394: Creating a Remote Culture That Thrives May 27, 2021

from Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots· ·

Chad and Lindsey talk about how the pandemic has changed "normal" remote work and how thoughtbot has dealt with the transition from being majoritively in- person to fully remote, plus the impact it's had on both employees and clients. Become a Sponsor (https://thoughtbot.com/sponsorship) of Giant Robots! Transcript: CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. LINDSEY: And I’m your other host, Lindsey Christensen. We’re back. Chad, I've only seen you pixelated for over a year now. CHAD: I know. LINDSEY: …



Chad and Lindsey talk about how the pandemic has changed "normal" remote work and how thoughtbot has dealt with the transition from being majoritively in- person to fully remote, plus the impact it's had on both employees and clients.

Become a Sponsor of Giant Robots!

Transcript:

CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel.

LINDSEY: And I’m your other host, Lindsey Christensen. We’re back. Chad, I've only seen you pixelated for over a year now.

CHAD: I know.

LINDSEY: Can you believe it?

CHAD: It's hard to believe. I haven't seen anybody that I work with [laughs] not pixelated for over a year now.

LINDSEY: It seems normal now.

CHAD: Yeah, it seems normal, except when you think about it, and you realize how long it's been. We're going to talk about remote work today, and I think that that's something to keep in mind, which is what we're doing now isn't normal remote work. We can make the best of it and that kind of thing, but it's obviously different than normal remote work when you can actually have a social life outside of work and meet people and get together in person to kick off new projects or to be like, “Let's have a retreat or whatever.” So right off the top, we should acknowledge that we're not in this normal period, and this isn't necessarily normal remote work.

LINDSEY: Right. Which is a good thing, I guess, or the optimist in me says remote work can be way better than it is right now because this is quarantining work. [chuckles]

CHAD: Right. So for those who don't know, thoughtbot made the decision to go remote-first work from anywhere. And we touched on it in the previous two episodes a little bit, and that's what we're going to be talking about today. And I think that that's one of the things that made us confident in the direction was that things aren't great now, but they're certainly not bad. And the majority of the team felt good about what was happening now, even given all of the downsides. It gave us the confidence to look ahead and say, “Can this be even better, and will it be okay?” And I think that's part of what gave us the confidence to move forward.

LINDSEY: I saw this interesting stat, and this was actually from a while ago, last July 2020. Gartner did a survey of company leaders, and 80% plan to allow employees to work remotely, at least part of the time after the pandemic, and 47% will allow people to work full-time from home, which is even a bigger percentage than I anticipated. But I think it speaks to the major change that everyone's seeing. We've all learned that remote work can work. I saw another stat that was, I think, no companies are reporting a reduction in productivity because of remote work, and in 27% of cases, companies feel like they're being even more productive.

CHAD: We didn't not do this before because we didn't think it would be productive on a day-to-day basis or that we didn't believe in the ability to work remotely working. There were a couple of important points that caused us to choose the direction we did; the first one being we went through a period of time where we were a hybrid remote or about half the team was remote, and the other half was working in an office in Boston. And it felt hard and mediocre and something we couldn't -- It wasn't worth the amount of effort we would need to invest in making that work well. It just didn't seem worth it. And so we made the decision to -- And I think this is the way thoughtbot works like we've got to make intentional decisions in a lot of things that we do and half measures don't really satisfy us over the long-term. And so there was this feeling back then of we either need to decide to go completely remote, or we need to all be in person. And because we work locally with clients, that pushed us in the direction of well, we really like working with local clients face-to-face. We like how that feels, and it feels like something that's going to be enjoyable and fulfilling, and sustainable over the long term. So let's commit to that. And I think that that's one of the reasons why we've been successful in this transition is because, at the same time, we no longer had the client constraints of clients asking us to be in person with them or wanting to work with them in person, that was just completely off the table.

LINDSEY: That's interesting. I think I hadn't really fully thought about that element which was need or perceived need from the client to be side-by-side with us.

