Speedy scaling is something that start-ups are all too familiar with and many have been faced with the possibility or reality of having to work from two locations as a result. It’s not ideal but, as with any experience in a growing company, there are lessons to learn and positives to take away.
Acknowledging the problem
Paddle has been rapidly growing. Two recent funding rounds have meant we’ve scaled fast, from 35 people in November 2017 to 135 in November 2018, and while this has been an exciting time it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Around June this year, we realized that there was no way we could keep everyone under one roof in our much loved Bermondsey HQ. While our new permanent office space was being sourced and kitted out, we decided we had to deal with our current space shortage quickly and install temporary measures to improve the work environment for all Paddlers. The building we were occupying had no additional space we could acquire, so we decided to work from two different locations for a period of time.
The decision wasn’t taken lightly but we knew (and stressed) that it was a temporary one. We laid out what we wanted from a secondary space before moving ahead:
Proximity to HQ
There was no compromise on this. We knew that traveling between the two offices would be a common occurrence for meetings and our weekly Lunchtime Learning sessions and so because of this, as well as maintaining a healthy company culture, we needed to ensure we stay as close together as possible. Whatever the secondary office would look like, we were adamant that it mustn't be further than a 10 minute walk away from HQ.
Good office capacity
We learned that managed offices like to squeeze people in like sardines to maximize profit, so to comfortably accommodate 50 people by our standards, we had to find a space advertised for 70+ people.
It was important for us to offer similar facilities in the new office as were available in HQ. This meant enough private meeting spaces and rooms with full AV setup, informal communal meeting spaces, showers and bike storage.
We would make sure we could set up a stocked drinks fridge and a coffee machine in the new space, as well as serve fresh fruit and snacks. We were keen to find an office with a good on-site cafe and plenty of restaurants and coffee houses nearby.
How we established the two location set-up
We decided we would hot desk on a 3-week rotation basis as we didn’t want to split teams up for long periods throughout this phase, nor did we want anyone to feel forgotten staying in one location. Desk set-up would be ‘plug in and play’, with a good number of standing desks in the new space and a PC monitor on every desk. We advised all Paddlers to carry their own keyboard and mouse to avoid pairing issues as well as bring their USB-C/HDMI adapter to the office. We communicated the rota a week in advance and sent calendar reminders to ensure everyone knew where they were meant to be.
As we would be split across two locations, we knew it wouldn’t always be possible to attend things in person. We therefore advised the following:
1:1s could be dialled in via Zoom or conducted on the walk between the office spaces (we called this ‘walk-and-talk’).
Friday All-Hands meetings would offer a dial-in option via Zoom.
Tuesday lunches, Lunchtime Learning sessions, monthly reviews and presentations would be held in HQ for as long as we can fit everyone in.
All interviews and on-boarding would happen at HQ to ensure candidate experience remained top notch.
Another thing we felt was vital was to devise and communicate some guidelines around remote working. We sent out a number of messages to the team advising how best to maximize time spent traveling between offices and how to let fellow team members know where you are working from:
Putting our plans into practice
Even though we felt we had considered all the possible aspects and eventualities of working from two locations (see our practical checklist below), we still encountered some surprises when moving in. We experienced issues with access and security as, even though the office was meant to be 24/7, accessing it outside main reception hours proved to be difficult and we encountered regular problems with deliveries and visitors.
We created a makeshift kitchen in our secondary office but discovered we weren’t allowed some amenities due to health and safety and that we had to use the office’s very corporate shared kitchen to use a toaster or microwave. We also had to accept that, no matter how hard we tried and decorated the space to make it feel homely, a managed office will always have restrictions we have little control over.
Here is our practical checklist of things to consider when choosing a secondary office, and the trade-offs you may need to be prepared to make:
Location : is proximity to the primary office your main consideration, and if not, what impact might this have on the day-to-day work and company culture?
Cost and flexibility : if it’s a temporary solution you’re after, do you want somewhere that will simply ‘do’, or do you want to replicate the original office environment as much as possible? Flexibility has a price tag and if you want to keep costs low, this is something to keep in mind.
The little details : all managed offices claim to be setup to serve you from day one but interpretations of this promise can vary wildly. You may find that the things you consider to be essential aren’t considered as such in some office spaces. Keep an eye on the details and don’t make quick assumptions.
How did Paddlers find the experience?
We asked our team members to reflect on their experience and the impact that working from two offices has had on them, their team and the culture. The feedback indicated that the biggest issues Paddlers experienced were surrounding logistics, isolation and connectivity . Many people mentioned that it was difficult to align meetings in the two spaces that couldn't be moved or dialed into, such as interviews, and that walking between the two locations could be disruptive. There were also some issues with phone signal that mainly affected our buyer support teams.
Interestingly, the main drawback of having teams separated wasn’t the physical separation but the fact that most of the important things still happened in the HQ.
“I think it meant that people at the secondary office sometimes felt that they were missing out, or that people who were supposed to be at the secondary office simply stayed at HQ so that they wouldn’t have to travel” , one Paddler shared.
Our secondary office felt very quiet compared to HQ and some team members felt this lowered morale, although for some this had the opposite effect, actually increasing productivity with fewer distractions.
“Our biggest worry was that separating teams like this could have a negative effect on culture or team morale. Apart from a bit of a rocky start (it didn’t help that we moved the day after we returned from our 2-day Paddle retreat ) and the fact that initial setup made the office seem very unpleasing compared to our very personalised HQ, our office team ultimately turned it around and made it work” , concluded one of our team members.
While there were definitely areas that could have been improved upon, there were plenty of positives from working in two locations. For some, the quiet space helped productivity, while the location of the secondary office was ideal for those traveling in by tube. Some of the feedback from our team indicates that working from two locations actually helped improve processes for remote meetings and taught us useful habits and etiquette for when people are working from home. People got better at working remotely during this time; a great exercise for the future when we aim to open another office abroad.
There aren’t many ways to handle working across two offices without negatively affecting the company culture, especially when one of the offices is clearly a temporary overflow and doesn’t match with the culture on a tonal or aesthetic level. Now that this phase is ending and we’re about to move into our new office, we can be conscious of future growth and do everything in our power to avoid growth too fast to physically handle.
We are very grateful to the team for working with us during this transition period, but if I could offer only one piece of advice to a company in a similar position it would be to plan ahead as much as possible when scaling to avoid this arrangement where possible. It’s workable, but it’s a costly move - and it doesn’t compare to having a team unified under one roof.
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