A laptop showing employees in a virtual meeting

Reopening vs. Remote-first: How Three Companies Are Handling Their Return To Office

In the post-pandemic remote work debate, Apple is taking a firm stance: its employees must return to the office, whether they want to or not. 

“We believe that in-person collaboration is essential to our culture and our future,” said Apple VP Deirdre O’Brien after Apple employees sent an internal letter requesting a more flexible work policy, reports The Verge. Despite this internal resistance, the global tech giant still has plans for its staff to return to the office at least three days a week. (The initial reopening date has been delayed due to concerns about the Delta variant, but the company intends to enforce in-person work once it’s safe to do so.) 

At the other end of the spectrum are companies like Twitter and Facebook, which are allowing employees to work remotely forever, so long as their jobs can be done virtually. Salesforce, too, has embraced a flexible approach, offering employees a menu to choose from, including flex, fully remote, and office-based. 

When you’re choosing how to proceed with reopening, there’s a lot for founders to consider—especially with the Delta variant keeping us all on our toes. Do you need to delay your reopening plans? Should you mandate vaccinations, like a growing number of big companies (among them, Google, Disney, and Walmart)? Will you have to hire a lawyer to review your facilities policy? 

But deciding to go permanently remote doesn’t let you off the hook either. How will you maintain a cohesive culture as a distributed team? What opportunities can you create for team bonding? 

There are no easy answers, but there’s a lot to learn from peering into the thought process of other leaders. We sat down with three OpenView-funded companies: a hyper-growth company that decided to keep their home base; a young upstart that banned full-time in-person work; and one whose founder firmly believes having an office is “a huge, horrible distraction.” 

Read on to discover the reopening challenges they’re facing and how they plan on solving them. 

Encamp: Every office is a satellite office

Encamp, an environmental compliance platform, has always had an on-again, off-again relationship with remote work. “When my two co-founders and I started the company, we all lived in different parts of the country,” explains CEO & Co-founder Luke Jacobs. Later, they got into an accelerator, which co-located the fledgling team in the same geographic space for the first time. When they raised some money, they got an office, because that’s what they thought they were supposed to do. 

But Luke doesn’t look back on his time in the office with fondness. “I’m not gonna lie, it was a huge, horrible distraction,” he says. “We moved four times in a year because the company kept growing.” Worrying about facilities and logistics took his focus away from building the business. 

“If you want to pay attention to something that is not actually solving problems for your customers, and focus on buying couches instead, get an office,” he jokes.  

The pandemic actually offered him a welcome opportunity to break free from the tyranny of office logistics—and he discovered they never really needed one, anyway. “I would say, we actually are much more efficient as a distributed organization,” he says. “We got a lot better at written communication and documentation too.” When people are less able to hash things out in informal communication, they have to put it in writing. 

The work culture has improved too. “Straight up, it’s a much more inclusive space,” says Luke. “Culture at early-stage startups can be dominated by the loudest voice in the room—which is almost always a man’s. Not that we’ve had big issues with that, but it does even the playing field—it doesn’t matter if you’re tall and have a loud voice, because who cares? What are your outputs?” 

So Encamp has decided to make their distributed setup permanent. Though, that’s not to say the company won’t be providing any physical workspaces for their team. 

“We just opened our first post-pandemic satellite office,” Luke says. “I’m not opposed to actually having in-person locations, but the default is a distributed model. That’s why I like to say ‘distributed’ not ‘remote.’ There is no HQ to be remote from. Every office is a satellite office.”

Instead of having a main office, their plan is to rent out portions of coworking spaces, which is cheaper and more flexible. “We want to give people options,” Luke says. “Our philosophy is that, in locations where we have a critical mass of employees who want to be in offices, we’ll get these lighter-weight offices.” Additionally, they’ve provided employees with a distributed working stipend so they can upgrade their home office setups. 

While it’s pretty much an ideal setup for his team, Luke admits there are certain factors that made it easy for Encamp to maintain its distributed status quo. “I think it is much more viable to be distributed if you have a more senior workforce because you have people who are probably better at self-managing and don’t need as much direct mentoring,” he says. 

But also, with a more senior team, he argues that it’s almost impossible to not provide that option. “When you get into the 30-40 set, people have kids, they have aging parents, they want the flexibility,” he says. “There is a massive attrition risk for any company that says people have to come back to offices because it’s very invasive on people’s lives. People will leave—and they can go elsewhere pretty easily.” 

Pipefy: Two streams for different needs

Pipefy—a workflow automation company based out of San Francisco, with its biggest office in Brazil—was one of the first organizations in the city of Curitiba to close its doors when the pandemic struck. As Brazil grapples with a third wave of the virus, reopening is not an immediate possibility. 

The team is waiting until everyone has had a chance to be fully vaccinated, which likely won’t happen until late 2021. They’re also debating whether they’ll require proof of vaccination, which is tricky as the Brazilian supreme court hasn’t yet ruled on whether employers are allowed to request it. 

But even once it’s safe to return to the office, Pipefy’s work experience will look very different from before. “Before the pandemic, our office had four floors with a lot of people. We had the dogs, the parties—the genuine startup experience,” says Finance and Workplace Experience Manager Alessandra de Oliveira. 

