Startups To Watch: Common Surface

We speak to many new, up and coming businesses as part of the Work in Startups blog, but this week’s feature focuses on one that’s newer than most, and solving a very modern and topical problem. As Boris Johnson prepares to release the country from the grips of the final coronavirus related restrictions, employers and employees are set to find out what this new post pandemic world of work really looks like. And Common Surface’s co-founders Sam Tucker and Gus Cayzer have been busy working on the answer. We spoke to Tucker to find out more.

Tell us about your background and where the idea for Common Surface came from

“Immediately after leaving school I worked for Paddle – I worked with 130 people in London as a developer. My time there was split by the pandemic, I spent five months in the office , then five months working remotely, and the contrast really struck me. I enjoyed my time in the office a lot more and I think I performed a lot better. 

“I thought about the way I wanted to work and I realised that neither working fully remote nor solely working in the office was sustainable in the long run, which pushed me to explore hybrid working options. Then (for Common Surface) we thought about why companies and people weren’t inclined to jump straight into hybrid working working systems?

It’s complicated. If you’ve got 150 people coming in on a particular day there are so many combinations you can pick, so many requirements – rules, and it is such an important issue around culture and hiring. If you look on LinkedIn so many companies say they do flexible working, but what really is that, 10 desks for 500 people? Four working days? Obviously those are extremes but we want to demystify this. 

“(Personally) I was really discontented by working five days a week from home. I don’t think I was getting the best out of it nor performing as well as I could do. The more people I spoke to, they had the same issues and were saying they wanted to work for hybrid companies. Excitement about the idea and not enjoying fully remote work really drove this forward.”

What are Common Surface’s company values?

“It’s currently early days but our mission is to create a fair workplace, which  allows the younger generation to enter companies with positive cultures and  equal opportunities for promotion. Fairness and creating a place to work for the next 50 years until the next pandemic comes along that works for everybody.” 

We assume you’ll be posting lots of vacancies on Work in Startups?

“We are going to be hiring soon, roles across customer success, sales and engineering – someone to come and work with the team on the algorithm. We will be bringing on quite a few people.”

The idea of remote working certainly seems to appeal to a certain demographic. Surveys suggest that younger workers nearer the start of their careers are less keen on a fully remote workplace, whilst those further on in their careers are quicker to embrace the benefits of the hallway commute. Why is this?

“I think there’s a few things (for younger people). People further on in their careers tend to have more expansive home offices and a nicer place to work. Whereas young people are more likely to share a flat and find themselves arguing around the kitchen table, competing for working space. 

“They have less need to be with their  families and more interest in meeting new people and engaging with the social side of things. In general they are also eager to learn and get stuck in with new work.”

Tucker cites a piece by Pilita Clark in the FT which discusses how those who work at home have a disadvantage over office workers when it comes to promotions. It’s clearly not an afterthought but a key part of the thinking behind the Common Surface platform that it should be fair and ensure that homeworkers aren’t put at a disadvantage. 

“All sorts of studies show promotions are correlated with how much face to face time you have, which could be a problem down the line for certain groups, young mothers or new parents in general. It’s something we have to take into account,” Tucker explains. 

“Common Surface tries to create a fairer workplace. For example, if you are considering two people for a promotion you can show that you have seen one 10 times more than the other.”

Tell us how the tool will work in practice. How does the employer and its employees use the platform?

“Everyone gets an account and is presented with their preferences page. This gives everyone the chance to say how often they want to work.” Sam pulls up the platform on his screen and shows a snazzy looking interface with a calendar and a bunch of intuitive options to enable users to get the most of the offering. 

“You can select how often you want to work in the office per week, and any specific days you want to be in office or at home, you can mark easily and tell us your location. Common Surface syncs in holiday / sickness to keep everything up to date. And if you’re having a meeting with someone it will schedule you to be in the office together.”

Among its features, Common Surface has a Slack app where you can type in the name of a colleague to see when you are next in the office together. It also has a dynamic slack channel which only includes the people in the office on that day – perfect for alerting them to the triple chocolate fudge cake in the kitchen without giving those at home cake envy. Other fun features the team are looking at introducing include ideas such as a dog emoji to show when someone is bringing their pup to the office, or a pizza equivalent to signify that lunch is being laid on.

Also coming up shortly will be an analytics dashboard for the admin which shows you how many people are coming in and over time, showing the fluctuation from Monday to Friday. Another great feature included is an intuitive recommendation for when people should choose to be in the office.  

“You can mark connections – the people you want to see and learn from. This enables custom smart recommendations for people as to when is best to be in the office to be around those people. You have good visibility on who will be in, and when the office might be full. We’re avoiding the situation I had at Paddle where I hadn’t got the memo that the rest of the team were working at home which left me sitting on Zoom in the office, feeling a bit of an idiot.” 

And what are your future plans for the business?

“Firstly, to get as many companies to sign up and introduce the new normal for the office. Secondly we want to use the data we have to identify what is working well – you can then show companies what has worked with other organisations.” Another key aim  is to help give clarity for job applicants as Tucker explains that “many people have expressed that they have to guess what’s happening with flexible working at interviews.” 

Common Surface also has its sights set on helping commercial real estate organisations deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic and flexible working.

“The companies are the customers we are looking out for, but if we have a good relationship with a broker or real estate agent and we can see that Company X is forced to turn down 20 people a day due to limitations at their current office and we can find an opportunity for them to increase their office size it is beneficial for all parties. The more companies use it the better for them too. Maybe one company moves out and you can see this (other) company needs to move – maybe they can do a swap?”

“It’s the same problem on a much bigger scale. We’re keen to work with companies to make sure we can help them in as many ways as possible. We want to do more than streamline their admin, we are also looking at helping their people have good equipment at home and ensuring that they can thrive regardless of where they work. We want all our clients to unlock all the benefits of our platform, and work out whether their space is fit for purpose, and identify potential roadblocks to progress such as commuting times.”

Tucker and Common Surface are intending to make the most of a potential first mover advantage in this area, as he explains the main competition is from existing tools which have been repurposed to help deal with the world of hybrid working.

“Most people are using maybe a spreadsheet, or room booking systems. It’s random, it’s not fair as it’s first come first served. For some massive companies and agile scale ups, it is much more complicated than that. (By contrast) we were born during the pandemic and built from the pandemic for the 21st century hybrid working world.”

And if all goes to plan for the business, we are all likely to be hearing and seeing a lot more of Common Surface and its hybrid working platform very soon.

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