Remote-first at Brex
Sep 13, 2020, 15 min read
Sep 13, 2020
15 min read
Six months after COVID-19 started, Henrique and I decided to make Brex a remote-first company. We wrote this memo to our team explaining the journey behind this decision, and our principles to approach remote work.
Date: 2020–08–31 9am PT
Subject: Remote-first at Brex
Over the past six months, we have all participated in this unusual experiment around remote work. Despite significant challenges inside and outside of Brex, many of us would agree that remote work has worked better than we expected. In some ways, Covid proved we don’t need an office to be successful. 64% of you enjoy working from home, 26% of the current team onboarded remotely, and we’re shipping products faster than ever. At the same time, our current version of ‘remote’ doesn’t feel ideal for the long-term. So should we go back to an office when Covid is over, or should we evolve into a remote-first company? I’d like to walk you through our journey behind making this decision. But first, let’s start with what you’re all curious about. :)
Moving forward, Brex will be a remote-first company. People can work from anywhere, and all of our processes, communications, and culture will be designed remote-first, i.e. assuming every employee is remote. We’ll have office hubs in major cities where employees can work from if they want to, but the vast majority of our team won’t be expected to be in an office. In fact, Henrique, myself, and the Leadership Team will not work from an office most days. This is a big decision, so I’d like to explain how we got to it, and describe the principles that will guide us through it.
To go deeper into why we should consider Remote, I’d like to start by telling you a story.
When Henrique and I started our first company back in 2013, we quickly faced a challenge common to all founders: hiring great people is hard. Being in Brazil made it especially hard, so we tried to remember the great people we’ve met in our lives, starting with engineers. Back when Henrique was 12, he had met one of those people. Henrique used to play an online game called Ragnarök. But instead of playing the normal version of the game, he played a mod built by an open-source community. This led him to learn to code, contribute to the game, and meet other engineers who did the same. One day, Henrique faced a roadblock that required translating one of the game scripting languages to another one. He quickly realized this wasn’t a trivial Computer Science problem, and gave up. But before doing so, he posted about the problem in the online forum where other game developers gathered.
A few days later, there was one reply. But it wasn’t a normal reply. Someone had built a transpiler, an incredibly complicated piece of software capable of translating code from one language to another. Transpilers are the type of thing you learn about in advanced compiler classes during formal CS education, but somehow a person in this forum had built one in just a few days — and it worked perfectly. Henrique was amazed by the result, and wanted to learn more about the engineer behind it. They jumped on a Skype call and he got to know the engineer better. Turns out he was 11 years old, and lived with his dad in a small city in the middle of rural Brazil. His name was Jonathan, and many of you may know him as our first engineer at Brex.
Brex today spends a tremendous amount of resources trying to find exceptional people constrained in the few cities where we have offices. But the truth is that talent is spread across the world. There are countless people like Jonathan out there, and until today we never had the opportunity to work with them. The story of how Jonathan ended up working at Brex (and before that, Pagar.me) is long, complicated, and full of family and immigration challenges. But it didn’t have to be this way. Remote allows us to access the talent pool of the entire world, and given how our success is purely a reflection of the quality of our people, we believe it’s worth figuring out how to make Remote work for us.
Brex today spends a tremendous amount of resources trying to find exceptional people constrained in the few cities where we have offices. But the truth is that talent is spread across the world.
However, Remote is not for free. No big companies have been built entirely remotely yet. There’s little data about the long-term effects of working remotely, while the way we work in offices has been the same since the Industrial Revolution. For Remote to make sense, then, we can’t approach it with the mindset of just “making it work.” This implies bringing it to parity with how we used to operate in an office, but simply transposing our old way of working into the internet is not enough. Instead, if we approach Remote from first principles, we may have a chance of making it even better than the office. Here are some thoughts on how:
Principle #1: Clone the internet, not the office
Regardless of whether we’re working in the office or across the internet, the content of our work remains the same. But to have a chance of making remote better than the office, we need to understand the consequences of a new medium where work gets done.
What’s happening now with the internet and remote is not entirely new, though. We can learn some lessons from history. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher, wrote extensively about the impact of the TV taking over the radio, and coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message”. McLuhan, however, had an even more important realization:
We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.
Think of all the tools humans have built to navigate the world around us. We start designing them to serve a purpose. Cars were invented to move around more efficiently than horses; light bulbs were invented to replace candles. But as tools start playing a bigger role in our lives, something surprising happens. Our tools start shaping us. We designed entire cities around the car; we made evenings a productive part of our days thanks to the electric light; and our art and culture are now defined by the television. These are profound changes in how society works, and none of them were imaginable when the car, the electric light, or the television were invented. We changed our entire environment and way of living based on the tools around us.
The same is true for work. Until recently, the office has been the only tool available to enable a group of people working together towards a common goal. And just like many other tools, the office shaped us. We designed our entire lives around the office. We optimize for living close to work; we create deep bonds with those who sit next to us; and when we think of creative work, we think of teams around a whiteboard in a conference room. Think about how the office environment shaped all these behaviors. It’s not that we shaped our offices around doing creative work in front of a whiteboard, but instead the office format itself shaped us to do creative work crammed inside a conference room using markers to write on a wall.
