A Business Model Built For The Coronavirus Era

Many businesses are scrambling to adapt, but Invitae is reaping benefits of a distributed-workforce model CEO Sean George implemented years ago.

As the coronavirus scourge continues, Invitae is reaping the benefits of having built an organization around the decentralization of its workforce before the pandemic upended the global economy.

Medical-genetic testing leader Invitae is based in San Francisco, and its business model would lend itself to a single headquarters building in the Bay Area. But instead, by design under Co-Founder and CEO Sean George, the company’s 1,300 highly skilled personnel are distributed among about a dozen locations around the United States, ranging from highly populated satellite facilities to a single-home office or two.

So while many companies are having to adjust to a sudden and radical dispersal of their workforces from offices to couches and kitchen tables in their houses, Invitae has transitioned relatively seamlessly to having about three-quarters of its workforce of nearly 1,400 people tethered to – and still working from – their domiciles.

“By having a relatively distributed concept of what our workforce looks like, we’re a more resilient organization,” George told Chief Executive. He added that the $256-million company “has just lived that in the last two weeks. We’ve put that to the test and we’re coming out on the other side.”

The decade-old company grew up recognizing the challenges of clustering all its people in a single location. Recruiting and retaining key personnel in the beginning, George recalled, required establishing early satellite offices in Silicon Valley and Oakland. “That saved our first 100 individuals about an hour a day in commuting” because they didn’t have to head into San Francisco proper, he said.

Invitae extended its distributed-workforce model as it sought to add key people. Leaving Boston would have been difficult for the person George wanted to lead AI at Invitae, so Invitae simply integrated him in place. Similarly, a top medical executive of the company had school-age kids in Cleveland and wanted to stay there – so Invitae obliged.

“We found that we could add talent to our company all over the place,” George said. “That led to what at the time was an unusual investment in videoconferencing capability, for a company of 200 to 250 people. Establishing the bandwidth and capability for teleconferencing from every meeting room, and for everyone remote to be able to get on, was pretty unusual for a startup.”

This approach has taken hold organically within Invitae, George said, and if a half-dozen people in a given geographic area decide they want to set up a temporary collective space, say via WeWork, they’re given the OK. “If that grows to a dozen or 20 people, then we’ll establish a [company] site,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of central planning in that. It’s very much people in the company choosing locations, and when they look around and start sourcing local talent, that dictates how fast a given location will grow.”

Sometimes other corporate priorities or funding pinches have suggested that Invitae should curtail its distributed-workforce and remote-working capabilities. “But we’ve stayed with it because the benefits keep accruing,” George said.

For example, Invitae has been able to retain more than 90 percent of female employees after maternity leave in part, George said, because of the company’s embrace of this strategy.

George recognizes that many companies, including tech outfits, swear by the advantages to corporate culture of having most employees work physically on site and together. “But our approach has allowed us to keep our key technical and domain leadership, and also given people the feeling that they can have a big impact on the company though they don’t live in the Bay Area and have a long commute.”