During Impact Week, we’ve shared how Cloudflare is providing tools for our customers to minimize their environmental impact as well as what we, as a company, are doing to help society at large. But some critical stakeholders we haven’t talked much about yet are Cloudflare’s more than 2,000 employees: who build our services, support and educate our customers, keep our finances in order, work through difficult policy issues, and empower us to accomplish everything we have.
Over the last year and a half, we’ve all challenged a lot of the assumptions about what it means to “work.” Prior to the start of the pandemic, Cloudflare was very much a work-from-office culture. And so when, on March 13, 2020, we closed all our offices and asked everyone to work from home, the two of us were extremely nervous.
And then something unexpected happened: a lot of things got better.
As a company, productivity increased — when measured by our success selling our products, our pace of shipping new products, and even things like the time it takes for our finance team to close our books.
Other day-to-day things got better, too. We noticed a marked increase in participation in meetings by women, team members from whom English wasn’t their first language, junior team members, and other traditionally underrepresented groups. It turns out, putting everyone in a Brady-bunch like box on a screen smooths out some of the other social cues that, when in-person, make some people less comfortable, willing, or able to fully participate.
Virtually More Inclusive
It’s not unreasonable to speculate that the increase in productivity was driven, in no small part, by the increase in overall participation by people who previously felt reluctant to do so. And this further aligned with job surveys that we conducted over the last year and a half which showed that while the things people wanted us to improve remained the same, overall satisfaction with jobs increased.
We also noticed that the diversity of the candidates that were applying to work for us increased as we allowed people to work remotely. We were now an option for people who did not live in, or could not move to, the cities we had offices in. At Cloudflare, we’ve always believed in having a diverse team. Not to look good in a government report, but because it’s the right business strategy: more diverse teams win.
We all have different perspectives formed by our experiences that inherently give us insights and blind spots. If everyone on a team has the same insights and blind spots then there will be less unique and creative solutions proposed to whatever problems we face. Just as it’s important to have genetic diversity in a species, having diversity on every dimension in hiring makes us a stronger, more creative company. Prioritizing a diverse team is the right strategy if you’re optimizing for innovation, like we are at Cloudflare.
But not everything got better when we switched to remote; some things definitely got worse. We’re social creatures. We thrive through human interaction that is still difficult to replicate virtually. Even with improvements in video conferencing, online interactions still mute some of the social cues and make misunderstanding more likely. The osmosis for our team of learning by watching others is harder, especially for team members early in their career. And, unfortunately, for some the office is a refuge from difficult situations at home and so not having it as a place to get away can amplify those challenges.
What We’ve Learned… So Far
So we’ve been thinking a lot about what the future of work looks like at Cloudflare and wanted to share publicly what we’ve been talking about for some time internally. Here are some things we think we know.
First, we don’t know what the long term future of work will be like and so we’ve been hesitant to lay down broad proclamations. Instead, we expect that as we get past the pandemic and are able to work in-person safely again, we will do what Cloudflare has always done: run a number of experiments ourselves, watch what our peers are doing, and figure out what works for us. The one thing we feel pretty sure of is that wherever we start the experiment is highly unlikely to be exactly the place where we end up. The future of work won’t be set in stone sometime in the coming months, but evolve over the coming years.
Second, no matter what, the future of work will be more flexible. There’s no way we are putting the genie of remote work back in the bottle. Why would we want to if we’ve learned that we’ve been more productive and more satisfied with their jobs while we’ve been remote? Flexibility is the number one requested work benefit, and one of the silver linings of the pandemic for us has been that we ran a forced experiment that proved we could make it work.
Third, we are incredibly reluctant to impose arbitrary rules. Requiring team members to come in every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday begs the question: why those days? Saying you need to come in if you’re below a certain seniority level also seems weirdly arbitrary. Instead of rules, we’re much more likely to start with general standards outlining what success as a member of the team at Cloudflare looks like and giving guidelines. We may need rules at some point, but we want to develop those rules over time based on what we learn.
Fourth, just opening offices and hoping for the best doesn’t work. What we’ve seen ourselves, and confirmed with others, is that what makes working from an office great is getting to work side-by-side with your colleagues. But if Alyssa comes in on Monday, and Blake comes in on Tuesday, and Carlos comes in on Wednesday, and Deeksha comes in on Thursday, and Ellen comes in on Friday, and they all hoped that they would get to connect, then none of them has a good experience and none of them come in the following week. If in-person work is going to work, there needs to be some deliberate structure and planning.
Fifth, we believe more in carrots than sticks. We’d rather we create an environment where people want to come in than where they have to come in. Based on our internal surveys, about 10% of our team wants to come in every day. We want to make the environment such that 100% of our team wants to come in at least some days.
