Pandemic lessons for all businesses from startups born office-less

乌有公司 The nowhere firm-书迷号

“WEIRDLY, THINGS haven’t changed much”, says Kyle Mathews as he sprays disinfectant on his hands. At least at work. His startup, Gatsby, helps websites manage content in the cloud. It has no headquarters and its 50-odd employees straddle the world, from Mr Mathews’s home in Berkeley, California, to Siberia.
“挺奇怪的,其实没太大变化。”凯尔·马修斯(Kyle Mathews)一边往手上喷消毒液一边说。至少在工作上是这样。他的创业公司Gatsby帮助网站管理存储在云上的内容。它没有总部,50来个员工分布在世界各地,从马修斯在加州伯克利的家一直到西伯利亚。

Such “fully distributed” firms were on the rise before covid-19. As national lockdowns spread, conventional ones are forced into similar arrangements. Those that have grown up this way offer lessons.

Distributed organisations are as old as the internet. Its first users 50 years ago realised how much can be done by swapping emails and digital files. These exchanges led to the development of “open source” software, jointly written by groups of strangers often geographically distant.

Today most distributed startups have open-source roots. Gatsby is one. Nearly all 1,200 employees of another, Automattic, best known for WordPress, software to build websites, work from home. GitHub, which hosts millions of open-source projects (and was acquired by Microsoft in 2018), may be the world’s biggest distributed enterprise. Two-thirds of its 2,000 staff work remotely. Most firms that build blockchains, a type of distributed database, are by their nature dispersed.

Plenty of startups start out distributed to avoid high rents—and so high wages—in Silicon Valley and other tech centres. Many opt to stay that way. Joel Gascoigne, boss of Buffer, which helps customers manage social-media accounts, works remotely in Boulder, Colorado. Stripe, an online-payments firm, has a head office in San Francisco but its new engineering hub is a collection of remote workers.
很多创业公司从一开始就是分布式的,从而避免了硅谷和其他科技中心的高租金和高工资。许多公司选择一直保持这种方式。帮助客户管理社交媒体账户的公司Buffer的老板乔尔·加斯科因(Joel Gascoigne)在科罗拉多州博尔德(Boulder)远程办公。线上支付公司Stripe的总部设在旧金山,但它的新工程中心是一群远程工作人员在运作。

Distributed startups exist thanks to a panoply of digital tools—most obviously corporate-messaging services such as Slack (chat) and Zoom (videoconferencing), as well as lesser-known firms like Miro (virtual whiteboards for brainstorming) or Donut (which pairs employees to forge personal bonds). Others, like Process Street, Confluence or Trello, help manage work flow and keep track of what goes on in virtual corridors—crucial when people do not share the same physical space. Firms offering organisational scaffolding for distributed firms include Rippling, which manages payroll and employee benefits, grants workers access to corporate services and sets up their devices. Much that is now done in spreadsheets could be turned into a virtual service, predicts Rich Wong of Accel, a venture-capital (VC) firm (and early investor in Slack).
分布式创业公司的存在要归功于大量的数字工具,其中最明显的是企业信息服务,如Slack(聊天)和Zoom(视频会议),以及不太知名的公司,如Miro(用于头脑风暴的虚拟白板)或Donut(将员工配对以建立个人联系)。还有像Process Street、Confluence和Trello这样的工具,它们帮助管理工作流程,并在虚拟通道跟踪进展,这在人们不处在同一个物理空间时至关重要。为分布式公司搭建组织的公司包括Rippling,它负责管理工资和福利,让员工使用公司服务并配置他们的设备。风险投资公司Accel(Slack的早期投资者)的瑞奇·王(Rich Wong)预测,现在在电子表格中完成的很多工作都可以转变成虚拟服务。

