How Hybrid Work Is Changing Expectations

Six tech companies share their visions for digital-first workplaces.
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
November 2, 2021
Updated: November 3, 2021
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
November 2, 2021
Updated: November 3, 2021

Like many companies, the leadership at JustAnswer.com needed to scramble to get its employees the appropriate technology to work from home at the onset of the pandemic.

“When I say we were a work-in-office culture, we had desktops. No one even had laptops. That’s how much people enjoyed coming into the office and being around each other,” said Kimberly Nerpouni, vice president of talent and people operations at JustAnswer. “We were a little bit behind the curve, if I’m perfectly honest.”

What Does Digital-First Mean?

A digital-first company makes remote work the default work environment where employees most often work at home or at a coworking space. These companies do not expect most employees to spend the majority of their time at an in-person company office.

Fast forward to today, and now the growing company is fully embracing a remote-first workplace model at all of its offices in the United States, India and Ukraine. A survey of all JustAnswer’s 650 employees showed just 5 to 15 percent of employees wanted to return to in-office work. For the U.S.-based employees, that statistic was around 7 percent, and even those employees did not want to come into the office five days a week, Nerpouni said.

“What I think is going to happen with the future of work is that ping pong tables and free lunches are going to be less and less important, and candidates are going to care more about flexibility and the marriage between my personal life and my work life not conflicting with each other.”

JustAnswer will retain its physical office spaces, but employees can work where they are most comfortable. In India and Ukraine, employees will mostly adopt a rotational schedule of spending a week in the office then working from home the rest of their time. Work is not mandating a certain number of days in the office —  it is about good leadership and communication. And that means, allowing managers and teams flexibility in their schedules to work remotely or in-person.

“We decided that we weren’t going to micromanage people. We weren’t going to create these policies,” she said. “We know we can trust our employees. They proved that to us over and over again by delivering great results, being available, being engaged, being collaborative.”

Built In interviewed tech leaders about what the future of work looks like for them and how to implement remote-first work environments. Here are a few ideas from four-day work weeks to collaboration days and company retreats.

 

Work From Anywhere

Chelsea MacDonald, senior vice president of operations at Ada, an automated customer experience platform, doesn’t see hybrid work as an option. 

“I think you have to choose a default as digital or the default as in person,” MacDonald said. “A lot of companies right now are trying to say you can be both, trying to make everybody happy. My feeling is that you won’t make anyone happy. There will be a default, and you can make a decision about what your default is in your company, or your employees will make it for you.”

Prior to 2020, Ada was already considering moving to a digital-first model and was looking for a reason to do so. Early on in the pandemic, MacDonald suggested the company commit to a digital model forever. At first, some balked at that idea, but now the company has embraced such a model, where employees can work digitally from shared collaboration spaces like WeWork or their homes. Plus, they can work anywhere in the world for up to 80 days.  

Many employees at Ada are immigrants with family in other countries, said MacDonald, so it’s important to let employees have the flexibility to spend time with relatives and take care of family. The main challenge of such a model is creating boundaries where people do not feel required to respond to messages or emails at every hour for colleagues in different timezones.

“I think that’s the hardest part. It’s that idea of learning to be asynchronous in a world that wants you to be synchronous all the time,” she said. “That asynchronous piece will hopefully be something we build as a better muscle than what we have right now.”

Ada employees do have a chance for in-person bonding, usually about three or four times per year with their direct teams or departments. This winter everyone will gather in Cancún where Ada rented out an entire resort. There will be some presentations and team meetings, but most of the time will be dedicated to socializing with colleagues. 

Tools For Remote WorkTransform Your Team With Better Collaboration Tools

 

Four-Day Work Week

Experiencing some loss of talent common as part of the “The Great Resignation” (a term that references workers quitting jobs in large numbers as the pandemic continues), Janine Yancey, CEO and founder at Emtrain, recognized the need for change. In August, the company piloted offering a four-day work week, which it has extended through October.

“I think what we had expected to see has actually materialized, which is when you condense someone’s working hours, they’re just a whole lot more efficient. They know they have to get it done,” Yancey said.

Emtrain, which provides online education and guidance on HR and compliance topics, is planning to let employees work remotely and also offer guidance on how to build relationships across teams. If coworkers are located in the same area, that might look like scheduling a day to come into the office and grab lunch together, and for those who are remote, it might be a virtual coffee break to chat socially, Yancey said.  

“Work can be tough, and you have different perspectives, disagreements, and your foundation for navigating that in a positive way is connections. That’s kind of the buffer. So, when you don't have those connections, then it’s kind of like bone on bone, just kind of rubbing,” Yancey said.

A major benefit of adopting a remote-first environment is the ability to recruit talent from around the country, Yancey said. “Prior to the pandemic, we were looking for people in the Bay Area. That’s it. We would never have found our president, if we’re only looking for people in the Bay Area,” she said.

 

Collaboration Days

Ronnie Kwesi Coleman is no stranger to remote work environments. His career started at HyperOffice, a remote collaboration tools startup. Now, as the co-founder and CEO, he leads Meaningful Gigs — a fully remote company that connects U.S. businesses with a community of African designers.

“I always believed that productivity doesn’t come from seeing somebody every day, but it comes from setting the right goals and hiring the right people,” said Coleman. “If you have the right people with the right goals, things are going to get done. If you hire the wrong people, it doesn't matter where they are … they’re not going to do the work.”

Every quarter, Meaningful Gigs hosts a retreat where employees travel to meet in person for a week, discussing the previous quarter’s performance, goals for the next quarter and problems to solve — along with making time to socialize, too.

“In order to really bond, it’s more about are we really solving problems together? We feel like once a quarter is enough to do that,” Coleman said.

With this flexibility, one employee was able to move to a different state when their partner’s job required it. Another employee returned to the U.S. after living abroad in China for many years, Coleman said.

Molecula, an AI operations startup, requires employees to attend two in-person collaboration days each year, typically in the first and third quarters. The rest of the time, the employees can be fully remote or come into the company’s Austin headquarters, if preferred.

“All of the great things that people say about in-person connection, we value that, too. We don’t want to lose that, but we’re going to do it in a more concentrated way and team-based,” said James Durango, director of people operations at Molecula.

A hybrid work environment would not work for Molecula as it aims to scale to 75 people by the end of the year, Durango said. All startups need to make decisions around work environments that align with the company’s strategies, he said. Just because tech giants are making certain decisions, it does not mean startups need to follow suit.

Read About Hybrid Work3 Things Hybrid Businesses Need to Succeed

 

Employee Choice

During the pandemic, the social media management platform, Hootsuite, acquired two companies, growing its employee count to more than 1,100. The company’s Vancouver office opened at 10 percent capacity on September 7, and its other offices have varying levels of openness based on local guidelines — some international offices are open at 15 percent capacity, while other offices with very small populations are at nearly 100 percent.

Despite investing in its physical office spaces, Hootsuite will not require employees to work in the office. Employees can decide what they want, whether that’s working from home or in the office.

“The choice is the employee’s choice. I have peers that are working in different organizations, and [they] encourage people to come in at least three times a week or four times a week. We have no rules like that at Hootsuite. It’s what are you comfortable with?” said Teresa Tabo, Hootsuite’s director of people partners.

Tabo encourages other tech companies to listen to their employees when deciding the future of their workplaces. “2020 and 2021 has really changed the way people think and what people want,” Tabo said. “I think it also has given us an opportunity to show that going to an office and sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to produce their best work.”

When evaluating workplace requirements, make sure they are grounded in empathy, Tabo said. 

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