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Advice for startups on going fully remote: Not so fast

It’s tough to cultivate and maintain a strong corporate culture from employee living rooms, home offices, coffee shops, cars, and closets, says this VC. And it could cost you, in the end.

Advice for startups on going fully remote: Not so fast
[Photos: SamuelBrownNG/iStock; Peppersmint/iStock]
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The big question on every startup CEO’s mind right now: what’s the best way to build now that offices are opening up and remote work is optional, not mandatory?

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Other forms of this question include: Should I bring people back to the office at all? Should I allow people who have moved away to keep working from wherever forever? Should I change my company’s hiring policies to allow for a specific percent of remote staff, or keep it undefined? Is my industry and/or business model truly built for a majority remote workforce?

While there’s no one answer or path forward, there’s certainly a lot of debate swirling through corporate Zooms, meeting rooms, conference calls, and work chats. On the one hand, keeping office-related overhead and expenditures low enables companies, especially early stage ventures, to apply those funds to engineering, business development, sales, operations, and talent retention or recruitment efforts. On the other, it’s tough to cultivate and maintain a strong corporate culture from disparate living rooms, home offices, coffee shops, cars, and closets. Startups—and, frankly, any company—could lose revenue or business opportunities, along with current and future staff as a direct result.

Startup founders and CEOs considering a remote-only future should chart their own path, but it’s vital to understand what other companies are doing. If you take one thing away from this: don’t leap to remote-only before taking a look around.

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A framework to guide the decision

Here is a framework for how to think through this decision and communicate it in a way that gives your team clarity:

  1. How many offices are you going to have? 1 to 3 is a good number for a Series A or B startup. 
  2. How many employees will be expected to come into one of your offices at least one day a week? 80%? 
  3. How does one earn the ability to be one of the 20% who doesn’t have to come in weekly? Is it based on certain kinds of roles, or granted after someone has demonstrated they can create output from a remote location? 
  4. How many days a week will non-remote team members be encouraged or expected to come into the office?
  5. How often will your fully remote team members be given an opportunity to fly into HQ or another office for a larger offsite—or simply, to get to know their colleagues in-person? 
  6. Will you employ fully remote team members in other countries? Keep in mind that this does add legal and other employment issues that you’ll want to make sure you’re set up to handle.
  7. What are opportunities for advancement and leadership for a fully remote employee? What are those opportunities in non-HQ offices? A fully remote employee would be less likely to be promoted to executive leadership at many organizations before the pandemic. Further, it was often difficult to even be in a management role as a remote employee. You’ll need to think through how this will work at your organization—especially if 80% or more of your team returns to an office.

Putting the question into real world context

A majority of eligible people in U.S. cities, business hubs, and adjacent suburbs seem to be opting for the COVID-19 jab. In Marin County, over 85% of adults have been vaccinated. In New York City, it’s also over 85%. In San Francisco, the number is closer to 70%, but it’s ticking upward. Other tech hubs like Austin have a ways to go (~36% of adults). The numbers vary county by county and business hub by business hub, but the trend is toward a large number of Americans and U.S. residents getting vaccinated—opening the door to a complete return to office and regular life. 

Huge firms like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Salesforce, and Google all have clearly stated policies that point to a return to headquarters and hubs with at least 80% of employees onsite.

For employers, the return to work situation is swiftly becoming company-defining. Huge firms like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Salesforce (with a must be vaccinated clause), and Google all have clearly stated policies that point to a return to headquarters and hubs with at least 80% of employees onsite. Countless other organizations are in the process of deploying fresh policies mandating that a majority of their staff return to in-person work versus allowing a large portion of employees to sign on from rural areas and cities far removed from hubs. While there’s room for hybrid or partially-remote work options across industries and company sizes, it’s already clear that big business is hoping for a majority workforce return to HQ or hubs. 

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For CEOs and executive teams, in particular, it might be a relieving exercise to look at the books from 2020 and marvel at the savings from little-to-no office-related overhead from March to December. Some might be rethinking whether to sign another 10-year lease in the center of Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Seattle. Many will think long and hard about how to balance giving employees the freedom to work from wherever if necessary with bringing a majority of their workforces back to headquarters or office hubs around the country.

