Why Urban Jungle is looking forward to the office return

The pandemic has fundamentally changed ideas of what a workplace should look like. But as we move into the world of hybrid work, there is still no definitive vision of how our working lives should be structured. Here, insurance start-up Urban Jungle's chief of staff and operations Helen Hodges explains why the company is encouraging its employees back to the office

We think it’s important to be back in the office. We were fully remote at the start of the pandemic but we reopened the office in June of last year. We have a pretty young team overall who were often trying to work from home with four or five other people around the same kitchen table. This type of setup isn’t productive for anyone. We wanted to open the office safely and securely so people had another space to work from if they needed it.

We’re now working towards getting everybody back in the office. The default will be five days a week, and certainly no less than three. We aren’t mandating it at the moment, but we hope to get back as soon as we can.

We wouldn’t want to do anything that makes anyone feel uncomfortable and we certainly won’t be asking people to come back before everyone has, at least, had the opportunity to get two vaccines. In the meantime, we’re encouraging everyone to come in as and when they feel like it and to coordinate with their teams. 

We have always had a pretty flexible approach to managing your own time. The reason we want people to be back in the office is not because we don’t trust them to do great work from other places, it’s because it’s a great space for people to learn and quickly grow the business. 

For us in particular, we place a really high importance on learning and development. As a startup, we’re trying to innovate and quickly launch new features based on real-time feedback. The best way to enable this is to sit next to someone as they’re doing it, to help coach them and be there to answer questions. 

All of that has been doable remotely, as we’ve seen in the last 18 months, but it is definitely hindered by not being present in person. In the same way that you could learn a new language from a book, talking to someone helps you learn much faster. 

Some things worked very well for us, for example our meetings with senior leadership were available for people to listen into, in the style of a podcast, and people could raise questions if they wanted to chime in. It really helped to improve our transparency as you didn’t have to be in the same room. 

However, developing interpersonal relationships, getting feedback on work and coaching is much faster and more effective in person.

We’ve always been pretty clear about the type of working environment and culture we want to build, so I don’t think it was a massive surprise to people. A lot of people have joined us on that basis and we’ve actually doubled the team through the pandemic on the proviso that we will be going back to the office as soon as we can. 

Ultimately, the right working practice depends on the context of your business. I know other startups that have entirely built their culture around remote working and been successful. At Urban Jungle, our culture is built around fast learning and individual development, so that’s why I think the return to the office is best for us at this stage of our journey.

As told to Sam Forsdick