering “earmarked days for different teams”.

  1. Listen to your team

Certain team members won’t speak up if you don’t ask them. And some plans – like childcare – will change as Covid restrictions ease or return. So going back to the office raises an obvious (but easily overlooked) reminder: find out how your colleagues’ preferences are evolving.

It might be sensible to follow this founder’s approach: “We're reviewing again at the end of this month and being led by […] team surveys”.

  1. Rethink real estate

All the CEOs in the survey are considering their real estate too.

Many are taking on short-term leases either because “it’s impossible to know how much office space” they’ll need (67%) and or they predict “rents will go down next year” (21%). Only 12% are getting a long lease.

To put that into context, one company is “retaining the small office and giving up the large office when the lease expires”. Another is opting for a smaller office space “probably with WeWork flex passes so we can get everyone in the same day”. A third is getting office space for roughly “1/3 of the company”.

So now is the time to decide whether you really want to sign for that 5-year lease. Or opt for something like “WeWork flex passes”, as one founder is doing.

“The genie is out of the bottle”

If you’re set on WFH for the long-term, keep calm and carry on. Otherwise, plan carefully – and flexibly – for the next few months.

One founder in the survey mentioned the “genie is out of the bottle”. As much as we might want things to settle down and go back to how they were, we’ve permanently entered new territory: widespread WFH is here to stay.

So with the next few months still up in the air, be ready to follow one founder’s strategy: “Adapt as we go”.

Startup CEOs know the importance of staying agile.

5 key takeaways:

  • 21% of founders aren’t going back until the start of 2022.
  • 46% saw their teams’ productivity increase in lockdown.
  • 35% saw team mood improve with WFH.
  • 32% are going for a hybrid office return - some compulsory office days, some WFH.
  • 100% are continuing with some kind of WFH.
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