Over the last few years, COVID-19 has forced the world to rethink its understanding of how work gets done. Remote and hybrid work suddenly became the norm, with each of us facing new challenges in executing our tasks and connecting with our colleagues - but also experiencing a new level of autonomy and flexibility that brings more than a few advantages.
Now that the pandemic has (we hope) begun to wind itself down - though it may never fully go away - we’re all being confronted with the question of what happens next. Should we stick with fully-remote work, betting on the flexibility helping to attract the strongest individual talent, like AirBnB? Should we maintain individual choice but bet on many folks returning to office at least a few days, like Roblox? Should we institute a top-down mandate that everyone return to the office in a specific way, like Apple?
Well, at Modulate, we don’t consider any of those approaches quite good enough for our purposes. At the core of our culture is our passion for growth, and that means never saying the words “I guess that will work”, and instead constantly asking “how could this be even better?” It also means building in an expectation that whatever we do, it will only work for now at best - not only is Modulate growing and evolving, but so is the wider world. Any policy we create should include an understanding that it may well need to be torn down and replaced later.
So, we need to answer three questions.
What must be true of an ideal work-location plan?
- What is the best way to satisfy those goals today?
- How can we keep aware of whether our approach is no longer functional, so that it never outlives its purpose and becomes detrimental?
Let’s take these in order.
What must be true of an ideal work-location plan?
Before trying to pin down specific criteria, we need to ask ourselves - why bother having a policy here at all? What are we trying to achieve?
No good organization imposes restrictions on its team for the joy of it. Rather, we are all at Modulate because we want its mission to succeed, and are doing our best to contribute to that success. So the first thing we want to optimize for is whether we can do our jobs in the first place. For in-office work, one example among many: ToxMod needs to run on various game consoles, so some of our engineers will need to compile and test our SDK on those devkits. But the requirements for securing those devkits are quite strict, and we are not permitted to send them home with employees or permit folks to remote-access them - so the literal only way someone could do this work might be to come into the office to do so. We can also see advantages of remote work, though - for instance, many individuals find it near-impossible to work in noisy environments; if our office is guaranteed to be noisy all the time, it may not be feasible for someone to get focused work done there.
A second, slightly subtler concern is that communication is hard. Whatever our policy is, it should recognize that any frictions added to our ability to coordinate with each other will cost us significantly. Those frictions might include things like “it’s hard to brainstorm on Zoom instead of at a whiteboard”, but they could also be “people stuck on long commutes can’t attend important meetings.” There will be challenges no matter what we do, but an ideal policy should make it as easy as possible for people to share ideas and synergize their work, for the ever-changing variety of types of people and situations that might arise at Modulate.
The third concern comes from the fact that Modulate is a startup, which means we’re changing fast. What’s more, important ideas for how we should evolve might come from anywhere in the organization - who better to recognize that something isn’t working than the people with boots on the ground? As such, it’s vital that, however we do work, there is a clear way for folks on every team to stay familiar with our cross-functional strategic objectives, and to notice if there’s a better way we could be achieving them.
Finally, the most obvious consideration of all - Modulate is nothing without its amazing team. What’s more, we’ll be continuing to grow the team rapidly as we scale up further, and need to both recruit and retain folks who believe in our mission, value our culture, and possess the talent and dedication to help us succeed. So any policy we create must factor in the morale and wellbeing of each individual team member.
What’s the best way to satisfy these goals today?
We have four goals we need to satisfy. From there, we spoke to external experts - recruiters, managers, startup advisors and experienced founders, etc - but even more importantly we spoke to our team, to gain an understanding of the varying needs and preferences of each person. What we found is that there are important tradeoffs to consider for each of these goals, which fully-in-person work and fully-remote-work both fail to satisfy on their own.
• Can we do our jobs in the first place?
- Some work requires physical equipment or resources that can’t be easily extended to remote work.
- Some work requires environmental factors (like noise level) that can’t be customized to meet individual needs in a shared space like an office.
• Are we able to collaborate effectively and learn from each other?
- Innovation and brainstorming often works best in-person where folks can play ideas off each other more fluidly - multiple team members specifically cited the moment after the Zoom call ends and the people remaining in the conference room together start winding down as when the best ideas fortuitously emerge.
- Almost everyone on the team agreed it was easier to get a hold of someone to ask a question or gain context when in-person; reaching out over Slack is doable when remote, but asking folks to hop on a Zoom call for more involved conversations feels intrusive/disruptive in a way that popping into a conference room together does not.
- That said, it’s inevitable that some people will be remote, whether because their role requires travel (sales) or simply because circumstances prevented them from coming in - a truth especially obvious right after a global pandemic! So it’s crucial that we be able to work effectively with remote employees and keep them involved in the conversation - and if we’re already setting up for one person to call in, how much more does it cost to have a few others call in as well?
• Can folks stay abreast of Modulate’s larger strategic goals, and call out when their work isn’t aligned?
