Why we aren't a remote company

Less Annoying CRM is, first and foremost, an in-person company. We have an office here in St. Louis, Missouri (USA), and we expect our employees to come into the office. This is a bit unusual for a bootstrapped SaaS company, so I wanted to write this post explaining and defending the decision.

Disclaimers

This topic is nuanced, which sometimes leads to misunderstanding. So let me get some things out of the way before diving in:

  • This post assumes that a company’s in-person experience is one that the right type of person will enjoy. If an office is dimly lit, full of bad distraction (pointless meetings), devoid of good distraction (friendly people to talk to during a break), you hate all your co-workers, and the person in the cubicle next to you insists on microwaving fish for lunch every day, then yeah, remote will be better.
  • The pandemic changes things. Obviously if there’s a significant health risk coming into the office, working remotely makes sense. This article assumes that we will one day be in a position where working in-person is no riskier than it was before the pandemic.
  • I’m going to reference “culture” in this post. I’m not talking about ping pong tables and happy hours. Virtually all knowledge work is collaborative which means people have to interact to do their jobs. The nature of that interaction is what I’m referring to when I say “culture”.
  • I am not anti-remote work. I think the majority of jobs in the future will and should be fully remote. The benefits are undeniable. I even think that if I were looking for a job right now, there’s a good chance I’d want to be fully remote (although I’d have to think a bit more about it). This is not a hit piece about remote work.

What do employees want?

It’s clear that most work that was traditionally done in offices can be done equally well remotely. Due to the pandemic, we’ve all experience fully remote work, and it’s perfectly fine from a productivity standpoint. This post isn’t an argument that in-person work leads to more productivity.

So if this isn’t about productivity, what is it about? For me, the decision should be driven by what will make employees the happiest. Everything’s better with happy employees.

So what do employees want?

You might be thinking, “they want the flexibility to work remotely, idiot!” First of all, rude. Secondly, I don’t think it’s that simple.

It’s definitely true that some people want to work remotely all the time. No commute, total control over your environment, the ability to live wherever you want, being able to eat lunch with your family and let your dog outside, etc. are all huge. It’s very reasonable to prefer remote work.

But not everyone prefers it. Some people want clear physical separation between their personal and work lives. Some people feel isolated without social interactions with colleagues (strangers at the coffee shop or co-working space aren’t always an adequate substitute). Some people don’t have an environment at home that allows for them to get work done there.

There’s no right or wrong here. Some people like Coke, some like Pepsi. Some people like Tagalongs, some like Samoas. Both sides are right (except Samoa fans because that’s a garbage cookie, but you get my point).

Why not give employees the choice?

You might think that if both preferences are valid, we should just let employees choose. If you want to come into the office, do it. If you want to live halfway across the world, do it.

As nice as that sounds, it's missing the point of why people want to work in-person. The people who want to go into the office don’t just want to be in the office by themselves, they want to be there with their colleagues. If you’re hiring people all over the world and allowing fully remote work, the reality is that the in-person culture will suffer. Similarly, if you’re almost entirely in-person and hire one remote employee but otherwise don’t change anything, that person’s remote experience will suck.

Every company must decide to be either remote-first or in-person-first. Your culture (again, by that, I mean the way people interact with each other) needs to fit that choice.

Put differently: You only get one culture, and it can’t possibly appeal to everyone.

Your product should focus on a niche. So should your culture.

Anyone who’s started a company or launched a new product knows that it’s important to find a niche. You can’t make a product that pleases everyone. Toyota and Ferrari both make cars, but they’re targeting very different customers. Despite their differences, they’re both very successful businesses. Neither one made a mistake by choosing the market they’re in.

I believe the same thing applies to building a company culture. As much as we’d like to appeal to all possible employees, different people like different things that are sometimes mutually exclusive. The best thing a company can do is decide what it’s about and own it. Communicate it clearly to current and prospective employees, and let them decide whether it’s a fit for them.

Why we’re in-person-first

We’ve made the decision Less Annoying CRM is a place for people who want an in-person-first culture. Simple as that. Remote-first companies aren’t wrong. I have nothing against that approach. That’s just not what we’re about, and I’d rather own that than try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.

Why’d we decide to be in-person-first? Honestly, it sort of happened accidentally. You may have heard before that you can’t really decide what your culture is. You just hire people, and the way they interact with each other defines the culture. You can shape it a bit by being intentional about who you hire, but it’s not something you get to 100% control.

In our case, we just happen to have hired a critical mass of people who prefer in-person work. I could go into their exact reasoning, but it doesn’t really matter. We weren’t intentional about this early on (note: Don’t be like me. Be intentional about this from day one) and the decision made itself.