Sixth, a more flexible way of working will require a more flexible physical space. The base “lego brick” we used to design all our offices pre-pandemic was the 6-person conference room. And, while none of our offices started this way, they all evolved into a sea of white, adjustable desks in neat rows as we found spots for our growing team. That already feels anachronistic. We think we need to redesign spaces to accommodate teams coming together to collaborate as well as individuals looking for a quiet spot for heads-down work.
Seventh, mixed meetings suck. When some people are in-person and some people are virtual the experience is bad for everyone. Part of why we think the last year and a half has worked is because everyone is in the same boat. We believe part of the reason why hybrid work environments have traditionally not worked is because they, left to their own devices, will tend to devolve to an experience that’s bad for everyone. The future of flexible work needs to acknowledge that most hybrid work experiments in the past haven’t worked.
Eighth, we’re a very global company. We have team members in countries around the world and need to operate our business around the clock. One of the benefits of being fully remote over the last year and a half is that it made all our offices feel like they were on equal footing. That’s something we believe is important for us to maintain.
Navigating Through the Fog
So what’s our plan? Again, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, we expect that we’ll start somewhere and experiment. So we’re starting by being more flexible about where we hire people. We still believe that people will tend to cluster in hubs around cities where we have physical offices, but we are now open to hiring for nearly all of our roles in any location where we have a legal entity setup that allows us to hire.
We are tearing apart our offices in San Francisco and London to remake them into flexible work spaces. We’re designing them to allow for teams of 10, 20, or 30 employees to get together and collaborate. We’re also creating “Zoom villages” with one-person spaces and high quality AV equipment to let people jump on conference calls.
One of the few rules that we plan on starting with is that in meetings if any person is remote then everyone in the meeting is remote. We know that will create some awkward situations where some of our team will literally be sitting next to each other at desks talking on a video conference call. But we believe this is a rule worth having, in spite of our hesitation to impose strict rules, to help keep the playing field level for all our colleagues, wherever they’re working.
We’re going to rethink the purpose of the offices as spaces where teams can come together to collaborate. Internally, we’re calling these “on-site off-sites” — though everyone agrees we need a better name. The idea being that teams can call an in-person meeting and reserve space in any of our offices to come together. We expect different teams will set different cadences of these meetings, but expect most people to have at least some time in an office at least once a quarter.
We’re planning for what we’ve termed a “Czar of Serendipity” who will coordinate cross-group lunches and other activities to help facilitate teams who may not work directly together to have the opportunity if they want to meet colleagues they may not otherwise know. They’ll also help arrange in-person speakers and other activities aligned with whatever teams or groups are physically in the office each week.
And we’re hunting for carrots to encourage our team, and especially members who are earlier in their career, to come in. One we’re working on is what we’re calling Orange Card. We hope to turn every team member’s ID into a charge card. The card will only activate after someone badges in for the day and will only work to purchase food at restaurants that are within a 10-minute walk from the office with pre-tax dollars.
It’s in Cloudflare’s interest to encourage people to come in physically to work. Across the industry, however, we think jobs that require in-person work will look increasingly anachronistic. We also believe that, rather than operating private cafeterias inside our own spaces, it’s important for us to support local businesses near our offices — especially as so many of them were hit hard during COVID. If with Orange Card we can do this and find a way to let employees pay for lunches when they’re in the office at an effective discount, then it will check both boxes: giving employees a reason to come in and also supporting the local community.
We don’t know how many of these things will work, but it’s a sense of the experiments we intend to run as we try and find the future of work that works for our team.
In many ways we were fortunate that Cloudflare’s product could be of specific help during an incredibly difficult time for the world. The superheros of the last year and a half have been the medical professionals and scientists who have taken care of the sick and looked for cures for this disease. But the Internet has been the faithful sidekick that has helped many continue to work, stay connected with loved ones, and keep ourselves entertained through this trying time. As one of the defenders of the Internet, our work at Cloudflare has been incredibly rewarding. We hope we can create a future of work that remains incredibly rewarding even long past the pandemic.
The thoughts above are just a starting place. We expect that we’re going to learn a lot not only from our own experiments, but also from what we learn works (and doesn’t work) at peer companies. We would have never tried this experiment in remote work but for the pandemic. Now, having realized that we can continue to execute in a more flexible work environment, we don’t plan to forget the lessons we learned. We’re hopeful that we, along with our peer companies, will continue to run experiments and, over time, develop a new future of work that is more flexible, more inclusive, and more productive.
PS – We’re hiring.