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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 2 months ago

From hip to home: Company known for cutting edge office life shifts to remote

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St. Petersburg insurance company Squaremouth thrived when the office was fun. Now it'll see what happens when the office is at home.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

It’s hard to pinpoint, exactly, when it became OK to slack off at work. Probably, most would say, it was in the 1990s, during the Clinton Administration, when ping pong tables and gyms and bars began to show up in offices.

These were the days of the Internet boom, when companies tried to lure the best and brightest employees from the competition. Staid office culture, with everyone in ties and where severity was the tradition, became passé. It was replaced with dressing down and fun, collaborative workspaces and an informal approach to management.

Despite the naysayers, executives said, and continue to say, employees were more engaged in that environment, and they worked longer when the workplace provided a few extra bells and whistles and promoted a healthy dose of the things that make life better. (Facebook, Apple and Google campuses are three of many examples.)

Well, now, coming out of the pandemic another systemic change in how people work and interact in an office environment is shifting. Companies are adapting to remote work, saying employees can be every bit as productive working from their homes as they are in a formal office.

St. Petersburg’s Squaremouth is one of those companies.

The new office

The travel insurance comparison company, founded in 2003, has decided to go fully remote, setting aside plans to build a new, cooler office space in a 23,000-square-foot converted church after employees voted to work from home permanently. In doing so, Squaremouth becomes an interesting case study in how office life has evolved over the years and how, as those young workers attracted to hip spaces mature in their personal and professional lives, work is again changing.

“Today’s employee cares less about a super cool office and likes that flexibility, working from home or the hybrid approach,” says Megan Moncrief, Squaremouth’s chief marketing officer. “So that’s where we’re going in the future.”

Squaremouth is far from alone in shifting to a work from home model. In Tampa Bay alone, ad agency ChappellRoberts decided to keep employees working remotely as did Kforce, the publicly traded staffing company. Other companies in the region, such as Venice-based drinkware manufacturer Tervis, also found success with remote, work-from-home and the trendy hybrid policy. “Our team members proved to be efficient and productive working from home,” Tervis President Rogan Donelly said last year, in what became something of a rallying cry for many companies. 

And nationwide, companies say remote work has improved the lives of their employees without upsetting the daily workflow.

On the flip side, one study found working from home makes it more difficult for employees to be innovative and productive. The study was published in September in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior. It studied data culled from more than 61,000 Microsoft employees over the first six months of 2020.

What researchers found was that companywide remote work “caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.” The study found the time employees spent with “cross-group connections” dropped by about 25%.

Researchers also found that personal, immediate interactions decreased while there was an increase in asynchronous communications, which happen over an extended period of time. “Together," the study found, "these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”

The old office

Squaremouth, until the pandemic hit, worked out of a penthouse office on 2nd Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.

Moncrief, who’s been working for the company for eight years, says the office was light and airy, “not like you’re in a cubicle looking at three gray walls." She says this made it a little more exciting to go to the office because it created an atmosphere conducive to conversation, interaction and, as a result, innovation.

A nearly three-minute video on the company’s website shows life in the office, with employees in T-shirts grabbing beers on tap and on a company boat ride. They sit in swinging chairs talking about business with a pool table and the waterfront in the background.

Moncrief says, and it’s repeated in the video, that employees get unlimited paid vacations, that everything is transparent and democratic, including the awarding of pay raises, and people are encouraged to make mistakes because it means they’re succeeding.

“When you like everyone you’re working with and you’re sitting around talking to each other, it’s a nice day,” she says.

This approach served Squaremouth well. Before the pandemic, the company saw a three-year revenue growth rate of 164% and was typically making up to 500 sales a day. Sales for the year prior to the crisis topped $41 million. Along with profits came accolades. In May, Inc. Magazine named the company one of the top workplaces in America for the fifth consecutive year.

Heading into 2020, things were looking good. The company had bought that 60-year-old church, on Central Avenue, in 2018 for $1.8 million. The 23,000-square-foot building was being renovated to create a space that brought all the features from the office while adding a host of hipster-like amenities — fire poles, rope bridges and a climbing wall among them.

Then the pandemic hit. Things changed.

Tomorrow's office

Like so many other companies, in March 2020 Squaremouth sent employees home. The transition wasn’t too big, says Moncrief. The call center and the company’s developers in Indiana were already working remotely while administration, marketing, management and designers worked out of the St. Pete office.

The office remained partially open for employees who wanted to go in.

What's happened since the shift began is employees found they liked working from home — even those who were reluctant at first. Employees eventually voted on keeping the change permanent. Moncrief attributes this to more and more employees having young families and enjoying the work/life balance working from home (sometimes) provides.

But employees also found that despite the technology and ability to get the job done, they missed the interaction.

FILE: Squaremouth bought a church on Central Avenue to renovate it into a cool new office.

So, what Squaremouth is doing to make up for that loss is opening up the office for meetings, work sessions and functions, allowing employees to get that needed face-to-face time while allowing them to do the brunt of the work from home.

The company employs 33 people, 10 who work close enough to have to go into the office.

“We can be as productive as we ever were, but it’s not the same as just dropping by someone’s desk or overhearing conversations,” says Moncrief. “We’re such an open, collaborative group that we kind of missed those intangibles of all being together.”

How it all will eventually look and work will take a little time to figure out.

The lease on the downtown space expires in December and the company will go month-to-month on a lease at the co-working space Industrious in St. Petersburg. The company sold the church during the pandemic for $1.9 million.

There is no plan yet for how many days they’ll be in the office or even what that’s going to look like. Moncrief says they’ll “see what works for everybody but keep that flexibility first.”

“We have a space available, but we just need to figure out how we’re going to use it.”

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