In a post-pandemic world, early-stage founders have multiple options for building their teams and choosing their ideal work mode(s). However, the decision between on-site, hybrid, and remote can be a complex one, involving multiple factors, such as access to talent, legislation, and people operations.
While remote work became the default at the height of Covid-19, post-pandemic life has seen many organisations revert to old behaviours, pulling people back to offices and causing a fair deal of controversy in the process.
April Hoffbauer, Vice President of People at Maze, Seedcamp-backed global and fully distributed startup Maze, still believes that remote and fully distributed offers an excellent opportunity for early-stage startups to tap into the global talent pool from day one.
Passionate about scaling thoughtfully and empowering great teams for long-term success, April is one of the rare people in the tech ecosystem who has been living and breathing all things remote since pre-pandemic life, and before words like hybrid working or fully remote were common language. Her experience as a Senior Manager Recruiting Operations and Insights at all remote tech unicorn, GitLab, where she supported and optimized the people team, equipped her with a set of best practices and tools to help build and scale fully-distributed teams.
In her current role, April leads an agile people function focused on designing and implementing organizational development strategies that reinforce the company’s values, build a world-class culture, and enable greater effectiveness and scalability.
In conversation with our Director, Natasha Lytton, April shares her insights on everything that goes into how to think about and set up building a remote, fully-distributed, and asynchronous team. Tune in or read more below:
N: If you were to wind back into the early days and thinking about guidance for startup founders, what do you think startups should consider when thinking fully remote as an option when they first start to build out the team?
A: Fully remote, first of all, is inclusive, and it invites folks with new perspectives and experiences to be a part of creating something brilliant. When you distribute your workforce, you empower creativity and focus, and especially when leaders build with transparency and trust their teams to work asynchronously, you create magic – people are able to work when it’s best for them and thus produce awesome work. If you want passionate people who are empowered to pursue their passions, both personally and professionally, it’s just smart business to diversify your workforce across the world if you can.
The beauty of that is you’re democratizing tech. Tech can often be skewed towards centers of privilege and discount amazing talent that may not have the ability to uproot their lives to move to a tech hub or may not have the access to do so.
If you are able to spread out your workforce, you’re better set up to begin with. It’s a lot easier to start out as remote than to adopt new ways of working. We saw that a lot during the pandemic when companies tried to replicate office experiences or didn’t have the tools or the processes set up for a foundation of remote.
It’s very intentional work that you have to create. Once your company has that culture, it will evolve with you, and your people will be invested in making sure that it’s successful. If you start with that at the beginning, you’re already one step ahead.
N: What do you think are some of the critical factors that a company should consider when they’re assessing Who are we and what do we wanna be? Should we be onsite? Should we be remote versus hybrid? How do you think through and advise people to determine those early parts and steps?
A: My opinion will be biased because, obviously, I’m a firm believer in remote. I often joke that you could not pay me enough to go back into an office setting, I am fully bought in. I am not going back.
I will say not what’s right or wrong for you. You and your founders and your early team really need to figure that out for yourself. Each one has pros and cons, but from my experience, remote is the best when done right.
The first thing to think about is how hard hybrid can be. There’s always going to be this imbalance of how your team members are treated based on their physical proximity to the office, their ability to come into the office, or if they’re fully remote. And just a small example of that is the pre or post-meeting talk.
If you remember any kind of meeting that you went to in a conference room, you’re always chatting before and especially after. And sometimes, that chatter after can completely change what was discussed in the meeting. If you have people who were virtually dialing in, they missed all of that.
How do you communicate that to them and, more importantly, the why behind what the new decision might be or the new direction might be? I think hybrid is just hard. Onsite can be fun, but it’s expensive, not only in terms of the overhead and office costs that you have but also just the energy that your team has to expend to get to the office or to get ready for the day to go to the office.
The small talk chatter that happens can be draining for some personality types. So when you’re in the office, you have a lot more of an energy drain than just work. Also, the proximity of having friends from the office can be energizing, but again, you’re set within that time zone or that city limit, so you’re limiting yourself in that way.
The pool of talent is much smaller. And again, there’s a real risk of not diversifying your knowledge and, therefore, your product, and then onsite is all about having that physical presence, but it doesn’t always translate to productivity or output.
While remote requires a great deal of forethought and planning, it opens up a whole new world of talent that you don’t have otherwise if you’re stuck to a proximal location.
You have to be intentional about documenting what you’re doing, how you do it, and why you do it, not just for today, but also for the future in that historical look-back aspect of it.
People think remote work is easy, but it’s probably 10 times harder to build because you have to be so intentional about it, and you can’t just show up and do your thing and then leave. But, again, it will probably produce a hundred times the outcome because you’re working in a way that best serves your people and your team, diversifying your knowledge base and your team members.
