For Formstack, a leading provider on online form building and lead conversion software, remote didn't happen overnight. The Indianapolis-based company was already seven years old when they decided to go fully remote for everyone on the team, now, none of the company's leadership even lives in the city where 50% of its employees call home.
How has the change to a distributed team worked for them? Pajamas talked to CEO Chris Byers to find out how Formstack approaches building a remote company after years of traditional office life.
What does Formstack do and what's your role there?
Formstack helps people convert more of their website traffic into leads. My role is CEO and am charged with company vision, building out a great team, and making sure we have the resources to get the job done.
How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?
Right now we have about 55 people. The split [is] right around 50% in Indianapolis and 50% everywhere else. The team is as far west as California and as far east as Poland. Our team represents 4 countries, 10 state, and 23 cities. In addition, two other factors impact our remote-ness. The first is that if you polled our Indianapolis-based team, you'd find that they average 1-2 days per week in the office and the rest of the week at home or co-working spaces. The second is that none of our leadership team live in Indianapolis.
What made you decide to start hiring remotely, outside of your home base of Indianapolis, IN, where you still have a larger concentration of employees?
The first reason for hiring remotely was simply to find great talent. We had trouble finding software developers in Indianapolis and I had a network of a few international developers so we decided to give remote a try. That said, at the time, our first developer was in Poland so we pushed the limits by adding someone remotely to a team that at the time was 100% office-based and so had to tackle learning how to a) work with a remote team member, b) work with someone 6 hours ahead of us, and c) work through cultural barriers to integrate him onto our team. I'm still very glad we did it though. He is one of our most talented developers.
Are the folks in Indianapolis required to work from the office every day or do people still regularly work from home even if they're local?
Nope! As of May 2013, we fully opened the doors to allowing anyone to work wherever they wanted. Our fully open stance to remote actually came over time. First, my wife Dana had an opportunity to take a tremendous job in Oklahoma City and so I thought... surely this can work remotely. Second, we had a few great team members who wanted to move out of state and so said, 'of course'. Third, we thought it was a bit stupid to say that if you left the state, you could work remotely but if you live in Indy, you should be chained to the office...and so we opened the door fully. Since then, we have hired more remotely and others have trickled out of the office over time.
Do you find it difficult to keep remote workers in the loop with some people in the office every day? What do you do to keep everyone feeling connected?
At this point we are a remote company that happens to have what we call a fully dedicated co-working space in Indy. For the most part, communication has transferred well to HipChat, Confluence and Hangouts where most of our business takes place. We have all of the right tools to keep connected.
Funny enough, we have noticed that from time to time, when a swell of people are in the office together, some information doesn't quite transfer back to the remote realm. We've also had trouble sometimes when in-office team members feel a greater burden to answer questions that might not normally come their way if we were 100% remote.
In our case, we need to continue to reinforce to people that just because they are physically together, they can still refer question to the right party, even if they aren't in the office. Also, we need to teach people that they need to make sure that a full loop gets completed in information so that it gets back to the digital realm.
What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
Personally, my biggest struggle has been that I really enjoy working around people. It took me well over 18 months to solve this, but I finally ended up at a great co-working space that a friend of mine and I curated. While I don't have any other Formstackers around me, I can at least walk out of my office and banter with others or even talk about the good and bad at work. In addition, I need to keep a somewhat regular travel schedule (say once a month) to see other Stackers. It makes a huge difference in keeping right relationship with my team.
At this point we are a remote company that happens to have what we call a fully dedicated co-working space in Indy.
What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has provided for Formstack?
Well... selfishly... (maybe this is what most remote workers experience) the freedom to live anywhere has allowed our family to be in a great place where I can keep working with an amazing team and my wife can live out her dream at the same time. Sometimes it feels too good.
The other pretty interesting thing is that 9 years into Formstack, you can map almost perfectly the correlation of increased revenue growth with our increase in % of remote team members. Most people are shocked at how a company our age has been able to shift the growth curve in our 'maturity' (pshh).
Do you think anything is lost by working remotely?
Of course. So many people on our team really enjoy hanging out together, having second breakfast at the office, and having a lot of laughs in-person. We still get a lot of those things but it requires a lot more intentionality and is a bit more difficult to come by via video.
You recently launched a new product called flock that's aimed at remote teams. Tell me a little bit about that project and why you decided to build it.
From the moment we hired our first remote team member we knew that we needed a way to 'keep up to date' in a structured way with team members. The daily standup is a very common and regular way to communicate updates and yet doing that across time zones and via video is much more difficult. Flock aims to make that process so much easier by sending out a daily set of questions (that you can customize) to make sure teams can quickly see how each other are doing, where problems arise, and how projects are fairing.
Once you have that daily check-in covered, we realized that the process of allowing people and teams to create and score goals in a quick and efficient manner was way too difficult. Our giant Google Doc of goals was too cumbersome and so we created a simply way to develop and track goals. You can then actually tie your daily 'status' or work to those goals so your team gets visibility into how often goals are being worked toward.
And in addition to visibility, we wanted to make sure it was easy to give positive feedback to team members to celebrate their progress.
What other gaps in the market do you see in terms of tools for remote teams? What pain points still affect your team?
How do you capture in-person energy in a remote environment? I still have no idea. If someone could master that then they'd have something truly special. But that might not be how we were made. Funny enough my wife works with a large remote volunteer base in an online church environment. They also struggle with how to connect people to each other. It's a tough one.
We really [had] to make the decision that we were a remote company that happened to have an office. That's made a huge difference in making the leap.
What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?
Hmm. Interesting question. We've made it a goal this year to create a "Best Places to Work" environment no matter where you are physically located. Because we don't have a ton of people in any given city other than Indianapolis, we might not make a 'real' list but we still want to make sure the team feels like they work at a tremendous place. In Indy we actually apply and have been in the top 15 of Best Places to Work for a few years running. Soon we will implement an annual use of the Q12 engagement survey to check-in on the pulse of the team.
What sort of culture are you trying to build at Formstack? Is it more difficult to build a cohesive culture with some of the team remote and some of the team in an office?
We really did have to make the decision that we were a remote company that happened to have an office. That's made a huge difference in making the leap. In addition, the fact that our entire leadership team is out of Indiana means that we are putting things in place to build culture regardless of location. That said, we rely on in-person department meetups about once a year plus an all company meetup annually to help anchor culture-building. In addition, we have about 12 team leaders/managers who are tasked with carrying our culture throughout their portion of the organization. We meet with them on a monthly basis for training and a quarterly basis in-person to reinforce and build our culture.
Describe your personal work environment.
For me, most of the time I work in an actual office outside my home. I have a dedicated space, my laptop, and then a Mac Mini hooked up to a large TV for easier/better quality video interactions. While I still hit-up the coffee shops quite a bit, much of my day is spent in video meetings via that TV.
How do you manage work/life balance?
Thankfully because I leave the house, I have some separation of work and home. That said, I need to implement a rule where the phone gets put away after [a certain] time at night. It is way too easy to stay connected via that method. At this very moment I've just been on a two week email-free vacation. It was amazing. I've never taken two weeks of continuous disconnected vacation. Everyone should try it if they can.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
No idea. I get distracted... That said, I do utilize Flock to set quarterly goals and when the end of the quarter is about to bite me in the rear, I make sure and get those top items complete. :)
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
Remote magnifies your culture or lack thereof. Make sure you have put your purpose, values, and vision down on paper. It will make a huge difference. Also I can't imagine embarking on the journey without full leadership support.