If you’re coming from a mindset where you think pretty much everyone must prefer remote work because it’s so obviously superior, all I can say is that you’re wrong. I talked deeply about this with everyone at LACRM, and a significant majority not only prefer in-person work, but they wanted the company to mandate it. I know that goes against the narrative these days, but that’s what what happened, so 🤷

But there’s another more deliberate reason. Hiring isn’t just about productivity. Business isn’t just about profit (at least not at LACRM). I/we care about other things. You might call these “values”.

The nice thing about having values is that sometimes they make otherwise hard decisions very easy. It doesn’t matter what the right business decision is if it conflicts with your values.

One of our values as a company is that we exist in part to have a positive impact on the St. Louis community. That’s non-negotiable. I/we care about this community, and we want some of the money we make to funnel back to the rest of St. Louis. There are various ways that can happen, but hiring people locally is a huge part of it. In the same way that shopping at local businesses is self-evidently good for the local community, so is hiring local employees. So even if we think it’s a stupid business decision, that’s a compelling reason for staying local.

So remote work is completely forbidden?

No! We allow quite a bit of remote work, actually. Our philosophy is that people should have as much flexibility as possible without losing the in-person connection with colleagues.

Sometimes you hear the term “hybrid” in remote work discussions, and it can mean two things. Some times it means “some people are remote, and some are in-person”. Other times it means “everyone works in person at the same time, and then switches to remote at the same time”. We’re doing the latter.

Pre-pandemic, we let people work from home one day per week (they could choose). During the pandemic we all realized that having more than one day remote is nice. The problem is, if, say, 50% of the company is out of the office on any given day, the office feels like a ghost town. So we settled on this: Everyone is expected in the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but can be remote any of the other days if they want.

So far, this has been a great balance. Two days per week is enough for us all to connect in person, have meetings, etc. Most people work from home the other three days which is a great chance to get away from the distraction and recharge (especially for introverts like me).

We also have two longer stretches of fully remote work each year. Once in the winter and once in the summer, we switch to remote-first for 3-4 weeks so people can travel, enjoy the holidays with family in other cities, or do whatever else they want.

We work remotely more than we work in-person, but our culture is in-person first. This works for us.

Accommodations for people with disabilities

Another obvious question is what should be done if someone has a disability that prevents them from commuting to the office. Does our in-office policy preclude us from hiring people with such disabilities?

Again, the answer is no. We can make accommodations for people as needed, just like any fully remote company would. But this doesn’t change the fact that one of our values say to support the local St. Louis community, so we still expect all employees to be local, even if they’re working remotely.

Of course our culture is still in-person-first. If someone requests the accommodation of fully remote work, they must accept that they won’t be a part of the in-person happenings.

What the haters will say

You’re missing out on the global talent market!

Yes, but that doesn’t matter for us. If we needed a VP of sales who has already scaled a b2b SaaS company from millions to hundreds of millions in revenue, yeah, it’d be tough to find that person here in St. Louis. But we mostly hire entry-level people and let them develop the required skills and experience while working here. The St. Louis region has about 3 million people, and we normally hire a few people per year. We’re not coming close to exhausting the local talent market, so it doesn’t really matter that we’re missing out on billions of other talented people.

I'll admit that our approach wouldn't work for bigger companies that need to hire lots and lots of employees. The same way they need their products to appeal to pretty much everyone for them to maintain their massive size, they also need their jobs to appeal to pretty much everyone, and that probably means having a remote option.

There are tons of successful giant companies that don’t have a single culture. That’s not a requirement.

Great point. LACRM is a small company (~20 employees at the time of this writing) and this is a blog for other people running small companies. For businesses like us, we’re effectively a single group of people, and that works best with a single culture.

At some point, you grow too big for everyone to know everyone else, and the business naturally fragments into smaller groups. Each group has similar dynamics to an entire small business. I think it’s important for each group to have some cultural consistency, but different groups don’t necessarily need the same cultures.

So I admit that at larger companies it might work to have a more mixed approach. Let the in-person people go into the office, and let the remote people stay home. But I still think you want to make sure that each group within the company is clear on which one it is. It’s not ideal to have in-person people on a team with remote people if you want both to be happy.

I refuse to ever take another non-remote job, and there are a lot of people like me.

That’s totally fair! I respect your preferences, and you’re certainly not alone. But again, as unbelievable as it might seem to you, there are a lot of people who want to work from an office, and they want all their colleagues to be there with them in-person.

Sorry we aren’t a fit to work together, but I’m sure you’ll find a great remote job, we’ll find great people to join our team, and we’ll both live happily ever after. We’re just not a fit for each other, and that’s ok.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.
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