Remote Culture, Recruiting, & Open Source

TL;DR: Companies that have recently gone fully-remote can draw inspiration from open source. Doing so provides helpful ways to think about attracting talent and building culture. 

Fully-Distributed is Taking Off

Though the headlines have focused on the big name companies and their announcements about going remote, events of the last four months have undoubtedly created a lot of new fully-distributed companies you’ve never heard of. This includes organizations that may have been partially or even fully-colocated (office-based) before Coronavirus. And this is happening in part because remote working has worked out so well for so many of them, and in part because it has proven difficult for many companies to scale down to a “reduced” real estate footprint — to serve a subset of their employees. Hybrid is harder than fully-distributed, we keep hearing. And the truth is that returning to the office is still an open discussion (fraught with overwhelming emergent logistical considerations) even for companies that really want to.

We have also no doubt seen in the last four months an acceleration in the rate of creation of new fully-distributed startups that reject offices altogether, and that do not expect their people to meet physically to get work done. This was already a trend, and any founders who may have been hesitant before Coronavirus because they were worried about investor bias or their own inexperience with remote leadership, now have enormous encouragement to kick the office to the curb.

This means, however, that now many, many more companies, not just the ones that were already on the fully-distributed bandwagon before COVID-19, are going to face the challenges unique to fully-distributed organizations.

Next-Level Guidance is Needed

There’s been a great outpouring of new content from the community on the basic how-to’s of remote working. We have also seen that the “bibles of remote working” (that have been around for years from the pioneering remote working companies like Automattic, Gitlab, and Basecamp, etc) are getting the reference attention they deserve. These basics (like asynchronous communication) are of course essential principles that have to be properly installed for a fully-distributed team to walk and run. But there are other challenges that come with being a fully-remote organization for which there’s less explicit guidance.

Two such challenges we keep hearing about are:

  • How do you attract and recruit great talent from around the world (whom you may never meet in person)?, and
  • How do you create and sustain great culture (when everything is virtual)?

Open Source, a Model of Distributed Success

To these important challenges of fully-distributed organizations, the principles and history of Open Source would seem to offer a lot. 

We often hear that software “eats” things. An aspect of that is that the ways of software development continue to penetrate into the ways other types of work are done. That open source should provide ways of thinking and working that are helpful to fully-distributed organizations may be yet another example of something that started in software development spreading more generally into business. Like Agile and Kanban have. This keeps happening because these “frameworks from another domain” offer avenues to better ways of working, even when what you’re doing is some other type of knowledge work. 

Whether or not they are a software company, fully-distributed organizations are going to have to become more like software companies in their ways of working.

This shift will be necessary for non-software development knowledge work to be done well in a fully-distributed organization. Naturally, that has deep implications for how technology will support knowledge work in the future. For that reason, we’re also going to see a pattern where new tools are going to be created that allow non-software developer knowledge workers to work more like developers do. This was also probably a trend well in evidence before Coronavirus, now greatly accelerated.

Once your organization is thinking and working a bit more like a fully-distributed software company (especially if you ARE a software company), it shouldn’t be too difficult to aspire to some of the attributes of an open source project.  

Open source is worthy to provide guidance and inspiration to any fully-distributed company because it demonstrates a model through which great talent is not only attracted but also uniquely enabled and remotely synchronized to produce semi-miraculous results. 

There is no better example of this than Linux.

“Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made.”

Eric Steven Raymond, The Social Context of Open-Source Software

Successful open source projects like Linux should inspire fully-distributed companies because they demonstrate the extraordinary productivity potential of organized knowledge work performed by a team of people who didn’t ever have to meet in person to accomplish it.

Becoming a Beacon for Global Talent

Organizations who’ve let go of their offices and have recently made the transition to fully-distributed are probably still focused on getting things back on track, and on fostering the healthy continuity of the pre-existing team. Though hiring may not be the present priority, they must surely be thinking about how recruitment will work as a fully-remote company. Whether they are fully-distributed or just have newly-created remote roles, as organizations shift their recruiting perspective from thinking locally to thinking globally, this is going to radically transform the recruiting process as we have known it. 

