The future of work is a topic that people from all corners of the globe are debating. In the media, the discussion seems pretty binary; either the office is dead, or WFH is an “aberration”. But if you were to speak to the people on the front line of the decision making, you’ll hear a completely different story—and it’s much more flexible and collaborative. It’s the hybrid approach.
So, on Wednesday 7th April, we hosted a webinar that aimed to cut through the media noise and discuss how real, forward-thinking companies are approaching the future of work—led by our own Tushar Agarwal, CEO and Co-Founder of Hubble.
We heard from four brilliant speakers who are in the midst of figuring out how their companies are going back to work. Sinead Daly, Director, Culture & Experience at Beamery; Fiona Wallis, People & Business Operations Manager at Oddbox; Susie Carr, Operations Manager at Koru Kids and Stephanie Frame, Head of International Operations & Properties at Bumble gave hugely valuable insights into how forward-thinking companies are actually adopting future hybrid workspace strategies, as well as some of the challenges they’ve faced along the way and tips to overcome them.
You can watch the full discussion at the link below:
Prefer to read? Here’s your writeup:
First up, it’d be great if you give a quick introduction on yourselves, your role, and what your company does.
Sinead: I’m Director for Culture & Experience at Beamery. We’re on a mission to put talent transformation at the heart of every business. We’re located in London, Austin and have a distributed workforce remotely beyond that.
Fiona: I’m the People & Business Operations Manager at Oddbox—we rescue surplus and wonky fruit and veg direct from source and deliver it in a food box scheme to London and the South East. We’re spread over three sites and are navigating the new normal at the moment.
Susie: I’m Operations Manager at Koru Kids. We are a childcare company and predominantly a part-time nanny service. So we recruit and train people to become part-time nannies, and then match them with local families. We’re also launching a brand new service this week, our childminding service—which will involve people looking after younger children in their own home, which we’re calling our home nursery service.
Stephanie: I’m Head of Internal Operations & Properties at Bumble—Bumble Inc. is the parent company for Badoo and Bumble, two of the world’s highest-grossing dating apps with millions of users worldwide, and our aim is to create a world where all relationships are healthy and equitable. I manage the London office—we’ve also got offices in Austin, Barcelona and Moscow.
Pre-Covid, what was your company’s relationship like with the office? How have you been operating in the last 12 months, and what’s your approach post-covid?
Sinead: I joined Beamery mid-pandemic, so I moved and had to meet people, virtual-first…which was a really interesting experience! But from Beamery’s perspective, a lot of the focus around Covid, but also for the future, is around how we work and how we make those moments of connection and moments of “spark”—especially given that we’re situated across various different time zones.
So figuring out how we move into asynchronous ways of working and get people communicating across different channels properly has been a really core piece, and making sure that we’ve got things like “Beamery cafes” and moments for connection. I haven’t seen the ‘pre’ to know what the ‘post’ will look like, as such. But I know we’re dedicated to thinking about how we work more than where we’re working.
We’re still ironing out what our office space situation is going to look like. But we have our current offices and hubs that we’ll be returning to in the first instance. What life looks like beyond that, who knows! Hopefully, we’ll have some exciting plans—there’ll be a some repurposing of the space, and we may be looking for new homes. But one thing’s for sure: the way that we use the space is going to be really different.
We’ll be very much working from a collaboration-first model. We want to ensure that when people come to Beamery spaces, it’s because they’re special. We’ve had record growth in the last 12 months and really exceeded our own expectations. And now it’s all about making sure those moments where we come together don’t break the success.
We want to make sure the spaces that we are creating and encouraging people to come back to and collaborate in are all about collaboration, being creative, and having opportunities and resources and spaces that enable people to produce and ship their best work. So for us, it’s going to be a case of: how do we make those most enticing? Obviously, you can’t have collaboration days by just turning up by yourself. There’s got to be a real level of coordination, whether that’s on a team or company level. There are a lot of decisions to be made around how we use the space, why people use the spaces, and understanding what collaboration means to different people, depending on their different roles and work. Lots to consider!
Tushar: Does that mean moving from an office-first culture into a hybrid or remote-first culture? Is that how you would describe it?