- Empirically, this must be doable - many successful companies have been fully remote. However, we all agreed that this was something Modulate struggled with during the COVID period, especially given how quickly things change at a startup our size. We simply lack the personnel and bandwidth to constantly disseminate updates at the speed we’d need to; and the ability to catch wind of changes in the air based on in-office conversations, lunchtime discussions, and more direct in-person announcements simply has been doing a much better job for us today.
• Finally, what does each person on the team actually want?
- When asked, a significant majority of the team expressed a preference to come into the office at least a few days per week. We also found that both recruiters and statistical studies of the broader market were saying the same thing - around 85% of workers (across all roles) in the broadly-defined “tech industry” want to be in the office at least a bit each week.
- However, virtually everyone agrees that it’s not only pointless but especially demoralizing to go into the office only to find that very few other folks chose that day to go in.
- On the flip side, more than half of our team expressed a preference to work from home at least once a week as well, citing greater ability to focus on more complex projects, reduced commute times, and increased connectedness with family. This, too, is consistent with what we’ve heard from folks outside of Modulate.
So where does this all land us? Well, nuanced problems require nuanced solutions, so there’s no one-sentence magic bullet that we’ve hit on here. But we ultimately landed on a solution that we feel satisfies as many of these considerations as possible, with some of the major points being:
- In order to ensure that nobody goes to the office only to find it empty, we’ve all agreed to synchronize our in-office times. For now, those are Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, from 10am-4pm ET. (Those core hours are intentionally a bit shorter than typical, to give each employee flexibility on how to manage their commute to avoid rush hour.)
- Right now, we don’t force anyone to go in even on those days - if you feel unsafe due to COVID, you have the option to stay home.
- In the future, should the COVID situation reach a safer level, we’re committed to attendance in-person those three days; though of course Modulate will support anyone requiring other accommodations for their health in whatever ways we can!
- Wednesday and Friday are “flex” days - the office is open for those who need it, but most people choose to work from home on these days. (For those who are excited to work from home but e.g. lack an effective desktop setup or only own a chair that’s guaranteed to cause back problems, Modulate also sets aside a stipend to help folks improve their home office.)
- Those whose work requires constant travel (salespeople) may generally work remotely, and Modulate covers costs for them to visit the office roughly once a week every two months to ensure they still get facetime with the team.
How do we keep this plan evolving over time?
Of course, all of the above is just where things stand today. We’ve found that, given the needs and preferences of our current team, a bit of strictness around specific days in the office is useful to keep ourselves all aligned and ensure we’re staying effective.
But as Modulate grows, this could change. Today, we’re sixteen people, and not a single person at Modulate has a role that fits in a silo. We all need to talk to basically everyone else, and so it’s important that the entire team be organized in a consistent way. But in the future, it’s easy to imagine individual teams swelling in such a way that, while team leads or certain roles like project management might still have a lot of cross-communication with other groups, most individuals on those teams don’t. In this case, it’s probable that it will make more sense for individual teams to set their own policies around in-person attendance - again, maybe with a Modulate-level policy specifically for those doing more cross-team coordination.
Tools are also changing. Modulate’s own mission statement revolves around our desire to see online interactions become just as valuable and authentic as those in the real world. After the last two years, we can state with confidence that remote work tooling just isn’t there yet (at least for our purposes), but we remain extremely optimistic about the potential, and as those tools improve, we’re very well positioned to recognize such changes and take advantage of the flexibility those tools could offer us.
And of course, more broadly, the world evolves as well! Not only in terms of things like COVID that make our decisions for us, but we also recognize that the whole industry is having conversations about the future of work right now, and the coming years will likely be setting expectations for folks for a long time yet. Today, we know that our policy works well for our current team, and have received tons of amazing applications that prove to us many candidates feel the same way. But as this thinking evolves, we’ll be keeping a close eye on it, and making sure we stay engaged with the team to determine whether our policy no longer makes sense.
OK, that’s all nice to say, but how? What commitment do we make that we’ll actually change these things reasonably?
Part of our answer to this is our culture itself. Ask anyone at Modulate and they’ll tell you that when we talk about having a culture of transparency, being open to feedback, and constantly iterating on how we do things, we seriously mean it. Heck, just check out our culture page to see some of the unique things we do to ensure we live up to that commitment.
But we also recognize that sometimes, openness to feedback isn’t enough. It’s our duty to go out of our way to hear from our team and make sure that our policy hasn’t begun hurting more than it helps. As such, every six months, as part of our “Company Review” process in which employees share feedback for the company at large, we’ll be asking the entire team about their perspective on hybrid work in general as well as our particular policy. We then aggregate the feedback from everyone and transparently share updates and takeaways with the entire team.
This isn’t just a “check the box” exercise, either. Modulate’s made a commitment to transparency and autonomy which has excited so many amazing folks to come join us - and the flip side is that we’re well aware we need to continue living up to those values if we want our team to stick with us.
At the end of the day, Modulate is a team - that means no individual should be imposing their preferences on the group, and that instead we need to find a compromise that enables us all to collectively succeed. As part of that, we all recognize that aligning the way we work is an important tool to help us achieve that vision. Every policy we build is designed in that same spirit, and we look forward to building a team that will not only support our approach, but who will work with us to improve each idea far beyond what we might have found on our own.