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- Amy Yin, Founder and CEO of OfficeTogether
In a world where companies are still striving to build the muscle for being fully virtual, what will provide the elements of culture when the emphasis is no longer on being together in a physical space? Why is hybrid good for business and how should meeting experiences evolve to suit the long-term needs of hybrid working?
In this episode of Digital Workplace Impact, Nancy Goebel is in conversation with Founder and CEO of OfficeTogether, Amy Yin. OfficeTogether provides an operating system for the future office, and Amy offers a unique perspective and fresh thinking on the digital workplace.
The two discuss top-line trends surrounding hybrid working and return-to-office programmes – both the positives and the darker side; all at a time when the essential nature of employee choice is really shining through.
Amy’s advice? Build solutions in public, use social media to propel creativity and armour up with the latest technologies. For more practical thinking and a refreshing take on hybrid working, join us and listen to this podcast today.
[00:00:00.730] – Amy Yin
My three best pieces of advice for digital workplace practitioners are one, build in public, two, make it social, and three, armour up with technology.
[00:00:12.170] – Nancy Goebel
Earlier today, I had a chance to chat with Amy Yin, who is the CEO of OfficeTogether. We were introduced by my colleague Steve Bynghall. You might wonder why I’d invite a CEO from a tech start up to chat. Well, the answer is a simple one. Amy is part entrepreneur, part go-giver, and an authority on hybrid working. And during our time together, we talked about a range of things, from how Amy and team are focused on empowering employees through hybrid working, through their corporate agenda to also empowering talented girls to pave the way for the engineering world of tomorrow. We explored the top line trends surrounding hybrid working and return to work programmes both the dark side and the positives. We chatted about how meeting experiences need to evolve to suit the long term needs of hybrid working. We even talked about why hybrid is good for business and kept our time together off with a discussion about how digital workplace practitioners can learn from an entrepreneurial spirit and more. All told, this felt like a conversation that had the makings of a way of thinking about how hybrid working is giving rise to a facelift for the digital headquarters and not just the office.
[00:01:36.020] – Nancy Goebel
Join me now for a fascinating conversation with Amy Yin. Happy listening. So, Amy, of course, we were introduced by Steve Bynghall, who’s one of my colleagues with NDWG, and he’s one of our research authors, benchmarkers, and consultants. But for those who may be yet unfamiliar with OfficeTogether, can you tell us a little bit about the company and its ethos?
[00:02:03.280] – Amy Yin
Hi Nancy. Yes, absolutely. OfficeTogether is the operating system for the office of the future. For many of us, in the last year and a half, remote working and more flexible schedules became part of the norm. And companies have been rushing to adopt this for its employees, which means a brand new set of technology and tools to make sure that this new corporate logistics problem is solved by automation rather than manual work. And so OfficeTogether helps you automate your desk booking, capacity management, COVID safety, and creating a great employee experience in your hybrid office. And I’m happy to go into what hybrid means, too.
[00:02:43.850] – Nancy Goebel
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s always a helpful grounding point because people are using so many different terms nowadays, from dynamic working to hybrid working and all the rest.
[00:02:55.140] – Amy Yin
With dynamic working, hybrid working, flexible working, they all center at the core with employee choice. It’s a big buzzword, but it’s also a marker of the fact that employees have more power than ever before. And one of the number one things that they’re demanding is flexibility in the workplace, flexibility around hours, their physical location, how they get work done. And the results are pretty clear. 72% of knowledge workers say that they want a combination of in person and remote work. So what that means for a company to implement a hybrid remote model is that they have offices, they have physical spaces, and they still believe that in person work is magical and meaningful. But the old norm of being in the office four to five days a week is no longer how they believe that employees are going to be most productive. Employee choice means that for some employees, that means coming to the office once a month, once a week, or every day, and allowing folks to choose what their preferences are in between. And so this is ushering a whole new era of logistics that corporations have never seen before because they’ve never had to deal with part time knowledge workers.
