Entrepreneurship

As workers return, start-ups aim apps at the changed office

Read more at www.startribune.com

SAN FRANCISCO — Before the pandemic, Envoy, a startup in San Francisco, sold visitor registration software for the office. Its system signed in guests and tracked who was coming into the building.

When COVID-19 hit and forced people to work from home, Envoy adapted. It began tracking employees instead of just visitors.

Now as companies begin reopening offices and promoting more flexibility for employees, Envoy is changing its strategy again. Its newest product, Envoy Desks, lets employees book desks for when they go into their company’s workplace, in a bet that assigned cubicles and five days a week in the office are a thing of the past.

Envoy is part of a wave of startups trying to capitalize on America’s shift toward hybrid work. Companies are selling more flexible office layouts, new video-calling software and tools for digital connectivity within.

The startups are jockeying for position as more companies announce plans for hybrid work.

Providing tools for remote work is potentially lucrative. Companies spent $317 billion last year on information technology for remote work, according to the research company Gartner. Gartner estimated that spending would increase to $333 billion this year.

Hybrid and remote work have the potential to benefit workers for whom office environments were never a good fit, said Kate Lister, president of the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. This includes women, racial minorities, people with caregiving responsibilities, those with disabilities and people who simply prefer to work at odd hours or in solitude.

But she and others also warned that remote workers may end up being passed over for raises and promotions.

That, startup founders argue, is where their products come in.

Rajiv Ayyangar, the CEO and co-founder of Tandem, leads one of several software startups that have created desktop apps that help teams better collaborate with one another and that recreate the feeling of being in an office. He said Tandem’s product was trying to help with “presence” — the ability to know what one’s teammates are doing in real time, even if the worker is not with their colleagues in the office.

Tandem’s desktop program, which costs $10 a month for each user, shows what teammates are working on so colleagues know if they are available for a spontaneous video call within the app.

Pragli and Tribe, two software startups that have been around since 2019, offer similar products. People can use Pragli’s product to create standing audio or video calls that others can join. It is free, although the company plans to introduce a paid product. Tribe’s software uses busy and available statuses to facilitate in-platform video calls; it is only accessible with an invitation.

Owl Labs, a startup founded in 2017, is also trying to tackle “presence.” It makes a 360-degree video camera, microphone and speaker that sits in the middle of a conference table and automatically zooms in on the person who is speaking.

The company said the $999 camera was a way for remote workers to participate in office meetings by being able to see everyone who is speaking, rather than the limited view enabled by a single laptop camera.

Some companies said their products can help businesses understand their space usage as fewer workers come in needing desks. Density, a startup in San Francisco, makes a product that uses custom depth sensors to measure how many people are entering an area or use an open space. Companies can then analyze that data to understand how much of their office space they are actually using, and downsize as necessary.

Density also plans to offer other tools for hybrid work. Last month, it acquired a software startup that provides a system for desk and space reservation.

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

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