Over the last four years, we’ve gone from being a 100% local team to having 18 folks spread throughout 11 states with just 6 team members still working out of the Chicago office.
The original motive for us going remote was because hiring engineers in Chicago is tough. There’s a lot of competition for talent here, from ad agencies to Groupon to Motorola and Microsoft. As soon as we loosened our belts about where people would work though, a whole new world appeared – a world filled with really talented, eager people who wanted to work with small companies like We Are Mammoth, DoneDone, and Kin but were 100% happy where they currently lived.
Hiring folks as native remote employees isn’t the only way we’ve made the transition though – we’ve also had several Chicago-based team members move elsewhere in the country.
Moving somewhere else
A few years ago one of our front-end engineers, Jennifer, wanted to get out of Chicago. The problem was, she also wanted to keep her gig with us and we felt the same. The decision was a no brainer. Jennifer moved out west, and she took her job with. The move to Portland made a huge improvement for her – she describes it as a transformative experience not least because, in addition to locating some of the best ramen in the country, she also married her soul mate, Jim, and they’ve started their new life together somewhere new. As for work, she never skipped a beat – she’s more productive and happier than ever, and We Are Mammoth is better because of it.
There’s also Grant. He’s a rock-solid developer who moved up to Chicago from southwest Florida to work with us. Ultimately Chicago didn’t work out for Grant though – he and his wife were getting ready to build a family and wanted to be close to their in-laws back in Florida. So, after a year or so in Chiberia, Grant moved back to the beach (poor guy!). He took his job at Mammoth with and also never skipped a beat – though he’ll be the first to admit that he actually does miss the winters here. About a year later, Grant and Kerri had a beautiful daughter named Finley who has grandparents, aunts, and uncles all in close proximity.
We’ve since had a few other folks skedaddle to other places for various reasons – both of my business partners moved to San Francisco and Austin respectively, and Paul Kizior, our devops mastermind, sought refuge out in Seattle.
The incredible venn diagram of productivity and happiness.
In all of these cases, we’ve realized that being happy at work isn’t entirely in the hands of one’s coworkers and employer – at least, not in the traditional sense. Rather, productivity draws from both sides of life – work and the community beyond work (family, friends, neighborhood, etc.). To be truly productive, both sides need to be in good standings. So why would we force any team member to decide between satisfaction in their private life and the job they’re perfectly happy with? It doesn’t add up.
Upsides have downsides.
While we’ve largely been successful at keeping the ship righted during this transition, it definitely hasn’t been perfect. A distributed work culture isn’t a good fit for everyone. For a couple of (former) coworkers, the new culture actually had the inverse effect – where things outside of work were great, but the connection to the workplace and, ultimately, the ability to be productive and happy in a remote team environment just wasn’t there. It’s also been a big challenge for me and my remaining coworkers in Chicago.
The local flavor.
I incorporated this company back in 2004 and have seen it through thick and thin. I was so proud to have this big team working on big ideas in a beautiful office in a magnificent city. Since the transition happened over a period of years and honestly, in somewhat of an incidental manner, we didn’t do a good job envisioning what our local office culture should look like as the team size dwindled down. In the fall of 2014 though, we took the first steps forward. Through the simple act of acknowledging that things weren’t the same or even good, it brought us together to stir the coals and get us rowing in the same direction again. It doesn’t take a lot – team cooking and lunches, agreeing to work onsite 2-3 days a week, and we’ll be doing some open house events this spring when it gets warm. That’s just for starters. Also, if there’s a chance to hire in Chicago, well, we’ll do that.
Where’d you go Ohio.
Finally, just like our remaining crew in Chicago slowly lost its mojo, our larger work community lost the serendipity and identity of a big group of people toiling under the same physical roof, and we didn’t really do a great job of evolving on that front either. For example, there was a time when our company was small enough that we could easily fly folks in for a few days to work, talk, and be together. With 18+ people in 11+ geographic locations with 10 projects in flight, it’s tough and expensive. It took us time to realize that we should no longer think of We Are Mammoth as a hub, but rather more like a network. We’ve charged our team with the cultural responsibility to get together in the same place when a project or problem demands it. We make sure that we, as founders, double down on our efforts to communicate company performance and vision. We use a ton of video conferencing tools, and while Steve Jobs could move millions via streaming video – it’s a bit more challenging for the rest of us. That means even better communication, transparency, and access than might be needed were the entire team local still in Chicago. It’s tough but doable and we’re making progress.
Work where you’re happy.
As I’m writing this article at my kitchen table in Chicago, just 7 miles from our office, it’s clear that our team members’ freedom to move to wherever they’re happiest and most productive is one of the most valuable aspects of working at our companies. Sometimes that means moving across the country. Sometimes it’s moving across the street to a café. It comes with a whole different set of responsibilities and dynamics to be sure, but it’s been integral to our ability, as a business and individuals, to thrive and move forward at work and beyond.
For the inquisitive, there’s a technical term employers use to describe “the forces that influence job retention”. It’s called “employee embeddedness”, and our friends at BlackbookHR have built a tool called Sense that helps employers survey and report on all the factors that feed into it. You know that feeling when good coworkers in good standings leave a company? Yup, a big part of it is employee embeddedness.