February 28, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO – Prior to the pandemic, Envoy, a San Francisco start-up, sold visitor registration software for the office. His system registered guests and kept track of who entered the building.

When Covid-19 hit people and forced them to work from home, Envoy adapted. It started tracking employees instead of just visitors, with a screening system asking workers about possible Covid symptoms and exposures.

Now that companies are starting to reopen offices and encourage more flexibility for their employees, Envoy is again changing its strategy. With the latest Envoy Desks product, employees can book desks when they walk into their workplaces and bet that assigned cubicles and five days a week in the office will be a thing of the past.

Envoy is part of a wave of startups trying to capitalize on America’s transition to hybrid work. Companies are selling more flexible office layouts, new video calling software and tools for digital connectivity within teams – and trying to ensure that their offerings close the gaps between a personal and a remote workforce.

Startups battle for positions as more companies announce hybrid work plans, where employees can only come part of the week and work at home the rest of the time. In May, a McKinsey survey of 100 companies found that nine out of ten companies planned to combine remote and on-site work even after it was safe to return to the office.

Providing tools for remote working is potentially lucrative. According to research firm Gartner, companies spent $ 317 billion on information technology for remote working last year. Gartner estimates that spending this year would climb to $ 333 billion.

Hybrid and remote working have the potential to help workers for whom office environments were never well suited, said Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. This includes women, ethnic minorities, people with caring responsibilities and people with disabilities, but also introverts and people who prefer to work at odd times or in solitude.

However, she and others also warned that the move to hybrid work could turn teleworkers into “second class citizens”. Workers who miss the camaraderie of face-to-face meetings or the spontaneity of hallway chats could end up being passed over for salary increases and promotions, they said.

This is where, as start-up founders argue, their products come into play.

Rajiv Ayyangar, the CEO and co-founder of Tandem, runs one of several software startups that have developed desktop apps that help teams work better together and recreate the feel of an office. He said Tandem’s product tries to help with “presence” – the ability to know in real time what their teammates are doing, even when the employee is not in the office with their colleagues.

Tandem’s desktop program, which costs $ 10 per month for each user, shows what teammates are working on so colleagues know if they are available for an impromptu video call within the app. The list of user statuses is automatically updated to let users know whether their colleagues are on the phone, writing in Google Docs, or doing something else.

Pragli and Tribe, two software start-ups that have been around since 2019, also offer similar products. Users can use Pragli’s product to create constant audio or video calls that others can join. It’s free, though the company plans to roll out a paid product. Tribe software uses busy and available status to facilitate in-platform video calls; it is currently only accessible by invitation.

The start-up Owl Labs, founded in 2017, is also trying to get “presence” under control. It makes a 360 degree video camera, microphone, and speaker that sit in the center of a conference table and automatically zoom in on the person speaking.

The company, which said its customers quadrupled to more than 75,000 businesses as a result of the pandemic, said the $ 999 camera is a way for remote workers to attend office meetings by being able to see every participant speaking, rather than the restricted view made possible by an A single laptop camera.

Other startups like Kumospace and Mmhmm ​​said they were working on improving video communications for hybrid work. Kumospace, a video calling startup, structures calls so that users enter a virtual room. They then use the arrow keys to navigate the room and speak to people when they are nearby.

The design is meant to mimic personal conviviality where people can walk around and have multiple conversations in the same room. This is in contrast to a service like Zoom, where everyone is on the same call by default once they start the video call.

Mmhmm, developed by Evernote note-taking and productivity app founder Phil Libin, offers a variety of interactive video backgrounds, slide show sharing tools, and other features for live conversations and asynchronous presentations. There is a free version and a premium version that costs $ 8.33 per employee per month.

Some companies said their products can help companies understand how they use space because fewer employees need desks. Density, a San Francisco start-up, makes a product that uses custom depth sensors to measure how many people are entering an area or using an open space. Organizations can then analyze this data to understand how much of their office space they are actually using and shrink it if necessary.

Density also plans to offer more tools for hybrid working. Last month it acquired a software start-up that provides a table and seat reservation system.

Envoy said its new Desks product attracted 400 companies, including clothing retailer Patagonia and film company Lionsgate.

“The companies that use us get much more accurate data that is standardized across all of their offices around the world,” said Larry Gadea, CEO of Envoy. “And then it’s about using that data to inform things about spatial planning. Do we need more floors? Do we need more meeting rooms? Do we need more desks? Do we need more desks for this one team? “

Lionsgate said it had been using Envoy’s products before the pandemic. When the coronavirus hit, it turned to Envoy’s employee screening software to provide health checks for those entering the office.

With more employees returning to personal work, the company is using Envoy to manage where everyone is seated and who comes in. Lionsgate said the information can help determine how often teams need to be in the office.

“We will be able to really know how much space we need,” said Heather Somaini, Lionsgate chief administrative officer. “So I think it will be really useful.”