CHAD: Yeah. Once that was off the table, it allowed us to be freed up to make an independent decision, probably more confident in that decision because going through a period where we could show clients that it could work, I'm more confident now that when clients can be in person again, that they will be more open to working with us remotely. And I'm sure some portion of them won't be, but we'll find other clients in that time period. [laughter]

LINDSEY: I think another thing that helped us in that transition was we weren't fully remote, but we were remote in a lot of regards. So we had six different studios around the world who collaborated together, worked on the same projects and the same teams. And we had a really good starting point for how we collaborated online, whether that's in actual video meetings or doing asynchronous work or project management all the way through to client work. Not everyone was in the city of the client that they were collaborating with.

CHAD: Yeah. And all of the corporate team, the operations, marketing, all that stuff was already really a distributed team. It was primarily the design and development that fell back on being in person the most often.

LINDSEY: And I would say we also had a pretty flexible work from home policy too. So if folks felt like they were going to be more productive from home a certain day or were having a delivery or whatever those life things are, we trust that they know what's best for them and best for the client and allow folks to make decisions about where they're working.

CHAD: The way that we worded it before was that temporary remote working was always okay. And that could be I'm going somewhere for two months; even that was okay. And the opposite of that is what we said wasn't okay, which wasn’t permanently remote. And the big difference now is that we said permanently remote is okay. And walking back through the transition, this was something that has been an ongoing conversation at thoughtbot for a while. It was pretty early on in the pandemic that we said that people needed to start to move out of the places that we had studios. And I think that that was the first important step that we took as a company to make sure that we were supporting everybody in what they needed to do for life reasons saying, “If you need to move outside of a place where you would normally be based, do it. We'll continue to support that.” And then about 20 people, [laughs] a little less than 100 moved over the course of the next six months or so. And once that happened, that's a pretty significant portion of the team no longer being based where we have offices, and that sort of sealed the deal.

LINDSEY: I didn't know that number.

CHAD: I think it's less than 20. I think it's like 17 or something like that.

LINDSEY: So it probably works out to about 20% moved to where there weren't offices. And do you have an idea how far spread out everyone is now?

CHAD: I think most people who moved significantly moved to be closer to family or back where they were originally from. I think that was the driving factor. So it's places like Texas, different parts of Texas, Arizona, that kind of thing. And then people bought houses to get out of the city and that kind of thing as well, particularly New York City was -- I think a lot of the people in New York City are the ones who moved as well.

LINDSEY: So, how would you describe our remote structure now?

CHAD: I think there are a couple of important things like, we're specifically calling it work from anywhere, not work from home. Obviously, we all need to be in our homes now, but long-term, there's no reason why if the home isn't comfortable for somebody that they will work somewhere else, and anywhere also means geography. And we're not even completely shutting the door on eventually having small co-working spaces or small offices where people can get together and work in person. It's just not what we have right now and not what we're specifically planning on in the short term. So I think that's the base level when I think about the important parts of the structure is what are we actually saying, or what are we actually doing?

And then the next important aspect we took into account was okay; one of the things that influenced the way that we were working before, which was a local team working with primarily other people in your office was it's pretty annoying, and it does affect productivity to be waiting significantly across time zones for people that you're supposed to be collaborating with. And so we ended up splitting the company by time zone into what we’re calling Launch Pad 1 and Launch Pad 2. And Launch Pad 1 is all of the Americas, and Launch Pad 2 two is Europe, Middle East, and Africa. It's interesting because that's actually only about three maybe four times zones different at the extremes. All of the Americas, when you do it out, it's a lot of time zones. It's ten timezones, but the reality is we don't have anybody in Hawaii or Alaska yet, so we're okay with that.[chuckles] But it's something that may need to be revisited in the future if we really start to hire people remotely in those extremes of the time zone.

LINDSEY: So the geographies are really time zone-based, which is an interesting note. And then I'm sure some folks are also interested in logistics, especially now that you're heading up operations. What does that mean, or what are the big hurdles when you do have people spread across countries, let alone states?

CHAD: So let's break it down in terms of employment stuff, and then we'll talk about operations like how we run things. We're not leading the charge in this. Other companies have done it before. And so we're taking a lot of cues from companies like GitLab and Buffer about how they do things. We've had international employees for a little while off, and on or international team members, I should say. And what we've historically leaned on for that is having them as independent contractors. And it's pretty common for them to create their own company that they're then using, and they're working within, and they're paying local taxes, and they're invoicing us for the time. And in a lot of countries, their laws are conducive to that. But strictly speaking, it's not okay to do that in every country. And if you were to get audited and someone were to look at the relationship you have with that person and their laws are similar to the U.S., they might declare that person an employee, and you're responsible for the taxes and everything, not them.

