Can I see you in my office? The pros, and the cons, of taking your business fully remote

Two years post-COVID, SMEs are still adjusting to the rapid rise of remote-working. We hear from two business owners with opposing views on the subject.

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To be remote, or not to be. That is the question.

26 months since the first national coronavirus lockdown began, the debate continues about which is better for productivity and wellbeing: offices, or working from home (WFH)?

Big brands, like AirBnB, have recently announced that staff can continue to choose remote work from anywhere with no pay cut. Some have taken the opposing stance and requested a return to full-time office work.

Each of these choices brings different benefits and challenges to employers and their workforces. So which course of action should SMEs take to keep both parties satisfied?

We spoke to two small business owners who hold different opinions on the conundrum. Below, we’ll go through their responses and analyse the positives and negatives of each approach.

Why return to the office?

Sanjay Aggarwal is founder of Spice Kitchen, an artisanal spice and tea company.

As a food business, certain roles that support the business must be located on site including all managerial and operative warehouse roles.

Spice Kitchen Shashi and Sanjay laughing

Sanjay Aggarwal with Spice Kitchen co-founder, Shashi Aggarwal

Consequently, the company’s warehouse stayed open throughout COVID-19 and has continued to function fully in-office since, with only two managers working from home.

What are the biggest advantages of office working?

We ask Aggarwal what are the benefits of in-person working over mobile working.

Increased camaraderie 

Sanjay tells Startups that improved interpersonal relationships are one of the biggest bonuses of a shared office space.

“Coming into the office is great for that all-important buzz of working around others and having a sense of collaboration towards a common goal,” says Aggarwal.

Greater knowledge sharing

The physical nature of being a manufacturing firm means that, for Spice Kitchen, the switch to remote work would mean the ceasing of all major operations.

“The business just couldn't operate with everyone working remotely,” Aggarwal tells Startups. “We need to have people in a physical location for picking and packing orders, labelling, grinding spices, and sending out orders.”

But Aggarwal adds that working together in-person is important for effectiveness in other areas, such as sharing information or skills.

“[Working in the office] keeps everyone on the same page in terms of where the business is at with orders and other developments,” he explains.

“Because we are small, the goalposts move quickly and often, and having everyone in one place means that we all shift gear together.”

Better infrastructure

Many home workers have struggled to work from corners of the kitchen or uncomfortable desks placed in bedrooms.

Warehouse Spice Kitchen

Spice Kitchen shelf

Spice Kitchen moved into a new office and warehouse space in 2021. Thanks to recent and planned investment in the area – including refurbishing a break area and building a new, more-discreet meeting room – team members have access to a modern work space.

“These changes feel really important to continue to offer staff the safe and nurturing working environment they deserve,” Aggarwal says.

What are the challenges of office working?

Recruitment

In today’s competitive environment, lots of businesses are facing pressure from job seekers to offer flexible or remote working as an added incentive. This has birthed a new challenge for business owners – how to recruit in a talent crisis?

Similarly, in-office working automatically shrinks the talent pool of candidates to those based locally to an area. So how has Sanjay worked to mediate this risk?

Transparency is a key priority, he tells Startups. When recruiting for roles, the HR department is clear and upfront that the job is based on-site.

“This sets up the expectation from the start. We've only ever had applications from people [who] want to work in the office or warehouse. “

Supporting staff

One of the most common issues associated with full-time working is keeping employees, who might hold opposing views of the subject, on-board.

However, Aggarwal seems confident that having a supportive and transparent culture when it comes to feedback can relieve these concerns.

“I have always said that I want Spice Kitchen to be a place where people want to come to work,” he says. “The feedback [we’ve had] from our staff is that they love what they do and enjoy the buzz and energy around the place.”

Aggarwal is also introducing an Employee Assistance Programme to ensure that Spice Kitchen’s workers “can have access to therapy or coaching if they need it.

“This is particularly useful for members of the team who experience anxiety or who want to work on how to have better relationships with others.”

Why work fully remotely?

Sano Genetics is a UK healthtech startup, founded in 2017, that conducts precision medicine research for rare and chronic diseases.

Pre-COVID, Sano Genetics was based in an office in Cambridge. After a trial period last year, the company’s 30 employees relocated to a fully-remote working model.

Charlotte Guzzo - Sano Genetics

Charlotte Guzzo, founder of Sano Genetics

We caught up with co-founder and chief operating officer, Charlotte Guzzo, to hear why she made the decision to move online and how the journey has been so far.

What are the biggest advantages of remote working?

Broader access to talent

Before the shift to working from home, the company had to search for workers in Cambridge, where the firm was headquartered.

Now, Guzzo says that geography is no longer a hiring barrier.

“We’re getting a far bigger pool of applicants for each new role we post. We also know that offering ‘work from anywhere’ is making us much more attractive to new recruits.”

Improved work-life balance

One consequence of the shift to mobile working during COVID-19 was that parents, partners, and friends could spend more time with each other.

As Guzzo asserts, this change proved popular with employees at Sano Genetics.

