Key Takeaways

  • Don’t rush into reopening your office; for now, the pitfalls outweigh the benefits for most office work
  • First-time entrepreneurs need to think through problems that in the past could wait until later, such as setting workplace safety practices
  • Codify behavior expectations for the office, and be ready to enforce them consistently, even if it’s just a handful of you

It’s not going to happen for a while. But whenever it does, it will be different.

In many ways, the more people work at your company, the harder it is to enforce social distancing policies, prevent large gatherings, and keep everyone safe. And the more offices you have, the more local laws you need to comply with. 

But even the youngest startups need to figure out how to address the challenges of reopening safely – probably far ahead of schedule. “If you’re a new founder, you have more of the responsibilities of leaders of larger companies, whether you want them or not,” says Kelly Wulff, general counsel of Vouch Insurance, which develops insurance products for startups.

You’ll have to educate yourself about the legal liabilities related to reopening, how to interpret local public health guidelines, and the deployment of systems and procedures to keep people safe. And you’ll be faced with a plethora of decisions about new policies and procedures that you’ll have to adopt – and enforce – even if they seem out of place when your startup is just you and a handful of friends from college.

Not yet

Paradoxically, the first rule is don’t rush. If your company doesn’t make a physical object, you should not be thinking about going back to the office. Even Envoy, whose business is built around people checking into offices – it makes an iPad-based visitor log-in system used by 14,000 companies – has put its own plans to reopen on hold. “We’ve changed the name of the ‘reopening’ task force we set up in March to the ‘work from home’ team,” says Matt Harris, head of workplace for Envoy. “That’s how significant a change in the timeline we’re seeing.”

Brett Galloway, a serial entrepreneur who is now CEO of security company AttackIQ, says that after some employees asked to return to the office, he authorized a project to study the issue. “But then I thought, if we reopened, would I go in? Probably not,” Galloway says. “If my self-evaluation is that it’s too risky, I don’t see how it makes any sense to ask anyone else to go in – or to permit it.”

While you can’t know when it will be safe for your company to reopen, saying nothing on the topic is not the way to go, says Harris. Neither is making reopening day a constantly-moving target. It’s far better to follow the lead of the likes of Google, which has already told employees they won’t be returning to the office until July 2021. Even if that’s too far out for you, give some date so employees know what to expect. “If you just push out the date on a month to month basis, it creates tremendous uncertainty,” Harris says.

(Of course, some startups may decide to go fully virtual. If so, they won’t face the risks of returning to an office, but they will face a plethora of other challenges, including security and preserving your culture, related to remote work.)

Don’t put off hard decisions in the hopes of quick return to the office

In mid-May, Jack Dorsey, who is CEO of both Twitter and Square, rocked the world when he announced that employees at both companies could work from home indefinitely. Ever since, startups have been dealing with a surge in requests from employees seeking to move to cheaper parts of the country. Figuring out what to do can be daunting, and it forces founders to think now about the culture they’ll want in the future. There are also legal complexities, as different countries and states have different laws about benefits, job security and such.

But don’t let those complexities deter you. As you think about what the right policy is for your company, study successful ones such as Atlassian, Automattic, and Hashicorp that have always had a remote-first way of doing things. “I think we backed into a trend that is not going away,” says Hashicorp CEO Dave McJannet. “I knew it when we hired a 10x engineer who was essential to two of our products, but wasn’t going to move from his home in a tiny village in the English countryside. We optimized to be able to get 10x people, wherever they are.”

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If my self-evaluation is that it’s too risky to go back to the office, I don’t see how it makes any sense to ask anyone else to go in – or to permit it.

Tools for a safe reopening

Eventually, reopening will be the right decision for many, if not most, depending on the rate of infections and the availability of testing in their local area. (While some large employers are considering requiring or implementing workplace testing procedures, it is unlikely that startups will be equipped to do so.)

Aside from the issue of testing, some tech companies are offering an array of information, tools, and services to those who are considering reopening.

Social distancing may cost you if you end up needing larger offices. But there’s a large amount of free guidance on how to achieve it and technology that’s been repurposed for the task. Tools like LucidCharts have new features to be able to draw six-foot circles around desks on a floor plan, to maximize density while following CDC guidelines.

Many vendors and service providers offer detailed checklists for when and how to reopen safely, including Salesforce and Zenefits, which even offers free printable “Facemask Required” signs. These span a host of details, like how to implement phased reopenings, shifts, wellness checks, and guidelines on cleaning and providing protective equipment.  

