How to survive a long distance work relationship

Workplace culture is the most powerful magnet you have when seeking new talent. Quantitative factors like compensation and perks can usually be matched, but what makes a company unique—its attitudes, customs, and values—isn’t easily duplicated. That’s what makes company culture so valuable. It’s also what makes it so fragile.

The fiercest enemy of any workplace culture is growth. Expansion means more employees that need to be socialized into existing norms. And critically, it adds a new variable to the business equation: distance.

If you’re ever set up a video conference, you know that distance is challenging. Unlike walking to someone’s desk, a five-minute chat with a remote worker takes planning and coordination. The immediacy of local interaction is lost, or at least dampened, through electronic filters. As a company goes global, distance is the primary obstacle for firms trying to maintain their core values.

Distance versus workplace culture

Founded in 1989, Pivotal Labs is a web development consultant specializing in Agile methodology. They’ve worked with seminal companies like Twitter, Salesforce, and Netflix. Because of the nature of what they do—training clients and defining their future workflows— their culture rubs off on their clients. It’s easy to see how. Pivotal works in teams. They emphasize in-person communication and empathy. Their culture is built on relationships.

Today, Pivotal Labs is a global organization with offices in 14 countries. As the company continues its global expansion, we wanted to find out how they balance this growth with their team-oriented company culture.

In conversation with Pivotal Labs

David Randall (Product Designer) and Mitch Seaman (Product Manager) work in Pivotal Labs’ Dublin, Ireland office. Ireland’s answer to Silicon Valley is the Silicon Docks—and it’s thriving. Major tech companies are already settled there; Asana recently opened a new office there, too.

Pam Dineva (Product Designer) and Aloka Penmetcha (Product Manager) are the pioneers of Pivotal Labs’ brand new office in Sydney, Australia, which opened in October 2015. The tech market there is burgeoning and growing fast; Sydney is already home to firms like Canva, Atlassian, and Campaign Monitor.

These “Pivots” we interviewed are part of a growing workplace diaspora across the world. We spoke with the remote employees using (what else?) Google Hangouts.

Now that you’re abroad, what differences stick out to you?

Mitch: I assumed everyone here spoke English. [Laughs] But really, we were used to people speaking our language of Agile: user research, test-driven development. In Ireland, we’re starting from scratch ideologically and brand-wise.

David: On the other hand, it’s really pulled people out of the woodwork. I spoke to an executive at a startup here, and his take was: there are great people here, but they are tucked away. They aren’t writing Medium posts like they are in San Francisco.

Pam: The difference is not so much the country as much the size of the office. This culture of collaboration is becoming a trend worldwide. What we’re trying to do is find people that share our values, but might be at a different stage of embracing them.

Mitch: Finding help is different. It reminds me of the first Irish term I learned. “Your Man.” If you need something, they say “go talk to Your Man over there,” even if you don’t know them. We were confused at first, but this concept goes really deep:

For example, one day we’re working late and needed some equipment. There’s no Amazon Prime here, so I asked people in our co-working space if there was a computer store still open. They said no, but they asked me, ”well, what do you need?” I told them and two hours later ‘Your Man’ shows up—a guy I’ve never met—holding a box with everything we needed. And he didn’t charge me a cent.

What are your challenges?

Mitch: People who are not in the same place will eventually diverge, so we created new positions: People who are responsible for standardizing practices. They visit offices and pull together managers to find out what they are doing, what they’ve learned, what new collateral they’ve created, etc. And then they go on a roadshow with their findings.

Who are these people?

Mitch: Our directors of happiness. We have a director of happiness in every office.

David: They’re the ones who enable our culture of experimentation.

What other challenges come to mind?

Pam: Figuring out the basics. Post-It’s here aren’t as sticky! It seems super trivial, but these are things you take for granted before you move to a new place.

Aloka: I literally did not know how to buy a microwave. I essentially had to ask our director of happiness. Starting a new team means that we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s like being a startup—but we have the backup of HQ.

Can you tell me more about what it’s like to start a new team?

Aloka: Have you heard of forming, storming, norming? Initially, everyone has very different views how things should be be done. There is discussion and conflict. But if you’re a healthy team, you move forward to the way you will do things as a team. You get to norms.

We’re still the storming phrase. We have people from Toronto, Australia, New York, and San Francisco coming together and we’re figuring out how to blend everything in a way that works.

What about culture, has it been a difficult transition?

Mitch: I’m as happy here in Dublin as I was in San Francisco. And the little things I had an issue with in San Francisco, I can now change.

Aloka: A lot of the culture comes from shared values and practices like company stand-up, free breakfast and snacks, tech talks. The retrospectives help us make sure we are on the right track.

If you’re a healthy team, you move forward to the way you will do things as a team. You get to norms.

Pam: Culture lives with the people and we have a strong, balanced team, which in turn attracts like-minded individuals. We’ve hired three people so far who are just as excited to start the day with company stand-up as we are.

David: There are all these tiny interactions that are part of your home country and those change. And at the beginning there were a few moments of: “What the hell, why can’t I find a top sheet for my bed?”

What advice do you have for other companies wanting to expand globally?

Mitch: Hire someone to coordinate all the travel. There were a lot of small logistical things that we had to figure out prior to getting here.

Pam: Over-communicate because you’ll have a mix of backgrounds and cultures and expectations. Start with weekly office retrospectives and taper off as you have less to talk about. And find joy in things you can only do as a small team, like retro on the rooftop garden. There’s a lot we miss about being in a large office—we must find the joys of being small.

There’s a lot we miss about being in a large office—we must find the joys of being small.

Aloka: The biggest thing I would say is nailing down the core values and practices that need to get transferred. Each office will have its own special flavor, so you have to know the values and practices that every office needs to implement, and then let the new location evolve around that core. Also: cut everyone some slack. Things are not going to be perfect on day one.

David: Bring toiletries.

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