Sinead: We actually partnered with Hubble to do a survey of the team, expecting to see a hard swing one way or the other. But what we found was that 77% of our team were really eager to get back into workspaces, collaborate, maintain our culture, be social—but 97% said they really value flexibility and the ability to work remotely. So for us, it’s really clear that there is no remote-first or office-first kind of approach. We want the best of both worlds. So for us, it’s figuring out the balance, to make sure that those moments that spark magic when we come together are really all-singing, all-dancing—and really make an impact.
Because I’m sure as we come back, our expectations of what all these hybrids look like are going to change. We might find that we end up taking a different approach. So, we’re being very balanced in thinking about what our people need, but being intentional about why we’re coming together—as well as continuing to build rituals, principles, communication, and codifying our culture, as we go along, regardless of what we do.
Tushar: That’s fascinating. And I think your survey results are also quite interesting, because when we did a survey of about 1000 employees across hundreds of businesses across the UK, the one stat that really stood out, was that 70% of people still wanted an office of some sort. But 86% [correction from audio] wanted the flexibility to work remotely. And what’s been really interesting to see is that those results are being replicated to some degree within companies as well, unless the culture is very extreme (i.e. already very remote first or office-centric, in general).
Fiona: I joined Oddbox at the start of April—about two weeks after businesses went fully remote for the first time. We had just moved into our bigger office in Vauxhall at the start of March. So the team was really excited about having this new, bigger space to work from. And then they all went home! And we’ve been mainly remote for the last 12 months. We do have operations team members who’ve been onsite as required. Pre-Covid, we were fairly flexible from what I understand—most of the team worked two or three days a week from home.
I think the big focus for me at the moment is defining when what we actually mean when we say we’re a flexible company. And what does it mean for individual teams as well, because every team has a different requirement for when staff need to be on site, or if they need to travel etc. So that’s going to be a big focus for us in the next few weeks and months. We are reopening our main site from next Monday, so we’ve done lots of surveys as well. And I think our results showed that 96% of the team think we should have an office. But what they want to use it for has changed significantly in the last 12 months.
So again, it’s mainly about collaboration. It’s about the culture, it’s about socials. Everyone’s got really comfortable and really enjoys that option to work from home when they need to do deep work, or if they’ve got lots of meetings all day—and not having to commute, adding that time and expense to their weeks. I think it’s going to be interesting to see, when we do reopen, how the team actually come back to the space and use it versus what they told us they want to do. So we’re not making any definite plans. It’s going to be a case of assessing the situation as restrictions lift, and as the team comes back together.
Tushar: It feels like you guys are being quite intentional and quite deliberate about what physical environments should each employee be in, in order to sort of optimise for the best of both worlds. Is that is that sort of their thinking?
Fiona: Yeah. Some of it is about what the business needs, and what each team and team managers need, but it’s also very much focused on the individual. How does each individual work best? How do they perform best? At the end of the day, we want everyone to be able to succeed in their roles. So that’s the big focus for us—understanding individuals’ needs, the company needs and how we can find compromise. And if that means instead of having 40 desks, we need to have more collaboration areas and more meeting rooms, then that’s something that we’d look to implement.
Tushar: This is something I feel COVID has put a magnifying glass on, and that’s that the office isn’t “one size fits all”. Previously, it didn’t consider individual demographics, locations, or whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert. I think all of those different facets of people’s personalities and circumstances have come to the forefront.
Susie: I’ve been with Koru Kids for four years now. In our first three years, we had about six offices in total, and we moved around quite a lot—as you do when you’re part of a growing startup—we went from four people to about 75 in that space of time. So we needed to keep moving because we kept outgrowing spaces.
And similar to Fiona, at the beginning of last year, we moved into a bigger office, what was meant to be our “forever” office; it had space for us to grow into, we thought we’d be there for a while. And then sadly, Covid hit and we started working from home. And sadly, our team size shrunk as well. So we suddenly didn’t need a 120-person office anymore, and it didn’t make sense for us to keep hold of it. So since last April, we haven’t had an office at all—everyone has been working from home.
Pre-Covid, we were already working towards being a remote-first team. One of our core missions at Koru Kids is to help women get back into the workforce after they’ve had children by providing them with childcare. So, it’s really important to us for our employees to have flexibility if they need it. We already had people starting to move out of London pre-Covid, and we wanted to make sure that people could feel like they could do that if they needed to and that there was no reason why they would need to be in the office.
Since the pandemic, we’ve had a few more people decide to leave London. We want to retain as many people as we can, hence why we’re now completely remote-first and we will be forever—no matter what the pandemic is up to.