Envoy has created a new set of tools, all designed to adapt its system for managing visitors into one that manages the flow of employees. It includes tools that allow workers to answer health-related questionnaires from their smartphones once they enter the lobby, and to take temperature checks before passing through. It also makes it easy to establish schedules for cleaning and replenishing sanitizer dispensers. Meanwhile, Density deploys sensors and software to track the number of people in a room without using video cameras, and CLEAR has adapted its biometric systems for airport security for corporate offices.

Creating and enforcing new rules of office behavior

Of course, technology isn’t the most critical ingredient for keeping people safe. People’s behavior is. Indeed, Envoy’s surveys show that employees' biggest concerns about reopening don’t have to do with whether there will be enough cleaning products or PPE. “They are about what happens when a colleague takes the subway to work and refuses to stay socially distant,” says Harris.

This may require levels of oversight that feel strange for a young company. The truth is that once you’ve hired your first employee, you need to start creating an employee handbook. While many young startups overlooked that, Wulff says it’s now more important than ever. The handbook should cover rules for everything from wearing masks to use of common areas and availability of snacks (no jars of nuts or M&Ms). It’s not as onerous as it sounds. “Any employment lawyer will have something relatively off-the-shelf for your city,” Wulff says. “But it’s critical to set yourself up for success.”

The key is not to anticipate every possible problem, but to make sure that everyone has the same understanding of – and respect for – the rules of the office. “You can’t have your sales manager saying, ‘We can’t social distance, because it’s the end of the quarter and everyone has to come in,’” says David Raynor, founder of Accelerate Legal, a 3-person San Francisco-based law firm.

And try to apply rules consistently. When AttackIQ studied whether it could reopen safely, it found that only one department, the inside sales team – which relies on friendly competition – , was hankering to get back into the office, says CEO Galloway. Galloway held firm, and not only because of safety concerns. “Once some people start going in voluntarily, I’m afraid it will put pressure on other people to go in as well,” says Galloway.

Time for a new zeitgeist

Depictions of start-up life in TV and film are full of pizza boxes, empty beer bottles and unhealthy-looking, overworked employees – not to mention partying, office romances and other potentially life-threatening behavior in today’s world.

Even if your colleagues are your dearest friends or pals from college, the days of such laxity are likely over, says Wulff. Already, big companies are facing lawsuits from employees for not keeping them safe. Start-ups are bound to face this as well, particularly if they are successful.

This will require careful planning and consistent execution on operations to keep people safe, while protecting people’s privacy. Even in a four-person startup, where it would be obvious to everyone if a person is sick, the assumption should be not to mention names when notifying others that one of their colleagues has COVID. And make sure that data gathered by health screening apps are not stored in a folder that’s widely accessible, as is the norm for most types of files within startups.

“You 100% have to take this seriously,” says Wulff. It may not seem essential when your team is just a few buddies working on your living room couch. “But what happens in three years when you have 20 people and someone gets sick because someone with COVID came into the office?” Wulf says. “Suddenly, the decision to let that person in because you wanted to be friendly has backfired.”

Aside from the obvious macroeconomic challenges posed by the pandemic, COVID-19 is exposing startups to a new set of risks. They include the challenges of maintaining a cohesive culture in a remote work environment, ensuring safety and security of work-from-home tools and procedures, and reopening offices safely. This three-part series, produced with our partners at Vouch Insurance, offer practical advice for mitigating these risks.

Lewis Hower
Written by
Lewis Hower
Lewis has over a decade of experience in helping high-performance startups through specialized solutions in research, business development and investments.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of SVB Financial Group, or Silicon Valley Bank, or any of its affiliates. This material, including without limitation the statistical information herein, is provided for informational purposes only. The material is based in part upon information from third-party sources that we believe to be reliable, but which has not been independently verified by us and, as such, we do not represent that the information is accurate or complete. You should obtain relevant and specific professional advice before making any investment or other decision. Silicon Valley Bank is not responsible for any cost, claim or loss associated with your use of this material.

Vouch, Inc. is an affiliate of SVB Financial Group ("SVB") under the Bank Holding Company Act. Additional information is available at https://www.ffiec.gov/npw/. Insurance products are offered through Vouch Insurance Services, LLC ("Vouch Insurance"), a wholly owned subsidiary of Vouch, Inc. Insurance products are not insured by the FDIC or any government agency and are not deposits or other obligations of or guaranteed by SVB or any of its affiliates.
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