Main illustration: Josh Cochran
Working remotely in and of itself is challenging, but growing and moving a remote team into an office brings its own challenges. What’s it like when a team used to working remotely transitions to working together in an office?
At Intercom, we are dedicated to offering our unique style of great support to our customers all over the world, all day long. For us to be available whenever our customers need help, we staff a team across multiple time zones that operates practically 24/7 all year round.
World class, awesome, human customer support comes first, offices come later
To enable that, we built out a distributed team around the world with a handful of teammates sprinkled across APAC working remotely. I joined intercom remotely two years ago as the first person in Sydney, and since then we have scaled the APAC team (lovingly referred to as the APAC Alliance) to almost 20 people across 4 countries.
Simultaneously, I’ve watched the APAC customer base increase more than 900%. Due to our rapid growth, we needed to scale the team remotely before opening an office. World class, awesome, human customer support comes first, offices come later.
But now we have reached the stage where we take the next step – opening our first office down under, in Surry Hills, Sydney, a whopping 12,000km away from our headquarters in San Francisco.
This journey has taught me a lot about the challenges and rewards of remote work, and it occurred to me that being a remote teammate or working in a remote office is a bit like being in a long-distance relationship. The reality of being separated by space and time means there’s nowhere near as much direct contact as you’d like, there’s plenty of potential for miscommunication, and a real human connection is much more difficult than the sort of natural, easy conversations you can have in person.
We felt like we were growing something from scratch
If you’ve ever tried hiring, onboarding and training a brand new team, you know how challenging that can be. Now multiply all the typical challenges with long distance relationships by the number of connections in a remote team, throw into the mix several flakey internet connections, and you’ll start to see the sort of issues we faced remotely growing the APAC Alliance. Not only were we not physically close to the other teams within Intercom, we weren’t even that close to each other!
Despite all that, the last couple of years have been an incredibly exciting time. Together we felt like we were growing something from scratch, everything from our work processes to our team identity contributed to a strong sense of being part of “a startup within a startup”, related to but distinct from the broader Intercom family.
In a sense, that very distance contributed to the acute sense of ownership and responsibility we felt towards our customers – our shared commitment to offering world class customer support was the “love” that kept our team working well. And our growth is testimony to that commitment; it’s amazing what a team of extremely passionate and dedicated individuals can achieve together.
Returning from the mothership
When new hires joined the APAC Alliance, they would fly to our San Francisco or Dublin offices for two weeks of onboarding, as it’s an awesome way to get immersed in our company culture, meeting Intercom leadership and new colleagues while experiencing our values first hand. But just imagine what it feels like to arrive back home after two weeks at the mothership. You’re now on your own, in a room, jetlagged, with just a laptop and an internet connection. You know your remote teammates are much more than mere Slack avatars, but still, it’s a serious reality check.
When you’re back home, being 12,000km from HQ becomes very real. Sometimes there is no convenient time for two people across offices to talk, so it’s either going to mean someone comes in early or someone stays late. The size of the Earth itself means that we’re going to be asleep while the rest of the company comes together for gatherings like company all hands.
You’re free to rock your pyjamas all day long if you please
While you can definitely still stay connected to company culture remotely, it can be much harder to get to know your colleagues personally, and it can also take more time for new hires to come up to speed and develop confidence in their skills and knowledge.
So much of how we learn on the job involves guidance from colleagues. Video calls and screen sharing sessions help, a Slack call or Google Meet can quickly reduce confusion and save time (so long as you have a solid internet connection!) Despite all the amazing benefits, and while they can simulate working personally with someone, they still don’t compare to the high bandwidth collaboration that comes from sitting right alongside your teammates.
On the other hand, there’s definitely an upside to not having teammates right next to you. You can get an awful lot of focused work done in the quiet of your own home, and of course you’re free to rock your pyjamas all day long if you please.
Working on your own also makes you incredibly resourceful. Without colleagues around to answer every question, you get very good at carefully digging through documentation and the code base to find answers on our own, rather than waiting until Dublin comes online to ask how part of the product works. There are definitely pros and cons on both sides.
Last September, we flew the entire APAC Alliance into Sydney to work and live together for a week and attend the Intercom World Tour. While we’d been working together for more than a year, most of us were meeting each other face to face for the first time. The experience was revelatory – it felt like we were 10 tight-knit flatmates who just so happened to work for the same company. We learned so much about each other that week, it was clear to us all that being together was a good thing – the “startup within a startup” began to feel like it was growing up, simultaneously closer to the rest of the company and closer to each other.
Just like all long-distance relationships, which have to evolve if they are to survive, this hasn’t been a simple transition. Opening an office in the opposite hemisphere to the rest of the company is no small feat. A huge amount of behind-the-scenes work went into it. Finding the right people, the right space and all the legal requirements took a lot of time and effort.
We’ve invited dozens of our customers to join us for an opening party
Now that we’ve moved in, it’s clear that our new office life definitely has its perks, but it’s not all about free snacks and being in a cool working environment. It’s an awesome opportunity for our team to continue to get to know each other better as humans, for more collaboration, more learning, more knowledge transfer.
We started APAC with only a Customer Support team, but we’re incredibly excited about the future and the new opportunities to work closely with our growing Sales team. Together, we’ll be better positioned to serve local customers, new and old. That’s why this week, we’ve invited dozens of our customers to join us for an opening party – and there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet again in the future!
Not everyone in the APAC is based in Sydney though. We still have some very tenured APAC Alliance teammates who continue working remotely, offering timezone coverage between our Sydney and Dublin offices. While there isn’t an office in their hometowns, their nearest office is now way closer.
As we’re just getting started in Sydney, we still feel very much like a startup within a startup. We’re a small but growing team, and there’s still a lot to do. The lessons we learned and the resourcefulness we developed while working remotely remains a strong part of our team’s DNA. We’re committed to honoring our remote origins and making our new office inclusive and accessible to all.