So as I said, we haven’t had an office since April, but we’ve definitely had people who have wanted to get back into an office and see their colleagues again and start collaborating. Using your Hubble Pass has been amazing over the last few months…I think I might be one of your top users, I use it so much! That’s how we’ve solved our team’s need to collaborate and see colleagues over the last few months without actually having an office space where people can go. It’s only now that we’re starting to think okay, what should we do next?
We know that people do want an office, we’ve done surveys and it’s clear that people want somewhere to go if they need to. But it’s also clear that most people will only be going to an office one or two days a week. So we’re just trying to figure out how big an office do we need? We’re obviously going to be hot desking; people won’t be able to have their own fixed desks. So how do we manage that? And also, how do we allow for collaboration to occur as well, with the use of meeting rooms etc. Those decisions are all happening over the next few months…pending Covid behaving itself!
Tushar: What I found really interesting about the Koru Kids story is how you guys are aligning the mission of your company with the policy of your workplaces: how can the policy of your workplace actually help you achieve your mission? And are you setting the right example for the change that you want to make in the world? I think that’s absolutely fascinating.
Stephanie: Pre-Covid, it was very much home-from-home office that we wanted to create at Bumble. So, very sociable, lots of amazing perks onsite, food, yoga, haircuts (which is probably the thing, I’ve missed the most!). There was an amazing atmosphere at work. During Covid, everyone’s been working from home, and none of the offices have reopened. We found that there’s been a definite shift: when everything first started, I think people quite enjoyed working from home. Maybe it was the novelty of it, but many actually thought, “this is quite nice, we can actually get things done remotely”. As time has progressed, people are definitely wanting to come back more. And the reason for coming back is definitely more along the collaborative route.
Our mission is still up in the air in terms of what we want the office space to be—we definitely want it to be flexible, we want it to be somewhere that’s useful for staff…not necessarily a tick box of “come to the office, because you have to”—that kind of sentiment is definitely going. Echoing what Sinead said, it’s how we work, not where we work.
I still think it’s very fluid, will people want to come back more in a year’s time? Will there be as much of a hybrid need? Will we be back to working from the office more and less flexible? I think it’s really difficult to say right now.
What has your decision-making process been like, and how have you balanced employee preferences across different teams? Have any sentiments changed over the past 12-months?
Sinead: We’ve had a mixture of anecdotal catch-ups with people to get a temperature check and employee surveys. But I think we’ve still got a lot of decisions to make and questions to ask; what will compel people to go into these spaces? Is it to be collaborative, is it because it’s a space that’s nicer than your home? I think for me, it will have to be somewhere that makes excellent coffee and has a great vibe! But I think that preference is going to change for everyone as time goes on.
For us at Beamery, we’re also making decisions based on what our leadership and management need. They see the ways of work change, and we also see teams grow. We’re probably going to double our headcount in the next 12 months, so our team and culture will evolve. We can’t always take the temperature check of what our people say as ‘law’, for flexibility in the future.
So we’re also looking at our core values. How do they align? One of our virtues is around seeing growth as a shared responsibility, and bringing the best out of others. So we’re looking at how every decision we make aligns to that sentiment. I think we know that there’s a real discrepancy between what people say they want, and the amount they actually use it when they have it. So we’re trying to be sensible about not overestimating, and going too hard on what people are going to want.
I think Stephanie mentioned this in a previous conversation: we might create the perfect to-spec space. But actually, the way people use and interact with things, once they’re on the ground, will mean that we might have to change and move things.
Tushar: Yeah, it’s also something that we think about as entrepreneurs—when you’re doing customer feedback when building a new product, what people say they want and how they actually behave can sometimes be very different. And I think there are very similar themes with employees. What we’re seeing at Hubble is how survey results are changing dependent upon upon sentiment. When lockdowns are quite severe, the survey results are all around getting out as much as possible. Or when people haven’t been on holiday for six months, everyone wants to go work abroad, because they want the opposite what they’re subjected to. And people can sometimes overestimate what they’re going to want in three months time versus how they feel right now. So it is really, really challenging to sift through some of that noise sometimes as well.
