Roundup: Thriving in the world of hybrid work
Even though the future remains uncertain, here’s how four CEOs are embracing new approaches to work in 2022
After nearly two years of working from home, many CEOs are more than ready to go back to the office. It just makes work better, they say.
But what the CEO wants, what workers want, and what the state of COVID requires don’t always line up perfectly. Landing on the right strategy for work is an artful balance of all of the above. What’s clear is that while a “new normal” is still very much in flux, companies are developing policies and models for where and when work will take place, and supporting their employees’ well-being along the way.
We asked four CEOs of SoftBank Vision Fund 2 companies how they’re making it work.
Utmost flexibility, backed by careful planning and clear expectations
Forto CEO Michael Wax says the pandemic upended his thinking on workplace matters. Before, he thought requests from employees to work remotely were a ploy to procrastinate. “I always thought they were looking for an excuse to do errands or laundry,” he says. “I was very, very old-fashioned when it came to that.”
After two years of being mostly remote, Forto, which has headquarters in Berlin and offices in 15 cities across Europe and Asia, is now settling into a hybrid approach. Workers are free to work from anywhere two or three days per week and are expected in the office on the other days.
“We give our people the utmost flexibility,” says Wax. “At the same time, though, I believe that if you don’t make it your job to create some FOMO for people who are not in the office, productivity and engagement amongst people will suffer.” Forto is building some of that FOMO by making the office a hub where people can work in a cool and modern space along with healthy supplies and recreational activities such as yoga. “We strive to build a space and atmosphere that our employees almost see like a second home—a place to be and hang out with friends and colleagues,” he says.
Wax expects Forto’s bottom line may take a hit, but feels that’s just a cost companies will have to face. “It is already expensive to keep up the experience level you need in order to be top of the pack,” he says. “If you want to do an excellent job, it can be slightly more expensive [to be hybrid]. You will have people traveling from all over the world to come together. You may be able to save 20–30% on office space, but now you have to provide home office setups. There are a lot of investments to think about for this hybrid growth future to make sure you’re staying competitive in the hiring market.”
And Wax says flexibility has to have limits, or it will be harder to get things done. “You need to plan ahead way more. When I closed the 2022 schedule for the entire leadership team, I said: ‘This will be our cadence of meetings. These will be on-site. These will be off-site. I expect you to be in Berlin on-premise, no matter what in those 15 weeks, and please make it work.’ We’ve got to agree to a certain schedule because otherwise it will be impossible to plan accordingly. You’ll have 60% of the people on-site for a workshop and the other 40% are working across three different time zones. It becomes a nightmare to really run something creatively and productively. Planning ahead will become truly more important to be more competitive.”
Creating a home away from home with a “clubhouse-first” approach
Across the English Channel, Peak CEO Richard Potter is taking a different approach—and if it catches on broadly, it may kill both the cubicle and the open office plan. The AI technology company has chosen to turn its office into a “clubhouse,” an approach inspired by both coworking spaces and private, members-only places like Soho House.
“We decided to design a home away from home, a place you want to be,” says Potter. “It has to give you energy.” Peak’s clubhouse has pods for quiet work and soundproof rooms for phone calls, as well as ambient music, a gym, a cafe, and a bar. Employees are expected to be there at least three days a week
“You have to work quite hard to get people to try it, but once they do, it sticks,” Potter says. In an internal survey, 82% of employees reported that they like it, and 75% said it has helped them to be more productive. “You’re never going to have 100% of people saying they prefer clubhouse to all-remote or something else,” he says. “But you should definitely be able to get people saying that it impacts their productivity positively, towards 90%, I think. So that’s an area of improvement for us.”
To win over more employees about the benefits of its approach, Peak is adding privacy around desks, offering shoulder-high screens for Zoom and other amenities. The company has hired a “host” instead of an office manager, to emphasize the importance of employees’ comfort and experience.
Making the case to workers has been a nuanced endeavor. “It’s hard to explain to people that we need you in the office because you might have a chance meeting with someone,” Potter says. “But you have to say this is the mission of the company, and this is the culture we’ve built, and we think it is amplified by being together. And that having listened to everyone’s views, this is what we’ve settled on.” It also helps, he says, when managers are in the office, because teams will usually follow.
Generally, Peak won’t hire applicants who want to be fully remote, with exceptions made for specific skill sets or roles. “For us, it’s an acknowledgment that we know what we want to do and where we want to take the company,” Potter says. “We might miss out on some talent because of that, and I think that’s OK. But I think we’ll also attract a lot of talent because of it, because folks have realized they don’t want to spend their careers entirely at home.” And for those who yearn for more remote time, Peak is offering a concession: workers are allowed to be remote for four weeks per year, on top of vacation time.
