Building a remote-first company: Our biggest lessons so far
By Dominique Baillet, Global Head of Employee Experience, Diversity & Inclusion
At Coinbase, our journey to becoming a remote-first company started last April, when we shared internally, and then publicly, that post-pandemic, we wouldn’t be going back to business as usual. A year of working toward this goal isn’t long enough to make us experts, but part of our culture is focusing on repeatable innovation, and a year into this journey is always a good milestone to take stock.
Be open to disrupting “the way we do things.”
Before the pandemic forced us to experiment with universal work from home, Coinbase had a strong in-office culture that was only getting stronger. While we had a norm that employees could work remotely one day each week, so much of the energy and action of work was in the in-person interactions happening in the physical office that few people took advantage of this opportunity. Employees from other offices mostly visited San Francisco, not the other way around. Because of this, many employees in other offices keenly felt their distance from our San Francisco office, the de facto center of gravity for Coinbase.
Despite this powerful inertia, last April, after about a month of pandemic-induced WFH, we were willing to ask a big, deeply surprising, culture-shaking question: What if working remotely was … better? What if it actually had more advantages than being rooted to a single HQ? And after a month of grappling with that possibility, it became clear that we felt confident and convinced enough to say yes. Based on the opportunities to decentralize and disrupt ourselves and create access to a broad talent pool, even after the restrictions of covid had ended, we would embrace a transition to being a remote-first company. If we had let our office-based inertia carry us into the future of work, we’d still be where we were almost a year ago.
First, principles, then, answers.
Why are we doing this? What are we solving for? What, ultimately, are we hoping to achieve? Before even beginning to answer the practical questions around remote-first, addressing these higher-order questions with a defined set of goals and design principles gave us a framework for anything we might face as part of this work. Our goals in this work are:
- To get — and keep — top talent in every seat, as we scale.
- To help employees embody what it means to act like owners.
- To become the best crypto company in the world to work for.
These are intentionally broad, so we also defined a set of design principles to help us in the day-to-day work of pursuing a remote-first future. Whenever we find ourselves at a decision point, we’re able to look at these principles to guide us to the right answer:
- Maximize choice for employees
- Build equitable (not identical) experiences for employees in the office and out
- Ensure equal access to opportunity, growth, and inclusion
- Let the culture we want drive our decisions
- Default to trusting employees
Once we defined these sources of guidance, we were able to lay out the next steps and get to work with focus, alignment, and speed.
Build a process that works for your culture.
Even as we grow, Coinbase works to preserve the founding moment. Part of that start-up energy we embrace is showing our work. When we announced to employees that we would be transitioning to remote-first, we had some early ideas about what it might look like, but by no means did we have answers to all of our (or employees’) questions.
For other companies, this would have been the wrong way to approach this transition, but Coinbase employees highly value transparency, even if there’s ambiguity attached. Sharing our decision early and our progress often gave us the opportunity to directly involve employees in generating the solutions to these big questions (How will we collaborate? How can we recognize and reward employees?) rather than needing to brainstorm behind closed doors and emerge with a fully-formed plan. This process also allowed us to prioritize employees’ most important questions first (Where can I live? What will I get paid?) and deliver answers so they could make critical decisions about their lives outside of work.
Find and enlist natural owners.
Coinbase still runs lean; we all wear many hats, and are accustomed to jumping in to solve for the unexpected. Naturally, this served us extremely well in the cultural all-hands-on-deck that 2020 required. When breaking out the initial workstreams of our transition to remote-first, some tracks, like Compensation, Security, and Learning & Development already had natural owners. Others, like Collaboration or Recognition, did not. In these cases, we were able to look around the company to find natural, if not official, leaders for these tracks of work. Specifically, this meant using our core working team to nominate likely candidates and then having open conversations with them about appetite, passion, and bandwidth for a topic. Sometimes, even if they weren’t ultimately the right choice, the conversation led us to the person who would be.
Once we’d identified the right people to lead each track of work, we prioritized our big questions to serve employees’ most immediate needs first:
- Where can people work?
- What will we pay them?
- What are the other legal requirements to be remote-first?
- How do we create equitable working experiences for all employees?
- How do we maintain security?
- What tooling and documentation do we need?
- How do we collaborate and connect?
- How do we train and develop for remote success?
- How do we identify and recognize employees?
This allowed our core working team to support each workstream with project management guidance, and ensure that all we were hitting our goals for timing.
Done is better than perfect.
While the shift to remote work rightly feels revolutionary, it is also evolutionary. We’re learning more every day about what employees need, how we can best support them, and how the different pieces of work we’re doing interact with each other. We believe that getting to 100% fidelity and finish, for work like this, will mean our answers are coming far too late to be useful. Instead, we’ve adopted an informal principle of shipping culture-related changes/updates at 80%, with the explicit acknowledgment that things will continue to evolve. With 1,200+ employees, if we’ve considered every eventuality before crafting a policy, approach, or norm, then we’ve probably waited too long. Of course, this approach requires humility, leaning into feedback from all of our stakeholders at the leadership and employee level, and (see above), being willing to question the way we do things, in order to do them better.
Finally: The next part of this journey will look totally different.
We have all experienced so much change during the pandemic that it’s certainly felt like “the hard part” of this transition. And the psychological impact of going from an in-office world to one where an employee spends all of their waking weekday hours at home was tremendously challenging for many people. But this first chapter was also “the easy part” of remote-first because we were all in a single mode, forced into a state of universal work from home. The next chapter, in which we fully inhabit our remote-first future — with some folks in the office five days a week, some a few days a week, and others never — is where the rubber meets the road, and where we can expect a whole new set of lessons to learn.
Building a remote-first company: Our biggest lessons so far was originally published in The Coinbase Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.