N: Do you think from your experience that there are certain types of business that are better suited to these different styles of working?
My experience has been very tech, and knowledge-based. I’m not really familiar with e-commerce-type businesses. I do know that there are some that are remote and have been successful at that. But it’s also a matter of if you have your knowledge-based workers or your corporate workers remote, can you also have that in production and then shipping and receiving and things like that?
So I think e-commerce would be interesting, but I am definitely not an expert in that area to talk to that.
N: Are you seeing there’s a competitive advantage for you as a remote-first organization, and have you seen a shift more broadly back to more traditional ways of working post-pandemic?
A: Pre-pandemic at GitLab, we had a Head of Remote who our CEO wanted to champion remote work, or the CEO of GitLab is a very firm believer in remote work and an asynchronous org. The head of remote’s primary purpose was to evangelize the need for remote work and how to do it, and how to do it right.
Then you had the pandemic, where companies were scrambling to try to figure this out. How do we continue people being productive when we’re not allowed to go into the office? What was interesting at that time to me was you had companies who weren’t getting it right. They just couldn’t figure it out or weren’t invested in it, or weren’t open to new ways of working. I think those are the ones who have articles about how remote workers are unproductive and how they need to return to the office so they’re not playing video games during the day or something like that. So if it was done wrong, you have this big swing to go back into the office, that the office is the only way for you to be productive and to have a successful workforce.
But if people were open to new ways of working and invested in people to make sure remote was done right, invested in tools, which is a big thing to ensure that it was done right and evolved with it to make it successful, I think those are the ones that have converted and are like, I get it.
For us, at Maze, the competitive advantage was we were able to scale quite rapidly at a time when talent was really hard to come by and the market was super competitive.
I think it also informs our product much better. Our product is aimed at making sure product teams can research and do unmoderated testing. We’re able to do that when we’re remote and work asynchronously to a large degree as well at Maze. So it’s been huge for our success, huge for our growth, and also our culture.
N: What are some of the best practices you recommend founders adopt based on your experiences from both Maze and GitLab?
A: A lot of my foundation of ways of working comes from GitLab. They were very prescriptive in many of the working styles at that time, which I think, again, is sometimes necessary in a remote world.
One thing about GitLab that we’ve truly adopted at Maze is working asynchronously as much as possible. I often say that we aren’t remote first. I had a whole conversation about why I don’t believe remote first is a way to describe a company like Maze, where we’re fully distributed.
We’re async first, and we default to asynchronous ways of working as opposed to making sure everybody is on at the same time because we’re spread out across the world, and you can’t have everybody on at the same time.
It’s important to document everything and to use meeting agendas not only so that you’re making good use of your synchronous time but also the documentation for historical decisions is super important, especially in startup worlds where you sometimes are struggling to remember what happened yesterday.
And then you try to think back to why did we make this decision a year and a half ago and what are we doing? If you have that historical documentation, it’s right there for you. Also, if you have a meeting and it’s to discuss things or to make a decision, I always call those a working session so that people know what the purpose of the time together is. Is it to brainstorm and to try to figure out something together? Is it trying to solve a problem quickly, and you need that synchronous time? Call it what it is. Don’t just have a meeting, just for the sake of meeting.
Developing processes is very important. Providing training on those processes early and often and making sure that you’re evolving and if it’s a living, breathing process that you’re doing because processes do change.
Investing in tools is super important, especially in supporting fellow tech companies. They’re out there trying to solve these real problems that we have, let’s invest in them. I also love investing in tools from startups because they’re open to feedback and they’re open to helping us solve our problems because we are, hopefully, the future, and they want their tool to be successful for future employees.
One of the things we sometimes forget is the individual is responsible to set the boundaries for themselves, to set them early, and to stick to them. For me personally, this is sometimes the hardest thing to do. When you have internet anywhere you go, and you can jump on your hotspot anywhere you go, it’s sometimes very hard to disconnect, and you need to make sure that you’re taking that time away for yourself and not just talk about the productivity that can increase as a part of remote work. But remember, there’s a human there too. And don’t forget those human elements.
N: How do you balance boundary setting in this world where you perhaps wouldn’t have as much information naturally about people and their lives, and what they’re doing? Are there any tips or processes you have in place to help encourage that, as well as any opportunities or things you encourage for more human interactions day to day that aren’t with a set purpose in mind?
Yeah, I think those are two very different points. The human element to it, so it’s not just like a transactional thing, is something that will be unique to every company, and that’s why investing in a people team early helps because you can set an intention behind some of those moments and having creativity and having fun times together that aren’t just a virtual happy hour or something like that, I think is important and then creating boundaries for yourself. You need to figure out what works best for you. And one of the terms that GitLab coined, at least I think it’s from them, is a manager of one, where I need to manage my day.
