Juniper Square Ponders Future of Office With Digital-First, Hybrid Workplace Strategy

Gradually, then suddenly.  

Despite two decades of steady growth of remote work in America, in 2019 less than 20% of Americans reported working remotely even some of the time.  In 2020, full-time work from home became the norm for some 71% of office workers. (Source: Pew Research.)  

In a single year, attitudes about remote work that were shifting gradually, shifted suddenly.  This shift exposed workers to the benefits and drawbacks of remote work.  And, pandemic aside, the majority of Americans who were able to be effective at remote work now prefer it. 

At Juniper Square, like many employers, we experienced this shift in attitudes in real-time as we attempted to grapple with how and when we would return to the office.  We struggled with balancing our employees’ needs for temporary relocation with the need to put consistent policies in place.  We also struggled to provide guidance to hiring managers considering expanding their geographic preferences for open roles in a world where no one was coming into an office. 

After careful consideration, we elected to become a digital-first company with a hybrid workplace strategy.  Our CEO, Alex Robinson, recently provided details on what this means to our current and prospective employees here.

But on our journey to this decision, we realized that, while there were many blog posts announcing companies’ decisions with regard to workplace strategy, we were unable to find many companies of our size and scale who took the time to share why they made their decision, how they implemented it, and what the results were. 

While we don’t pre-suppose other companies will follow in our footsteps, our clients own and operate more than a billion square feet of commercial real estate in the office sector alone.  And, as a result, they have a vested interest in understanding how innovative companies like Juniper Square are thinking about the future of work.         

What follows is just that — a description of our journey to offering our employees a digital-first, hybrid workplace.  We hope, at worst, that it provides a window into how we thought about the return to work, and, at best, that it provides a window into the decisions that many employees and employers are working through across the country as we make progress towards fully reopening. 

Re-imagining our workplace strategy

All Juniper Square employees are currently working remotely until at least July 1, 2021. To make thoughtful, lasting changes to our workplace strategy, we used the shutdown to imagine what work at Juniper Square should look like in a post-Covid environment. To do this, we assigned a dedicated team of senior executives to investigate trends shaping the workplace and determine what it would take to stay competitive, attract top talent, and meet employee and customer expectations post-pandemic. 

The team studied the workplace policies of leading technology companies like Google and Linkedin as well as remote-only pioneers like Gitlab to determine what type of workplace structure would enable us to support our employees and stay innovative. Our employees provided feedback on their well-being, productivity, collaboration needs, workplace culture, and work location preferences. We also looked to peer groups and industry associations to gather information about changing views on work and what it will take to acquire and retain top talent going forward. 

The chart below outlines the options we considered to determine what work at Juniper Square might look like:

Cloud-only workplace

 

Digital-first workplace with office hubs

Office-first workplace with cloud options

Office-only workplace

Description

All Juniper Square employees would work from the cloud and meet in person periodically for company-wide and team-wide gatherings.

Juniper Square would be a digital-first company and provide options for employees to work from the cloud or in an office environment.

Juniper Square would maintain office hubs and make allowances for weekly work from home. Options to work in the cloud permanently or outside of specific metro areas would be limited and handled on an exception basis.

All Juniper Square employees would work from an office, with expectations of four or more days a week in the office.

Office Tether

No

Some

Yes

Yes

Geographies

United States

United States

Select metropolitan regions

Yes

Talent Acquisition and Retention Advantages

Expand talent pool nationally

Expand talent pool nationally

Expand talent pool locally

Current talent pool

Employee Productivity and Well-being

<<--------- Hypotheses: Generally improving as you move left

Collaboration and Company-wide Output

Hypothesis: Generally improving as you move right ———–>>

Sense of Community and Job Satisfaction

Hypothesis: Generally improving as you move right ———–>>

One of the things that did not factor into our decision-making process was cost.  While it’s true that going remote or hybrid might lower our real estate costs, we found those savings roughly offset when taking into account the increased cost of travel for company and team offsites and events.  Our Cloud-based employees need in-person interaction, too, and these opportunities will foster stronger relationships, improve how we work together as a team, and allow our culture to flourish. And, more importantly, we believed that considerations for employee productivity, collaboration, and retention far outweighed cost in the overall equation. 

