Before the pandemic, the marketing software company Drift had a decidedly in-office culture. Lunch was ordered in every day to the well-lit, wide-open offices with huge windows looking over the Back Bay, and employees would ring a gong every time they closed a deal. The company had so many on-site celebrations it had an events manager on staff, and employees were only allowed to work from home 10 days a year.
But after being forced to go fully remote in March 2020, Drift’s cofounders, like executives at other companies, noticed some advantages. Employees who couldn’t afford Boston or wanted to be near family could live anywhere, and staffers Zooming in to meetings from other cities were no longer left out of the conversation.
And with the company expanding to London and Sydney this year, in addition to its locations in San Francisco and Tampa, keeping employees on the same playing field seemed more important than ever. So in February, Drift announced a radical plan. The firm, which develops chatbots and other AI technology to help companies communicate with buyers online, declared itself “digital first.” All 500 employees around the globe — more than 130 hired remotely since the pandemic started — are working from home permanently, and offices are being redesigned as “conversation spaces.” Those office spaces could shrink, depending on how often employees come in and how many more people are hired.
The largely successful wave of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has led most office employers to rethink how they operate. Seventy percent have said they are adopting a hybrid model, a blend of remote and in-office work with many permutations, according to a May survey by Mercer, while 6 percent are going fully remote or virtual-first. That balance could shift with the COVID situation, as some companies may consider staying fully remote longer.
Drift is taking a similar approach to that of a few big tech companies, including Dropbox. But it wasn’t an easy decision. Elias Torres, Drift’s cofounder and chief technology officer, is widely known as a remote-work skeptic — even writing “Remote SUCKS” at the top of a LinkedIn post last fall.
“The energy that I get from being in person I can never get anywhere else,” Torres said in an interview. “It’s draining not to be with the team. ... It’s punishment.”
But Torres has come around to digital-first, largely because it provides the same opportunities for everyone: parents who need flexibility, employees in far-flung locations, people with disabilities who struggle to commute.
Creating an inclusive company where workers are treated equally is paramount for Drift’s cofounders, who, as Latino men, know what it’s like not to have the same access to opportunities that others have, Torres said.
David Cancel, Drift’s cofounder and chief executive, experimented with a hybrid model at a previous company and found that not only did remote workers struggle to participate, they also got fewer promotions.
“No matter what we did,” he said, “those people always felt second class.”
For employers trying to find a better way to work, this is a time of great opportunity, said Ethan Bernstein, an organizational behavior professor at Harvard. But there are many potential pitfalls, and being willing to learn as you go is key. “I think the only thing you can do wrong right now is pretend you have the final answer,” he said.
However it plays out at Drift, its employees’ experiences suggest that turning an in-office culture into a mostly remote one will be a complex process.
Sara Miller Blanc, an account rep in Drift’s sales department, used to love going to the office at 222 Berkeley St., which also houses local tech darlings Wayfair and DraftKings. After she was hired in the fall of 2019, she walked there every morning from her South Boston apartment. She liked the murals on the office walls and the little nooks where she could work. She appreciated the fact that Cancel and Torres sat out among their employees.
“There was so much buzz,” she said.
Miller Blanc, 30, was hesitant about going remote at first, but has since grown to appreciate it — especially since she and her husband bought a house in Newton. She likes being able to crawl into her Australian shepherd’s dog bed to cuddle while she works. And she was grateful to be in her own space during “emotionally raw” anti-racism discussions hosted by Drift after George Floyd was killed.
On a Friday morning in late May, Miller Blanc sat in her enclosed sunroom— barefoot, wearing ripped, high-waisted jeans — and watched a training video, on high-speed. Later, on a Zoom call, Miller Blanc worked through possible sales leads with a business development rep working from his parents’ basement.
When the gardener showed up, Miller Blanc slipped on her Birkenstocks to go outside and pick out plants for the flower beds.
“I feel like I can live my life better and work better,” she said.
Company-wide, communication at Drift has become more written than oral, and managers are being trained how to lead their teams remotely, including how to keep people from working too much.
But more in-person gatherings have started to take place. Torres recently held an impromptu strategy meeting at his house with several designers and a guest speaker from IBM. They sat on Torres’s deck in Belmont eating pastries and brainstorming while the birds sang, much like the looser, early days when Drift was launched in his living room.
Later, Torres sat alone in a conference room on Berkeley Street, dialed in to a Zoom call with the development operations team. When he noticed that an employee in the lower-right corner of the screen seemed discouraged, Torres sent him a text. It’s the digital version of “managing by walking around,” he said.
The company is continuing the virtual events it started during the pandemic to keep employees connected, including sending out copper Moscow mule mugs and cocktail kits to celebrate a recent revenue milestone and providing a $100-a-month stipend that can be used for anything from Internet bills to Peloton subscriptions.
Still, a number of employees have had mixed feelings about being remote permanently.
When Stacy Chen, 25, started working at Drift’s Boston office as a professional services consultant, she felt lucky to be surrounded by so many smart, talented people early in her career. Overhearing the customer success team on the phone with clients, for instance, provided real-life examples she could use in her own work. She has the ability to listen to live calls or recorded conversations from home, although she admitted she hadn’t done so yet.
“There is a lot of digital fatigue,” she said.
Nick Salvatoriello, on the other hand, was “hugely relieved” when Drift announced it was going digital-first. Salvatoriello, 38, head of partner content and community, was hired remotely last fall and has been enjoying having lunch with his wife and two children at their 1820s Norwell home. He’s even had time to join several town committees.
Salvatoriello’s second-floor office has two work stations — one set up as a standing desk, the other equipped with a microphone to record videos or MC events — and he starts each day by strapping on a virtual reality headset for a three-minute workout. “Now I’m ready to have some meetings!” he proclaimed on a recent morning after a quick boxing session.
Salvatoriello knows all about the imbalance that can happen in a hybrid workplace. At a previous job, he was the first all-remote hire, and he felt it: “I’m not in on all the jokes. ... I’m not part of the club.”
At Drift, though, everyone’s supposed to be in the club. Salvatoriello recently went to Tampa for a team meeting, which included a fishing trip, and there was a feeling that this time together was precious, he said.
In June, Salvatoriello attended his first in-person meeting with the marketing team in the Back Bay office, followed by lunch at Saltie Girl. Co-workers hugged each other excitedly as they walked in, and remarked on how unexpectedly red Salvatoriello’s hair was in person.
Even at a company with a clear remote-work mindset, though, being hybrid is inescapable — and some discrepancies in access are bound to crop up.
Angela O’Dorisio, the head of learning and development based in Denver, participated in the office meeting from a Zoom square on the wall. “It’s so nice to hear you all laughing,” she said. “There’s so little laughing on Zoom.”
And then there’s Michelle Ai, part of Drift’s human resources team, who decided in May to take full advantage of her newfound freedom. She moved to Saipan, a tropical island north of Guam in the Western Pacific, where her physician partner got a job. To compensate for the 14-hour time difference, Ai starts work at 4 a.m. (2 p.m. the previous day in Boston) so she can connect with co-workers in real time for a few hours; when she logs off in the afternoon, she heads to the beach or goes for a hike in the jungle.
Ai, 32, ends up listening to a lot of recordings of meetings and events, and misses being able to laugh at jokes along with her colleagues.
But she doesn’t feel left out, at least not yet: “The reason why it works so well now is because everyone’s in the same boat.”