Remote Working: growing a Des Moines-based team at our Silicon Valley startup

This is a guest post by Kasey McCurdy, Director of Engineering at Bunchball.

In 2010, I took a chance on my dream job with Bunchball, a company based in Silicon Valley. It turns out they really took a chance with me as well.

You see, there was no way I could move to California. My in-laws and parents had just moved to the Des Moines area to be closer to their grandkids and it would be quite the dick move to uproot and head west a mere three months later. I distinctly remember heading to a doctor’s appointment and talking with Bunchball founder Rajat Paharia on the phone about my “no move” situation. Without an ounce of hesitation, he said “you can work from there, no big deal at all. We’ll get you a travel budget and that’ll be that.” Rajat has always been a visionary and as I look back on my years as a remote worker, I can honestly say that his willingness to let me be remote has paid off in ways we both could have never imagined.

You can work from there, no big deal at all. We’ll get you a travel budget and that’ll be that.

Bunchball, like many companies large and small, believes that talented people and rockstar workers are not geographically exclusive. The entire company supports this idea and knows that to find the best talent possible, we had to focus on areas outside of the Valley. After I started working for the company remotely from Des Moines we decided to build a team here around me. In 2012, we hired our second employee and the two of us started coworking at StartupCity Des Moines. Within a year, we had added two more incredible people and we have no plans to stop looking for the best and brightest here in Iowa.

Concerns about remote working

Now, some may object to the idea of remote workers. Obviously it doesn’t work for every industry. Many will wonder how they can keep tabs on someone who’s half a continent away and they’ll say things like “synergy only happens when we’re in the same building.” Transformative culture doesn’t happen just because two people happen to be getting water at the same time or playing a game of foosball. It happens when people aren’t worried that having to run the kid to the doctor will result in them needing to take six hours of PTO. Many detractors fear that they’ll lose control and that employee productivity will be lost to people eating ice cream in their pajamas while spectating paternity results on Maury Povich.

After news of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement that they would no longer support remote working spread throughout the web, Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson, wrote:

The key for me is that in today’s world I do not think it is effective or productive to force your employees one way or another. Choice empowers people and makes for a more content workforce. In 30 years time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.

What he and big companies like AT&T, Intel, and Unilever recognize is that many times, work doesn’t happen at work. Ask people when they’re most productive, and you’re rarely going to hear “when everyone is in the office.” It’s more common to find that people are the most productive when they come in early or stay late, before or after people (and focus-sniping distractions) are in the office. The workplace can be a place of intense and constant distraction if your company culture doesn’t address it.

(Side note:  JCPenney recently admitted that nearly 30% of their internal bandwidth was taken up by employees watching YouTube videos … that’s a lot of cat videos, all being watched by people “in the office”.)

Will remote working solve distraction, stop you from hiring bad employees, send production through the roof and solve all of your employee engagement problems? No. Not by itself. But, I can almost guarantee you that if you allow someone to work from home, or even across the country, you’ll have happier employees. Happier employees will work harder, have passion for their jobs, and won’t need to be replaced every year like a clogged air filter. Letting employees work remote allows them to work around their lives, instead of living their lives around their work. They can spend time with their family, take their dog for a walk, or hit the gym in the middle of the day. At the same time, they’ll bust their ass into the wee hours of the night for you, because they love the company they work for. The problem you’ll have to look out for will be people working too much, not too little.

Remote working at Bunchball

Working remote isn’t an all-or-nothing arrangement. Our team in California, despite being roughly in the same area, still works remote two or three days a week. Simply put, traffic sucks there and everyone would rather spend an extra two hours working instead of on the parking lot that is “The 101”. So, even if the whole team lived in California, we would still be distributed for half of the week.

Kasey and fellow Bunchballer Andrew Kirpalani meeting members of the California team at the Des Moines airport this week

Kasey and fellow Bunchballer Andrew Kirpalani meeting members of the California team at the Des Moines airport this week

Our company culture is based on the premise that anyone can work anywhere. We (the Iowa team) routinely travel out west and there are frequent visits to Des Moines by our Californian comrades (seemingly less so in the winter, for some reason). We believe in getting the entire team together at least a couple of times a year. Last year, we did a team building activity that included bringing a bunch of Golden Staters to the Iowa State Fair and racing a 300 pound outhouse on wheels (yes there’s video). Some may question the wisdom of dropping these first-time visitors immediately into the State Fair, but they all had fun and handled it quite well (some even claim they’re coming back next year).

The bonding that happens during events like these helps to forge strong relationships within the team but I would argue that our day-to-day communication via Slack and Google Hangouts are the real keys to our team’s success. At anytime, we can magically teleport to the Valley from the comfort of our desks at StartupCity and hangout within seconds. I can share my screen all day long with great tools like Join.me, and we can even scribble on a virtual whiteboard with Aww. A real testament to the amazing technology we have at our disposal now is that when I travel out west, it doesn’t seem like I’ve been absent from the lives of my peers. And even though it’s literally been months since I’ve physically been there, I’ve essentially been with them every day, making decisions, solving new problems and executing on killer ideas.

I’m extremely passionate about remote working, remote teams and the power that the internet gives us to find the best talent anywhere. It’s more than just finding people to do your work in tough-to-hire areas, or finding cheaper labor a few states away. Having an open remote working policy will, in many cases, make your life easier, your employees happier, and your product better because it was built with passion.

Because of our distributed culture, I’ve been blessed enough to, without hesitation, allow people to work close to their family during some of life’s most difficult times. There was no thought given to how much vacation they had left, how much PTO we needed to deduct, or how we’d handle them “not being in the office.” Being a distributed team, it was just another day at work. For nearly three months, our team was California, Iowa, and one guy in Colorado. He was able to work when he could while taking care of things much more important than code. Nothing exploded, we still hit our deadlines and I slept better at night knowing I was able to be more than a manager. I was able to be an empathetic human being who cared about his employee and had the freedom to do something small to help in the midst of something huge.

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Kasey McCurdy is Director of Engineering for Bunchball, a Silicon Valley-based software-as-a-service company that uses data-driven motivational techniques to drive increased productivity, engagement and loyalty among customers, employees and partners. 

Photo Credit: Des Moines skyline image from Jason Mrachina via Flickr, other images via McCurdy.