Managing high growth in a remote-first environment and putting a premium on employee well-being
Extend CEO Woodrow Levin says going “remote first” has had its challenges, especially when it came to onboarding staff as it grew from 14 employees to 450 in the past two years. But the San Francisco–based company, which makes it easier for companies to offer product protection, plans to remain remote first going forward.
“We were growing so fast, but we didn’t have a formal onboarding process. I think we could have done a better job there. Now we do,” Levin says. Now, all new hires spend an hour with each department via video, meeting people and learning about what each team does. “Spending more time on getting our new team members up to speed faster through a more formal onboarding process would have been a good investment for us,” Levin says. “Not just because we get more output, but because they feel that connection to the company faster. If I knew then what I know now, we would have invested more in the infrastructure to support our growth remotely.”
Being remote first has also compelled Extend managers, and Levin himself, to put a sharp focus on taking the pulse of his workforce to track employees’ morale and well-being. “Understanding people’s happiness, their engagement, their burnout levels—that’s difficult to do in a remote environment. You need to be proactive in reaching out to people. At the beginning of each year now, I set up 15-minute 1:1 video meetings with 15% of the company across multiple levels. I ask them: How are you doing? How can I help? What can I do better? How are you feeling? Did you take some time off? When are you going on vacation? We’re a 450-person company. We’re not going to fail if someone goes on vacation. They need to know that.”
But while Extend will continue to be remote first, as pandemic restrictions are easing, Levin hopes employees yearning for face-to-face interactions with colleagues will be ready for some amount of in-office work. And that comes with its own challenge: Extend needed an office, but how big should that office be? “We’re sort of playing the numbers here, knowing that everyone won’t come to the office at the same time, but we feel that having a hub is important for offsites or get-togethers for specific functional teams,” says Levin. He settled on a space that holds up to 120 workers for its new Bay Area headquarters, where Extend employs 180 workers.
Levin hopes it will be well used. “It would be tough to convince me that stronger bonds and relationships can’t be made in person,” he says. “There’s something magical about it, even if you meet someone just one time, face-to-face. Then the rest of your interactions have an even stronger connection.”
Giving employees the freedom to work anywhere
For Fahri Diner, founder and CEO of Plume, a Silicon Valley–based company with offices across Europe and Asia that offers Wi-Fi solutions tailored to smart homes, there’s nothing new about employee flexibility—it’s been part of the company culture since well before the pandemic. “We did not have a work-from-office policy,” he says. People weren’t told that they needed to come to an office to work. Employees were told, you have a desk here and if you want to work from here, that’s fine. We have offices around the globe. We create comfortable spaces and places for people to work and meet. Everybody has a desk, and there are meeting rooms in these offices. Most importantly, we have espresso.”
What the pandemic changed is employee behavior. Before, Diner says, “most people worked from the office, and every once in a while, they worked from home. Now, naturally, it’s shifted. Most of our people are working from home. Every once in a while, they come to the office. But by way of our policy, we’re not saying now you have to come to the office or you have to work from home. Choose whatever you want.”
The laissez-faire approach works because Plume complements it with rigorous accountability. “We just need to deliver what we’re promising, on time, on spec,” Diner says. “If we miss stuff or you’re not delivering what is expected, that’s when the topic might come up. I just want to treat people like adults and give them flexibility, but hold them accountable for their deliverables. I believe that closes the loop and gets me out of babysitting mode.”
“We literally don’t care where they are,” Diner adds. “And you might think, OK, then the pool of talent just became bigger. But everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody says, I don’t care where you live.”
Diner, like Levin, cares and keeps a close eye on employee well-being and burnout. “I sense pressure on people,” he says. “I have it myself. We are sitting on Zoom calls one after another, and I think that is increasing pressure on people. We don’t have breaks. You don’t have the, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How was the football game? Did you watch Formula 1 last night?’ That’s not happening as much, and I believe that’s detrimental.”
Diner is implementing new initiatives to address these challenges and help people become more aware of their health and well-being, both mentally and physically. One of them is an annual ride that the company kicked off in 2021 called the #PlumeStrong Cycling Challenge. This five-day, 657-kilometer ride from Zurich to Ljubljana not only got employees to log their exercise both on the course and virtually but also supported some great causes across Europe. “We’ll have similar events in the U.S. and Europe this year and hope to have much more participation from our employees and even customers,” Diner says. “As leaders, we need to lean in even more to the personal and mental health and well-being of our people. I really think [this pandemic] has been a reminder to pay attention to that.”