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What startup founders are saying on creating sustainable work cultures

The director of Slack’s venture capital arm shares advice and insights from its group of startup founders for 2021.

What startup founders are saying on creating sustainable work cultures
[Photo: fauxels/Pexels]
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The start of this new year marks an opportune time to reflect. While we’ve all happily waved goodbye to 2020, business leaders still face a great deal of uncertainty as we turn the corner.

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In my role as the head of Slack Fund, Slack’s venture capital arm, I have the pleasure of speaking with and supporting entrepreneurs and startup founders, as part of our mission to to invest in and collaborate with the next great wave of enterprise software companies. Since starting up the fund in 2015, we’ve made more than 85 investments across North America and Europe, including companies like performance management software Lattice, virtual event platform Hopin, and digital whiteboard Mural.

In recent weeks, I’ve spent additional time with many of our founders in the Slack Fund portfolio, digging in on the issues that are top of mind as 2021 starts to take shape. As we consider what the future of work looks like—whether permanently remote, in-person, a hybrid format, or something else entirely—these conversations took shape as incredibly vibrant, including many unique perspectives on the “next normal.”
Moreover, the survey acted as a barometer of advice and insights for all the founders. These results revealed the biggest lessons each founder learned in 2020, as well as the opportunities that lie ahead.

Here are what founders considered at the top of their list of priorities this year.

Create equitable employee experiences

There’s no doubt that nurturing amazing work environments became much more challenging last year. Gone are the days of the on-site gym, free lunches, or in-person happy hours. Fostering equitable employee experiences remotely is top of mind for our founders. About 83% of the founders surveyed agree that keeping employees engaged and connected to their work has been a major challenge.

As founders embrace a hybrid or fully distributed future for their companies, they’re rethinking the environments they create for their team. One focus has been giving employees more control of their experience, with benefits like flexible working hours and home office stipends.

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Amy Spurling, CEO of Compt, a company that empowers businesses to offer more flexible benefits, shares, “Previously if you were lucky, 10% of the team used the perks you brought in. [Now,] I think we’re swinging over to a much more healthy dynamic between companies and employees, which I’m pretty excited to see.”

As employees take more ownership over their experience, we’re also seeing more flexibility in work schedules and policies. My colleagues at Slack’s Future Forum, which a new consortium dedicated to helping leaders and businesses thrive in the new economy, found that breaking free of the 9-to-5 schedule and working a flexible schedule is one of the biggest indicators of happiness in remote workers. On top of that, employees with a flexible schedule reported a better work-life balance, and scored nearly twice as high on our productivity index.

Cultivating company-wide health

Building a company is a challenge in itself, never mind doing it during a global pandemic. Our founders are well-aware of the importance of physical and mental wellness—for themselves and for their employees. More founders are embracing coaches and therapists than ever before, and many lean on a peer group of fellow founders for support in tough times.

And they’re adapting employee benefits to match. Akshay Kothari, chief operating officer of the digital workspace company, Notion, shipped each of the company’s employees a work-from-home set-up, complete with standing desks and ergonomic chairs. Notion also bulked up the company’s health insurance plan so employees could virtually see therapists and coaches.

“It was really well received,” Kothari says. “Personally, my work-life balance became more of a work-life harmony. I make sure to block off time during the day to be a good husband and dad.”

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Be bullish on hiring broadly

Our founders remain focused on building their business, with more than eight in ten identifying growth as their key focus for 2021. Two-thirds of Slack Fund-backed companies plan on growing their workforce by more than 25% this year.

Growing headcount while remote has been challenging, but it’s not been without new opportunity for many founders, including Dan Manian, CEO of Donut, a software company building team connections. He tells us, “We’ve been thrown into fully remote, which has been really hard. But on some level, it’s pretty equitable; we’re all stuck in this screen together. By embracing remote work, we’ve flattened the earth a little bit. We can hire someone in Dublin and ensure they feel just as much a part of the team as someone that’s sitting in San Francisco.”

Use technology intentionally

Leaders are increasingly turning to, along with building new tools to automate manual work and refocus their teams on high-leverage tasks. At the same time among founders, there’s a growing acceptance there are too many tools out there and some consolidation is inevitable. Clearly, new tools should be centered around the existing operating systems of teams.

Iba Masood, CEO of Tara.AI, a work management software, has built her company around improving workflows for developers. “When we think about the future of work, we need to think about how to make the individual users’ lives easier,” she says. “It’s about meeting people where they already are. The best platforms will function like layers on top of things that already exist.”

Notion’s Kothari agrees: “I see a future where software gets more consolidated, and that makes people a lot more productive. People are looking for fewer tools to do their work.”

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Plan the workplace of the future

The majority of our founders believe the changes of the past year will have a lasting effect. While there will be a mini-renaissance of in-person work when the world is safe, remote work—and all the challenges and opportunities it brings—is here to stay. Recent research from the Future Forum found that 72.2% of knowledge workers want a hybrid remote-office model in the future. And for founders, nurturing that environment demands thoughtful leadership.

Donut’s Manian sums up: “I think hybrid is going to be messier. It’s going to present new challenges [and] opportunities for how we build relationships equitably, foster inclusion, and work productively together.”

After setting aside some extra time with our founders to deeply explore their priorities for 2021 and beyond, the future of work sounds more exciting than ever. Of course, there will be challenges along the way and new problems to solve. But with thoughtful, empathetic, leadership and innovative technology, we’re moving towards a more inclusive, equitable future that will benefit a larger number of people


Jason Spinell is an angel investor, an advisor, and the director of the Slack Fund, which invests in and collaborates with the next great software companies building the future of work. Previously, Jason was the ventures director at Undercurrent, and the cofounder at Precog.