Look around you and you will see distributed teams popping up everywhere. Companies like Zapier, Invision, and GitLab have paved the way, proving that it's entirely possible to build a thousand-plus team that is completely distributed. However, while remote teams have their advantages, they also come with their own challenges. It's important to go in with your eyes wide open, tackling these head-on.
Our team is 40% remote, with people living across the US, Europe, and even as far away as Israel. The rest of us are in San Francisco. We are a distributed company, rather than a remote one. The difference is that in a distributed company, you combine a central hub with remote employees, whereas a remote company is entirely virtual with no office. This structure can pose even more challenges than distributed companies, so it's important that we put a real effort into making our remote colleagues feel supported and included.
Why did we make the decision to hire remotely? Well, remote working offers some distinct advantages. First, it lets us hire the best people in the world—we're no longer limited to San Francisco's great but limited talent pool. Second, the flexibility it offers allows us to live richer lives. No longer are we limited to a 9–5 schedule, worried about making the school run, or fitting in that mid-day gym session.
<aside> 🗣 "Prior to working at Clearbit, Rob, one of our co-founders, had a two-hour commute to London every day and back. Not only was this exhausting, but he barely got to see his two daughters. Today, he works from home and gets to spend the rest of his time with his family. That extra time is priceless."
- Alex MacCaw, CEO at Clearbit
You might ask yourself, if remote working is such a great thing, why haven't companies offered it in the past? For starters, the technology wasn’t there. Only in the last few years has video conferencing gotten to a level where it's fairly seamless and remote collaboration tools have become effective (e.g., Slack, Google Docs).
The other reason (which accounts for why most companies don't do it today) is control. Most companies are scared of losing control by offering their employees the flexibility of working from home. They're worried that the work isn't going to get done.
Our response to that is, who cares about controlling people? We treat people like adults by setting mutual goals and letting you decide how to hit them.
Remote working also changes how we do planning, decision making, and hiring. We will explore how we go about solving for these next.
While the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, remote working does come with its own set of challenges. Most of these are deeply rooted in the human psyche. For example, we are hardwired to trust people we meet in person more than relative strangers. Video conference technology (in its current form) hasn't yet advanced enough to trick our monkey brains into thinking we're in the same room. We have so much nonverbal communication that the fidelity of conference just doesn't convey.
Latency is an issue too. If half a meeting joins from a room in San Francisco and the other half joins remotely, it's hard for people dialing in to interject themselves into flowing conversations.
Spontaneous conversations don't generally happen with remote teams. Whenever you call someone, it's for a specific meeting or request, not to ask them how their day went or to play with their dog. Again, this leads back to trust. To trust someone's intentions, you have to believe they have your best interests at heart. It's hard to do that without spending some quality time together.
We are social creatures. Working long hours, never leaving the house and rarely interacting with others, is a recipe for loneliness. Since there's no clear distinction between when your workday starts and ends, it can be difficult to set boundaries. We have heard from our remote team that their work tends to spill into their personal life.
So there's a combination of trust issues, practical collaboration issues, and lastly, loneliness. Some of these things can be solved with internal company policies, while others are up to the individual to manage. Before we discuss our approach to solving these issues, let’s focus on the fundamentals: hiring people who like working remotely.
It's key that we identify and hire people that are happy working remotely. Even if we have the dopest office in San Francisco, in and of itself, an office can be a growth limiter. In order for Clearbit to scale successfully, we need to be a remote company that happens to have the dopest office in San Francisco.
The simplest hack is to hire people who've done remote work before. Quite frankly, the tradeoffs in remote work aren't for everyone. Remote work requires discipline, not only in actually sitting down and focusing, but also in taking the time for yourself to go outside and socialize. If someone has demonstrated they’ve been happy doing this in the past, we can assume they'll be happy doing it in the future.
If we do a good job hiring to our company values, then most folks are going to be successful in our organization, even if there is some turbulence along the way. When team members operate according to our values, they are force multipliers. Teams with common values have lower barriers for trust, they get along better with each other, and they align toward common goals more easily. Our people need to live and breathe Team, Care, Craft, Truth, Initiative and Fun.
Tell me about your experience working outside of an office.