Remote vs In-Office Teams: the Third Way
As Peter Sellers famously said, "you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of remote work and in-office team culture.
Global talent pools are as good as ever, particularly in specialized high-skill technology roles conducive to async and remote work. If you accept that hires fit a power law distribution of talent and a relatively flat distribution of geography, filtering by location makes it mathematically impossible to build the most talented team possible.
This is not only true an a global or national scale, but also a local one. If you say that the best AI engineers are in the Bay Area, companies located in Menlo Park still won’t be able to hire people that live in Berkeley or parts of San Francisco for IRL roles. It’s just too far for much of the talent pool.
On the flip side, the energy and focus inspired by in-office work generally leads to huge productivity improvements. One of Delian’s portfolio companies grew sales productivity by 235% after going in-office. Empirically speaking, the most iconic companies of the past 50 years have been built IRL and have managed to pull the best hires towards them.
To build a generational company, founders need to take a deliberate and hardcore approach to recruiting. If the absolute best people are located more than an hour from your office, how can the need to access wider pools be reconciled with the advantages of the office?
The “war room” approach
One quality startup I know is taking a “War Room” approach where the CEO, executives, and a few key employees work in an office. Everyone else who wants to join is welcome, but they hire and operate remotely by default otherwise.
The core assumptions underpinning this approach are:
Each independent org can operate itself effectively on a remote basis, and if anything, it forces a better focus on actual metrics/outputs from the team)
Fast and accurate synchronization between the CEO and VPs is absolutely essential for a software company with complex product and sales motions
The best executive talent for an enterprise SaaS company is in one place (in this case, the Bay Area)
Each org (engineering, sales, marketing, ops) is better suited for poaching talent nationwide, and each role is focused on specific output rather than collaboration
I view this approach as most accommodating to the realities of the “talent power law” and geographically diverse distribution of most hires. The few key employees that run each function can be forced or recruited in one city. The 90% of employees that actually build the company can be selected on the basis of their productivity doing real, tangible work.
Part of the reason this works is that each “key hire” tends to cluster with others. The best enterprise SaaS executives are in the bay to a degree far greater than the degree to which mid-level engineers and sales hires flock to any single locale.
I’ll be curious if any cultural issues develop in the long run (e.g. I could see a split between the IRL execs and the remote teammates that leads to division) but seems like no issue has developed so far. High-growth startups with product-market fit are nearly impossible to rid of internal friction as org structures and leadership scale, so disentangling “war room setup” problems from hyper-growth problems is no easy task either.
Ultimately “hybrid” setups tend to balance in-office energizing time with at-home focused work time. Studying the distribution curve of talent and separate distribution curve of geography for each role at a company is a more correct way to evaluate such an important business decision.
Thanks for reading Robbins Notes!