Besides new tools, distributed firms need novel management practices. One rule is not to mix physical and virtual teams. Online participants in mixed meetings often feel excluded. GitHub’s boss, Nat Friedman, has all employees—himself included—log in to meetings virtually, even if they are in the office. Looking over someone’s shoulder to see if they are working (or worse, use software to do it) is another no-no. Remote workers do not slack off, as some managers fear. Trust your team, set clear and, where possible, measurable goals, and let people do their thing, counsels Mr Mathews. To foster camaraderie, Buffer organises an annual in-person retreat (covid-19 will push it online this year).
除了新的工具,分布式企业还需要新的管理方法。规则之一是不要将实地团队和远程团队混在一起。当两批人混在一起开会时,在线接入的人常有格格不入的感觉。GitHub的老板纳特·弗里德曼(Nat Friedman)让包括他自己在内的所有员工都虚拟地接入会议,即使他们人就在办公室里。另一个禁忌是时刻监控员工是不是在工作(或者更糟,用软件来监督)。远程办公的员工不会像一些经理担心的那样会偷懒。马修斯建议,要信任你的团队,尽可能设定清晰、可衡量(有可能的话)的目标,让员工自行安排工作。为了培养同事之间的友谊,Buffer每年组织一次面对面的聚会(今年因新冠疫情将改为线上)。

Trust also requires transparency and explicitness—another reason documentation is key, says Michael Pryor, co-founder of Trello (whose workforce is 80% remote). Discussions that lead to a decision must be captured in writing, he explains, so everyone understands the trade-offs being considered. As a result, distributed firms favour wordsmiths, not good speakers as traditional firms do. Good writing demands clear thinking and discipline, says Mr Friedman, who has been managing distributed teams for 20 years. VCs duly report that distributed startups tend to be better at preparing board meetings.
Trello(其员工有八成为远程办公)的联合创始人迈克尔·普赖尔(Michael Pryor)表示,信任还需要清晰透明和明确表达,这也是文件记录非常重要的另一个原因。他解释说,最终做出决策的那些讨论必须以书面形式记录下来,这样每个人都能了解其中涉及的权衡取舍。因此,分布式公司更喜欢擅长文字的人,而不是像传统公司那样喜欢擅长演讲的人。弗里德曼已经管理分布式团队20年,他认为好的写作需要清晰的思维和训练。风投公司的报告也颇合时宜地印证说,分布式创业公司更善于准备董事会会议。

The pandemic may lead some companies that have outsourced lots of operations to the cloud to go a step further and get rid of at least some offices. “I just don’t think we are going to go back [to business as usual]”, says Frank Slootman, boss of Snowflake, a database firm. Even digerati like Twitter plan to turn more virtual.
眼下这场大流行病可能会促使一些已经将大量工作放到云端的公司更进一步,砍掉至少一部分办公室。“我认为我们不会再回去(过去那种模式)了。”数据库公司Snowflake的老板弗兰克·斯鲁特曼(Frank Slootman)说。即使是像Twitter这样的数字精英企业也准备让自己变得更加虚拟化。

Still, some businesses suddenly forced into remote work will rue the experience, predicts Mr Gascoigne. Without a learning period they will get all the drawbacks and few of the benefits. Brainstorming and other creative activities are possible online but take practice—and even then feel like an imperfect ersatz of an actual room. Recruiting and breaking in new employees is hard virtually. According to one recent survey of 3,500 remote workers, one in five struggles with loneliness. That is partly why GitHub and Trello operate optional offices.

Most businesses will always have to be located somewhere and need people to work side by side. But as technology improves, swathes of the knowledge economy will gradually move more functions online, thinks Venkatesh Rao of Ribbonfarm, a consultancy. New firms will erect a new virtual floor, which others then inhabit. The coronavirus-fuelled exodus to cyberspace is unlikely to be the last.■
大多数企业通常还是得安置在某个地方,也还是需要人们肩并肩地工作。但咨询公司Ribbonfarm的凡卡特什·拉欧(Venkatesh Rao)认为,随着技术的进步,大量的知识经济将逐渐把更多的工作转移到网上。新企业将建立一个新的虚拟空间,其他人将会入驻其中。由新冠病毒引发的向网络空间的大迁移不太可能是最后一次。