Remote vs office working for start ups

FounderFuel: Winning the tricky Office-Remote-Hybrid conundrum as a startup

“I want to get it right, and I want everyone to enjoy their job”

Bek, COO at Riverlane

That is the overriding sentiment when it comes to this challenging topic of Office-Remote-Hybrid work – and it comes with a burdensome weight of responsibility as a startup leader.

It’s been a hot topic for so many of our founders recently, so we hosted a dedicated Scaleup Session conversation just on that, getting founders together from across our FounderCircles to have down-to-earth discussions on how to approach it and what’s worked and what’s not.

This isn’t intended as a guide on this challenge – there’s plenty of reports and guides out there on that. Instead, we’re focusing on the pressing topics for startup leaders and the practical tips that came out of the session.

Through the discussion, what became clear is how much of an opportunity this represents for young dynamic startup and scaleup companies. It can be an opportunity to double-down on nurturing an infection culture, to truly empower your people as a leader and attract the top talent ahead of the big, slow one-size-fits-all corporates. So long as we reframe it as an opportunity.

No-one is finding this easy and there’s no right answer

In a world that is going through change, it’s normal to feel a bit at sea, and in a scaleup that just piles on another big thing to think about. Inevitably we start searching for the ‘right’ answer, and perhaps even the ‘final’ answer to give everyone stability – but there is no right answer, and probably no final answer either, given we’re still in flux.

So free yourself from that search and instead focus on finding your recipe for success – embracing the individuality of your business and look for what will get the best from your team. Many founders in the session are embracing ‘right for now’ too, running in phases to test and learn what’s working for their teams – something that’s much more suited to the dynamism of a scaleup team anyway, and also removes the pressure that this decision now is big and final.

Find the right recipe for your company

In a fast-paced growing startup, there’s an acute pressure to deliver and that requires everyone to bring their A-game. This brings the hotly debated topic of Productivity into the spotlight, but the results are far from conclusive. For some founders, productivity went up with WFH, for other’s it went down. It was different by department and even individual (life stage, living circumstances, even introversion/extroversion all came out as factors) – reminding us there is no one right answer. So the art here is understanding what delivers the best results for the kind of business you are and the kind of people you have. Here’s some questions to explore:

  • Productivity: What does productivity look like for your business? How can you measure it, has it changed and are there differences by team or department?
  • Location-dependencies: Are there certain functions that need specific facilities or benefit more from being face-to-face? (labs, R&D etc) Or being remote?
  • Time dependencies: Are there certain functions that need to be covered at certain hours (customer success, tech support)? It’s important not to mix role-flexibility with role-location, as some roles just require certain things like phones to be covered at certain times.

Your recipe should also consider what gets the best from your people – either at a company level or department/team level – something startups can do far better than big corporations. About 80% of founders in the session had consulted their teams on what was working and what wasn’t through culture surveys and 1:1s, to fuel their team planning.

They found stark difference by demographics, for example, younger team members (often in shared houses, or alone in one-bed flats) were struggling with wellbeing, whilst older life stages saw a wellbeing benefit from the newfound freedom of WFH. In essence, it’s best not to assume.

Short regular culture surveys have become a favourite for many, some factors to explore are:

  • How do employees feel their productivity has been affected by remote vs office locations
  • How motivated do they feel about their work right now (track over time)
  • How they feel about remote vs office working and what gets the best from them
  • How their wellbeing has been affected and why

One-to-ones can be used to add colour to top-line results and gain insight into the ‘why’ at an individual level. Many founders found really quick wins through this to improve how their teams were feeling and performing. This highly responsive approach makes teams feel valued and more connected to the company, and is rarely something big corporations can do meaningfully.

Conscious culture building is key

Overall, the majority of people feel positive about more flexible work locations with benefits outweighing the negatives, and this is clearly changing the employment landscape forever. However, 45%* worry over not seeing colleagues in person, and all of our founders had concerns about culture being impacted. This is particularly stark in high-growth companies with new hires all the time – some of our founders’ teams have doubled in size in the last year, and as a result have never actually met half of their team face-to-face.

Culture was already hard to put your finger on, let alone consciously create. With flexible work locations, there’s an added challenge that limits how any culture can spread through osmosis. But this can be an opportunity to define and spread the culture you want and need to perform, rather than leave it to chance.