Even for companies that decide they will only hire in a subset of timezones (to facilitate synchronous work, like Quora), the size of the available talent pool would still overwhelm the traditional recruitment approaches of “publishing” their open roles and waiting for “applicants” to express an interest in them. The new pervasiveness of remote working and highly-distributed companies is going to create unprecedented liquidity in the global talent marketplace. This is great for all parties, but it also means that everyone’s game has to change. 

Thinking and acting like an open source project may be a good way for fully-distributed companies to evolve their talent acquisition game. Reflect on the Linux example in a post-Coronavirus talent market. When the most talented individuals can work for any company in the world, how will your company compete? How can your company distinguish itself amongst a much larger number of prospective employers?

The downside for employers gaining access to the global talent pool is that they are also suddenly competing with every company in the world for talent.

One approach is to become like an open source project, whose first organizing principle is attracting people who care deeply about the same thing. This of course requires knowing what that special thing (of singular and obsessive focus) is for your organization. I think most companies can find their unique Why, if they try. And I think it’s a good thing that prospective global employers should feel they have to produce a thoughtful and compelling expression of their purpose to compete for global talent.

Creating Culture on Purpose

Perhaps your company is bootstrapping its culture for the first time as a brand new fully-distributed startup. Or perhaps you’re an established organization now transitioning from an office-based culture. Either way, you may as a leader be wondering how to develop and nurture culture when everything is virtual and everyone’s remote.

Attracting people who share a common passion is potentially more than just a way to acquire talent. It can also be a terrific way to instantiate culture. But attracting talent like an open source project, however, is not just about having a clear and compelling purpose. It’s also about calling those talented people to come work on that purpose together in a particular way.

“Culture is a pattern of basic assumptions — invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration — that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership

In other words, culture is inherently linked to a particular problem space, and isn’t directly about people or their attributes. Organizational culture is about how people decide to work together on a specific set of problems.

For many office-based companies, the “Our values” plaque that hangs on the wall is just a list of nice ideas. And though that list of values is intended to be the codification of their culture, those values may not relate in any useful way to the work to be done, and therefore probably don’t drive much useful behavior. The experience and the effects of culture, therefore, are organic, accidental, and overly-dependent on physical proximity.

“Running a remote work environment effectively, requires amongst other things a deliberate approach to culture development.

Transitioning from an office to remote is not going to be easy for a lot of companies. The reason for this is leaders took the human proximity, camaraderie, informal comms & ‘water cooler moments’ for granted.

The majority of CEOs who ran office-based businesses before the pandemic and didn’t invest in their culture unknowingly relied on their office space environment to hold their unwritten culture together.”

Bretton Putter (via Twitter)

As human beings we abhor vacuums, particularly social ones. This is the reason why, in the face of non-deliberate culture, we are able to “fill in” what we need to derive gratification from our work and from the people with whom we share it. I would argue this is what happens at most companies, and it’s why people rely heavily on the office and physical proximity to experience what they call culture. Remove the office, and you expose the deficiencies of non-deliberate culture, because it does not provide any particular advantages to the work to be done.

Such companies, that have recently transitioned to fully-remote, may now be foundering because there’s nothing cohering their people to the work or to each other, through the work.

“Set strategy first, and everywhere that strategy is silent, let culture fill the gaps.”

Frances Frei, Harvard Business School

Non-deliberate culture is a missed opportunity to discover the optimal “pattern of basic assumptions” (as Schein called it) through which the problems at hand may best be solved. It is also a missed opportunity to elevate those assumptions and to use them as a way to identify and attract the best people to come do that work with us. This is how we should hire for culture. The term “culture fit” is often code for “people just like us”, whom it is our biased human tendency to prefer, unless we work hard to avoid it.

Armed with a clear purpose and with a list of principles specifically developed to undertake that purpose, an organization has a good chance to attract precisely the people who are most interested and most able to achieve that purpose.

What is perhaps most inspirational about open source, as we look together with fresh eyes not only at how we work but also at how we can come together to solve the world’s problems, is it gives us proof we can see through our superficial differences, find common ground with diverse others, and do semi-miraculous things.