L.J. Brock is the chief people officer at Coinbase.
I joined Coinbase in March 2019, and I quickly realized that to get stuff done, you generally had to be at Coinbase — in the conference room, in the hallway conversation, at the lunch table — working, chatting and collaborating side by side with your colleagues. Sure, employees worked from home here and there, but doing so always carried the risk of leaving you slightly out of the loop.
Of course, COVID changed all that. But while many companies approached this unprecedented work-from-home era as a temporary disruption to their normal way of doing business, we decided in May 2020 — only a few months into the pandemic — that Coinbase would become a remote-first company. Now, more than a year later, we're more certain than ever: We're never going back to the way we used to work.
We're often asked — how did you shift to remote-first while doubling your headcount and becoming a public company? With that question in mind, I wanted to share some of our most important learnings from the last 15 months. (Hint: The company's culture is key.)
First, some ground rules: At Coinbase, "remote-first" means that after we can safely return to in-person work, about 95% of our employees will still have the option to work from home, an office or a mix — whatever works best for them.
Just as importantly, "remote-first" at Coinbase also means that the employee experience should be the same for everyone, no matter where you live or how often you do (or don't) work from an office. We're committed to developing flexible and adaptable spaces that can scale up and down as needed in areas with high employee concentration, and where we aren't locked in for long stretches of time. We also have WeWork All Access for employees where needed. While everyone will have the option to work in an office, doing so will not benefit your career at Coinbase in any way — at Coinbase, career progression is determined by performance, not by face time with colleagues.
With that as our baseline, I think the following four learnings go a long way towards explaining why the shift to remote-first has gone so well for us, and why we're so excited to stay remote-first.
1. We now have access to top talent around the world. Before COVID, most of our U.S.-based recruiting focused on people who were living in the Bay Area, or were willing to move there and endure a daily commute into downtown San Francisco. This severely limited the talent pool we could draw from and meant we were often in direct competition with peer employers for the same candidates.
Today, those geographic restrictions are gone. We can now focus our recruiting in regions that have many candidates with deep experience in a certain field or speciality. We've also become a top destination for people who aren't excited about being forced to return to an office by their current employer.
As a result, our workforce has become more geographically diverse. In March 2020, 69% of our employees were based in the Bay Area. Today, only 30% of our employees live there, even though our total headcount has more than doubled in that time. (To be clear, we do have some common-sense rules about where employees can live, both to avoid negative tax implications and to ensure teams aren't spread out across too many time zones.)
This geographic diversity also better serves our mission to increase economic freedom in the world. The more geographically distributed we are, the more we all bring different perspectives to the table.
2. A centralized workforce doesn't make sense for a decentralized company. In the months following our shift to remote-first, we realized that our new remote-first mindset was also more in line with the broader ethos of crypto. Earlier this year, we took our shift a step further by making it clear that Coinbase no longer has a headquarters located in any one city. After all, if crypto is centered on the benefits of decentralization, why should our employees be required to work from a limited number of locations? We've learned that remote-first enables our employees to advance in their careers based on their capabilities and their performance, not their location.
3. A little flexibility goes a long way. We know from internal surveys that our employees appreciate being able to work remotely — in our most recent survey, 94% of employees said the benefits of remote-first outweigh the drawbacks, or that the benefits and drawbacks balance each other out. Today, nearly half our employees (46%) are "fully remote," up from 6% just before the pandemic, when very few of our roles were remote.
But those data points only tell part of the story. I know several employees who have been able to move closer to family, or move to another city so their significant other could pursue a career or educational opportunity, or move to a place they'd always dreamed of living, or simply trade their commutes for more time with their families, all without having to give up their jobs at Coinbase — and without us having to needlessly lose their talents and institutional knowledge.
I'm part of this group — our shift to remote-first enabled me and my family to move to North Carolina, the place we've always considered home, far sooner than we'd originally planned.
4. Your culture has to be set up for going remote. Long before we went remote, we had established cultural norms and decision-making frameworks that became even more important once we were no longer in offices together.
For example, because we had several offices around the world before the pandemic, we had a norm of sharing detailed agendas and background documents before meetings, and capturing meeting discussions and decisions in writing. We also relied on two simple document templates — one for complex decisions and one for lighter-weight decisions — to make decision-making more efficient and reduce the number of reviews and approvals a decision might normally go through across the company.
This emphasis on tracking decisions in writing was important before we became remote-first, but it was critical after we made the switch — and because these norms were already in place, our internal workflow wasn't derailed.
Another company value that worked to our advantage when going remote is efficient execution. Shifting to remote-first while doubling our headcount and becoming a public company? Just another challenge for us to overcome through our commitment to making forward progress, no matter what.
Final thought: Remote-first isn't right for every company. When peers at other companies that are considering a shift to remote-first (or something like it) have reached out to me, I've asked each of them the same question: Can your company's culture accommodate the shift? Some cultures can, but many can't, and that's OK — I don't think remote-first is right for every company. Either way, the first step is making an honest assessment about whether the company's culture can handle the change.
Thankfully, our culture was primed for the shift to remote-first. 15 months later, we're more excited than ever about the opportunities remote-first has created for us, both as a company and as individuals.