First, define the building blocks of the culture you want (start with the behaviours that demonstrate them) then consciously build ways to spread it into the day-to-day ways of working. This proactive approach is helping some teams feel that culture is filtering through even more strongly than before.

“It’s all in the doing: Actions speak louder than words – it’s no good saying it unless you actually do it.”

As you’re building your company recipe, here are some aspects to explore for culture:

What would help everyone feel connected to the company mission and goals?

With less informal communication, and increased isolation, it is easy for this to slip which impacts motivation and goal-orientated decision-making. Seek out ways to share a CEO or leadership update that always aligns to the mission and shares key info team members need to know – this kind of transparency has been proven to increase how connected employees feel*. Many of our founders do this weekly or monthly and in a flexible work environment, it’s worth sharing this in multiple forms to include everyone – i.e. presented, as well as sharing a document on email or in your online workspace.       

Can you help growing teams know each other better?

With new members joining the team all the time, the change can feel overwhelming to existing team members and to new joiners it can feel lonely and siloed. By giving everyone the stage to share what they do and what their passions are you can help bridge this gap. Ideas shared include, weekly lunch-n-learns where employees share what they do in their role, or something they’re passionate about; or introducing User Guides to overcome those initial get-to-know-you moments.

Can you recreate those social water-cooler moments that build team rapport?

High trust, high rapport teams perform better, so it’s in everyone’s interest to add this to the conscious-culture list. Founders in the family are hosting away days to bring everyone together for shared experiences, and on a more regular basis, many host weekly or even daily catch ups over virtual coffee for the team to kick back and chat about anything other than work.

How can you bring the values to life every day?

Much like the mission and goals, the more these are embedding into the day-to-day the more they live and breathe effectively, and in the session we heard some powerful conscious-culture building examples that are helping existing team members and new hires soak up the values. This included the leadership team rewarding positive demonstration of the values, and an equivalent peer-to-peer approach, with team-mates sharing positive examples from their peers as part of an all-hands session. We’re also seeing a significant reprioritisation of values in the hiring process too, with interviews and exercises built around sharing and demonstrating team values to attract and validate the right people for the team culture.

Watch out on the wellbeing side

It’s well documented that burnout reached an all-time high in 2020. In Gitlab’s Remote Work report, lack of boundaries was a significant factor, with 42% admitting they struggle with maintaining boundaries, and this can be fixed with cultural decisions. Check-in to see if an expectation to be ‘always on’ has developed – do individuals expect instant responses to emails or messages? If so, defining the norms that you expect for your teams as part of a conscious-culture exercise can help everyone set their own boundaries, leading to everyone being more energised during work hours. Your leadership team really drive this by modelling the behaviours and norms too.

Embrace a new empowering way of leading

The increased focus on flexibility at work, demands a different way of leading and in turn a different way of employees leading themselves. The old command-and-control route of leadership cannot work in this new environment. The watch-word for the future is Trust. Trust that your people want to do their best job and trust that they will, wherever they are – empowering them to be self-directed.

Therein lies a leadership challenge – it is tough to take this leap. But we’ve explored before how autonomous, empowered teams are the highest performing – so there is an opportunity to use this current climate to fuel the personal transition.

The job of a startup leader then becomes focused on constantly keeping everyone connected to the vision and mission to inspire team performance; aligning everyone’s goals to the big mission to fuel motivation; and being an enabler to breaking down barriers, helping everyone stay on track along their individual paths (where our empowerment cycle comes in). In this leadership model, everyone feels trusted and wants to do their best work.

“Believe in the people: Inspire those people to be on board and to want to do brilliant things”

Mark, CEO BankiFi

This is where that competitive advantage over the big corporates really starts to kick in. Good hiring in a startup and scaleup has always leaned towards hiring on proactive attitude and drive, over experience or skills. So we have the talent to embrace this approach. Combine that with the big world-changing missions of a startup and we have a combination that big corporates can often only dream of.

Young dynamic companies can listen better, can adjust quicker and can understand and respond better to their people, creating an infectious culture of belonging. This is a giant leap ahead of those with whom you compete for talent. So embrace the individualism, bake it into the culture, and see it as a leadership opportunity to stand out as a company that people truly want to be part of and deliver for.

* GitLab’s Remote Work report 2021


Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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