Engage your team and understand their needs, but develop your “back to the office” strategy from top to bottom

We’ve supported a variety of startups at homebrew, but the CEOs have now all come together on one topic: It’s time to make decisions about what “back to the office” looks like (Note: 95% + of our investments are based on the US). Some strongly believe that being back in an office five days a week is the right thing for their company (alongside modern guidelines when flexible planning and WFH make sense). Others adopted a distributed team from the start, or switched to one last year, shaking their heads at the idea that a single headquarters would ever make sense for a tech company like theirs. And of course there are those who develop hybrid strategies and use the skills their organizations have developed over the course of 2020 to balance Work From Office and Work From Elsewhere. Although I personally spoke out in favor of in-office / balanced solutions, I am absolutely certain: You should not make the decision based on an employee survey alone.

That’s not to say that you should develop your plan for going back to the office (or not) in a vacuum and leave it to your teams, fully formed, with no opportunity to comment. But ultimately, it will be the decision of the executive team, and especially the CEO, who will have to make the call.

And the chief people officers are going to earn bonuses for finding out this stuff. DocuSign CPO Joan Burke admits, “The truth is, this is just a big experiment we’re all participating in, and none of us really have an answer. We just have to stay open and fluid and listen to our employees. “

There will be a TON of coverage, hot takes, strong opinions, and purity tests on the subject in the coming months. As a CEO, assume that it will be impossible to keep 100% of your employees no matter what you decide. There will be talent building in the next 6 to 24 months as employees decide whether or not their current employer’s workplace strategy is right for them.

And resist the urge to reduce this to assumptions like “fair jobs are those with the fewest mandates”. These decisions are complex and often have unintended consequences. Flexible schedules friendlier to women? Unclear according to this WSJ article:

Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public order at Carnegie Mellon University, said hybrid models seem to offer the best of both worlds. But they could inadvertently discriminate against women who do most of the caregiving duties and may be more likely to seek domestic arrangements and miss professional work hours, she said. Each solution to a problem will pose different challenges, she said.

The President of Barnard College fears similar, noting that these are electoral systems, not just a single decision:

What should well-intentioned companies and managers do? If you think flexible work promotes equity, especially for parents, it is important to consider what other Policies and practices must be in place to achieve this goal. One example is providing paid family and parental leave – as opposed to just maternity leave – and encouraging employees to take this leave. Another task is to ensure that managers do not prefer personal co-workers for mentoring, evaluation, or other opportunities.

So think about what’s right for your business stage, what type of product you’re developing, what culture you’ve created, and then prepare for a lot of communication in the second half of the year.


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