Remote Meets Co-Located: How Batchbook Builds Culture with Blended Work Styles

Jane Callahan
Jane Callahan / October 6, 2015

It's late. Ray Bonachea, vice president of marketing at Batchbook, reaches high above his head and rolls his wrists. He's about to close the book on another mid-September work day—from his bedroom, with a view of the beach.

Ray's teammate, Melony Hypes, is winding down too. But not from her home: She's in the BatchHaüs, Batchbook's headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island.

Like tech giants IBM, Microsoft, and Dell, Batchbook mixes remote and co-located styles on their team. More than half of company's 25 employees work remotely across the U.S., while seven team members—including the company's CEO, Pam O'Hara—work out of the BatchHaüs for at least a majority of the week.

Pam appreciates the challenges that a split remote and co-located team can face with company culture. So, she implemented a unique rule: All Batchbookers work from home on Wednesdays, with no meetings.

"We purposely do that to help all of us keep up with what it's like to be working from outside the hub of activity, which is the office," Pam says. "It forces you to remember to document your conversations and all those things that can get in the way of people who can't come into the office and sit and have that 'can we just talk?' moment. With technologies like Skype, you can't just peek your eye in and see what kind of mood someone is in."

Batchbook's blend of remote and co-located work diverges a bit from the "regular" remote model. At Zapier, for example, we're a 100% distributed team across four continents—the closest thing we have to an office is the kitchen table at our CEO's apartment. A remote structure is something that we committed to from day one. And for us, it's a way to maximize our impact.

But the Batchbook team gets big benefits from straddling two distinct styles. They found a way to make their remote and in-person wings work in harmony, which isn't as easy as it sounds.

Remote Microsoft employee Scott Hanselman shared four points of contention for this kind of "split" arrangement on his personal blog. He argues that remote workers at a co-located company suffer because they're out of sight, and out of mind.

So when Batchbook, an integration partner of ours, told us how they're making a remote and co-located team work, our interest was piqued. We spoke with three of Batchbook's team members—Ray (remote), Melony (co-located) and Pam (co-located)—to learn how they do it.

Why Batchbook Went Remote

Batchbook team meeting
An early Batchbook staff meeting with a remote team member joining by video call.

Pam started Batchbook eight years ago after working in data management and technology development. When she came up with the idea for Batchbook, she had just moved to Rhode Island with her two children. She had hired two developers, and each of them worked at home, meeting at Pam's house once a week to review and collaborate. (She had actually met one of the developers at a nearby playground, where Pam says "We were the only two geek parents there.")

"We got the product built and launched within a year, and started hiring a few more people," Pam says. A month after starting the business, she found out she was pregnant with her third child.

"Then it got to the point where, with three young kids in the house, I decided I couldn't have work people coming to the house," Pam says. "So we ended up meeting in another tech company's office. It was important for us to get together, to have that face time—especially during that first part when you're deciding what you're building, the product, the brand, the culture."

After a few years of squatting, they moved into the BatchHaüs, which they occasionally shared with local small businesses as a way to pay it forward—right around the time co-working spaces like WeWork were booming in popularity.

"Our office space is not a 'be here from 9 to 5, watch each other to see who is leaving early' kind of place," Pam says. "It's always been sort of a 'come when you need a place to get away from your house and your laundry' space."

How Batchbook Creates a Supportive Remote Culture

Batchbook team distribution

A product is only as good as the team that drives it, and communication is key. You might think that a split remote and co-located workforce would hinder communication; Batchbook begs to differ.

"We are so connected and online, people do notice when someone is 'missing,'" Pam says. "It's interesting to me because you would think people wouldn't notice it as much, but we are constantly talking."

And this all aligns with the mantra you'll find on Batchbook's About page: "Technology should never replace human interaction. Instead, it should enable it in creative ways."

"Technology should never replace human interaction. Instead, it should enable it in creative ways."

Ray says Batchbook employees are always on the lookout for tools that help make interactions easy, and the company has a tech staff that helps everyone stay in touch to foster a social environment.

His team members utilize Zoom, a video conferencing tool, for meetings.

"The quality and efficiency of our meetings went through the roof when we started to see each other on video," Ray says. "The meetings were faster, and we got to better understand the human side of the person because you could see facial expressions and body language, which we couldn't really see on Skype because of the lesser quality."

Batchbookers lean on their apps to stay in touch. They use Slack for messaging, Google Docs for collaborative editing, Basecamp for tracking what's been completed on specific projects, and WorkLife for meeting agendas and follow-ups.

But as wonderful and convenient as technology can be, employees don't pretend that it can replace in-person interactions.

"When we are having a celebration in-house, like a baby shower or an employee breakfast, it gets hard to include virtual team members," Melony says. Lately, they've video conferenced people in for lunches, pulling the computer up to the table so it feels like they're all sitting together. "It's fun," she says.

The remote team does miss out on certain post-work activities, though—there aren't chances to casually talk shop at happy hour or an early-morning coffee run when you're 500 miles away. And often, those extracurricular social events help you build relationships on a more personal level.

But everyone agrees that being a face on a screen during a colleague's birthday at the BatchHaüs is a reflection of how much effort the company puts into making their split style work. They even have a senior staff member in charge of culture. (For example, this person is in charge of sending everyone quarterly snack packages, full of edible items on which the staff has voted.)

What really ties the team together, though, is an "all hands on deck" mentality.