Similarly, the internet will profoundly shape our way of working. But rather than looking at how we can replicate the office remotely, we need to look at how the internet can enable our work. The internet as a medium has been around for a while, and this is great news for us. Most of the issues of remote work were already solved in some other corner of the internet before. We just need to look deeper. YouTubers learned how to create a sense of belonging out of thin air without ever seeing their audience; gamers create a sense of community and team without ever meeting other players in-person; the Linux Kernel was built by thousands of developers with zero in-person meetings and zero Zoom calls, and became one of the most widely used (and complex) pieces of software in the world.
Rather than looking at how we can replicate the office remotely, we need to look at how the internet can enable our work.
Think of our All Hands today. It hasn’t evolved much since we left the office, but there are likely better ways of delivering our messages when our medium is not the SF cafeteria anymore. Having the internet as our medium, we should think of All Hands as if we were producing content for an online audience, because that’s what we’re really doing. In the near future, I could see us recording it, editing it, and distributing it live, similar to how Apple delivered WWDC this year, and how Snap delivered Snap Partner Summit. These events were not simply adaptations of the in-office experience to a remote way of working. They are completely new experiences, arguably better than sitting in an auditorium and watching someone speak.
This is not to say that all in-person interactions can be replaced by the internet, but that great interactions across the internet will take inherently different shapes from what we’re used to. Remote, then, is not about adapting the office to function online, but instead about letting the “internet way of doing things” shape our way of working. We should approach Remote more like how YouTubers think of producing content for an audience. Or how gamers think of having online social experiences with other players. Or how open-source developers consider high levels of autonomy not a bug, but instead a requirement to produce high-quality, complex software. If we’re open to using the internet tools for work, our new tools will do their job of shaping us for the better.
Principle #2: Async decisions by default
(i.e. avoiding “I survived another meeting that could have been an email”)
Meetings are a large part of how work gets done in a company, especially for managers. When we’re in the office, calling a meeting to make a decision is often the most effective way of getting something done. On the internet, however, the most effective way to communicate is in writing, not through speaking. Zoom meetings are inherently less effective, but since they’re the only way to interact face-to-face, it’s easy to abuse them as an attempt to clone the office. We should avoid this by moving our decisions previously done in meetings to be conducted through memos, asynchronously.
On the internet, the most effective way to communicate is in writing.
For effective asynchronous decisions, we need to have a clear decision-maker assigned to every decision, as it’s harder (and slower) to get everyone in a room and drive consensus. We also shouldn’t let the process of finding a decider drag us down. If it’s unclear who’s the decider… chances are you’re the decider. :)
Even with a strong written decision-making culture at Brex, teams still have a bias towards getting verbal confirmation on a decision before moving forward. We should resist the urge and try to get to alignment in writing. Most of the time a Zoom meeting is unnecessary. If there’s a point of disagreement and we’ve gone back and forth a couple of times in writing, then it’s time to jump on a Zoom call. This ensures that our meetings are productive, as by definition there will be something meaty to be discussed.
Principle #3: Intentional relationships
Camaraderie and bonding are taken for granted in the office. Think of all the serendipitous interactions you experience each day: the hallway conversations, the first five minutes of a meeting, the laughs next to our desks. In a remote world, these things will need to be cultivated deliberately. The good news is by getting “boring” things out of the way asynchronously, we can focus our 1:1s and team meetings on building connection. For example, we shouldn’t shy away from using the first five minutes of a meeting to learn more about people’s lives. It may feel weird to have this as part of our meeting etiquette, but the reality is everybody enjoys connecting at a personal level. Work is much more pleasant when we show genuine interest in the people around us. :)
Think of all the serendipitous interactions you experience each day. In a remote world, these things will need to be cultivated deliberately.
No matter how hard we try to bond over the internet, we remain social beings that need to see each other in-person from time-to-time. For this reason, off-sites will be a big part of Brex as a remote-first company. As soon as Covid is over, we’ll have frequent company and team events (i.e. once every ~2 months) focused on building deeper team relationships, rather than heads-down work. We will work hard to make these events awesome, and something everyone looks forward to. Our hope is that by having frequent off-sites and cultivating intentional relationships while remote, the social side of work will remain a strong part of the Brex culture.
Principle #4: Physical-mental balance
We’ve talked about mental health multiple times at Brex. Remote can be a particularly challenging environment to be in a good mental and physical state, so we need to approach it with great care and intentionality.
In order to be physically and mentally happy, I believe every person needs four things: an uninterrupted work space, connection to tribe, connection to nature, and physical activity. We used to achieve these to some degree by simply going to an office: we had a good place to work from (uninterrupted work space); we saw other people who were similar to us (connection to tribe); we had to physically commute, which got our bodies moving a bit (physical activity); and we had to leave our homes and be in contact with the outside world, even if briefly (connection to nature). While going to an office naturally gave us each of these to a small degree, if we are intentional about creating them in a work-from-home environment, we can achieve them to a similar, or perhaps even higher, degree.