Juniper Square employees weigh in

In order to validate our hypotheses, we surveyed our employees, particularly regarding their preference for cloud-based versus in-office work. Here’s what we learned:

Flexibility and geographic mobility matter

  • Nearly 70% of Juniper Square employees temporarily or permanently relocated during the pandemic, and 65% reported that having the option to work outside of San Francisco or Austin is more important now than it was pre-COVID.
  • 90% stated that flexible office attendance — mostly to cut down on a daily commute — will be important going forward.  

Remote work helps individual productivity and well-being

  • Productivity was not deterred by the shift to remote work, with 75% reporting they are equally or even more productive. 
  • Nearly 80% reported feeling productive, able to balance work with family and other priorities, and personally fulfilled while working remotely during COVID. 

In-person activities drive team productivity, connection and job satisfaction

  • Despite reporting an increase in individual productivity working from home, 64% reported that in-person collaboration helps teams function better.  And nearly 70% cited face-to-face collaboration and in-person activities with co-workers as key contributors to job satisfaction.
  • Our employees also said one of the biggest downsides of working from home is that it makes it more difficult to connect with co-workers, with 78% saying the lack of in-person interactions made it harder to build new relationships and 52% saying they were less effective at maintaining existing ones. 

A hybrid approach was the clear winner

  • Even before the pandemic, 46% were already excited by the concept of working remotely.
  • While our employees saw benefits in both fully cloud-based and fully office-based approaches, our survey indicated that many did not want to work for a company that was solely one or the other.   

“Our employee survey provided a crystal clear signal regarding the future of work at a technology company,” says Sophie Kitson, Senior Vice President of People at Juniper Square. “Had we chosen to return to the office full-time — just as things were pre-pandemic — half of our employees would have been disappointed.  But going 100% virtual wasn’t the right answer either, as the other half of our employees didn’t want to work at  a fully-remote company.  A hybrid approach was the only path forward that balanced the needs of our employees, and the needs of the broader talent market as a whole.”

Our digital-first, hybrid workplace strategy

Based on our research, internal surveys, and discussions, we decided a digital-first, hybrid model was the right approach for Juniper Square. Our goal is to give employees flexibility, allowing people to work where they feel most productive and comfortable.  At the same time, we believe that offices play a critical role in enabling collaboration and helping to create a sense of community and culture within the workplace.  

We will have ‘hubs’ — or clusters of employees — in San Francisco and Austin, with a third “hub” centered in the Cloud. We will maintain office space in San Francisco and Austin. Leadership will be distributed between the three (with our CEO and co-founder serving as the leader of the Cloud hub). We will eventually include additional physical hubs to provide more work flexibility to current employees, attract talent in new geographies, and ensure we have the right people in the right locations to respond to client needs. 

On the communication and collaboration front, digital is now the default mode for our company communications and meetings to ensure all employees, regardless of location, have access to the same information necessary to be effective at work. We also want to provide a level-playing field for employees who choose to work from the Cloud, which requires a greater emphasis on written work that can be shared broadly and asynchronously, and the technologies and processes required to enable that shift.

We’re also committed to making substantial, ongoing investments in the technology and infrastructure needed to accommodate virtual work as well as physical workspaces. To help employees stay productive while working at home, we provided a standard work set-up for use in their home office (laptop, monitor, accessories), a $150 monthly stipend to cover internet and other home office costs, and a $500 allowance to purchase additional items, like standing desks or a high-quality desk chair. When the pandemic first hit, we shipped to each of our employees’ homes their monitor and desk chair so that all could be comfortable and productive from home. Looking ahead, we’re designing office spaces that will encourage collaboration, connect a more distributed workplace, and provide our employees with the necessary tools to innovate and work together to solve business problems. 