Operating at the size we are, to be perfectly honest, at the size, we are with a handful of people, it’s a gray area. Like, some places it's okay, some places it's not quite okay, but it's only a handful of people and everything. You can get away with that without doing a lot of research into each specific country, whether it's okay or not, particularly if you make it the responsibility of the people, and you set up contractor agreements, and you set things up that way. So that's a pretty common way of operating. But as you start to grow and formalize it more and the numbers of people that you're working with as international contractors increases, the pressure is going to mount to say, “We have to get out of this gray area; otherwise, some country or someone could get in trouble,” not even us, but potentially the team member. If they were to get audited and it's not quite up to snuff, they could be held for some employment taxes or something like that. So we want to avoid that. We don't want to create a burden on people. And so there's really two ways of going about it; one is to create local entities in each of the countries where you want to hire somebody. So you create your own local company. That company employs them and pays the local taxes and employment taxes, and all that stuff and everything is fully set up and official, and we've done that before. We did that in Sweden when we had the studio in Stockholm, and that's how we work in the UK.

The overhead of doing that is really high, especially --It’s okay when we were in Sweden and the UK and the U.S. But as we look ahead and we say, “We're going to have ten then maybe 20 in different countries,” the overhead of that is really high. So the alternative is to work with a company that does that for you. So there are companies they're called PEOs professional employment organizations or international PEOs. And what they do is they create companies in all of the countries that they want to operate in, and then they employ the people as real full employees there. And they do all the books, and they pay all the taxes and everything. And they make sure that everything is done correctly for each individual country. And then they invoice you for the employee's salary, the taxes, and then an administration fee. And it's typically on the order of $250 to $600 a month per person. And so that's the direction we're going to go in as we expand this and we do it. That's the direction we'll go in because we've been through what it's like to create that overhead of the individual entities in each country.

And it might make sense if we were saying we're going to open an office or hire significantly in this one country and build a whole team of 20 people in one country, but that's not what we were planning on doing. We may only have one or two people in each of the countries that we end up hiring someone in. So it doesn't make sense to have that overhead. And there are a few different companies out there, and not to plug them, we're not using them yet, but the interesting one that's on my radar is remote.com which was started by the person at GitLab that did this all for them and learned a ton about it and then left GitLab and started remote.com as a way to make that more accessible and modern for other companies. A lot of the other companies that do this tend to be very large, and they've been around for a long time, which typically means things aren't really done online so much; it's a lot of paper. And remote.com it's a website you sign up for. You could just enter the people in, and things happen automatically. And so that's why that's on my radar.

LINDSEY: They're probably getting a lot of business these days.

CHAD: Yes. And they have a lot of countries that they're expanding to over the next year or so.

LINDSEY: How many countries do we have people in now?

CHAD: That's a good question. I don't know [laughs] United States, UK, and Uruguay right now. I think those are the only ones. But we have two people who are moving, one to Canada, one to Austria. So those are the next two that are on the horizon. And we're actively hiring, so we just opened a bunch of positions. And I know that a lot of people applying to those positions are from places like Brazil, other places in South and Latin America, and potentially Canada as well.

LINDSEY: Cool. Oh, we also got some great audience questions for this episode, so thanks to everyone who submitted. One of the questions was, when will you start hiring Canadians?

CHAD: We're doing it now. [chuckles] All the positions on thoughtbot are at thoughtbot.com/jobs. They're all listed as remotely. They're segmented by Americas versus Launch Pad 2, which is Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

LINDSEY: So, continuing on the hiring conversation, obviously, the hiring process itself has to be modified for the remote life. I'm not personally currently hiring, but I see the activity. And I think it seems like right now we've got a good handle on it but are also in the process of figuring out what works best and how to optimize it. Because we were on a hiring freeze for a while, and now it's opening back up, and we're trying to figure out how -- Honestly, it seems like the biggest question is how do we replicate that in- office cultural experience, social experience in the online format?