Fiona: We’ve done quite a lot of surveys, and our surveys have looked not just what people want from a workplace, but also their wellbeing. So how they’re doing while they’re working remotely and how productive they’re feeling. Because I think that those things can tell a lot about how the team is managing. Our results have changed a lot, because we’ve grown a lot in the last 12 months—we’ve welcomed 50 new joiners, the majority of whom have been remote for their entire time with Oddbox. So I think that that’s maybe had a few challenges as well. When we ask the team now what they want from the office, most of them have never been there. So when I’ve been asking questions, they’ve been very pointed: these are facilities that we have now. Rather than asking for a wish list, we’re telling them what we have, and asking how they’re going to use it. So that’s been illuminating.
We’re still quite a small team, 70 of us. So I haven’t seen any real misalignment between what the senior leaders are thinking and how they are wanting to work versus what some of our new joiners want. Which makes my life much easier! Everyone feels that there’s a time for being in the office, and there’s a time to work remotely. And it’s a question of accommodating that—so that, like I said earlier, it works for the business, it works for the individuals, and it works for every team.
Tushar: And how have you been gathering those insights? Have you used any tools? Are team leaders doing 1:1s?
Fiona: Google Forms is my best friend, helping me to gather data and crunch the numbers. What’s also really important is presenting the findings back to the team. We can cut the data by department and say to managers: “This is what your team wants” so that they’re not assuming anything. They can then say: “Okay, let’s do once a week in the office”, and start trialling it.
Then over the next few months, we can look at things like occupancy rates, and ask the team again how they’re feeling now they’ve been in the office for a few months.
I think there’s going to be a lot of experimentation—trying new things, and putting our hands up when things don’t work. Saying: “Sorry, that didn’t work. We won’t do that again!”
Tushar: That’s really interesting. I think this period of experimentation is fascinating, right? Because actually no one really knows the answer. On one hand, you can view the experimentation as something which is anxiety-inducing or creates uncertainty, or you can view it as something that’s quite exciting. You’ve run a bunch of experiments, and some of them will inevitably fail…but some of them may give some really amazing insights. You and the company can actually run a lot better, and everyone can be a lot happier.
Susie: We’ve also been surveying people. For the first one we used your Hubble survey. And off the back of that, we were actually really close to pulling the trigger on an office in September last year. Thankfully we didn’t, because I don’t think we would have really been able to use it. But similar to Fiona, other than that it’s just Google Forms that we’ve been using—collecting data on how many days people want to come into the office, and separating out whether they want to come in to do individual work or whether they want to come in to do collaborative work. And from there figuring out what kind of space do we need.
As I mentioned, some people have been moving outside or to the outskirts of London, so their commute would be quite considerably longer if they were to come into Central London. So we’re trying to figure out whether it’s important for people to be able to hot desk at other locations, not necessarily our main office— and whether we should be offering something more flexible, like a Hubble Pass on top of the main office that we have in Central London.
In terms of whether there’s a mismatch between what leadership and employees want—absolutely not. Like Sinead and Fiona, everyone’s on the same page, in that it should just be whatever works best for the individual. And as I said, we made the decision to go remote-first. So all of our decisions will have that at the forefront. That’s how we’ll decide how we work as a team.
Stephanie: Our leadership team are very forward-thinking. They’ve made it really clear that moving forward, the key is flexibility. Because everyone’s situation is so different. In London, lots of people are renting flats, or in a very small one-bed flat—but we’ve got offices in Austin where the situation is very different. So, we’ve been doing a lot of surveys, but my team and I have also been having chats with the heads of the departments to get a feel for what a wish list would be. Not necessarily promising anything, but just asking: “what would your ideal scenario look like?”, and then getting feedback from staff as well.
I think the main thing throughout all of this is to try to have that bit of flexibility and fluidity. We’re trying to be cautious in our approach and keep a pulse on what people are feeling; not being too strict about it moving forward or making any big decisions. Because I think there’s just been so much change, and there’s still a lot more to come.
Tushar: I think that what we’ve found is that the larger companies have a mammoth task on their hands. If you’re smaller than 50, you can just about get by having surveys and conversations to figure out what’s going on. But as soon as you hit 50+ people, you need to have more formal surveys, and you need to do them by geography, by department. And then you need to figure out what your widespread policy should be (if at all)—and then catering down to the individual employee or team level is a bit of a challenge.
Stephanie: It’s important to dive into local markets as well, because we’ve already seen differences in Moscow, where the restrictions have lightened—so we’ve been having a few people back in the office, socially-distanced. Barcelona is a new office for us, so we’ve got a small space for them at the moment, just so the team can meet each other—they’ve not met at all, as it’s a completely new location. It’s a case of trying to keep a pulse on what’s relevant for everybody. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a “one size fits all” situation.
