Prior to the pandemic, Textio CEO Kieran Snyder believed in the power of the office. A centralized place for people to connect, where ideas blossomed and culture flowed.
Nearly all of the staff at the augmented writing platform worked in the 8-year-old company’s shiny new downtown Seattle headquarters, a space so “crisp and clean” that it was chosen as a “Geekiest Office Space” finalist in the 2019 GeekWire Awards.
And then in early March of 2020, as COVID-19 just started to ravage the Seattle region, things abruptly changed.
Snyder closed the offices and asked employees to work remotely, doing so a few days before tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon.
While some companies struggled with return-to-office plans over the next two years — shifting time frames and policies as COVID’s unpredictability caused havoc — Textio and its 120 employees settled into a new reality. There would be no centralized headquarters, and moving forward — as Snyder told GeekWire last summer — Textio would become a fully distributed company.
“More of our employees want flexibility than not,” she said. The move to remote also allowed Textio to hire top-notch executives outside of the Seattle region, such as the company’s newly-appointed vice president of talent acquisition and diversity, equity and inclusion, Jackye Clayton, who lives in Waco, Texas.
The 180-degree turn — from full-blown, centralized headquarters to a fully remote workforce — created new challenges and opportunities. Snyder discussed how her team navigated the workplace change, and what’s ahead in the most recent episode of the GeekWire Podcast. Listen to the full episode here, including a discussion on how business communications are evolving and why the pandemic drove changes in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Below are edited excerpts from the portion of the conversation about the shift to remote work.
On the decision to close the Seattle office in March 2020: “We were really nervous about it, because (Textio co-founder) Jensen (Harris) and I had both really believed in colocation as an important aspect of the culture that we were creating.”
On what they learned in the first year: “First, we saw our productivity was actually better than it had ever been before… We saw a bunch of employees looking to relocate for various reasons: wanted to get out of the city, wanted to be near family, revisiting what’s important right now. A lot of soul searching for people over 2020. So a bunch of people relocated and Textio supported them. And so as a result, we opened several new states.”
The geographic makeup of the workforce: “Today, about 50% of our employee base is in the Seattle area, and about 50% is outside, mostly outside Washington. And we have nine states today where people live and work. And yes, it absolutely has shifted the representation at Textio.”
Diversifying the team through geography: “Chicago has been a huge market for us, and nearly all of our Chicago employees are people of color. The demographics in the region are different than they are in Seattle. And so absolutely we are seeing positive impact there… Increasingly, the leaders are also not based in Seattle, which is kind of by design for me, because I’m trying to build some equitability across how we lead.”
On how the company dealt with salaries for employees living in different geographies: “We are paying Seattle market rates everywhere. So we have chosen to keep salaries consistent regionally everywhere, which means we’ve had a lot of hiring advantages in some other regions that we are hiring in that we weren’t hiring in before because Seattle is a pretty spendy market. It’s a pretty privileged market from a tech job perspective.”
On how to keep the culture together when people are distributed: “This is the question of the hour. I think everybody’s trying to solve this. There’s a bunch of stuff that we have done. Some of which probably mirrors playbooks from other companies, at least one of which is probably really different.”
On employees ‘drowning in Slack’ and what they did about it: “We found in the first couple of months after going remote, that Slack was a problem… We’ve always been a Slack company. We were one of their early customers… But we found people drowning in channels and asynchronous communication, 24/7 was really, really hard.
And one of the things that we built over the course of 2020 and 2021, which we use today, it may become a product for others soon. We have a few other companies using it. We’ve built a different tool. We still use Slack mostly for (direct messages), but we built a different tool for time-boxed conversations, that is much more participatory. It’s much more human in nature. It’s really easy for people to participate in lightweight ways. We think it’s about how you do inclusive collaboration inside companies. And I will say the use of it, which we really built for our own purposes, transformed the way that we collaborate, absolutely transformed it… It has been pretty magical for us.”
On embracing shared days off: “In the 24/7-everybody’s-working-from-their-home environment, it’s very hard to unplug. When I disconnect from this podcast in a few minutes, I’m still just in my house. Right? I could shut my laptop and I could go to the kitchen and get a snack and I could do the same thing on Saturday, and I could easily pop open my laptop again and check in on my work. So there’s just no lines anymore between work and home. And so one way that we’ve mitigated that is we introduced more shared time off. Actually, Monday is a shared day off at Textio. So we have a long weekend, this weekend where the whole company takes more days off together. That’s been pretty powerful.”
On sparking more in-person regional connections: “We are going to have an all-company event this fall, which is going to be our traditional Explorathon, which is kind of like our hackathon, but the whole company participates… This year we are doing an all-company volunteer day, we have a super volunteer-oriented culture. We’ve always had benefits around this. And so everyone in Chicago will get together and do some activities together. Everybody in the Bay Area will get together and do some volunteer activities together. So I think one of the things about the culture is that it’s not team-specific anymore. There’s sort of a regional element where it’s cross-functional and you really get together.”
On whether you can successfully operate a hybrid workforce: “Okay, controversy alert. I don’t think you can (do hybrid)… I am fully for colocated cultures or distributed cultures. The hybrid thing sets up this dynamic where you have some set of people who are always in the room and some set of people who are always remote. I actually really deeply believe this is the next wave of equity work for companies.”
On why it’s important to pick a lane on centralized HQ or fully remote: “I think picking a lane is well said, and that sort of represents my philosophy on it. I can absolutely see why somebody would pick the colocation lane. I definitely see things that it gives you. I can see why people would pick the remote lane. I think we’ve all been in those situations where you have some people in the room, some people remote, the video call ends, and then it’s like, “Hey Todd, I just thought of another idea. Now we’re going to go get lunch together and we’re going to have the real meeting. And half an hour later we’ll report back to everybody what we really decided.” And then John is out there in Bozeman, like, “Hey, wait, I thought we already had a plan.” I think this is human. I don’t think there is a good way to litigate around that or legislate around that. And so if you care about equitability you need everyone on the same playing field, whichever the field is. And I think again, there’s advantages to both — the collocation and the remote.”