I need to manage my priorities and rearrange my to-do list in a way that makes sense for me. And then, my manager, my CEO doesn’t know what time I log off for the day. They don’t know how many hours I’m working, so I have to be accountable for myself, and everybody has their own way of doing it.
I personally try to bookend my days with meditation, with walking the dog or something that gets me physically away from the computer, away from the office, and as much as possible, trying to walk away from that. The only company tool I have on my phone is the calendar because if I didn’t have that, I would always be late. Other than that, I don’t have Slack, I don’t have email, I don’t have anything else on my phone because it’s just too easy to check in for a minute, or I’m just going to go clear out my email.
You really have to be responsible for yourself in those regards and find ways that work for you. Because we work asynchronously first, nobody is required to work a nine-to-five or something like that.
It’s really about how you’re successful in your day. So if you need to work at night, because that’s when you’re more productive, or that’s when your house is quiet, or your caregiver, and that’s when your partner is able to be the primary caregiver, that’s great. Do what works best for you. I don’t expect you to be on at specific times.
N: Are there any leadership styles that are particularly well adapted for running either remote or async first global companies?
The manager of one again is self-management. I think that’s really important. But if you’re talking about people leaders within a company, empathetic leadership is very important. You have to recognize that the line between work and personal life is more blurred than ever in a remote work environment. You have to care for the human as much as you do for the employee. Recognizing that at any moment of the day, that line can get crossed and blurred, and that’s okay, but you have to recognize that as a people manager.
Servant leadership is another style that is very important. And continuing to get more of a spotlight where you’re empowering others to thrive. You’re supporting and guiding them without needing to micromanage or without needing to dictate how or when the work gets done, and also, you no longer need to be the loudest voice.
Stereotypically, the people in power are the loudest voice in the room, and they’re more of dictating what is getting done and how it’s getting done and standing over your shoulder to a degree to ensure it’s getting done, where hopefully, with servant leadership that’s not the case and that’s no longer happening.
N: What are some of the biggest mistakes you think founders make when building distributed teams?
First, remote has been seen as just simply working from home, and that’s not really the case. You can work from coffee shops or in a car.
Making sure that people are set up for success with tools to work from wherever they’re most productive and that connections have to be intentional and have to be built specifically for virtual engagement. And it’s not just ‘not in the office,’ it’s elevating the trust you have in your employees, and that trust and communication go hand in hand, where you as a leadership team are not making decisions in a vacuum or without transparency.
You are setting a foundation of communication documentation that earns the trust of your employees and that your employees feel trusted and empowered.
I also think mental health can be an afterthought in remote work, but ensuring people have psychological safety and are supported emotionally and professionally are more important than ever when you remove that proximity to their coworkers. Again, not investing in the team that runs your remote business.
For us, it’s the people team. I believe that the people team is generally, historically, the most understaffed, and when you add the complexities of remote work, it’s worth investing in an amazing people team early in the company’s history to ensure that you have that set foundation to build and scale off of.
And then the last thing I’ll say on this topic is the ops of remote and global companies can get super complex. As the VP of people, I’ve also been over legal and IT ops and, until very recently, finance. We have team members in 36 different countries, and you can’t imagine how complex that can get.
Things that I think about on a daily basis are typically outside of the people realm where we’re issuing stock options or getting laptops to people in all corners of the world, or ensuring global compliance, which our world does not set up for remote work to be easy but most importantly, it’s to keep everyone engaged and thriving.
My CEO and I joke all the time that everything we know, Legal or stock admin is something we know against our will because some situation has cropped up that we didn’t encounter before, and we had to figure it out together, but it was never something that we were like, oh, today I wanna learn how to issue stock to somebody in the Philippines.
You’re always on the same side of the table when you’re working together. That can be really fun, but sometimes, again, you find out stuff that you’re like, I never wanted to know any of this information, but now I know it.
- You have to invest in remote early and be intentional in how you think about it;
- You need to set your people up for success with the right tools and products for them to be able to use that;
- It requires a transparent decision-making process from the leadership;
- Documentation is more important than ever;
- There are all these other things that come into it from an ops perspective or compliance perspective that you may not have been thinking about;
- It’s not necessarily the easiest default to be distributed first, but the benefits that it can have from a democratisation and inclusivity perspective are massive;
- There is no playbook that you can go and replicate from company to company. You have to figure out what makes sense for you and your team and the culture that you want to cultivate and build;
- Be open to trying new things and doing things that might fail.