There’s a heated debate amongst companies and business leaders worldwide, with the topic passionately discussed on the news and social media: what’s best, remote or in-person work? Those in favor of remote work tout the benefits, while those in favor of in-person say it fuels a stronger culture and better performance.
This argument, which has grown increasingly divisive, ignores perhaps the most important question a company (and founder) should be focused on: are you building the best team? Building and scaling a successful company relies entirely on bringing together the best possible team. This is particularly critical for early-stage startups, where every hire will outsize the company’s trajectory. Having everyone together in person is the ideal set-up to maximize a team’s effectiveness. But that should not override the importance of filling a role with the best possible person, even if they are not in the same zip code.
How did we get here?
Before 2020, many companies focused exclusively on in-person hiring, inadvertently missing out on excellent candidates. While technology was starting to enable more flexible working, the pandemic changed workplace dynamics overnight as the world shut down and employees were forced to work from home. For the past three years, the pendulum swung dramatically towards remote hiring out of necessity. According to a Pew Research poll, 35% of people who can work from home are still working remotely all the time. While one-third of all remote workers is still high, this is down from the record-setting 55% in October 2020.
As we transition back to a post-pandemic world, the pendulum is swinging back towards in-person work. This recalibration is healthy. In-person work offers distinct advantages, particularly for startups where the main competitive edge is speed and execution, and there is no preexisting culture to build on. That said, no amount of benefit from being in-person will replace the damage of bringing on the wrong hire.
Related: The Surprising Reason Behind Why Many Leaders Are Forcing Employees Back to The Office
The geographic conundrum
Consider the need to find the perfect candidate for a highly specific role that is foundational to your company’s success. Let’s assume it’s a specific enough role that there is a relatively small candidate pool of qualified people within commuting distance, even if you are in a large city. Rising living costs and new technologies have enabled people to live and work outside major urban hubs while earning good salaries. Unlike previous generations, the number of people willing to relocate for a job is at a record low. As a result, great talent is spread out.
If you confine your talent search to a single commutable area, you limit your access to a potentially vast pool of talent, many of whom may be better suited for the role. From a first-principles perspective, taking this narrow approach is flawed.
The impact on startups
In-person work has unique advantages for startups. Launching and building a company (and hiring for the first few roles) is very different than revising and implementing new policies at a large, global enterprise where teams have already had the opportunity to work together. There are tremendous benefits to being together in person when working to solve a new problem, building a product, and rapidly iterating to improve on a solution.
While remote work can offer some benefits, including potential cost-savings, it can result in asynchronous schedules and necessitates more time management and intentional communication when time is of the essence. This can compound over time and directly impact the output of the team. Remote work can also mean a sizable upfront investment in the technology and hardware to support a distributed workforce which can be difficult for a resource-strapped startup.
Related: 5 Solutions to Your Biggest Work-From-Home Challenges
At Wilbur Labs, we are a startup studio that builds companies. Nothing is more essential to our success than building the right team. All things being equal, hiring someone to work at our headquarters in San Francisco is always ideal. However, we know how crucial exceptional leadership is to a startup’s success and how expensive it can be to make the wrong hiring decision.
Given the particular experience and domain expertise we are looking for, we know the stakes are too high to put any limitation on our candidate pool. Looking across our portfolio, we have some CEOs in San Francisco and some well outside California. We have the best leaders for each of our companies because we acknowledge that these leaders aren’t always going to be in our backyard.
When the best candidate for the role happens to be remote, we follow a very specific framework to ensure they are set up for success. First, we maintain an exceptionally high bar for hiring to make it work and be additive to the team because remote work requires more self-motivation and autonomy than in-person does. We look for people who take extreme ownership and pride in their work and can stretch from the lowest levels of detail to executing high-level strategy. Then, we ensure they have the setup, tools, and resources they need to do their job from day one. Finally, we bring our teams together in person for sprints, offsites and planning because we understand that the benefits of the time together are invaluable to accelerate momentum.
Related: 5 Steps to Implement the Ideal Hybrid Work Model
The right conversation
The conversation we should all be having is about how to build a team that succeeds. We believe that the default should always be to hire in person when possible, but consider casting a wider net on a role-by-role basis when you know you would be leaving great talent on the table. When hiring remotely is the optimal choice, ensure you have a higher bar for fit and performance to compensate for the downsides of not being in person.
Don’t risk making the wrong hire by limiting yourself to one side of the debate. Build the most effective team possible, and if you have an opportunity to get a stronger candidate who is remote, do it, and take the additional time and effort to make these positions work to your benefit. In the end, it’s every founder’s and manager’s job to maximize the output of their team, not to limit themselves to one side of the remote vs. in-person debate.
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