CHAD: Yeah. Up until the office visit portion, the majority of our hiring process was already remote. So the non-technical interview was primarily done remotely. The technical interview was primarily done remotely. But at the final stage of that process, we would bring people into the office for the full day to pair with one person in the morning for developers, pair with another person in the afternoon, have lunch with the team. For designers, it was getting a design challenge and working with the team throughout the course of the day in a conference room. And so replicating both the working together aspects and the social aspects of that office visit day is important to us, and that's where the tricky part has been. The working together part is the easier part of it, I think we found because we're all working remotely anyway. So we just replicate that; it’s pairing remotely, and it's doing the design challenge in collaboration remotely. It's the social aspects that are harder. And part of it is is we're not necessarily getting everybody together on a regular basis every day and so creating a time for everybody to come together just because we have a candidate visiting and do something that's not artificial, together, was a little bit tricky to find.

LINDSEY: Everyone act natural and social at 2:00 p.m. [chuckles]

CHAD: Right. Go. [chuckles] And then to insert someone into that mix who doesn't know anybody on the call and is interviewing, it's a high level of awkwardness for the candidate as well. So what we've found has worked best is to find something that we are doing already and piggyback on top of that. So in the case of the UK, they were already getting together where everyone shares something that they're working on. They were already doing that on a regular basis. Or someone would say, “Let's have a discussion about this,” we were already doing that. So just making sure that that gets scheduled for when there is going to be a candidate and then prepping them and asking them to prepare something to share as well.

And then, when it came time to do a different team, I encouraged them, “Don't just do what they're doing because they were already doing this. If you try to do it, and it’s something you're not doing already, it might turn out to be even more awkward. Try to find something that you're doing already and piggyback off of that.” And some teams were brand new, and they didn't have anything that they were doing already. And so that's the one thing we talked about in the last episode. But at the same time as going remote, we also, instead of being small teams based on geography, we reorganized to be based on the kinds of projects that we work on. And so Boost, for example, was an entirely new team of people that didn't necessarily have those norms and those regular events happening. And so they needed to create something that they could use not only to bring the team together but that that hiring process could piggyback on for that final stage.

I think mostly it's gone well. I think everyone knows that it's a little awkward, so I think everybody gives it the benefit of the doubt. I couldn't imagine...well, I guess I can imagine it. But I wouldn't necessarily want to arrive at a standpoint where we start hiring people without the opportunity for the whole team that they're going to be working with to get to know them a little bit but also to provide their feedback but also for the candidate. When you join a new company, you want to know what it's like to work there. You want to know that you want to work with the people. You want to flush out any red flags. And I don't think we have any red flags. And so I'd rather that be out there and that kind of thing so that people can experience as much as possible what it's really going to be like to work at thoughtbot and who you're going to be working with.

LINDSEY: So we have another audience question, and you can let me know if you actually want to answer this or not. How will you handle compensation? Will it be the same for everyone across the globe or country-specific, et cetera?

CHAD: I can totally answer this.

LINDSEY: You want to get into it? Let's do it.

CHAD: I realize I'm answering in long-winded ways, but I think the context is important in these things. So the way things worked historically at thoughtbot was based on your geography, but that made sense because the clients were based on geography, and each of the locations was working with local clients. And so, the economy of the different studios was entirely different from one another. So the studio in Raleigh-Durham worked with clients there primarily, and that is very different than Manhattan, New York, and what people understand a local team costs and what they're willing to pay and that kind of thing. And so there was a natural one-to-one correlation between the studio you worked in and the economics of how the business of that studio worked. And so the salaries and the economics of the whole expenses of the studio were based on that local thing. And so that's the way it worked previously. And then we would always do reviews within that group of people to make sure that there was fairness in pay from an equity perspective between people with the same level of experience and not for other factors like gender or anything like that, so equity in pay is really important to us. And so every compensation thing goes through that review process. And then we do an annual salary review every year where we re-review everything for equity, and we review an increase for economics and performance, and that happens in April. So when we went remote, we didn't change anything. And historically, what would have happened if you lived in one place and you moved to another studio with different economics? Your salary might change because you needed to be sustainable within that studio. And you would find that out in advance, and it would factor into whether you want to do it or not.

