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Why Hybrid Remote Cultures Are Hard to Build, but Completely Worth It

Creating effective hybrid remote teams can create huge benefits for your business and your people.

Signal Sciences was born in Venice Beach, and has always been a Los Angeles startup at heart. Our HQ currently spans two buildings in Culver City, and we also have a small satellite office in NYC. We’ve always believed in the importance of having a physical homebase, but our founders made it clear that we were going to place equal value on remote and office work by hiring remote workers at the very start.

What hybrid remote looks like at Signal Sciences

We have nearly 50 people working in the Product and Technology org, 30% of whom are fully remote. That jumps to over 60% if you exclude our product management and product design teams.

The unequal distribution of remote and onsite employees raises the first of many tough choices we had to make as a hybrid remote company: deciding which functions will be effective remote and which ones won’t. At Signal Sciences, having our product management and product design teams based solely in L.A. has been essential to our success. Product managers and designers are able to collaborate ideas on the fly, whiteboarding and brainstorming their way to better solutions. We’re also able to more directly involve other onsite stakeholders from sales and marketing in our product and design processes.

Engineering, ops, and support, meanwhile, have a mix of remote and L.A.-based team members. Doing this dance well means having clear, sensible reasons for why certain roles can/can’t be fully remote, and communicating them clearly to everyone in the organization. “Remote envy” can be disastrous.

Being remote at Signal Sciences comes in all shapes and sizes. We have team members in San Francisco, Portland, New York, New Jersey, even Tokyo! We also have team members who live in neighboring counties, who do come to the office regularly but are remote by default. (If you know L.A., you know that commuting from Orange or Riverside County is a recipe for rapid burnout.) Even our onsite employees are given the freedom to work remotely any day.

Do: bring intention to every interaction

Some remote-first practices that have been key to Signal Sciences’ success:

  • Your HQ needs to be designed for remotes, too. Have every meeting room set up with easy-to-use A/V hardware, and have ample touchdown desks for when remotes come to town.
  • Invest in stable, usable video conferencing software. Zoom is a godsend.
  • Make standups asynchronous. We use Geekbot for twice-weekly standup reporting.
  • Have a critical mass of remotes at the company to put everyone on the same playing field.
  • Even better: have multiple remote executives. It demonstrates commitment to a hybrid remote culture, and gives leadership more empathy for other remote employees.

Don’t: skimp on facetime

We know that it’s standard for companies to bring their entire teams together only once or twice per year. For us, once or twice per year doesn’t cut it. We strongly believe in the value of face-to-face interaction, which is why we fly all our remotes out to L.A. every 6 weeks. The expense of frequent travel weeks is real, but so are the benefits.

Travel weeks are events everyone on the team—onsite and remote employees alike—looks forward to. We work together, get coffee together, and have team dinners. Some travel weeks include more structured quarterly or annual planning, goal-setting, and fun team outings (escape rooms, anyone?). It’s an essential opportunity to get to know people in more nuanced ways than over Slack or Zoom.

Being hybrid remote makes us a stronger company

Being remote-first doesn’t just benefit our people, it benefits our business too. Within Product and Technology, having staff in different geographic regions makes it easier to offer broader customer support hours. On-call rotations don’t require people to burn the midnight oil.

We also get the obvious win of having access to a broader and deeper talent pool than the L.A. market alone could offer. A hybrid remote culture isn’t just great for hiring, though. It has also helped our retention. High performers know that leaving L.A. doesn’t necessarily mean leaving Signal Sciences.

Our employees are happier and more engaged because they’re empowered to adapt their work to their life rather than vice versa. For full-time remotes, working from home often satisfies them more than going into an office—for example, to meet family needs.

Some businesses say the hardest part of embracing remote work is trusting your employees. We disagree: the hard part is only hiring high-performing, self-motivated people. We believe if you set high standards and don’t compromise on hiring, trusting your employees becomes easy.

We’ve also seen how being hybrid remote contributes greatly to inclusion. An in-person only culture excludes many people who don’t work best in traditional office environments. Opening the door to remotes allows many different communication styles to come together and thrive.

Overcoming challenges with hybrid remote teams

As much as we believe in the benefits of the culture we’re building, we’re always encountering challenges on the path to building a high performing and happy hybrid remote team. A few things we struggle with:

  • When Slack is the primary place for communication, you need strategies to cope with the constant firehose of information. Otherwise paralysis/endless distraction can set in.
  • Setting work boundaries can be harder for remotes and the risk of burnout can be higher. It’s critical to respect time zone differences for remotes. Also, we’re fortunate to have a CEO and executive team who set the example that you shouldn’t stop your life for your job.
  • During meetings, in-person folks can easily drown out remotes in free-ranging conversations. It’s sometimes challenging to stick to good remote meeting hygiene: only one person talking at a time, and making sure everyone on the meeting feels included and their voices heard.
  • Pair programming becomes slightly more involved.

We try to approach all of these challenges the same way: talk about problems openly as they happen, and take constant small steps to smooth over these speed bumps. Ultimately, we believe a culture that respects remotes is a culture that respects everyone.