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How To Re-Open Your Startup’s Offices

Now that the United States is on a path to return to a kind of normalcy by Independence Day, you have less than four months to figure out how to bring your team back for routine, in-person collaboration. 

Not every early-stage company is going to opt for a physical office post-pandemic, but based on internal surveys of our portfolio companies at Initialized Capital, we believe about two-thirds of early-stage founders will choose either a centralized headquarters or a hub-and-spoke model with smaller offices across a bigger geography.

To help you figure out what you need to do to get back into the office, we’re working with one of our portfolio companies, Raise, a software-powered commercial office space broker and Initialized portfolio company, to give you the step-by-step rundown on how to manage the process. 

Survey your employees:

This is pretty simple: ask your employees what they want.

Here is an example survey you can use. Most large, growth-stage, or publicly-traded companies have already engaged in an exercise like this over the past year and that data is informing their facilities and real estate needs going forward for what we’re calling “Phase I” of re-opening. This data will change over time, and so you’ll want to survey your team again later in the year to get a more accurate assessment of everyone’s preferences.

You want to figure out:

  • How many of your employees relocated, where they may have moved to, and where they plan on working from post-pandemic
  • If they want to return to an office, how many days a week they would expect to work in that office
  • Where they would be commuting from
  • What modality of transportation they prefer to use 
  • The reasons they would want to return to in-person work
  • Under what conditions they would feel safe
  • If they would like to work from home, what they feel would improve their current remote setup

Work backwards from the survey and the company culture you want:

Post-pandemic workspaces are going to exist along a spectrum from high office-centricity to a fully remote structure. In between that is a very wide, seemingly infinite range of hybrid options.

Post-pandemic workplace models: 

  • Office-centric model: This is the pre-pandemic norm of a five-day-workweek in a centralized office. 
  • Hybrid with clear pre-determined split work weeks: This model involves clear days of the week for in-person collaboration (think Meeting Mondays) and other days of the week for solo work. 
  • Fully hybrid with employee choice and flexibility on location: A fully hybrid model would offer employees more flexibility and choice over when they want to be in the office versus being able to work from anywhere. Working from anywhere encompasses in-office, home, a separate third-location like a coffee shop, and/or co-working. 
  • Fully remote with drop-in, in-person collaboration opportunities: A default remote company would be decentralized by nature, but incorporate additional community, collaboration, and meeting spaces to drop in when needed. This option also requires scheduling, productivity monitoring, programs to ensure employee engagement, specialized management structure and people software, as well as a comprehensive employee handbook.
  • If you switch to either of the hybrid models, or the fully remote model, you’ll need to: 
    • Survey employees to determine when they want to work together
    • Choose a scheduling system 
    • Examine or set up productivity metrics
    • Define occupancy, distance, safety, and cleaning protocols
    • Update employee handbooks to define your new values, culture, and processes in your company’s new model 

Re-opening a post-pandemic physical office:

Securing Office Space: 

If you ditched your lease or determined that you need new or additional office space, there are several pieces to consider. Offices on lower floors, or with direct access, and with proper air circulation, or operable windows, might be the favorable option for many employees still concerned about contact risks. 

As of January 2021, there were 10.3 Salesforce Towers’ worth of empty space in San Francisco. But this is changing quickly as normalcy returns in four months or so, which will increase the number of actors competing for space into the spring. The biggest publicly traded companies like Google and Facebook have continued to make large lease commitments because they are operating on much longer time cycles but smaller companies are now just coming back into the market.

  • Direct leases: If you’re planning to build out a space, it could take six to twelve months to complete, which means you need to start looking now if you don’t already have space. If you’re doing a direct lease, you’d have to think about the design, build out, defining your vision for the space, developing concepts, hiring architects and engineers, bidding, permitting, vendor bidding and selection, construction, and FF&E (fixtures, furniture, and equipment).
  • Subleasing: If you choose to sublease space from another company, this saves time because you’re taking space as is (possibly including furniture) instead of engaging in a buildout when you lease directly from the landlord. For subleases, the space is delivered ready to move in, but the landlord of the master lease typically requires screening of any subtenants and written consent. This 30-day consent window impacts the timeline but less so than a direct lease. 
  • Co-working space: Co-working space is the easiest and quickest route to getting up and running quickly, whether it’s for the long term, short term, or as a third location for hybrid employees who want to drop in somewhere that is neither their home nor the office. The downside to co-working space is that you lose significant control over handling how people from unrelated pods or households are interacting and mixing with one another. You also lose control over safety, cleaning and distancing protocols. Will the co-working space, for example, do temperature checks, require proof of vaccination, require masks, shared coffee or food and how will overall capacity be regulated and monitored, and how will restroom usage be managed?