How much has ‘location’ and ‘office’ factored into conversations about hiring? Do you think it’s contributed to winning or losing talent?
Sinead: This new flexible way of working is a huge opportunity for building diverse and more inclusive workforces and workspaces. However, it also poses a danger of creating pockets of cliques or clusters where people can become isolated by not opting to go to these physical spaces.
So at the moment, from a hiring and recruitment perspective, it’s all about knowing that your employer or potential employer is thinking about these things and thinking about flexibility. I think that it’s a great opportunity for diversity, inclusion, equity etc. However, it’s a big challenge to get it right, so no one gets left out.
But flexibility at the heart of the conversation is so important.
Fiona: Pre-pandemic, we were flexible—so it’s all about the work you do, rather than where you do the work. I think everyone who we’ve onboarded was aware from the start that we do a mix of in-office and at-home working anyway, even if Covid hadn’t happened. So not too many difficult conversations, thankfully.
Commuting distance is something we would never discount, so if someone lived three hours away, it would be about when we need you in the office and can you get there? It’s certainly something to consider in the future as we continue to grow.
Susie: Before Covid, we were just starting to let our employees leave London if they wanted to, and then since the pandemic began, we’ve become remote-friendly, and this has been amazing for recruitment. We’ve been able to hire great talent outside of London, which has been amazing. And then we also need to be conscious of people who are in London, who do want an office—and making sure that we are catering to those people’s needs as well. Ensuring that we are able to offer a really great office space for people for whom it’s important is going to be key for us in terms of improvement moving forward.
Stephanie: I’m not wholly involved in our recruitment process, but I know the flexibility it has given the diversity of people we employ. Many of our parents are keen on flexible working, and the younger demographic are eager for a central office where they can come in and socialise. Again, I think it’s the flexibility that’s key, and we’re still promoting that.
Are you going to allow hybrid meetings to happen where some people are in the office and some people are outside the office?
Stephanie: We are encouraging a fully hybrid model. So if someone’s in the office, and someone’s not, we’re looking to implement the IT to make sure that people feel like they’re still part of the meeting. Given the globalisation of the company, it’s a necessity, because people are in different locations. So yeah, we’re fully supporting the hybrid.
Fiona: Yeah, it’s the same for us as well. We’ve got three sites and multiple shift patterns, so it’s a case of making sure that there’s a framework and guidelines around what’s expected. Because even without Covid, we would be in this situation. So it’s making sure everyone has the IT and the tech to have those really valuable meetings.
Susie: It’s exactly the same for us. We’ll be fully hybrid for our meetings, and IT and tech will be key in making sure that we can do that.
Tushar: We’re actually seeing lots more coworking spaces and offices create Zoom Rooms, with the proper Zoom screen setup. I think there will be lots of purpose-built spaces for hybrid meetings in the future.
How are you thinking about internal budgets? Will you give employees optionality around investing in their home working infrastructure or using a local coworking space (for example)?
Fiona: Everyone receives a work-from-home allowance on top of the standard provision of equipment that we give them, and that’s to enable them to work effectively from home.
Sinead: Throughout Covid, we’ve done similar: we’ve provided a working from home allowance and made a contribution per month to support employees. When we get back into offices, we’re going to have a blend of office space and access to flexible passes in the first instance. In terms of what the world of perks looks like as we grow the team, we’re not entirely sure—but one thing we definitely know for sure is that there is no one size fits all. We’ll be looking at that across all of our benefits, offerings and perks, and we don’t know what configuration that’s going to take. But being able to have discretionary choice, and being able to build things around your personal preferences is something we’re definitely considering.
Stephanie: We implemented work from home stipends for people twice throughout the year, to help people set up whatever they needed. And we distributed equipment as well, so everyone’s got the kit that they need. Budget wise, it’s been reallocated. We want to make sure that everyone’s comfortable because this isn’t anybody’s choice, it was thrown upon us. It’s key that everyone’s comfortable and can work from home effectively.
What tools are you guys using to help you do remote or hybrid work better?
Stephanie: We’re looking to use a tool called Robin that was implemented in our Austin office for meeting room bookings. They’ve diversified since Covid, to enable hot desk booking and manage capacity issues, so we know how many people we’ve got in the office at one time. We haven’t rolled it out in London yet, but we are using it in Moscow and Austin at the moment.
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