Communication and rollout 

Open communication underscores our day-to-day work at Juniper Square. To socialize our workplace strategy with employees, we outlined the thinking behind it and how it would work at an all-hands meeting on October 30. We discussed known implementation details and highlighted areas that were still in development. We fielded a survey in early November to solicit feedback and gather information about location preferences. We also developed a detailed, 18-page written plan that employees can access from our internal wiki to understand the work that went into developing the strategy, its goals and its policies. On November 20, we followed up with a more detailed plan that included locations we expect to support, compensation, the process for switching hubs, and other details.

To help with the transition and space planning, employees were asked to provide their location preference and, together with their manager, determine whether they would be based in the Cloud or an office hub. Cloud-based employees can work anywhere in the United States or Canada where Juniper Square is registered as an employer and can provide benefits. (Today, we operate in 19 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces.) Location preferences were finalized on January 8, 2021. 

Employees who choose to be based in one of our offices can still work remotely as needed, but are expected to be in the office at least some days per week. Likewise, while Cloud employees will work primarily from their home location, they are expected to travel more than office-based employees for team-building and in-person collaboration. To make synchronous collaboration easier for our distributed workforce, all employees, regardless of location, are expected to be available during the business day for meetings during ‘common collaboration hours’ (9am-3pm PT).

To master the long-term change to a hybrid workplace model, the importance of ongoing communication is unequivocal. Research from MIT found that communication was the single most important ingredient to successfully support this kind of transition. As always, we’ll maintain a working environment in which Juniper Square employees feel part of an inclusive and supportive team, wherever they are, and have channels for open, honest communication with peers, managers, and leadership. Communication and collaboration aren’t ‘set it and forget it’ parts of our workplace strategy, so we will seek regular feedback to find out what is and isn’t working and use that information to refine our approach.

Where Juniper Square employees are choosing to work

“The COVID crisis really showcased the resilience of Juniper Square employees — their unflagging drive and commitment to innovate and serve our customers at the highest levels, despite difficult circumstances,” said Kitson. “Since first closing our offices in March 2020, our teams have evolved new and inspiringly creative ways to work together, support each other, and embrace the 152 new employees we’ve onboarded, entirely remotely, since the pandemic began. Kitson went on to say 45% of Juniper Square’s 260 employees have elected to work in the Cloud permanently. That’s a sea change from the number that were working remotely before the pandemic, and the Cloud now represents Juniper Square’s largest hub.

  • Of our SF-based employees pre-pandemic, 23% switched their work location to the Cloud. Interestingly, only 41% of these switchers did so because they moved out of the Bay Area. The majority — nearly 60% – moved to work from the Cloud yet remain in the Bay Area, which runs counter to the narrative that employers enabling Cloud causes employees to flee high cost regions for lower cost regions.
  • In Austin we saw a similar pattern. 21% of our Austin workforce switched to work from the Cloud, yet only 27% moved out of the Austin area, with the majority — 73% — remaining in Austin but working from the Cloud.
  • Of those who relocated out of the Bay Area — 18 of our employees in total — there wasn’t a clear, discernible trend other than a migration toward Denver, where 28% of those relocated chose to live. The remaining two-thirds elected Seattle, Southern California, Ohio, Chicago, Boston, Montana, and Salt Lake City. Trends were driven by varying factors from being near friends and family to quality of life.

The impact on recruiting and retention

After more than a year of working remotely, employees and job seekers now have new expectations about work. Studies show a majority believe that the shift to remote work during the pandemic was largely successful, and most anticipate that remote work will be normalized going forward.  

Now that people have experience with remote work, many want more of it in their future. When considering work post-COVID, more Juniper Square employees were interested in a primarily remote workplace (43%) than in a primarily office-based workplace (28%).  But remote work isn’t for everyone. A recent WeWork survey found that only 12% of the people surveyed wanted to work from home full time. The Randstad 2020 Workmonitor survey found that most people want to return to the office, both for social interaction and a distraction-free workspace, while retaining flexible-hour arrangements or the ability to work from home a few days a week. For these reasons, we think the key to staying competitive and maximizing talent acquisition and retention will be a hybrid approach.

