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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

This Tech Leader Was a Hybrid Work Skeptic — Until He Wasn’t

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Despite all the talk of flexibility as the future of work, more and more prominent business leaders are doing their best to get their people back in the office. Tech leaders have registered say they still don’t understand how to build great management systems in a remote work environment. Others have warned that executives will try to “cook the frog” to get people back into the office through implicit pressure that could cause bias.

As a technical leader and founder, I understand the unwillingness some executives feel about hybrid and remote working, and I was quite skeptical myself at first. We invested a lot of resources in building our largely in-office culture before the pandemic. Remote work appointments at my company, Gusto, were the exception. However, our unexpected foray into remote working and our more recent experience with a hybrid model reminded me that leadership’s reflex to hold on to what we know isn’t always best for our people, and conflicts with our role. as innovators.

Known for large-scale innovation, the tech industry has seen more change in the past 10 years than in previous years, but many companies still cling to outdated, inflexible work models. Tech leaders should pioneer new models, not resist change. If technology companies can’t devise new management approaches to support remote and hybrid work, we can’t expect to tackle the world’s biggest problems.

Here’s how Gusto approaches our current hybrid work challenges – and how I overcame my skepticism to embrace this setup for the long haul.

Hybrid experiments

From Gusto’s earliest days I had deep convictions about the value of personal collaboration. It was so important to me that when we first started the company, I moved into a closet in my co-founders’ house so we could work together in person – even though I lived only 30 minutes apart.

We brought this ethos into the business for years before the pandemic. For example, we developed a culture of pair programming in the office (by equipping multiple workstations with mirrored side-by-side monitors to support collaboration) and had regular whiteboard sessions for group brainstorming. Every year we took the whole company on week-long workations, where we all stayed at a remote Airbnb and worked on a big project together.

When we first went remote, I was concerned that we would lose this collaborative culture and return to working in silos. Amazingly, our teams have found remote alternatives to our in-person collaboration rituals that are just as good, if not better. By the time we were able to safely return to the office, our people were programming in pairs more often than before, thanks to our investments in tools such as tuple and Miro, which are purpose-built for remote technical collaboration. U.S cycle timea general indicator of the health and productivity of the technical function, improved by 23% after we went remote.

It became clear that my preferred way of working was not necessarily the best for my team or for the company. As a technical leader, I had to accept that it would be irresponsible to ignore the data and demand that employees return to the office full-time.

Hybrid results and benefits

As a hybrid company, we are just as productive as we were before the pandemic (if not more). The engagement of our engineering team has remained strong and we have seen an increase in retention since the transition to hybrid works.

Our teams in Denver, New York, Canada and remotely feel like they are on a more level playing field than their colleagues in San Francisco, as there is no center of gravity around an office. Tactically, we’ve expanded our talent pool well beyond those city limits and become more efficient by eliminating commute times for many employees.

Hybrid work also gives technology companies the opportunity to become more diverse, inclusive and equitable. Not only can we hire smart, capable people everywhere, but also wealth of data shows that workers in historically marginalized groups want the ability to work remotely. We hear the same from our own employees. Ignoring this data in favor of “back to normal” would make our TO GET UP (Representation, Inclusion, Social Impact and Equivalence) work.

As we commit to long-term hybrid work, we’re innovating to make it the best it can be. This spring, we created the position of Head of Remote Experience to design an equitable experience for the 40 percent of our workforce, including 30 percent of our most senior leaders, who have chosen to work remotely full-time. We hired someone with a UX background for this role, aiming to apply the same design discipline to our employees’ experiences as we do to create a delightful product experience for our customers.

Lesson learned

Our transition from in-person, to remote, and now to hybrid work has reinforced the value of staying open-minded to innovation, not just in our products, but how we work. In the coming months, we’ll see more leaders at other companies putting implicit or explicit pressure on their teams to get back to how things were. Those who can adapt to new challenges with the needs of their people in mind will have the advantage in a tight talent market.


Edward Kim is the co-founder and head of engineering, product, design and data for Gustoa platform for HR and payroll processing.


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