In order to be physically and mentally happy, I believe every person needs four things: an uninterrupted work space, connection to tribe, connection to nature, and physical activity.
Starting with the basics: everyone needs a comfortable, uninterrupted workspace. We started our monthly WFH stipend so everyone can upgrade their home office to a great setup. However, each one of us has unique household circumstances, some of which make working from home incredibly challenging (kids, small apartments, dogs, partners, etc). With that in mind, we decided to have office hubs in the major cities (starting with SF, NY, SLC, and Vancouver), where employees can work whenever they want. Our office hubs will also be important for those who miss the daily physical interactions and in-person collaboration of an office. Since 45% of the company was already distributed outside of SF pre-Covid, I suspect the office won’t feel too different from before. It was already unlikely that your team would all be physically present anyway.
A good workspace is just the beginning, though. The remote medium is very intertwined with the rest of our lives. Slack messages come in at 9pm PT, we stay inside our apartments 24/7, and it’s harder to physically meet other people. Moving forward, managers will play a big role in helping their team to maintain physical-mental balance. Managers should, for example, work through their team’s calendars with them to help folks spend the appropriate amount of time in meetings, make sure people have the time to physically connect with family, friends and colleagues outside of work, as well as exercise and getting outdoors frequently. If work is shifting to inside our homes, maintaining boundaries should be a shared responsibility between the company and employees. We’ll deploy tools and norms to help this happen across all of Brex.
Principle #5: Iteration
There’s never been so much energy, time, and resources invested into making Remote great. Over the next few months and years, the tools and processes available to collaborate over the internet will become 10x better. But we shouldn’t forget that Remote is still uncharted territory. It’s not yet great, and no one knows the path to get there.
In order to make it great, we’ll need to try out many different things, and even invent some of them ourselves. Some things will work, and others will fail miserably. Over time, I believe this Darwinian approach to tools and processes will shape a new, better way of working at Brex. It’s hard to know exactly what great Remote will look like, but if we follow clear principles and approach it with a growth mindset, I’m confident it’ll evolve into something we’re proud of.
It’s hard to know exactly what great Remote will look like, but if we follow clear principles and approach it with a growth mindset, I’m confident it’ll evolve into something we’re proud of.
As we iterate on Remote, we want to approach experimentation thoughtfully, since changes can be quite disruptive. To coordinate this work, we’re creating a Remote Council, responsible for figuring out the new tools and processes to make Remote great across Brex, and evolve our norms accordingly. Cos will represent the Leadership Team in this forum, and we’re looking for more folks to join this group. If you’re passionate about remote work and would like to join us in the journey of making it great, please reach out.
What happens now?
We put together a first version of our (ever evolving) remote norms at go/remote. Please check it out. Meanwhile, here are a few answers to some top-of-mind questions:
Can I move now? Yes, employees can relocate permanently with Brex’s transition to remote-first. However, we ask that all employees stay within +4 hours of PST time, as this allows for sufficient collaboration and manager overlap time.
What happens to my compensation if I move? Brex pays by geographic market, so we will ultimately adjust an employee’s Total Compensation Value (TCV) if they relocate to where pay rates are different. However, for current Brex employees who relocate before Sep 1, 2021, Brex will not make any compensation adjustments until Sep 1, 2024 to help each of us manage through the unusual circumstances associated with COVID-19. Standard relocation compensation adjustments will apply immediately for all employees who start at Brex after Sep 1, 2020.
I’m a manager. Can I hire remotely? Yes, hiring managers can begin hiring new team members in locations outside of cities where Brex currently has offices (SF, SLC, NYC, and Vancouver). Please work with your Recruiting team to build a hiring plan and to ensure we have an entity established.
I’m very excited about the possibilities ahead of us. Being able to capture all the talent distributed across the world, while making our way of working better than ever, will have a tremendous impact on Brex. Getting there will require thoughtful experimentation, some risk taking, and a fair amount of patience as we evolve our way of working to become great remotely. We should embrace this journey, and try to not be too hard on ourselves while we figure it out. :)
But if we’re successful, I believe our learnings will have implications far beyond the inner workings of Brex. As a company with the mission of helping every growing company realize their full potential, my hope is that we can learn these steps on behalf of other growing companies (such as our customers), and help them also make the best of this new reality we now all live in.
Alan Kay used to say that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. It’s hard to know exactly how the growing companies of the future will operate, but it’s clear we have a chance of helping to shape it. If we become a model for an internet-first, talent-unconstrained, inclusive way of running a company, this could be as big of a contribution to the success of growing companies as the products we build.
If we become a model for an internet-first, talent-unconstrained, inclusive way of running a company, this could be as big of a contribution to the success of growing companies as the products we build.
See you all remotely, in our next off-site, or in an office hub near you!
Pedro and Henrique
This memo was co-authored for internal purposes by Pedro Franceschi and Henrique Dubugras, Brex’s cofounders and co-CEOs as part of a regular written cadence they have with the company. They are both Brazilian entrepreneurs and before Brex, built Pagar.me — a Brazilian payments platform.