[00:04:09.360] – Amy Yin
And they’re not part time in the sense that they’re not working 40 hours a week, but they’re part time in the office where before people believe that the office is where you get work done. And now with the shift to cloud, the cloud is where we’re getting work done, and the office is becoming more of a supplement and a perk and benefit rather than a requirement of getting work done.
[00:04:32.110] – Nancy Goebel
And certainly that’s something that we identify with within DWG, because you may not know this, but we eliminated our offices almost eleven years ago, and that was at a time when our CEO and founder Paul Miller sat down to write a book about how technology was changing work. And it really served as a catalyst for lots of changes within DWG. But eliminating our headquarters in London was one of them. We’ve been operating as a global but virtual organization for many years now, and we felt that if we were going to be emerging from intranets to the wider digital workplace, that we needed to be an organization that understood the challenges of working as a virtual organization and figuring out when it matters most for us to come together versus when we can go about the business of servicing our clients and getting things done day to day from lots of different places around the globe.
[00:05:34.210] – Amy Yin
Yeah, absolutely. And I would say that DWG getting rid of the office eleven years ago is certainly pushing the envelope on what folks thought was normal. And now you guys are just setting the trend early. Even with companies that have offices these days, which is still a majority, very few companies actually totally got rid of their offices something like 4% to 7%. These companies have still had to build the muscle of being fully virtual, because if you don’t have folks in the office every day, most of your meetings are always going to have some sort of virtual or remote component. And so getting a really excellent distributed collaboration is a critical muscle for an organization to build if they want to stay relevant in today’s world.
[00:06:17.220] – Nancy Goebel
Yeah. It’s about facilitating the collaboration and also coming back to the idea of the ethos. It’s really looking at the type of culture that you want to build. As people are connecting with each other as well and thinking about things like connections. I think it’s important to highlight one of the things that I spotted in the course of getting to know you ahead of this conversation. And one of the things I discovered quite quickly is that you are a go-giver. And within your role at OfficeTogether, you and your team are very much focused on empowering employees through hybrid work and in your mentoring activities, you’re striving to motivate and empower talented girls to pave our engineering world of tomorrow. And so bringing it back to things on a bit more of a personal level, tell us a bit about how these two things come together for you.
[00:07:17.690] – Amy Yin
I’m very flattered by the term go-giver. I haven’t heard that one before, so I have to start using that. One of our company values is make it about the people. And the reason that I chose that value is because it is both internally facing as well as strategic. And so for me, internally, it means that we really prioritize our employees and people and make care and empathy a really big part of our culture. And then on the strategic side, it means that we are super customer obsessed. We don’t write our own roadmap, our customers do. And so we continuously make it about interviewing employees, interviewing admins, understanding their problems, and building for it. And I think a lot of that comes from just wanting to help folks throughout my entire career, from a young age, like in high school and college. In college, I started the Harvard Women in Computer Science because I just wanted to see more amazing female technical leaders. Super important to me. And that’s still really important to me. And it’s gotten a little bit broader because now I want to see female leaders in tech, those who are both technical and non.
[00:08:29.630] – Amy Yin
And so even though I have ten years of engineering in my background, I’m no longer doing technical things day to day, even though I do run a software company. And I would say that OfficeTogether is also a lot about empowering people, specifically women too, because the big trend during the pandemic is one in three women now say they’re considering down shifting their careers. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, women left the workforce at four times the rate of men. Some of them people are calling it the she session. And so for me, OfficeTogether, building an amazing software that makes hybrid the easy and obvious choice for companies is about supporting women and men with the way that they prefer to work, which is in a more hybrid and flexible way. And without great tools and software to make that happen, it’s so much easier to default to rules. For example, a rule could be okay. Everyone needs to come in on Tuesday and on Thursday, because that’s the only way we can keep track of everyone. Whereas if you have a configurable automated software, now individual teams, departments, and people can start picking their schedules based off of their lives, their families, what their needs are, rather than having to follow a rule that makes it easier to manage a whole mass of employees at once.
[00:09:51.620] – Nancy Goebel
And you mentioned that you’ve come from the engineering world. And when I think about the digital workplace as an industry that’s gone through its coming of age, especially during the last couple of years, we’ve gone from early days where people were focused primarily on putting capability or tools out there to a space where people are thinking about the employee experience as a whole. So that’s the what? Yes, the tools and the capabilities. The how, which starts to factor in the elements of culture and connection and working through that sliding scale of are you in the office today? Are you in a co-working space tomorrow? Are you at an off site the third day? Are you working from home days four and five to all points in between, and then ensuring that the work that’s happening has context or the so what or the purpose. All working in tandem to really inform and empower the employee experience? I would imagine, just given the space that you’re in, that you have your eye on some pretty fascinating trends about both the hybrid workplace and for plans around return to office, which we know for many organizations is sort of forever altered, with some committing large numbers of people to stay at home for some time.
[00:11:24.320] – Nancy Goebel
But we also know that there are others who are planning to at least have some sets of employees come back to the office in growing numbers through the spring of this year. And so I’m curious to hear about what you’re seeing as the top line trends, and that could be both the positives and the dark side.
[00:11:43.300] – Amy Yin
Well, I’ll start with employee experience. First of all, HR tech in general as a software that supports human resources, people and culture has blown up as a space because employee experience and attrition is top of mind for employers. The great resignation has meant that employees have been leaving in droves. Some, in the case of many, caregivers to go take care of their family because they can’t find caregivers, and also many because they are choosing that they don’t want to work the jobs that exist. And so employers are throwing the whole kitchen sink at the problem when it comes to employee experience. Before, a lot of employee experience was focused on what happens at the office, what does the office look like? What is the color scheme, what are the snacks, the catering, the experience of being in person? Companies realize that actually remotely, you still have a culture, too. And so what makes up those elements of culture when you’re not formatting physical space. And so before the pandemic, an average company would spend 20% of their operating budget on real estate. They’re taking that massive budget, that 200 billion plus dollars they were spending in the US alone per year and shifting it to perks and benefits that make up the employee experience.
[00:13:04.420] – Amy Yin
And there’s a lot of different components around it. We’re seeing a huge uptick in what companies are spending on benefits and like perks and different virtual events and at home experiences. And then we’re also seeing companies hand out cash, right, like a work from home stipend, phone stipends, technology stipends. And then they’re also giving flexibility, which, ironically, is some of the hardest things for an executive to give up, but doesn’t cost them any money. And figuring out how to make that flexibility work has become a full time job. So you’re seeing roles pop up like head of remote or head of hybrid remote work, hybrid office manager, people who are full time tasks was how do you make the experience of being part time in the office and part time remote be really excellent. Some of the other dark sides of the trends that I’m seeing are that women are preferring to work remotely at much higher rates than men. Studies have found that women want to work from home 50% more than men among college graduates with young children. And it’s leading to them being passed over for positions because they’re not as present as their male colleagues and being less represented.
[00:14:22.560] – Amy Yin
And so that’s a really scary thing, because it’s one of the things I stand for most is wanting to see more gender equality in the workplace and more women building products for women by women. Second big trend is that the average American work week got 10% longer in 2021. A big part of that is that before that, 10% was going towards commuting to the office, and now it’s being spent working instead. In a sense, you get back that commute time, but you actually have to work 10% longer to keep up with your peers now because the work week has just gotten longer. America in general has one of the longest work week in the world. And so it’s actually a worrying trend because more hours doesn’t necessarily lead to more productivity. And then I would say the last thing is that finding work life balance has been more and more tricky than ever before. So big trends in mental health and more awareness and getting more therapy, but a lot of that caused by feelings of isolation, loneliness, and not having great separation between work and life. And so a lot of positives with saving time, getting to work where you want to live, where you want to live instead of where you work, but also some negatives with feeling alone, depression, mental health issues coming up.
[00:15:42.930] – Nancy Goebel
It’s a pretty wide ranging set of insights or trends that you’ve shared with us. I know you’ve also been talking a lot of late about why hybrid is good for business. Tell us a little bit about your thinking there and what that means for digital workplace leaders and professionals in particular.
[00:16:02.730] – Amy Yin
Absolutely. Hybrid is good for business among a number of dimensions, including recruiting, retention, productivities, and budgets, and spend. So when it comes to recruiting, having a hybrid remote office allows you to attract the maximum spectrum of workers. On the younger side, new grads interns. They really want to have an in person working experience. For a lot of them, being able to be in person is how they form their first social groups, and they learn through osmosis. And then as you get older across the career ladder, more folks are demanding more flexible work arrangements. And so hybrid allows you to recruit them all, as well as diversify where you are geographically, the proportion of remote workers actually swelled from 3.6% in 2018 to over 25% in 2022. And that trend is only continuing to be on pace. So supporting a combination of remote and in person employees is going to be a key priority for a lot of corporations moving forward. But also one of the trickiest new challenges that they’re going to have to deal with. And then I also want to talk about retention, productivity, and budgets. So when it comes to retention, it’s also really important to have a physical in person experience.
[00:17:18.360] – Amy Yin
Even fully remote companies I talk to say that in person is still a critical part of their culture. And that’s because the research shows that having a friend at work increases your engagement by 700%. Seven X. Companies where majority of employees have strong at work friendships, experience 12% higher profit, and 7% more engaged in customers. And so for folks who are thinking that being fully remote or fully in person is easier, actually having that hybrid office allows you to make sure that people can build strong relationships beyond the transactional that might occur via video or Zoom. And then the last thing I’ll talk about is just productivity. Some of our strongest markets for OfficeTogether are New York and London, because there are folks living in small apartments without great work setups. And so as a business, being able to provide a really safe, clean, well set-up environment for your employees is a huge way to keep them productive and feeling really supported in their day to day. So yeah, cross recruiting, retention and productivity, and then also saving money on real estate. Hybrid is really good for many businesses, which is why the majority of companies are opting into this new way of working.
[00:18:36.930] – Nancy Goebel
And certainly when I think about hybrid, I know one of the challenges that we’ve seen in the past that is at risk of rearing its head anew is when you have a mixture of colleagues who are working in the office and other locations, home or otherwise, could be in an airport as things open up again. And I had a glimpse of a situation where I was in a meeting that crossed locations from an office to remote players such as myself, and it was interesting to see how some of the dynamics of old just kind of reared their head. And it was a discussion that ended up being very focused on the people who are in the room, and suddenly those of us who were remote were almost the forgotten citizens. The notion of the digital divide could reemerge anew without the right safeguards in place. And so one of the things that we’ve been hearing through our circles is that there are teams of individuals, leaders, in fact, being put in charge of meeting experiences as a big priority within either the return to work strategy, dynamic working programmes, or hybrid working programmes in order to ensure that the experience of meetings is considered end to end, not only in terms of the capabilities, but the experiences and the behaviours as well.
[00:20:13.980] – Nancy Goebel
With digital workplace teams often being at the centre of efforts like this, what would you predict to be the next wave of advancements across each of those three areas?
[00:20:26.860] – Amy Yin
I’ll start with talking about my own experience with meetings at my own company, OfficeTogether. I came from a bigger company, Coinbase, where having six to 8 hours of meetings per day was the norm. Moving to a more remote set up. One of the big things that we were able to do is eliminate about 50% of the meetings that I used to typically attend by leveraging asynchronous technologies like Slack and Zoom. So a lot of companies have been able to skip a 20 minutes, 30 minutes scheduled meeting and send a video instead. This is a big practice that my own team will record a three to five minute Zoom video, which is a way of doing a snapshot video recording, send it over to the person that we want to share context with, and receive another response via Loom. This has been really important for us because we work across eight different time zones. The number one thing I would say about meetings that I’ve seen with companies I work with is eliminating as many of them as possible for distributed collaboration to work really well. Getting really good at asynchronous communication, and communicating with folks that don’t overlap with you time zone wise is really critical for a healthy organization.
[00:21:48.510] – Amy Yin
That being said, we still have plenty of synchronous meetings, and so the technology has to continue to advance there too. Some of the policies I’m seeing companies are implementing are one square per face on Zoom, and so at company like one of our customers, Bretts. If you are in the office, you are actually required to go to separate conference rooms from the people you’re in person with to take a meeting if anyone is remote to make sure that everyone has the same experience. And so two people might be in the SF office and two people are remote and those two SF people are going to be in separate rooms, so they are also having the remote experience. The thing that I’ve also seen on a more start up friendly budget do is my company will dial in so that every person dialing into a hybrid meeting will be represented by one square through their own laptop. And so you’ll be in a room, everyone will be on their laptop so that the person who’s remote is able to be there. It slightly detracts from the experience of being in person, but then it also really sets a strong ethos that the company is prioritizing the experience of being remote and that you don’t have to be in person to be successful with the company.
[00:23:02.380] – Amy Yin
Some other examples I’ve seen for a really positive meeting etiquette are constraining the hours in which meetings are held. So Etsy, for example, encourages meetings to be held during prime time, which is 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., so that if you’re doing an in person meeting, a hybrid worker is more likely to be able to be in those offices rather than early in the morning or later in the afternoon when they might be dropping kids off or dealing with other different things. So we’re seeing a bunch of different norms pop up to help with these different situations. In terms of technology advancements, there are tools like the Owl, which allows you to do like a 360 degree camera view and do audio, but it’s over $1,000 apiece and it’s not the best technology. I think that some of the big things that are missing right now is how do you properly pick up the audio and mute and unmute when you have a group of laptops together representing folks? I think that’s an unsolved problem in hybrid remote technology. And the other thing is how do you design offices so that they are meant for hybrid technology?
[00:24:12.140] – Amy Yin
So a lot of the bigger companies we’re working with are ripping out their rows and rows of desks and replacing them with more soft seating, more conference rooms, and more soundproof barriers. Because even if you go into the office, you’re most likely meeting with someone remotely. You’re coming to the office to be on Zoom, which means that the design and look and feel of the office, it’s not going to work as well if it’s a totally open floor plan as it used to be. So I guess a down shift away from the open floor plan.
[00:24:42.550] – Nancy Goebel
And certainly we’re likely to see more trends emerge as organizations continue all of these test and learn activities as the challenges start to mature within hybrid working. I certainly know that there are some organizations that have declared meeting free Fridays or have office closures at certain times of the year, just to allow people to step away from the meeting circuit and create opportunities for either recharging or having meeting free weeks. Occasionally, DWG does that on a rolling six week basis, where we park all internal meetings again to allow people to have the headspace to think about what’s needed next from a client delivery point of view. I think allowing for a level of innovation both from the perspective of the tools and technologies as well as people’s own ways of working, will allow us to help solve some of these challenges and the darker sides that you’ve talked about here as well. I think one aspect that we haven’t explored yet is your entrepreneurial side, given that you’re a CEO in the startup world. I’m really curious to hear what would be your best advice for digital workplace practitioners as we prepare to move from pandemic to endemic.
[00:26:11.250] – Amy Yin
My three best pieces of advice for digital workplace practitioners are one, build in public twoo make it social, and three armour up with technology. And a lot of these I’m actually taking from how I’m running my own company. And so one build in public is about talking about what I’m working on. So one of the things I’ve started doing is writing a lot more. I write blog posts, but I’m also posting on LinkedIn multiple times per week, just talking about what’s top of mind for me. And what I found is that when I run into my friends or folks I haven’t seen in a while, they’ll mention things that they see me post on LinkedIn like they know what’s going on with me, even if we haven’t had a one on one conversation. And so it’s great self promotion, obviously, but it’s also really great for soliciting ideas and letting people know what’s top of mind for you, because then they are able to send resources your way. And so I think that really applies with workplace practitioners, right? We’re in this period of great experimentation with how we’re moving forward with the future of work. Publishing your policies, your latest thinking, requesting help from other folks.
[00:27:22.270] – Amy Yin
It’s a way to really brand yourself as a thought leader and inspire the folks around you with their ideas. I think some other companies have done this really well. Dropbox posted a huge guide on this. We see a lot of other great tech companies putting a lot of resources out there so that every company doesn’t have to start from scratch when they’re thinking about what it means to move to a hybrid remote world. The second is make it social. Building alone is never going to have this creative or diverse results as bringing other folks in. And so a big thing I’ve done with my own startup is brought in a lot of my friends. I work with some of my closest friends. They are employees at the company, consultants, investors. I would say that that also really applies to digital workplace practitioners too. You’re getting to redesign what your multimillion dollar corporate real estate looks like, bringing your friends and making it a really social experience. Organizations I’m part of, like Coronet are really great for that, as well as HR Transform and different people, tech partners. Just a way to know and keep up to date with your co-workers, your colleagues and peers in the space.
[00:28:33.440] – Amy Yin
And then the last thing I’ll say is armour up with technology. We are in the age of digital, and so a big part of making sure that your practice can keep up with the times is keeping an ear to the ground on the latest and greatest technologies, being excited to experiment with new technologies. I mentioned some earlier in this podcast. We’re having users of Loom, Slack. We use a virtual office called Gather town, in addition to having a physical office space in New York. And we’re constantly working with other startups to try out their latest and greatest. And so I think a lot of that applies to the office. Obviously there’s a bias because I build workplace tools for the office that have never been used before, but they can reduce a lot of manual labour and also help create a really strong brand for you and your company of being very tech forward.
[00:29:28.770] – Nancy Goebel
I just love how you came up with this three pronged action plan based on how you operate day to day as a guide for practitioners to really amp up what they’re doing day to day. And I think that’s going to be some great advice that people can carry forward. I guess we’re close to the end of our time together at this point, and I always like to cap off a discussion like this by asking, Is there a question that you were hoping I would ask you, Amy? And didn’t.
[00:30:01.170] – Amy Yin
So the one question I was hoping that you’d ask is, what are some ways in which we demonstrate our value? Make it about the people I wanted to tie all the things I’ve talked them together about how we care. I care personally a lot about getting more women in the workplace, making them great leaders, and how OfficeTogether is here to support a new way of working. And that means that we’re doing that at the company level, too. And so even though we are a very small team of employees right now, small and mighty, we have world class benefits and perks. We have a very advanced HR Department where we’re offering healthcare, dental, vision, 401K, a healthcare FSA, an office and a mobile WiFi reimbursement, a mobile phone reimbursement, social events. We have an L and D reimbursement. We have a laundry list of birth person benefits, which is unheard of at the seed stage of company for us because we care so much about the people. One thing that we’ve done to go out of our way for a recent candidate is she’s our first working mom that’s shown in the company. And so we are actually in the process of procuring a dependent care FSA to make it just a little bit easier to be a working mom at OfficeTogether.
[00:31:21.590] – Amy Yin
And so I just wanted to say these things because I think it’s so important to support employees at the early stages, and companies that don’t really put employees first and foremost are squandering their most valuable resource, which is their people. That’s why one of our values is making about the people.
[00:31:42.170] – Nancy Goebel
Well, that’s just a terrific way to cap off this discussion because when I think about where we are in the digital workplace arena, it’s about putting the employee experience first. So whether you’re a large scale organization or coming at it from the startup point of view, the objective is the same.
[00:32:03.070] – Amy Yin
Thanks Nancy, this was so fun.
[00:32:05.490] – Nancy Goebel
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Book a free one-to-one consultation to discuss the current status of your digital workplace. Each consultation is followed up with a bundle of useful resources to help get you started.