Managing The Office:

CDC guidance is constantly evolving as we know more about vaccines’ effects on transmission. Companies are going to have to make decisions on vaccinations, testing, safety, cleaning, and monitoring.

Vaccinations: 

Can you require all employees to be vaccinated before returning to work? There isn’t a clear yes or no to this question given that the vaccine is available under an emergency use authorization instead of full FDA approval. You can ask your employees if they have been vaccinated, but you do not want to ask for extra information or medical context that could be interpreted as a disability-related inquiry. There is also a lengthy discussion here in this FAQ from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission around disability or religious belief-related exemptions from December 2020. 

Testing: EEOC guidance on testing requirements for employers is here. Some insurance companies don’t cover those who are asymptomatic and tests can cost anywhere from $60 to $200. If the employees are not insured or if your company-provided insurance won’t pay for asymptomatic testing, will you pay for testing and how frequently will you do it?

Office Capacity: For now, the CDC is still recommending 6 feet of distancing between people in the office and that people who are fully vaccinated maintain their social distancing in public, so you’ll need to decide on a capacity cap for your office.

Historically, the rule of thumb for space per employee has hovered around 175 square feet. But the emergence of creative space or more open floor plans in the early 2010s shrank that to about 150 square feet per employee. That individual space of employees was transferred to common areas to make room for cafes, ping pong tables, nap rooms, meditation gardens, and other amenities. Currently, the recommended safe distance requirements of six feet per employee could mean an additional 25 to 75 square feet per employee. So that means a company of 100 people that could occupy approximately 17,500 square feet pre-pandemic could now require approximately 25,000 square feet. 

Scheduling: If you’re using a hybrid model either with pre-scheduled collaboration days or more flexibility, your company’s office usage will flex up and down, so you’ll need to monitor capacity and scheduling. Desk and space booking vendors are listed below. 

Capacity management: To manage your office space, you might need to use some software or technology tools that handle capacity tracking, space planning, video conferencing and visitor protocols. You’ll also need to implement safety protocols, including wayfinding, capacity restrictions, mask wearing, cleaning and elevator access. You’ll also likely need to add design elements that change the furniture spacing, layout, how and where lunch or food is eaten and how your workplace is accessed. You also may end up changing some of your cleaning practices in bathrooms, kitchens and other surfaces. Both real-time and pre-scheduled office monitoring vendors are listed below. 

Some other considerations include employee engagement when part of the staff is remote and part is in the office. Other issues you’ll need to think include how to treat remote and in-office staff equitably in terms of compensation, promotions, raises, and growth, and effective training and on-boarding. 

Here are some recommended vendors for all the issues we’ve discussed in this post from Raise:

Office management:

  • Envoy: Space booking, visitor management, employee COVID screening
  • VergeSense: Real-time workplace analytics with sensors
  • Density: Real-time workplace analytics with sensors and space planning
  • Camio: Real-time camera system for monitoring capacity and distancing
  • Safeter: System of record for employee health checks, testing and workplace scheduling
  • Nashi: Office scheduling
  • Saltmine: Workplace management and optimization
  • Eden Workplace: Space booking, facilities management, contract tracing, facilities management
  • OpenPath: Secure, touchless office access

Office designing (or re-designing):

  • Skyline Exchange: Architectural design and spec software for designing your office 
  • SpaceIQ: Space planning and management 

Hygiene & cleanliness:

Remote office infrastructure:

  • Teamflow: Virtual office space
  • PostureHealth: Real-time posture and movement tips and feedback while you work from home

You’re Ready. Now What?

As I’ve hinted at in the past, “the onsite is the new offsite.” Bringing your team back together in person — possibly for the first time in a year or more — is a time to celebrate. We’re curious to see what Initialized founders do to welcome everyone back and re-spark camaraderie.

Even though many your team members will be giddy to see each other in person regularly, returning to the office will be a phased process. Make sure you check in regularly with your team with periodic surveys. Once most of your employees are vaccinated, views on being in the office could change and you’ll need to adjust the re-entry plan. Returning to the office is a process, not a light switch that has to happen all at once. 

To learn more about how to plan your re-opening, there are more step-by-step guides resources here with Raise.