So when we went remote, and people started moving, what we did was we reminded people that traditionally, that might have an impact, but you're not moving to where a new studio is. We don't know how things are going to be in the future, just that we'll do the salary review in April. So coming up to the salary review, we started looking at the way that we were going to do it. We went through a little bit of a change when we originally started the process; like I said, we're taking cues from other people, and one of those companies is GitLab. And what GitLab talks about is cost of market. And so that's what we had planned on doing so rather than paying people cost of living, cost of market is the idea of what would your competitive salary be based on where you live? And that includes both remote and local employers, what you can command, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the same everywhere based on where you live. And so that was the direction we started to go down. It's not where we ultimately ended up. Ultimately, we ended up creating within the United States, based on the position you have, a salary range, and that is the same salary range across the whole United States with a couple of exceptions, and I’ll mention what that is. So if you're a developer, or if you're a senior developer, or you're a team lead across the whole United States, you'll fall within this range based on your performance, and I'm happy with that. We were never philosophically opposed to doing that. And I'm pretty cool with the fact that we got there in the course of doing the review.

So the exception to that is we financially couldn't set the level of that salary at a city like San Francisco or New York. If we were bringing everybody up to that level at the company, it would be very difficult for us to be profitable. And so we set the tiers based on the next tier down of cities in the U.S., so it's cities like Boston and Austin are where we took the bands from. We have team members who live in San Francisco and New York, and that, strictly speaking, would have meant a salary reduction for the people who live there. And we didn't want to create hardship on people that didn't know that we were going to do that. When they decided where to live, it would create hardship on people. And so, we took a look at New York and San Francisco, and we created another tier that is based on those markets.

And then, between those two tiers, what we're looking at is, are these salaries based on the cost of living equitable? So does someone who was working at thoughtbot in New York effectively earn the same amount of money as someone on the other tier who's living anywhere else? And if you actually look at that, the interesting thing is there are more people at thoughtbot now who are at the main tier who live in even lower cost of living places. And so they're actually coming out sort of it's more favorable, which is I'd rather be in that position because I think over time, more and more people will become more and more distributed, and people will live in different places with different cost structures. Any follow-up questions or thoughts on all that?

LINDSEY: For me, I'm glad I didn't have to decide it. [laughter] It's really complicated because I see there's logic to different approaches. Nothing is an obviously bad decision. The reality is we do live in a world where economics of location vary greatly. But at the same time, what does the future of work and equity look like?

CHAD: Everything I just said was U.S.-centric. So we actually don't have a set thing that we're doing for countries outside of the U.S. We're going to evolve that based on what we learn over the next few months as we hire people. There are really two tracks or two options in front of us: the first one is to establish country rates, and the second one is to establish an outside of the U.S. tier like that is maybe the same or slightly below that other tier that we're already talking about, the main tier that everybody in the U.S. is on. And so we'll see what we learn over the course of that. The reason why we probably won't end up there is because Canada is very different than Uruguay, for example. And so establishing one rate that works everywhere -- There are two important things that are our guiding principles here; the first is people should be paid equitably and fairly for the work that they do. At thoughtbot, there's not really an ulterior motive. We don't have outside investors. We're just people who work at the company trying to create the company that works on our behalf as people who work here. That's the primary motivating factor is to be fair and to pay people as much as we can, and then the second thing is while being sustainable. So we also don't have outside investors. We don't have a huge bank role, and we have to operate profitably. We’re not a VC- backed company that doesn't need to operate profitably. And so that's the second guiding philosophy is we've got to make sure that we operate profitably. And if we create a tier, creating a tier that works to meet both of those things, pay people fairly and be sustainable, we've got to set those numbers right because it's pretty easy to hire a bunch of people in an expensive place and set the tier too high and then not be sustainable. So we'll learn over the next six months.

LINDSEY: So switching gears a little bit, we got a few questions from folks who are curious how we are actually doing the remote collaboration with clients because that's obviously something core to what we do that we're really passionate about and I think especially on the design side too. So someone's like, “How, are you doing things you used to do on whiteboards or on the walls?” The sprint comes to mind with the sticky notes all over the different walls.