One of the brightest sides of this shift is how it’s widening the talent marketplace for employers and democratizing access to opportunities for job seekers. The Work Trend Index survey conducted in January 2021 by independent research firm Edelman Data x Intelligence found that remote job postings on LinkedIn increased more than five times during the pandemic. In that same survey, 46% of respondents said they are planning to move to a new location this year because they can now find good opportunities to work remotely. People no longer have to be located in specific metro areas to grow their careers. 

This shift provides the perfect opportunity to look to new locations to source talent. For instance, when we were unable to satisfy our robust hiring needs in San Francisco or Austin for our growing Fund Administration service, we knew we needed to expand the geographic reach of our search. We launched dedicated recruitment efforts in areas with deep talent pools with accounting and audit expertise, and were able to quickly fill these roles. 

We will be able to source creative and talented people across the country — of the 52 new hires we’ve made since the start of 2021, 55% have chosen to be based permanently in the Cloud. Since we’re not limited by location, we can recruit in areas with more diverse talent pools, better fill roles with specialized requirements, and provide employees with more flexibility to move without having to change jobs. 

How our use of offices will change

Going forward, we’re deeply committed to maintaining physical office space, but the ways we use that space will change. To that end, we’re hiring a new director of workplace design who will be responsible for ensuring that our offices provide a collaborative, safe place for employees to work and that our hubs are connected and function well together. To support our hybrid work evolution, this individual will take the lead on understanding our space needs, researching solutions, and managing the reconfiguration of our offices. Since Texas is on a faster track to re-opening than California, we’re using our Austin office as a prototype and will leverage lessons learned to design our San Francisco office and any future hubs. 

It’s still early days, but our plan is to create different areas to accommodate different work functions — quiet areas where people can think and write as well as collaboration zones and communal areas for brainstorming, problem solving, and fun. There will be fewer dedicated desks, but we’ll likely need more unstructured space to account for social distancing and utilization changes. 

We don’t yet know how this change in use of space will affect our overall real estate footprint, but we plan to write more and disclose data on this topic as soon as we do.

As we continue to grow and improve on our ability to work as a distributed team, we expect to open additional offices to provide more geographic flexibility for current and future employees. Instead of guessing where our next office will be, the real-world locations of our distributed employee base will inform our choices. Today, we already have a critical mass of employees in several metropolitan areas, including Denver, Chicago, Seattle, and New York City. 

Implications for the real estate industry 

There is an ongoing uncertainty about the future of office work and how that will affect demand in the real estate industry. Across the country, the vacancy rate for office buildings in city centers has steadily climbed over the past year from roughly 10% to nearly 17%, the highest it’s been in more than a decade according to Cushman & Wakefield. And recent CBRE analysis projects that remote working could cut the overall need for office space by 15%. But OpexEngine research suggests that number could be even higher, with 65% of the Saas and Cloud senior finance executives they surveyed stating that they plan to reduce office space in 2021 (21% plan an increase).

So far, larger office owners have limited their financial losses since they are still collecting rent from tenants locked into longer leases, which typically average about seven years. Even as vaccinations allow people to go back to office in greater numbers, vacancies could climb further as some companies move to fully remote work, leases slowly come up for renewal, and newly constructed office space becomes available. 

But it’s not all bad news. Even as companies embrace the flexibility of remote work, it doesn’t mean people won’t head back to the office; they will. Companies are simply rethinking what going back to the office will mean after COVID-19. And, for forward-thinking companies, this change won’t be a one-time adjustment, it will be an evolution that mirrors talent migration patterns and work preferences.  

That creates a real opportunity for office owners preparing for a wholesale return to the office. Offering flexible terms that enable employers to balance space needs with uncertain employee capacity plans, working with employers to identify creative solutions for managing overflow needs during times or days of the week when utilization is at peak, or even providing insights into how to leverage space for collaboration instead of co-working will put leading sponsors on the forefront of the new normal. 

Whatever the return to office looks like, the only certainty is change.  As we look forward to that future, we will continue to share insights into our company journey and welcome a dialogue with industry participants around ways we can maximize outcomes for all.