What every remote office needs to succeed

Main illustration: Franz Lang

In the early days of a startup, you typically need an office in a city like San Francisco, where there’s a valuable community and a well of VC cash. As your team and customer base grow, there’s a need to invest elsewhere.

I joined Intercom as the third member of the customer support team and have seen it grow to more than 80 people in the past 3 and a half years. Recently I relocated from San Francisco to Chicago to build our first remote office.

Forrester research said in 2010 we entered into the “age of the customer”, suggesting businesses will become more adaptable and customer-obsessed than ever. The result of this new age is companies investing more heavily in customer support than they have before, which is great. Until it’s not great, because you run out of room in SF. So you need to consider a remote office.

Investing elsewhere isn’t easy and can come with negative press, but there are often overlooked benefits to expanding elsewhere. The cost of both office space and people is lower, and you have a new market for drawing talent, as well as a new community to connect with and learn from. You’re also physically closer to more customers, enabling easier in-person meetings or even just better lining up of timezones to support them.

To be clear, this isn’t outsourcing, but it can quickly turn into it if you’re not careful. Outsourcing is bad. Let’s all get on the same page about that. Outsourcing is bad because of higher turnover and less engaged employees. It’s harder to hire for and attract talent to, and it’s a challenge just to keep these outsourced employees in the loop. It leads to a misrepresentation of your company, a lost opportunity to connect with a new community, lost feedback from your support team and customers who are unhappy with quality of support. Your customer satisfaction tanks, and basically your product goes to shit.

So, you’re opening a remote office and not outsourcing! How do you do it?

First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. When I say remote office, I’m referring to an office that is located in a different or remote geographical area away from your headquarters. Before I introduce my framework on opening a remote office, I want to quickly cover the inspiration.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology that outlines human needs. We won’t dive into it too much, but basically it says clothing, food, and shelter before feelings and imagination, all of which are human needs. Donuts are also somewhere in there as a human need and motivator ?

Today I want to introduce you all to Sabrina’s hierarchy of remote office needs. Super catchy, I know.

Basic needs

Let’s start at the bottom with the basics. This is the baseline, the absolute minimum. The physical things required to open a remote office – office space, people, legal stuff (establishing entity, people on payroll, etc).

The next foundational piece is a physical connection. In this day and age, we’re all more comfortable with technology than actual physical connection (Tinder is super popular, I hear). So when I say physical connection, at a minimum, this means being connected by software. How long does it take to get connected with someone from another office? At Intercom we use Slack and Google Meet. We have TVs and Chrome Boxes in most meeting rooms. You can join a video call with the click of a button.

Encouraging video calls when possible is important. It allows new remote hires to put faces to the names across the org chart, to build deeper connections. And having these tools at the ready makes face-to-face an expectation. This isn’t about fancy tech, there’s a real business purpose.

Encouraging some sort of travel program also falls into this physical connection piece of the pyramid. Part of the reason we chose to open our new office in Chicago is because it has direct flights to both our other offices (San Francisco and Dublin), and it’s easy for people to stop by on the long journey from Dublin to San Francisco and vice versa.

Psychological needs

As you move up the pyramid, more of the interesting stuff appears, starting with the need for a mental connection.

It’s important to get your other offices thinking about the new office, in order for the new office to feel part of the company. You need to be practical about how much time this takes. There are things you’re not even aware of like legacy language all over your internal and external docs that will need to disappear – things that say “our two offices” instead of three. Understand that people will forget sometimes, so be forgiving but correcting.

We rely on physical things around the office to help establish that mental connection. For example, we have three clocks showing the local time in each office hung up in each office, and we make personalized comics to celebrate people’s anniversaries that we hang up as a fun way to get to know someone that isn’t in your office.

Additionally we have rituals that exist in all of our offices – a bi-weekly All Hands meeting that our CEO does from SF and live streams to Dublin and Chicago. We get a laugh every time he says “good morning San Francisco, good evening Dublin, good 11am Chicago”. From day one it’s been important to give our offices the same message at the same time and with the same context so no one feels left out or less important. This hasn’t changed with the addition of a new office, and it won’t change as we continue to add more.

We define our culture by a set of company and team values.

The next piece to the pyramid is company culture. It’s important to spend some time thinking about how to answer this question: How do you define your company culture? This isn’t a revolutionary idea for your office, but you get it for free if you’re just building a team in an office that has its culture already established. Once you have a good idea on how to define your company culture, there needs to be a plan to build it from the ground up in your new space.

At Intercom, we define our culture by a set of company and team values. We use them to align our people around core values we find important and necessary to succeed here, regardless of location.

A key part to building company culture from the ground up is to have a really great landing team. A landing team is a group of previous employees selected specifically to start the office. They are cultural ambassadors and role models. They should be people who excel at both their core job function and also living the company culture, which in our case is really living our team values.

However, trying to take a carbon copy of your company culture isn’t going to work.

If this hedgehog cake is my company culture and I try to recreate it exactly, well…

You want to copy the fundamental bits but let the office have it’s own identity. It’s okay (and actually great) that there are local differences.

Play to your strengths as an office and embrace the upside of being away from HQ. Don’t pretend or ignore the differences. For example, in Chicago it’s a lot easier to plan events for a small amount of people so we can do different, more intimate things for our Christmas party (like a steak dinner) vs having to rent out a large event space. Since we’re a small office, we also have the benefit of everyone knowing everyone better and creating a comfortable family feel.

Self-fulfilment needs

Let’s talk about the cap of our pyramid – purpose. As a company in general, purpose is important and comes in the form of a company mission, which in your remote office you’ll need to maintain and clearly articulate, creating the same level of buy-in from employees that are in your office. This is the north star for your company, which can conveniently be seen from anywhere.

Most companies need to do this regardless of having a remote aspect. You really shouldn’t open a second office until you have rationalized this.

Purpose is also important to give to an individual. This means making sure they are bought into the company mission. It also means being upfront about opportunity and career growth as it relates specifically to your remote office. You want to feel good about what you’re setting up, and not just creating a funnel to HQ. Everyone should be able to grow at your company, and it’s worth thinking about who is right for your specific office. What directions can someone grow in that you’ll be able to support? This doesn’t mean hiring people that are fine with limited career growth, it just means being transparent and honest about what exists now and will exist in your location and knowing whether someone’s interests align with that, or having a plan to move them into a different office.

Building a remote office isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean you should resort to shortcuts like outsourcing. Focus on connecting your new office, both physically and mentally, with the rest of your company and embracing the uniqueness of your new location and space. Fill it with people who share in your company’s purpose and you can see them become a wonderful asset to the company, and the remote office can be a wonderful place for them to grow.

This article is based on a talk I first delivered at SDX earlier this summer.