Editor’s note: Tim Scales is director of growth for the American Underground, a Google for Startups Tech Hub in downtown Durham, since February. He’s previously been an AU member with his startup CivicRise.
DURHAM — In the early days of the pandemic, the precautions we quickly implemented at the American Underground (AU) were broad strokes: we limited access to essential workers, eliminated touch points, prohibited gatherings. This first phase was led by urgency, and the vital need to flatten the curve.
Now, six months in, our approach has grown more informed and nuanced. The broad strokes are now targeted, designed to maintain safety standards while also recognizing our shared need for productive workspace and safe human interaction.
As a community, this second phase is about adapting to our new circumstances.
Since our community is built around workspace, a significant part of this adaptation is to the physical environment. Many changes are unobtrusive but effective — antiviral coverings on elevator buttons or foot pulls on interior doors, for example. Others are invisible, like increased fresh air intake and upgraded HVAC filters, based on industry best practices. Some require communal buy-in, such as our mask requirement in shared spaces and guest restrictions. Taken together, they comprise an effective and comprehensive approach to reduce risk.
“Over the past few months, I’ve talked to dozens of AU members about how to create a safe shared space,” said Laura Zabinski, business operations manager at the AU. “The plan we’ve put in place incorporates both CDC recommendations and member input, so that those who want to use the office can feel comfortable doing so safely.”
Individual AU member companies have also adapted how and when they use the space. While many teams make regular use of their private offices, they have implemented a rotating or reduced-density approach to allow safe social distancing.
“We started by surveying our team and then built a plan from there,” said Jessica Russell, VP of Operations at AU member company CureMint. “We settled on a hybrid approach, with some team members alternating days in the office in a safe and sustainable way, and others choosing to work from home.”
Other members have taken solo offices, which allows clear social distance and a private, dedicated space to be productive.
“I feel right at home in my private office,” says new member Tara Fusco, Cofounder, Kepler & Wilde. “Simply by moving my home office to the American Underground, my level of productivity and connection with my customers has soared.”
While office space is a key part of AU membership, the deeper value is our engaged and supportive network of entrepreneurs. While we initially shifted entirely to virtual, in recent months we’ve also found a hybrid approach to be more effective in fostering a close-knit community. In addition to daily conversation on Slack and larger gatherings through Zoom, we’re now facilitating socially-distant one-on-one and small group meetups on our rooftop patio.
“Our members have loved our Tiny Happy Hours because they’re an opportunity for real connection,” said Steve Bullock, member success manager at the AU. “We limit them to just five or six people on our rooftop patio, sitting six feet apart outside, which means that people are safe but also have the chance to build real friendships with other AU members. As we have added new members, this has been an important way for us to connect new members with the community.”
None of this has been easy, but our community of entrepreneurs and innovators has — perhaps unsurprisingly — quickly and effectively adapted to the new normal. In fact, we’re seeing signs of the third phase: growth. Despite the difficult circumstances, a number of our members have successfully fundraised, launched new products, and grown their teams.
“We’ve recently expanded our tour marketplace into Europe,” says AU member Brian Alonso, cofounder of Built Story. “Providing this digital platform both here and abroad has opened up new opportunities for growth — and with the massive disruption caused by COVID, the Tour Guide industry has been quicker to embrace technology.”
Growth during the pandemic requires flexibility and resiliency, two areas in which AU members particularly excel. As a community of entrepreneurs, we will continue to adapt and grow, while also looking ahead to gathering in person once again.