For many employees with remote-workable jobs, it’s going to be tough to let the inherent flexibility and freedom of a 5-day WFH schedule go. For others, a return to an office will bring a welcome break from wifi bandwidth competitions, virtual meeting distractions, and the general unpredictable cadence of WFH life. A fair number will push for a hybrid schedule category—living close enough to company HQs and regional hubs to go in 2, 3, or 4 days a week and WFH the other days. 

Startups: Consider what others are doing

My advice for startup CEOs, in particular: don’t rush to cancel signing a lease or disperse HQs and regional hubs because companies like Coinbase and other fundamentally remote-first companies are doing it. For one thing, Coinbase’s business model is inherently decentralized because cryptocurrency, and the technology that powers it, is too. It’s tempting to save money on office leases, but there’s a reason companies have been willing to spend so much to get teams together in person, at least sometimes.

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If you’re going to follow in a company’s footsteps on this issue, I suggest looking at Google as a pragmatic example. Pay particular attention to CEO Sundar Pichai’s approach to outlining (on multiple channels including with a Twitter thread), communicating, and thoughtfully updating the company’s return to work policy. And note that he left room for 20% of Google’s workforce (27,000+ people) to stay remote. While this hybrid policy gives Googlers new flexibility, requiring employees to come into the office a few days a week means most of the workforce will live within commuting distance to an office.

You also want to get a hybrid work policy out to your team now so that you don’t suddenly find that 80% of them can’t easily get to one of your offices a few days a week.

On that note, team members that have permanently moved to places like Vermont, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico or Hawaii should be welcomed to stay on. Talent-oriented policies informed by the pandemic should be designed to designate remote staff as full team members. There is no need to dismiss or disqualify people because of their location. But you also want to get a hybrid work policy out to your team now so that you don’t suddenly find that 80% of them can’t easily get to one of your offices a few days a week. Make it clear that living somewhere further out is an option that is available, but it has to be discussed and agreed upon so that it doesn’t exceed 20% of the workforce–or whatever guideline you want to set.

On a tactical level: When delivering the new or updated workforce policies, startup CEOs and founders should prioritize clarity and transparency. A company’s official announcement needs to be made in a way that leaves little-to-no doubt about what the following weeks will entail for staff—especially people being asked to return to the office. If you’re going to allow everyone to be eligible for hybrid work schedules, for example, be upfront about whether or not absence from HQ or another hub a few days a week will impact career advancement opportunities. If you decide to go fully remote but think you may change your policy within 6-12 months, tell your staff so they don’t make life decisions based on a temporary reality. 

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Coming to terms with an uncertain future

Startup CEOs debating whether or not to return staff to HQs and hubs should keep in mind that while the severity of the pandemic’s impact on human life is undeniable, society will persist—and so will business. Returning to the office in one way or another is a natural extension of that reality. The workforce was distributed out of necessity when COVID-19 spread around the globe in early 2020. Thanks to the wonders of science, along with an increasing number of adults receiving vaccines, we’re in a position to bring people back to the office on a grand scale as early as today. 

Regardless of rank, every person with a desk collecting dust or a job that once required onsite presence in some form is bracing for a company update that will outline the path toward returning to ‘normal’ (in whatever form that takes). Timelines, schedules, and levels of flexibility will differ from organization to organization. But I see a majority of companies reopening office doors and welcoming back a majority of their employees by the end of 2021. 

As Fred Wilson so eloquently put it, there aren’t right or wrong answers to these questions. This is brand new territory. However, most startups that we are talking to now sound like they are returning to a hybrid model with at least 80% of the team coming into 1 to 3 offices (or more if the company is larger) at least 3 days a week. Most are allowing for up to 20% fully remote employees, but there are some limitations on those roles. 

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Mike Ghaffary is a general partner at Canvas Ventures, where he invests in innovation for consumers and software. Previously, he was a partner at Social Capital, cofounder and VP of business development of Stitcher, VP of business and corporate development at Yelp, and director of business development at TrialPay.