Sam Hodges is co-founder and CEO of Vouch.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in the U.S., founders had to consider our worst-case scenarios, develop contingency plans and act quickly to keep our employees safe, and also to respond to a dramatic change in how we worked.
In many ways, what we're dealing with today feels like a regression to parts of 2020: How do we adapt and respond to an ever-changing risk environment? As a founder, I wanted to show our team members that we hear their concerns and we're working to address them. So, when it came to developing a plan going forward, it was important to hear from our people.
Did our team members want to come back? Did they have fears? Did remote work give everyone greater flexibility, or did it further isolate people from each other?
Taking a proactive approach to the "great resignation"
After employees worked from home for a year and a half—grinding harder, producing more and performing under stressful conditions — many top performers at tech companies are considering what's being referred to as the "great resignation" because they prefer to work from home. One study found that 61% of employees would prefer a hybrid work model, while 27% would prefer to work from home full time.
Coming out of COVID, our leadership team at Vouch thought through different ways we could go above and beyond what employers "need to do" to do right by our employees. We talked frankly to our board and investors and had internal debates within the leadership team.
We discussed with our general counsel about safeguards we could put in place to create a safe environment for our employees, including implementing the latest compliance measures. At the same time, we instituted a monthly company-wide wellness day and had managers discuss with their direct reports the need to take vacation. We made it clear to team members that if you needed to make an appointment or take care of your family's health while juggling work-from-home demands, you could take that time by letting a manager know you were unavailable — no questions asked.
Additionally, to see what Vouch employees preferred, we conducted periodic employee surveys around COVID work conditions. During our third and most recent survey, I was surprised to find that a majority of our workers — about 70%! — had a strong preference to get back into the office, at least part of the time. We also had some precedent from which to draw. Andreessen Horowitz surveyed 226 of their portfolio companies and found 25.4% planned to go remote, while 66.8% are embracing hybrid models. Of the latter, 38.8% were aiming for 1-2 days in the office per week, with another 28.6% requiring in-person work only for off-sites.
Let employee data inform your decisions
Ultimately, what we came to is this: From a talent availability perspective, in order for us to hire the very best people, supporting some remote work gave us a much broader and deeper talent pool from which to choose.
We also concluded that a balance was needed. Teams that benefit greatly from being together in person, such as our partnerships and sales teams, could operate in person — while roles in departments that benefit from more quiet time and fewer interruptions made more sense to be remote. After weighing multiple factors, we determined Vouch's ideal solution was opening a remote HQ3, a fully remote headquarters that is team specific.
Develop your in-person, hybrid, or remote strategy
We made our decisions on a team-by-team basis based on two criteria: 1) Can people be successful working remotely? 2) Are there particular types of talent that will have a preference in one direction or the other?
For example, not only is it notoriously very difficult to hire engineers, but a June 2021 LinkedIn analysis listed software engineer as the most in-demand job. With this new work environment, many engineers also consider it a requirement that they're either remote or at least partly remote, among other perks. A January 2021 Terminal study found 80% of engineers wanted to work remotely 60-100% of the time.
From a company's perspective, you need to be much more open-minded about supporting remote work — and also, frankly, the talent base has an expectation that you can support some degree of remote work, or at least hybrid work. With these roles, work can be done independently and remotely. We also looked at all of the empirical, independent research we could find around the impact of remote work on productivity, and the ups and downs of productivity in different types of roles, and then debated the relative trade-offs of those different paths.
The human side of a hybrid model
But in addition to business-related challenges, we also faced an important set of human-related challenges. Many remote employees don't feel separation between work and non-work. Others have living situations that aren't conducive to being in work mode — perhaps because they are three 20-somethings jammed into a small apartment, or they have little kids who are running around the house creating havoc.
Many of us also look to work as being a source of important human connection. The January 2021 PwC U.S. Remote Work Survey found that employees considered collaboration the main purpose of an office. It makes sense: People enjoy going to work not just for the job, but also for community, mentorship and the ability to have water cooler chat. Those things are much harder to effectuate in work over Zoom and Slack.
Being fully remote also puts a lot more pressure on coordination, and requires being very clear in communication about decisions and direction. Working remotely puts pressure on the need for documentation, and managers have to be more proactive in gauging how their employees are doing. Are they engaged, or are they checked out?
Being clear about intentions — and your evolution
We approached opening HQ3 the way we'd approach any other evolution in the company's strategy or plans. First, we shared with our team and our board that we were thinking about potentially making a change. Then, we told them the methodology by which we made the decision. Finally, we were very clear about what we wanted to accomplish, and the specific guidelines we were following in making our decisions.
Thanks to what Vouch itself was going through, we also refined our product and created "work from anywhere" insurance policies for our clients. We saw startups adopting remote work, and they needed different insurance coverage that was relevant to them, in terms of covering personal and property risk exposure. This evolution of our product ultimately helped us come full circle and live our company value: Put people first.
Whatever you've decided to do in regards to your approach to the new work environment, be explicit to your team and board about what you're doing, and then have a set of routines, practices and tactics that allow you to be successful with that approach. Being mindful and deliberate with this framework upfront will ensure you're nimble enough to weather any future challenges — and stay firmly on the path to success.