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OpenTent was founded in New York, and we’ve had an office in New York for all of our (nearly five!) years of business. This week, we decided to let our lease lapse. We won’t have an office in New York until it’s safe and practical to do so. That leaves us with two big questions: how do we support our New York-based teammates, and what will our office look like in the future?
Read on for what we’ve tried and where we’ve landed!
Where is our team, anyway?
We evolved from a team of two, working out of an office in Brooklyn, to a team of thirteen residing everywhere from Long Beach, CA to Rincon, Puerto Rico. We have incredible teammates who are fully remote, but the majority of OpenTenters typically work from a Tent, which is what we call an office. For the past year, we’ve had Tents in Brooklyn, NY and Denver, CO.
All of our remote teammates work from their homes (or their rooftops, or beautifully self-landscaped backyards, or wherever they find themselves that day!). In the past, we’ve also allowed remote teammates to get local co-working memberships if they didn’t have a space at home that was conducive to work. Since March, everyone has been working from home (or wherever they relocated during quarantine). Now, more than four months later, almost everyone is back home, and our Denver team is back in the Tent! But we know the New Yorkers aren’t going back to a Tent anytime too soon.
Why it’s complicated
Here’s the catch: while we have a completely flexible remote-work option, our teammates in New York signed up to work in an office. Now that everyone is remote, we’re thinking about whether we owe something different to the New Yorkers. Since we’re closing the office, what will those folks need to be productive, remotely, for the long haul?
Or, put another way: how do we help the folks who signed up to work in an office pivot to working remotely? And in what way is it different from those who have always been remote?
So many companies had the experience of pivoting (fast!) to a completely remote workforce, but as we acknowledge that we’ll be out of the office for some time, we’re thinking about how to try to make giving up the office into something that makes our team stronger. We knuckled through the first four months, but we’re trying to thrive, even amidst a pandemic and the largest social protests in the history of our country. We want work to be a satisfying element of our team’s lives. What will that look like now?
How can we provide an office during a pandemic?
This has been really hard to figure out. The biggest challenge is that we can’t change the nature of New York real estate and give everyone an extra room to work from. Here’s a sampling of how our New York team is working now:
- in a studio apartment, trying to stay out of their partner’s Zoom calls (and vice versa)
- in their bedroom in a shared apartment, worried about cross-contamination from roommates
- in their parents’ attic, with no air conditioner
- in a one-bedroom apartment with an enthusiastic toddler who wants to type on the computer, too
After a lot of deliberation, we haven’t been able to come up with a safe and fair way to try to provide additional work space to our New York team. We’ve worked through many options for providing efficient and safe work space now, but have come up against challenges with all of them.
Here’s what we’ve thought about:
- Rent a house: We considered renting a house for several teammates to share in a low-COVID area (something other businesses have pursued). But it would represent a blurring of the lines between work and non-work, and bringing in partners would lead to privacy and safety concerns. We decided against offering this.
- Pay for relocation: We offered a meaningful travel subsidy to be used on transportation or rent for any teammate who decided to relocate from a high-COVID area. So far, no one has used this offer.
- Offer a rent subsidy: We considered providing a rent subsidy for anyone who wanted to move to a larger apartment in order to have more space to work from. This is the closest we could theoretically get to providing a safe, calm work space in New York. But most of our team isn’t planning to move, and we’d only offer the subsidy for the period of time while we don’t have an office, meaning folks would be responsible for more-expensive apartments even after the subsidy ended. The biggest limitation, though, is expense and fairness. If we divided the cost of our New York office rent among our New York teammates, we wouldn’t be able to cover much. And what about our non-New York teammates? It didn’t seem meaningful or fair.
- Provide co-working space: We considered offering to pay for co-working space. But sharing indoor space with strangers is exactly the problem now. This still isn’t a safe solution in NYC.
- Get Creative: We even considered using an empty apartment as an office. It would be safer and more private than our big WeWork office building. But sharing indoor space would make our team a “pod,” and they would be increasing their bubble and their risk, and sharing that with their families. We can’t ask our team to spend face-to-face indoor time together. Plus, it would be hard to find an apartment that had enough private space for everyone to do competing video calls and private, “in-the-cave” work at the same time.
If we can’t provide an office, what obligations do we have?
Our struggle came down to a sense that since our New York-based teammates joined the team with the expectation that they would work from an office (well ventilated and far from toddlers), we had an obligation to provide one. But, as detailed above, we haven’t been able to identify a fair, appropriate, safe, and sustainable way to provide office space. All we can do is try to make it a little easier to work from wherever our team finds themselves.
Here’s what that looks like:
- A budget for work-from-home materials… and, now that we’re cleaning out our New York office, we’ve got a lot of monitors and standing desks to share!
- Consistently checking in: How’s it going? What’s hard? How can we problem-solve together?
- Weekly updates on where our team is: Who’s currently located elsewhere from their usual abode, and who’s currently under stay-at-home restrictions?
- Normalizing interruptions (and bringing our full selves to work - it’s even part of our performance review)
- Considering FFCRA leave on a flexible basis
- Being clear on expectations (Zoom background requirements, lighting, etc.)
- Continuing to welcome flexible work schedules
Letting go, and facing the future
Letting go of our New York office means facing the future with acceptance, and trying to optimize a difficult situation. We’re in the business of turning our clients’ biggest challenges into the easiest parts of their jobs. We bring the same energy to our own work: how do we transmute challenges into opportunities? We’re not blind to the devastation of this pandemic, and we know the workspace constraints aren’t making anyone’s work easier. Despite this, we’re being as sincere and inventive as we can. Our team does amazing work every day, and they deserve the best tools we can provide. Though we are faced with constraints, there are many things we can do right now. Here are some of them: We can be realistic and let go, we can check in and not assume we know what’s best for people and we can invent new ways to show care.
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