CHAD: Well, I've been talking a lot. Do you want to start this one? [chuckles]

LINDSEY: Yeah. It's funny; I’ve said this before on the show, but I feel like going remote has also almost made our meetings more equitable. We had a lot of especially corporate folks in the Boston team who would sit in a room, and then we'd have a few folks from our different studios calling in remotely. And there is a disadvantage to that, not being in the room and not being able to hear every comment or the conversation after the call has ended. And I feel like this spills over to client work as well, where remote meetings can actually be even more productive and collaborative in a lot of ways. So that's one component. But as far as the actual tools that we're using, I would say right now we're using online whiteboarding, sprint-mimicking tools a lot. So Miro is definitely getting a lot of use.

CHAD: I think that's the one we're using the most. New things come along, and people experiment with them and everything, but the default at this point is Miro.

LINDSEY: They even have the sticky note feature, which for some reason, just works. It's the same thing as having a little box and writing in it, but it feels like a sticky note. So it evokes the feeling of the sprint. So we do use that a ton for brainstorming and collaboration internally and with clients.

CHAD: And there are actually some things that are obviously being in person in the room with people is really nice, especially in those early days of a product where it's a really critical portion of the time. But there are some things about being remote equitable inclusive is one. Another is when you're in person, you have limited space. And Miro whiteboard is an infinite canvas, and so you don't run out of space. And when you flex to fill your whole tool and take advantage of that, it makes it easier. And the other I would say is -- and Jaclyn and Kyle just talked about this on the last episode of Tentative, our design podcast, which if people don't know about, they should check out. And talking about how when we're in person and one person is at the whiteboard, they have a marker, and they're working on a sketch, bringing together the wireframe and the storyboard. They’re the one with the marker, and they're the one who's doing everything, and not only is that not necessarily -- They're the funnel of all the ideas, but it's a lot of work for them as well, and it's not as collaborative as it otherwise could be. But when everyone is remote, and everyone's on the live whiteboard, people can share the work in a way that is better and more efficient when it comes to those wireframes. And you can give people a task because everyone can have their own portion of the board. And you can say, “Can you do this for me?” And then two people can go off and do that on one portion of the board, and then you can drag it over when they're done, that kind of thing. And it makes the sprints more efficient.

LINDSEY: Yeah, like organizing the Post-it notes. I've seen that done a lot, asking for help. Grouping common themes together can make things move really quickly.

CHAD: We were already using Figma on the majority of our products. And for those who don't know, Figma is a collaborative design tool so think Photoshop or Sketch, a totally online version of that that's more like working on a Google Doc with people together. And now Figma has prototyping tools built in. So it's pretty powerful in a very online collaborative way to be able to create the designs and then turn them immediately into prototypes and to do that directly with clients and with other team members all in the same document. This is one of those things that is actually a little bit harder to do. If you're all in the same room with someone, you're inclined to -- I guess you could all open your computers and work in the same document together, but I feel like that doesn't happen as much instead one person's driving, so it actually makes things more productive to work that way.

LINDSEY: Yeah. Miro and Figma both have that kind of Google-ish feature of you see everyone who's in the doc, and you can actually see their cursor moving around in real-time as you're both working on it. And you can leave comments on all the kinds of collaboration features that you'd want with those kinds of things. And then on the development side, we also obviously put a lot of value on pairing on work. So I know even before Covid, we were experimenting a lot with different ways to do development pairing, whether it was in Hangouts or Slack video. And I believe we're currently using Tuple a lot for that.

CHAD: Yeah. Tuple was created by a previous host of this podcast, Ben Orenstein, thoughtbot alum.

LINDSEY: It’s how all the greats get started.

CHAD: Yeah. But unfortunately, it's Mac only. And so we do have some team members who are not on Macs; they're on Linux. So we can't totally rely 100% on Tuple. And so there are some other things we use like USE Together, and people who use Team Macs will share that way.

LINDSEY: And then I think one of the last things about remote work that is worth chatting about today is the team culture. We did have a very in-office culture, especially because folks are working on different client projects. And one of the things they love most about thoughtbot is the other thoughtboters and getting to see each other and maybe do investment projects together or going to the summit. So we had another question about this too, which is how do you foster that culture? How do you keep it going when no one's in-person anymore?

