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On the Line

The Next Generation of Startups Tackling the Hybrid Work Environment

Amanda Castleman
Journalist

The pandemic forced many startups to pivot and redefine themselves, but one of the most widespread changes may be in how—and where—we work. Many people who adjusted to home offices now want to continue remotely (27%) or only return to the office part-time (81%), according to a recent Harvard Business School Online survey.

“The concept of nine-to-five has been fully shattered by the pandemic,” explains Priya Saiprasad, a venture capitalist and partner at the Mayfield Fund, who focuses on the enterprise sector and was featured on the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list for VCs. “This has almost been a forcing function to meet employees where they want to be met and let them operate in ways that work best for them. How do we provide folks with flexibility so we can retain top talent? More and more companies are thinking about a hybrid-workplace strategy.” 

This could be a straightforward mix of remote and in-person work, she points out. But it also could involve a decentralized hub-and-spoke model without headquarters, just local offices where employees can interact periodically.

Chris Jordan, a serial founder and CEO of Maryland-based Fluency Security, says, “Everyone knows the significant positives—the flexibility and lack of commute.” He notes that employees especially appreciate the ability to run errands at off-peak hours without disrupting their work.

But he and Saiprasad agree on the hybrid workplaces’ two biggest downsides: brainstorming becomes less dynamic and some people can feel left out. Onboarding also creates challenges, especially with junior staff.

“Mentoring remotely is not good,” Jordan says. “You lose a significant amount of ability to train and teach people good habits.” Companies also give up the ability to resolve questions quickly and casually in the office. And employees—especially newer ones—can be hesitant to email bosses with overbooked calendars. To address this, some companies have designated Slack channels or ask teams to work on teleconference calls.

Saiprasad adds:

You have to invest in the onboarding experience and make them feel like part of the mission or team turnover is going to be much higher. Because today, if an employee doesn’t feel a connection to a company and a better opportunity arises, they’re going to take it.”

Founders and CEOs should be extra-vigilant about company culture, as a new Project Include study shows more gender and racial harassment among tech employees working remotely. Respondents said instances had risen of yelling, requests for dates and sex, and uncomfortable or repeated questions about identity and appearance. This trend had the biggest impact on women, transgender and nonbinary people, and Asian, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous employees. The report also revealed that 85% of all tech workers were experiencing more anxiety and two-thirds were pulling longer hours. When founders avoid addressing these issues, this can result in significant reputational damage, an employee liability claim, and having to put employee lawsuit insurance to use.

Saiprasad recommends: “Invest in regular check-ins. Make sure folks are getting what they’re expecting to out of their roles. Like, if you had one-on-ones at a certain cadence before a hybrid work environment, I’d almost double or triple that. It’s really critical to have much more touch points, so people don’t feel isolated and lost.”

Emphasize Quality Over Timing

Ben Lamm’s company had already shifted to a hybrid workspace before the pandemic. He’s the founder, CEO, and Executive Chairman of Austin-based Hypergiant Industries, which develops AI-driven technologies. “Our company DNA is focused on being future-forward,” he says. “We want to be ready for whatever happens next when building satellites or when preparing our workforce for any situation. It was nice to see that attitude pay off!”

Hypergiant faced some unusual challenges with the transition to more remote work like developing mobile R&D units that could transit between scientists’ homes without contamination. But it also addressed some issues common to dispersed and hybrid workplaces. “We had to change the way we engaged, including more employee resource groups to care for each other and provide support,” Lamm says.

He has been a proponent of the hybrid model since technology made it possible. “Pre-COVID, I traveled more than 250 days a year."

Flexibility is something I’ve worked to ingrain in our culture. We want good work done but I do not care where you do it or what hours of the day it happens. I honestly think that’s the work of the future: managers need to be less focused on how and more focused on what.”

He also hopes to see more balance enter the equation. “France really holds true to its 35-hour workweek. I used to be confused by that… But as we see more and more people fall apart, I think there is something to be said for forcing people to work less and take care of themselves more.”

Building Diversity and Strength

As an active mentor and angel investor, Lamm applauds the way hybrid workplaces can bring more resiliency to startups. “Allowing good talent to work in different ways is helpful. Hire parents who can only work 10am–2pm or 8–10pm. Hire seniors who only want to work half time, but can [accomplish things that] might take a 20-year-old 40 hours. Hire people in other countries. Hire people who like to work 5–10am and then go run for four hours.”

“The point is a startup needs the best people and limiting to geography or specific timelines to do that is a waste of time. Flexibility is the future!”

An inclusive approach can bring challenges too, of course. For example, a lot of startup engineering teams are distributed with many workers in India, which is currently suffering from the world’s worst COVID outbreak. It takes education, empathy, and conscious effort to manage a diverse, dispersed workforce.

Saiprasad echoes the flexibility message—and says it applies to a larger funding level too. Like many VCs, she does a lot of due diligence via Zoom. But actual face time remains vital to creating relationships and sealing deals, even if that’s via a distanced walk or outdoor meeting to reduce coronavirus-transmission risks.

“Hybrid is the future,” she says. “From an efficiency standpoint, virtual meetings are fantastic. But to make sure you’re both in it for the long haul and have aligned visions, the in-person dynamic really helps.”


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