Going remote was a big change for the nearly 500-person team, but not an unwelcome one. “We’re in a pandemic, of course, but it helped us achieve a better work-life balance,” says Alessandra. “When I lived in Curitiba, I spent so much time in the office. Now, I spend more time with my family and my dogs. I take better care of my health.”

It also helped ease the logistical burden for the growing firm. “Every year we would need to rent a new floor because we’re growing so fast,” says Anelise Pereira Müller, Workplace Experience Team Lead. “It was like, ‘Next month we’ll have 30 new employees. Where will they sit?’ We don’t have this concern anymore.”

Buoyed by their success, the company was inspired to make their new remote setup permanent. “We wanted to create a remote-first culture,” Alessandra says. “We want to be a global company and have employees around the world—and also give our employees the freedom to travel and have a balance between Pipefy and their personal lives.” 

So, they overhauled their contracts and created a new model of work with two distinct streams. “We have two options—one totally remote, and the other a hybrid model where you can go to the office or coworking space,” says Anelise. “With the first, you never come to the office—just if we invite you for a special event, in which case we’ll pay all the travel expenses.” (For both options, employees receive a home office stipend). 

In the hybrid model, employees won’t have a fixed desk; they’ll have to book a desk for day use through online software. If a spot isn’t available on a given day, they’ll work from home. And employees aren’t allowed to come in every day. “You can come into the office three or four days a week, but not every day,” says Anelise. In part, it’s due to the labor laws in Brazil. Employment legislation is written in such a way that covers totally in-person and remote employees, but not hybrid ones. As long as employees don’t come into the office every single day, they’re legally considered remote. 

It’s also a way of instilling the remote-first mindset in the company. “If we allowed employees to go into the office every day, the remote-first initiative won’t be as strong as we envision it,” says Alessandra. “When we open the office, we need to take care not to let cliques form or to let people make decisions without others because they’re not physically present.” There needs to be equal participation from all employees, regardless of whether they’re in-person or remote. 

How is the team taking it? “It’s funny because we have some people that live in Curitiba who used to go to the office, and are remote now. They don’t want to go to the office anymore.” 

JumpCloud: Remote-first with a home base

Before the pandemic, cloud directory platform JumpCloud was an entirely in-person company with offices in Denver and Boulder—not that CMO Cate Lochead had a chance to experience it. “I actually joined JumpCloud about a week after Colorado shut down,” she laughs. What she did get to experience was the uncertainty of those early lockdown days. Much to the leaders’ relief, the team coped with remote work just fine. “Not only did it work, but in some ways, it actually worked better,” she says. “People were more productive.” 

The shift to remote work also opened up new possibilities. “You can open up your talent frontier,” says Cate. And over the course of the pandemic, they took full advantage—hiring aggressively from around the country to quadruple their team’s size, from 100 to nearly 400 employees. That led them to re-envision themselves as a remote-first company. 

But when reopening became possible, many employees expressed a desire to return to the office—particularly since many had never even met in person. The solution the team came up with was to stay remote-first, but also eventually reopen their office as an optional home base for co-working. (They’re proceeding with caution due to the Delta variant.)

It will require a few adjustments—for instance, they have to update their conference room technology to ensure it’s set up for remote collaboration—but ultimately the extra effort will be worth it. Employees have the autonomy to make the best decision for themselves, whether that’s continuing to work remotely, coming back to the office, or some combination. 

That said, JumpCloud will place some restrictions on folks returning to the office. Because the government guidance has been pretty open-ended, they will rely on their in-house legal counsel and consultations with other companies to craft a policy that works for them.

“For any responsible employer, the number-one concern is people’s health and safety,” says Cate. “And I think of that as not only physical, but also emotional.” Employee wellbeing is at the center of all the decisions they’ve made.  

While they aren’t going to require proof of vaccination (they don’t want to pry into people’s personal health decisions), they will be requiring all in-person employees to sign a health and safety waiver. Anyone who comes into the office must also follow all active CDC guidelines—which will mean masking and physical distancing, at least as long as those recommendations are in place. 

But the joy of seeing employees connecting is worth the extra hurdles. “What I really enjoyed in the reopening is hearing about the gatherings that are happening ad hoc with people outside,” says Cate. “All these new people have started and have a shared desire to build connections. It’s just heartwarming.” 

Office culture, reworked

If these conversations with three very different companies show us anything, it’s that the pandemic has fundamentally shifted the way we think about how we work. Where we do our work, who we’re with, and how we engage with our teams are all questions open for re-examination. Pandora’s box is now opened and it’ll be difficult—if not impossible—for hold-outs like Apple to force employees back into the way things were before.

Carina Rampelt
Carina Rampelt
Senior Writer and Strategist at Fenwick

Carina is an Oxford-educated literature aficionado turned Writer & Strategist at Fenwick. In her off hours, she’s a knitter, daydreamer, and aspiring yogi. For timeless wisdom on writing in the workplace, join the Fenwick newsletter: www.fenwick.media/newsletter
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