100% Distributed With Zero Offices – Lessons From Wade Foster, CEO Of Zapier

By Cack Wilhelm

We could never have predicted a global pandemic, but remote-first teams like Zapier and HashiCorp look very prescient now. Each and every one of us is making adjustments to our daily life, while social distancing remains the norm, but I would venture to guess that remote-teams have adapted more seamlessly. We can’t control the intrusions from young children and furry pets, but remote teams can rely on existing company norms instead of looking to rewrite them.

The discussion of returning to work is upon us, but we foresee that will be measured and phased; offices may never include 100% of the physical employees that they once welcomed daily. As my colleague put it with regard to IVP’s policy about returning to work, this may not be the time to be a first-mover.

What follows is a short interview with Wade Foster, the co-founder and CEO of Zapier. As Wade and his two co-founders graduated YC in 2012, one founder moved back to Missouri, and their remote team was born. Since they remain 100% distributed with zero offices.

We have not all had the luxury of building a remote team from scratch, but Wade offers insights into how to adjust and adapt the new ways of distributed working. He covers the social side, how not to micro-manage, and how to reframe “awkward” and see things as “authentic.”

CW: Transparency is always mentioned as a core ingredient for remote-team success. Teams like Zapier, HashiCorp, and BaseCamp, have been remote from their start and built transparency and documentation into the culture at formation. Covid-19 has now thrust every company into remote work, whether they want to be or not. Is it as simple as: companies that are more transparent and more focused on documenting and disseminating information will be more successful?

Z: A big part of this is trust. Employees want to be trusted. Transparency treats everyone as adults. They can handle the hard choices. Even better when you show the tough choices, provide context, then folks buy into the decisions. This helps get everyone on the same page. Companies that are more transparent, more focused on documenting, and better at disseminating information will be more successful. They will have a leg up on companies who don’t already implement this kind of behavior at work.

CW: In your messaging, you talk a lot about being “action-oriented” and that may be tougher for teams where decisions are more often made at the level of team vs. individual performer. Is there a process that has worked at Zapier for onboarding people to the Zapier culture who are less accustomed to running with things on their own?

Z: As we onboard new employees, they are introduced to our company values. Two of our values come into play here when it comes to being “action-oriented.” One is default to transparency. This means that we encourage everyone to go out of their way to share relevant information in public channels on Slack. This way, there are rarely any surprises, and most information people need to make a decision is documented and available to them. The second is default to action. We believe most decisions are changeable and the most important thing is to take action when faced with a problem. Additionally, each year we set OKRs to document our top priorities as a company—these common goals keep teams oriented toward the same results.

CW: Do the first few weeks or months in a remote environment have to feel like micro-management or is that a sign that the company has not transitioned well?

Z: As you shift to remote work, you may need to have more frequent check-ins with your manager than you normally would in a traditional office setting. Managers may find the need to give more guidance or direction during these uncertain times. As managers and employees become more comfortable with their new work environment, they likely will develop a new routine with fewer check-ins. Weekly 1:1s between a manager and their direct reports is generally a best practice.

CW: Is the social part of work also work? A required ancillary of the “real work” given physical proximity or something that should be deliberately built into a remote-work culture?

Z: You can’t have a culture without camaraderie, and we have been very intentional in how we create fun moments that aren’t necessarily related to work. It’s important to be disciplined about this too. Co-located teams would benefit from this as well. You want all your folks to feel welcome and not leave it to chance. We live our work lives in Slack, and we organize these channels by work and fun. People make fun channels to discuss their hobbies and shared interests, and that acts as a virtual watercooler for us. These groups include things like #fun-bookclub, #fun-travel, #fun-dogs, #fun-DIY, and even #fun-stamps. You can find a #fun channel for almost anything you’re interested in. We also have a program called Pair Buddies: each week, employees are randomly paired for a Zoom call to get to know each other. This fosters cross-functional relationship-building for teammates who may not meet otherwise.

CW: The awkward silences, the jokes that fall flat, family intruders, home distractions – is that all just part of it? Do we get more used to that awkwardness over time? (#askingforafriend)

Z: You call this awkwardness. I call this authenticity. And people are craving authenticity more than ever. We have families, we have pets, we aren’t always 100% put together. That realness helps connect us all.

CW: What about meetings that used to be open-ended, more focused on brainstorming and getting ideas out there – are these better done individually? Or should these meetings never have existed in the first place?

Z: Brainstorming is an important part of any job—there’s a balance you can strike here while working remotely. We brainstorm a bit differently in a remote setting because trying to recreate a brainstorming experience as though you were in an office isn’t going to yield great ideas. In fact, trying to recreate an office brainstorm through Zoom usually means only ideas from the loudest voice are heard.

I recommend brainstorming alone before the meeting, whether that’s by doing research, or going for a walk and jotting down ideas you have and then bringing a few fully-formed ideas to the team for discussion. From there, the people in the room can focus the discussion on building off of your idea, or pressure testing it. You never know what suggestion may spark the perfect idea.

CW: How the heck do we hire people without ever meeting? And onboard? At Zapier you moved from originally being in-person onboarding and then moved to all remote onboarding. Are there three tips you can share for how to ensure newcomers are still able to thrive?

Z: Our Onboarding Specialist, Ashley Priebe, wrote a great blog post about this and offers tips for remote teams. At its core you want to accomplish four goals:

  1. Connect to community and culture
  2. Highlight new hires’ strengths to improve the company
  3. Learn through active practice
  4. Gain company-wide context

If done well, you should have new employees off to the races in no time.

The Zapier team has exhaustive resources covering remote work and distributed teams on their website here: https://zapier.com/learn/remote-work/ for anyone interested in learning more.

Cack Wilhelm is a Partner at IVP, a later-stage venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, CA.

Find more resources at ivp.com/covid