“Mostly, people value the work/life balance, relish not having to commute and appreciate having flexibility over where to live,” says Guzzo.

“We [can] enjoy the monetary savings and health benefits of not commuting on public transport. We’re also able to fit more exercise, hobbies and activities into our day, where travel would otherwise have been consuming our time.”

Increased productivity

Conversely to pro-office Sanjay Aggarwal, Sano Genetics takes the view that employees are actually more productive when going remote. Guzzo argues that offices, though creative, can also be distracting environments.

So does working in an office make you more or less productive?

According to Guzzo, it depends. The tech company has seen no issues with productivity and performance since becoming remote. It also hasn’t made any effort to ‘micromanage’ and track staff whilst they work online, instead basing success on the results achieved.

“[This] has the effect of attracting and retaining smart hard working people who are not afraid to be judged on what they produce, rather than the hours they spend in front of their laptops,” Guzzo says.

However, as she acknowledges, it’s important to have the right tools in place. “Productivity benefits are quickly negated if processes and technology aren’t in place to help people work efficiently at home.”

What are the challenges of fully-remote working?

Risk of fatigue

Having the right infrastructure to work from home and be on remote calls might lead to the expectation that staff will be available at any time.

“There’s a risk that remote teams spend their working hours hopping from call to call, never having the opportunity to get their heads down,” Guzzo states. “We want people to enjoy their work, and long, pointless meetings are rarely inspiring for anyone.”

To counter this, Sano Genetics has introduced Wednesdays as meeting-free days. Zoom calls and Microsoft team meetings are banned to clear calendars for focus work.

Decreased engagement

By its very nature, a remote workforce is physically less connected to a company’s central hub of activity.

It’s hardly surprising then, that employees who primarily work remotely said they felt 182% less engaged than workers who primarily work in person.

How will Sano Genetics avoid joining this statistic?

Guzzo says, “we have a strong culture of feedback so we ensure everyone is supported closely by their managers and are aware, at all times. Of where they excel, where their areas of growth are, and how they can get there.”

The company has also introduced various tricks and tools for employee engagement. One is a learning and development budget so that staff can continue to learn new skills from home.

“We have two days per quarter when we meet in person,” adds Guzzo.

Remote vs Office work: a summary

Office working: what are the opportunities and challenges?

Opportunities
  • Greater camaraderie and knowledge sharing
  • Equal and higher-quality working conditions for staff
Challenges
  • Ensuring staff are on-board with the policy
  • Recruiting from a smaller, localised pool of candidates

Remote working: what are the opportunities and challenges?

Opportunities
  • Wider talent pool amongst candidates
  • Improved work-life balance
Challenges
  • Risk of being ‘Zoomed-out’
  • Dampening of company culture

What about hybrid working?

Last year, we reported on the many SMEs that were adopting a hybrid approach to working, with 54% planning to use hybrid offices by summer 2022.

In a hybrid model, employees split their working week between the office and home. This method has the potential to combine all the positive aspects of remote or office working, without the negatives.

However, those that choose to adopt a hybrid working model won’t want to blow all their capital on rental costs. This is where we recommend a coworking workspace over traditional office rentals.

Coworking offices are particularly beneficial for small businesses in the new, post-COVID working world, as our guide to the future of the coworking industry highlights.

WFH policies have given both business owners and employees a desire for more equal work-life balance, and greater control over when and how to work.

Tenants can save on daily costs by accessing tonnes of business amenities including office equipment, WiFi, meeting rooms – and plentiful tea, coffee and biscuits.

What do our small businesses think?

As we reported last year, only one fifth of workers want to be fully-remote. So would Sano Genetics consider implementing a hybrid model?

Guzzo reports that Sano Genetics reviews its WFH policy “all the time, and we’re also watching what other businesses are doing.”

However, she stops short of suggesting a hybrid working model for now, saying “we felt it was more productive and positive to fully embrace remote, which had worked so well for us in the previous months.”

Like many businesses based in the secondary sector, Spice Kitchen is simply not set up for remote working. For now, the company will continue to be based fully in its offices and warehouse.

But Aggarwal remains open-minded about the possibility of adapting its working policy for certain roles.

“For recruitment in roles where people can work remotely – such as sales positions where the person would need to do lots of travel – we would explore alternative solutions,” he concedes.

Conclusion

After two years of debate about what the world of work would look like post-COVID, it turns out that small business owners have yet to agree on the right outcome.

Instead, the answer depends on your business’s specific needs and industry specialism.

Tech firms, like Sano Genetics, have shifted quite easily to a fully-remote working model.

Manufacturers have remained in-office, struggling to offer WFH as an employee incentive, as Spice Kitchen proves. Others have chosen hybrid working as the best of both worlds.

Whichever route you choose, you should consider the various opportunities and challenges that each option presents, as listed above.

The easiest way to do this is to first speak to your staff. Divulge any issues you’re aware of, and also ask employees what they might be struggling with.

Open and transparent communication will be key to finding the solution that works for everyone.

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Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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