CHAD: I think this is one of the areas where we have the most iteration and learning to do because the work stuff we were already doing a lot of it. And the project stuff is easier to judge, too. So did the project work? Did we ship on time? Was the design great? It's a lot easier to get immediate feedback on whether what we're doing is working or not. And with the culture things, the ramifications of doing it badly might not manifest for months.

LINDSEY: We also need the client work to get money.

CHAD: Right. [chuckles]

LINDSEY: We need the money in order to work on the culture. [laughs]

CHAD: Right. And the fact that we've been doing this in the pandemic it's a double-edged sword. I think it gives us a little bit of leeway to say, “Things are not normal now. And so we can't do this or we can't do that, and that is just what it is. And so we're just going to have to make the best of it.” The other side of that, though, is that it's been a very difficult time for a lot of people, not only just because of the pandemic. This last year has been a really difficult year for a lot of people. And so, yes, we get a little bit of runway to figure things out because it's such a unique situation. At the same time, it's important more than ever to figure out how to support people and have things be good and fulfilling and sustainable for people and to have a culture that thrives, not necessarily just gets by. I think that is what has made this last year challenging is figuring that out.

So some specifics, we traditionally get together as an entire company once a year. So we brought that all online last year, and we combined it with our end-of-the-year parties that we usually do, which are also a hackathon where we take time off of client work, and we work on projects together. So we combined those two things in December and had a two-day all-remote event with murder mysteries hosted by professional companies to trivia and then underlying with the hackathon. And I think people really enjoyed it. It was one of those things where I think people were -- there was a pocket of people who were really skeptical about it. “I'm tired of being on video calls all day,” and all that stuff. “I'm not feeling up for it,” like all these sorts of things. And it was like, “Trust me, just show up, just do it.” And I think what we heard was pretty universal that people were surprised at how enjoyable it was. And so this year we're doing three of those, two one-day ones and one two-day one. And that'll be in May and then the summer, and then the winter. Implicit in that is we're not expecting to be able to get back in person together in any large group for all of this year.

LINDSEY: But you do anticipate in-person summit return.

CHAD: Yeah, definitely. I think it's more important than ever. And I think what we'll also see and encourage is team in-person get-togethers where it's not just the whole company, but you're on a project team or the marketing team or rocket fuel, as it likes to be called now, and get together. Yes, it's fine. Get together in this place. And that's one of the things that -- We spend a lot of money on very expensive offices in Boston and New York, and in the past, San Francisco, and Austin, London. It’s over $500,000 a year in office expenses between all those places that we still have the expense now. But once we're able to eliminate that expense, it's going to free up a lot of money to be put towards getting those teams together in person and do other things.

LINDSEY: That was the other thing I was going to say, and you noted this about the UK team is that there's also a lot of team-specific activities where team leadership for Boost, Ignite, Lift Off, Mission control or with the geography- based ones too are figuring out what kind of social stuff or testing out different ideas like the show and tells or doing quiz time. I know there's a pocket of folks who jump in the lounge, which came out of the remote summit, the lounge during lunchtime or after work on Friday, and just trying out different things.

CHAD: And Stephanie, who was the office manager in New York, has moved into an operations manager role, so company-wide. And a big part of what she is doing is figuring out things to try. And I think some things will succeed and some things won't, whether it's organizing games or the thing that just happened on Friday was people opting in to be paired for a 15-minute conversation with somebody else in the company, things like that. We're trying a lot of different things and seeing what works, what doesn't online. She created an online art gallery where people who are doing art can post it, that kind of thing. So we'll learn.

LINDSEY: We'll learn, and then we'll most likely share it with you, so stay tuned for that. You can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode at giantrobots.fm.

CHAD: If you have questions or comments, email us at hosts@giantrobots.fm. You can find me on Twitter @cpytel.

LINDSEY: And me on Twitter @Lindsey3D. This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot.

CHAD: Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

LINDSEY: This podcast was brought to you by thoughtbot.

Thoughtbot is your expert design and development partner. Let's make your product and team a success.

Support Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots