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Okta, Buzzfeed, and Envoy Talk Return to the Workplace

What does a return to the office look like? What changes will we need to make to our physical space? Do we even need offices? To find out, we spoke with Armen Vartanian, SVP of Global Workplace Services at Okta, Julia Goldberg, SVP of Office Services, Real Estate, and Security at Buzzfeed, and Larry Gadea, CEO at Envoy. They provided their points of view on these burning questions and discussed their plans to return to the office. 

Below are some of the highlights from the discussion. To hear the full conversation, watch the recording. 

Q: Will there be offices in the future?

Julia: Yeah, they’ll definitely be offices in the future. Whether it’s a smaller footprint or not is dependent on what discipline is in that location, but we absolutely expect to have a footprint. 

Armen: There is an incredible opportunity for all of us in the field to think about how to arrange the workplace and workforce for the future in a more flexible way. Does that mean we’re not going to have offices in the future? I don’t think so. Face to face interactions are still important, but you need to provide your employees with the choice to come in when they want to, and it shouldn’t be dictated by a manager that’s insecure about not having their teams under the same roof. 

Larry: What I’m seeing from our customers is that they absolutely want to get the people together that want to be together, and allow the people that want to be at home to stay at home. Not a single customer has said it will be mandatory to return to the office. And yet, everyone is planning to go back to the office, which I am surprised about. 

Q: What are the guiding principles and values that were front and center when you were developing your back to work plans?

Julia: We have three cornerstone guiding principles: safety, caution, and culture. Safety: ensuring the safety for ourselves and our families and our communities. Caution: taking measured, deliberate steps and thinking through what we’re doing, not simply how to get people back in an office or not. And while culture is third, it is very high on our list to be able to keep our culture unique and active within Buzzfeed. That’s true whether you are in a physical space or working remotely. 

Armen: Something that we’ve shared with the team at Okta is that caution needs to be the tone, not eagerness to return to the office. So, we developed a three point guideline to open any office. The first is creating the right physical distancing measures in the office. So alternating desks, having people six feet apart, and the right circulation paths. The second is that we can procure the right supplies to create a safe and sanitary environment. That’s not just the more traditional cleaning supplies, it also means the technology that’s going to support safety. And lastly, it’s aligning with government recommendations. 

Larry: The main concept for us is all about safety. How are we going to reconfigure our space? What areas do people congregate in? Some other items, like elevators, we will only allow one person in the elevator at any one time. And ensuring we have enough masks for everyone. 

Q: What do we do about lunches?

Julia: Should we bring back food service? Yes, simply because I can’t have people try to get down an elevator to pick up their lunch and then go back up the elevator. So we are debating whether we’re doing box lunches, but we feel strongly that we don’t want it to be so antiseptic in the offices that it’s scary or unfriendly. We won’t have the bulk snacks or brew kegs, that’s an amenity that’s going to be reconsidered down the line. 

Armen: We’ve debated the safety of having food in the office versus going to a restaurant for a while. As much as you want to believe that your caterers are doing things in a safe manner, the larger the quantity of food they’re producing and packaging the greater the likelihood of sanitary controls being slipped. Versus someone going to a small, medium sized business and actually seeing the individual prepare their food for them there. So there’s two benefits to that; it’s the sanitary side and also helping the economy. 

Larry: For lunches, we’re still going to do lunches, but they’re not going to be a typical Silicon Valley lunch anymore. Lunches are going to be in four different places, very separate from each other and it’s going to be boxed or individually wrapped.

Q: Do you have particular dates for reopening your offices?

Julia:  We do have dates, but they are grounded in our principles and the government allowing our first teams to go back. We’re going to use our LA location as our test base and begin that process in the beginning of June. If we can do our proof of concept there, then we can expand into New York. The rest of our organization, we have told them to enjoy their summer, you’re off the hook from being in a physical space. But we are targeting communication in mid September for some people to go back in October. And, there’s some people that will never go back, or will not go back for quite some time. 

Armen: For us, we are lucky that we’re a cloud-based technology company and everything we do is rooted in that philosophy, so we don’t necessarily have essential workers that need to be on site. So for that reason, we’re not setting dates. But one thing that we do have is a phased approach to reopening. When we are capable of meeting those three guidelines that I mentioned earlier, the workplace team will enter each office and start preparing it. We’ll then provide a notice to our employees with the date that the offices will reopen. But the expectation is that the company is remote first. The workplace team will go and fit the space with the appropriate signage and the new sanitary measures. During that time, we’re asking employees to come and pick up their personal belongings since there’s liability in cleaning the desks with personal stuff on them. We can then have the janitors do a more thorough cleaning of all surfaces on a daily basis and it enables us to move to a more alternate type of seating. 

Larry: It’s pretty simple for us. In the middle of June, we’re looking at opening as part of our first phase where we let the essential folks in. We need to test our products, especially as we’re building software specifically dedicated to safe reopenings of workplaces. So I think it’s really important for us to be in our office, but likely the select few that are working on these projects, the product managers and some of the engineers. 

Q: What about people who take public transit to get to the office? 

Armen: For us it’s remote first until we have a treatment or vaccine in place. If anybody doesn’t feel comfortable about the modes of transportation that they’re using to come into the office, then they shouldn’t come into the office. 

Julia: In terms of transportation for essential workers, in Los Angeles they’re mainly getting to the office with their personal vehicle. For our central workers in New York who have vehicles, we reimburse them for their parking. I don’t want them on the subway, we don’t want people on public transportation for as long as possible. So the more we can help them work remotely from home is great. 

Larry: The first two phases don’t include anybody that takes public transit. We asked our employees how are you going to get to work? So people that take public transit, those people basically don’t have the option to get to the office even if they wanted to. 

To hear more about what Armen, Julia, and Larry have to say about privacy concerns, physical office restructurings, and how they’re providing safe work environments, watch the full conversation.