"We are unique in terms of the size of our company—we are big enough to have a bunch of employees, but small enough that everybody is dependent on one another," Ray says. "Being able to depend on others really drives our team atmosphere."

About once a year, all virtual employees are flown out to Rhode Island, along with their families. And because work-life balance is such a priority at Batchbook, it's common to set your own schedule.

Batchbook families
The Batchbook team and their families gather for a company outing in Rhode Island

"I think the majority of Batchbookers have families, so we all understand that family is important and your life is important, and that things happen," Ray says. "We have people who work from 7 to 3. It's not rare to see an email go out saying someone is going out for a few hours, or one time I had to take off mid-day to go on a field trip with my daughter."

Batchbook's Remote Benefits

For employers like Batchbook, high rent for a huge office suite isn't a problem. But more importantly, they have the advantage of recruiting the best talent from anywhere, and are not confined to an area code.

"To allow a flexible schedule and independence are huge benefits that help us get a higher level of talent than we could normally afford," Pam says.

For employees, location is a major benefit. Ray moved down to the Florida Keys when he started working for Batchbook. He had spent a lot of time in the Keys as a child, and being a virtual employee, took the chance to live wherever he wanted.

"It's what my friends call a 'lifestyle job' because it affords me the chance to live a certain lifestyle," Ray says, adding that the Keys is where he wants to raise a family. "I don't have to be in San Fran or New York to work for a high-tech company."

No commute is also a plus. "No money on gas, no traffic stress, no meaningless hours in the car staring at a windshield when you could be doing something else more productive," Ray says.

"And even though my wife would disagree, the wardrobe is a benefit," Ray says (his uniform usually consists of shorts and a T-shirt).

For Melony, who has been at Batchbook for six years, having an office to go to is a benefit in itself. Because she had never worked from home before, she found that she preferred having a separate space for job-related tasks.

"I'm a social person—it comes with working in customer experience," she says. "I enjoy the opportunity to see people in person, to go out and grab a coffee and to separate my work life from my home life—I like not being tempted by my laundry sitting on my bed."

But she also enjoys Batchbook's work-from-anywhere model because it allows her to spend summers with her family in Louisiana.

If anything, running a company comprised of remote and co-located employees has only made Batchbook stronger.

"I think there's a very strong trust in our culture. Working remotely, successfully, really builds that trust," Pam says.

Batchbook's Remote Pitfalls

Zoom video call
The Batchbook team relies on Zoom for regular video calls.

Ray's office is in his bedroom, so he spends up to 10 hours a day in the same room by himself.

"That can make you go crazy sometimes," Ray says. "That's why my wife tells me to get out."

To create some balance, Ray does a lot of work around his community, which gets him outdoors and interacting with other people.

Because Melony had never worked out of an office before, her start at Batchbook understandably took some adjustment.

"In the beginning there was no BatchHaüs, and so I met with coworkers in-person a couple of times," Melony says. There was a part of Melony that found working from home to be a very freeing transition (no one hovering over her shoulder), but she definitely had to work on her self-discipline.

And as the team grows, Melony says that it gets harder to know people across teams. "For example, I may not know the new dev guy because he hasn't worked in the office," she says.

Pam says she interviews all potential employees virtually, and makes an effort to fly them into the office within a short period of time after hiring—but remote employees are never interviewed in-person. Pam says that if she can't get what she needs out of a virtual interview it probably wouldn't work in the long term. Something worth paying attention to with those who have never worked remotely before.

"It can be hard to get into the groove when you're not all together," Pam says. "People who need more structure can have a harder time with our environment."

What the Future Holds

"I can't imagine being as successful as we have been without this type of environment."

So what's the "right" personality that fits into Batchbook's part remote, part co-located team?

"I find that people who really thrive in our environment are people who have come out of a very self-motivated environment or are naturally self-motivated people," Pam says.

For example, she hired a developer who had previously worked a structured, 9-to-5 job at a military defense organization, only to come home and take his wife's car apart and put it back together again, every night.

"He just wanted to see how it worked," Pam says. "He was creating his own outlet for a self-motivational education for what he really wanted to do, and he thrives in Batchbook's environment."

Hiring self-motivated employees is so important to the future of Batchbook because it means people can direct themselves and bring their projects to completion without needing so much oversight.

"We are trying to build a database that will collect all information about all people no matter what currency they use, the language they speak, no matter how many phone numbers they have— and make it available on all platforms, running 100% of the time," Pam says. "I don't want to tell you how to build it—that's why I'm hiring you."

She had asked that same car-tinkering developer if he could figure out how to do all those things, and his response was "I can figure it out." And he did.

"I would love to grow this model. I do have a vision of us having our own building at some point as our charging station," Pam admits, adding that she'd like to keep headquarters in the "innovative and funky" city of Providence.

But she does want to hold on to what works, too.

"I'd love to hire people from all over and bring them in on a regular basis to collaborate," she says, "but give them the freedom to excel."

Pam warns that while her company has certainly made it work, Batchbook's model should not be considered a universal one. Batchbook's success is a result of the culture that has been fostered by the types of people she has chosen to bring into the organization.

"You can't run every business this way," she says. "Yes, software development lends itself nicely to remote work, but I can't imagine being as successful as we have been without this type of environment. I don't think people would put their heart and effort into building what we have if they hadn't had the trust and independence to do it."

Does your company cater to both remote and co-located workers? If so, what's been most important to making it work?"

Credits: Photos courtesy Batchbook.

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