It’s been a year since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. when many companies pivoted to a remote work environment to prioritize employee safety and well-being. Workflows best for productivity and flexible policies were key, as well as a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, experts recommended. Research conducted amid the pandemic also found that remote work environments may create more opportunities to attract and hire underrepresented talent and build greater inclusivity.
In May 2020, Brian Armstrong, CEO and co-founder of Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange company founded in 2012, announced it would become “remote-first” allowing employees the option to work from home for “the vast majority of roles.” Coinbase, originally based in San Francisco, would no longer designate one location as its headquarters but would continue to provide office space for employees who prefer to work on site, Armstrong announced Feb. 24. “Forgoing a formal headquarters is also more in line with the spirit of crypto, built on the inherent benefits of decentralization,” he said in a blog post.
Becoming a remote-first company means creating a remote-first culture that encompasses DEI and belonging, an area where Coinbase has experienced some controversy. Several Black individuals who were Coinbase employees alleged negative experiences that led them to file internal complaints, some eventually resigning in late 2018 and 2019, according to a New York Times article published in Nov. 27, 2020. Coinbase shared in a blog post Nov. 25 a preemptive email sent to employees about the article. “A significant portion of the story also focuses on major changes to our Compliance and CX orgs that took place in 2018,” according to the blog post responding to the allegations, which the company claimed were proved unsubstantiated by internal and external investigations.
Dominique Baillet joined the company in May 2020 as global head of employee experience, diversity and inclusion. Baillet, who works to drive the employee experience and HR enablement functions, previously worked on the management team for Care.com where she was the head of consumer product and contributed to initiatives for culture and talent. She also led the NerdWallet lead BizOps teams for content and growth-new markets and worked on building teams for growth and efficiency. Baillet shared with HR Dive how the company has been building remote-first framework policies to prioritize inclusion and employee well-being. The following conversation was edited for clarity and style.
HR Dive: At the onset of the pandemic, was Coinbase already moving to create a remote-first workforce?
Baillet: Prior to the pandemic, Coinbase was more of a ‘remote by exception’ company; we had a norm that most employees could work from home one day a week. When it became clear that no one would be returning to offices at full capacity for a very long time, we opted to lean into this shift, rather than away from it, and see if there was a way we might meet the moment with innovation, and find opportunity in the challenge.
We communicated this decision in May 2020, long before most other companies, and that early decisiveness has given us the space to problem-solve and start to develop our remote-first experience.
Personally, this was an interesting shift to spearhead as I joined Coinbase in early May 2020. This decision and subsequent planning both helped me accelerate my learning of the Coinbase-that-was but also enabled me to envision an ideal future vision unconstrained by that past as well.
HR Dive: How is Coinbase working on creating a remote-first inclusive culture?
Baillet: Something important to remember is that we’re still in all-remote, so we’ve yet to fully test out this new culture. That said, remote-first is about optionality and creating great experiences for employees regardless of how often they’re in the office. For remote to work, without systematically disadvantaging any group, you need to make the experience ‘remote-first’ even if someone is in the office five days a week.
To fuel an inclusive culture, we’ve continued to invest in creating opportunities for connection and collaboration, while continuously iterating on the ways in which employees want to connect and collaborate. While virtual happy hours were appreciated early on, simply converting what worked in office to virtual didn’t stick.
We’ve found purpose-driven events have been more successful, and in this regard we’ve continued to lean on and invest in our employee resource groups that have had some of the more well-attended virtual events. We’ve also learned that sparking intentional employee connections through virtual coffee chats, remote-off sites and hackathons can help with morale, engagement, trust — and inclusion — when done properly.
HR Dive: As a tech company focusing on cryptocurrencies, how is Coinbase moving the needle in creating diverse talent pipelines?
Baillet: Principally, the ethos of remote-first aligns with the ethos of crypto in that both are about the strength of decentralization. In a remote-first environment, we are able to tap into top talent that isn’t tied to specific locations. This allows the team to reach out to people on a global scale and gives us access to source the best talent, regardless of where they live.
HR Dive: How is Coinbase measuring the effectiveness of inclusion and belonging practices?
Baillet: We expect to discover many more opportunities to improve our practices as we move forward, both by proactively surveying employees to understand what’s working and what’s not, and continuing to listen when employees speak up outside of the bounds of our feedback cadence, as well as working closely with other companies who are undertaking their own versions of this journey. We’ve identified some important metrics around equity of experience: we want to see equal rates of promotion, high-performance ratings and retention regardless of how often employees are in the office.
HR Dive: What are some of the best practices learned in building a remote-first culture?
Baillet: Be open to disrupting “the way we do things.” Before the pandemic forced us to experiment with universal work from home, Coinbase had a strong in-office culture that was only getting stronger. If we had let our office-based inertia carry us into the future of work, we’d still be where we were a year ago.
1. First, principles, then, answers: Why are we doing this? What are we solving for? Before even beginning to answer the practical questions around remote-first, addressing these higher-order questions with a defined set of goals and design principles gave us a framework for anything we might face as part of this work.
2. Build a process that works for your culture: Part of the start-up energy we embrace is showing our work. When we announced to employees that we would be transitioning to remote-first, by no means did we have answers to all of our questions — that didn’t stop us from communicating the decision. This might not have worked for another company, but it’s helped us move quickly.
3. Find and enlist natural owners: When breaking out the initial work streams of our transition to remote-first, some tracks, like compensation, security and learning and development already had natural owners. Others, like collaboration or recognition, did not. In these cases, we were able to look around the company to find natural and enthusiastic, if not official, leaders for these tracks of work.
4. Done is better than perfect: We’ve adopted an informal principle of shipping culture-related changes at 80%, with the explicit acknowledgment that things will continue to evolve. With more than 1,200 employees, if we’ve considered every eventuality before crafting a policy, approach or norm, then we’ve probably waited too long.”
HR Dive: How are you addressing employee well-being amid the pandemic?
Baillet: With the rapid onset of all-remote, we stood up a cross-functional employee support team that was responsible for everything from new equipment policies to an intake form that triaged hundreds of questions and concerns from employees. Now that we’re in a more steady state, we’ve sunsetted that team, and shifted our focus to helping employees drive for sustainability in their work.
As we are almost a year into the shift to remote work, we have found it is important to take proactive steps to prevent burnout and give our employees rest with company-wide shutdowns, which was an evolution from our pre-COVID stance of allowing employees to determine their own PTO needs. We realized that in a world where travel is greatly constricted and employees may have less competing priorities that it was harder for them to cut themselves off from work. Many people are feeling the long-term effects and it is vital to continue to provide our employees with the right tools to take care of their well-being.
We believe well-being is one of the required pillars of a best-in-class, remote-first employee experience program and it will continue to be a focus as we evolve our approach.