We have been watching our portfolio of ~130 technology companies wrestle with this decision for the last two and a half years. Brought on by the covid pandemic and the work from home moment that it created, there has been a sea change in the way that technology companies organize themselves to get work done.
Ben Horowitz observed this in a piece last week where he described A16Z’s decision to embrace a hybrid model that he called “HQ in the Cloud.”
It turns out that running a technology company remotely works pretty darned well. It’s not perfect, but mitigating the cultural issues associated with remote work turns out to be easier than mitigating the employee satisfaction issues associated with forcing everyone into the office 5 days/week. https://a16z.com/2022/07/21/a16z-is-moving-to-the-cloud/
Most people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work. We have seen that people who are raising families have benefitted from the flexibility of working closer to where their families are and the ability to be somewhere quickly. But that is only one example of why flexibility around where you work is so powerful. Many job functions require, or at least benefit from, the ability to concentrate without interruption or distraction. A quiet home office is vastly better than a busy open workspace for that kind of work.
And then there is the commute. I am writing this on a commuter train heading into NYC. For a time in my life, I took a train like this into the city every morning at 6am and got back on it to go home at 6pm. It was almost an hour each way, so I spent almost two hours a day, five days a week, commuting. This can be a productive time, particularly if you are commuting on mass transit like I am right now, but many people don’t have convenient mass transit options in their lives and must drive to and from work, often in traffic. Eliminating the need to commute to the office might be the single best reason that people are happier having a lot of flexibility around where they work.
The numbers are telling. As of this spring, only 38% of NYC office workers were in their office on a given day based on this survey by the Partnership For NYC (a leading business group in NYC). The numbers are similar in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Some cities around the US have much higher numbers but I have not seen any city higher than 70% on this score.
The Partnership concluded that remote work is here to stay:
Remote work is here to stay, with 78% of employers indicating a hybrid office model will be their predominant post-pandemic policy, up from just 6% pre-pandemic.https://pfnyc.org/research/return-to-office-survey-results-may-2022/
But I want to return to Ben’s quote and talk about the cultural issues. I don’t believe we (the tech sector broadly) have done a good job of “mitigating the cultural issues with remote work.” I think a lot of the challenging morale and retention situations in our portfolio and across the tech sector suggest the opposite is true.
Here is the quandry we face:
People are happier with flexibility around where they work.
Companies, teams, and organizations are happier when people are working together.
Aren’t companies just collections of people? Yes. But groups of happier people are less happy together when they don’t get the face time that makes group dynamics easier.
We all know that people are nicer to each other in person. Email and slack and zoom don’t bring out the best in people. Having a meal together does.
So what should we do about this quandry?
I don’t think the answer is restricting flexibility around where people work. That feels like table stakes now for knowledge workers. I think the answer is figuring out how to get people back together more frequently in ways they want to convene in person.
There are many ways to do this and we have seen some good ones.
At USV, we have two days a week where we meet together and as a group with founders (Mondays and Thursdays) and those days tend to be much more popular to be in the office. We don’t require people to come to the office on those days, but we do see that most people opt into coming in those days. We also make sure to order a great lunch on Mondays and Thursdays. We could and probably should add an after-work happy hour and/or sports teams/leagues to make those days even more attractive to the team. The basic idea is to make coming to the office an attractive option a few days a week.
One USV portfolio CEO suggested a great idea in a CEO zoom we organized on this topic a year or so ago. He said that he wanted his teams to come together for a week at the start of a project and again for a week at the end of a project. He wanted them to be together to kick it off and again to ship it. I think that’s a great idea and have been encouraging the teams that I work with to do that.
Our portfolio companies used to do exec team offsites a few times a year. A few of them are now doing them monthly. That makes sense to me. I can’t imagine an effective exec team that isn’t in person together at least once a month. And yet so many of the exec teams I have exposure to are not spending nearly enough time together right now and have not for the last few years. This same thought can be extrapolated to any team in any company.
Those are just some examples of things that can be done and should be done to get people working together again in an age of remote work that is not going to end. I am sure there are many other great techniques and if you lead a company and/or an HR team, you should be collecting and using as many of them as you can right now.
At USV, we feel pretty strongly that getting people back to working together in person is important to the success of our portfolio companies and the broader tech sector. So we recently opened our new office in NYC that is designed to host individuals and teams from our portfolio and the broader tech ecosystem that need somewhere nice to work together. Think WeWork meets SohoHouse meets VC firm. We are still working out the kinks this summer and plan to open it up more broadly in the fall. Stay tuned for more on that here and elsewhere.
All change has good and bad downstream effects. The broad-based adoption of remote work in the tech sector (and beyond) is allowing people to balance work and home life in ways that are extremely beneficial to them. But team morale and the broader cultural needs of companies have suffered and we need to recognize that and address it. We can’t accept that as the new norm. It is unacceptable the way it is right now. A hybrid model that provides continued flexibility while creating a lot more face time is the long-term answer and we must keep innovating until we find the right balance.