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A millennial CEO launched a fully remote tech company. He says hybrid work is the worst of both worlds.

Tim Paradis   

A millennial CEO launched a fully remote tech company. He says hybrid work is the worst of both worlds.
  • Tech company Buildkite is fully remote, making deliberate efforts to build camaraderie crucial.
  • Its all-employee gatherings emphasize fun activities like snorkeling to boost worker connection.

The last annual all-employee gathering at the Australian tech firm Buildkite lasted three days and included snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.

The time on the water wasn't an excursion meant to break up hourslong meetings about company priorities. The snorkeling was the plan. So was cornhole and a game of toss the shoe.

Team-building activities on the job are nothing new. Yet fostering a sense of connection among employees is a deliberate and essential effort at Buildkite, its founder and CEO, Keith Pitt, told Business Insider, because the company is 100% remote.

"The point of it was to be silly and to put people in different environments and situations where they could create new networks and pathways to people in the company," Pitt said.

Buildkite's zeal for zaniness — one employee holds the unofficial title of Dome, the director of musical entertainment — aims to drive workers' collaboration and innovation. Those are the stated aims of many CEOs when they call workers back into the office for at least part of the workweek. But Pitt sees hybrid's halfsies approach as misguided.

"It's the worst of both worlds," he said.

Pitt calls hybrid setups a "scheduling and policy nightmare." He said sitting in a meeting where some people are gathered in a room and one or more are dialed in from elsewhere can lead to people not hearing each other and virtual attendees missing out on what goes on in the room.

"In a hybrid environment, remote is always second class," Pitt said.

The connections budget

Pitt, 36, isn't anti-office. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to become a full-time programmer. He did the commute and wore a suit to work every day.

Yet in 2013, when Pitt, who lives in Perth, Australia, started Buildkite, it never occurred to him to set up an office.

The company makes a DevOps platform used by OpenAI, Airbnb, Doordash, and Slack, among others. Starting out, money needed to go to web servers, not rent.

Pitt said the 135-person company funnels part of what it isn't spending on facilities into "connection budgets." They fund the annual all-employee gathering and smaller trips throughout the year to let coworkers get on a plane, rent a coworking space, and collab IRL when needed.

The cost of the last in-person all-hands came to about 300,000 Australian dollars — about $200,000.

"It's cheap as chips," Pitt said. "Best money ever spent."

Buildkite also spends on remote activities meant to foster connection. There are virtual gatherings for doing puzzles or quizzes about music or movies. The company has held cooking events where it pays workers to buy ingredients, and colleagues make a meal together over video.

But for all the fun meant to boost camaraderie, Buildkite's culture is serious about working from home, Pitt said.

Workers are given a budget of 3,000 Australian dollars to trick out their home offices. The company asks new hires to take pictures of their setups to ensure they have a quiet space with a proper desk and chair to avoid ergonomic fails.

"We don't foster a work-from-the-couch, work-from-the-kitchen-table type environment," he said. "We encourage people to throw some paint on the walls, buy some plants, buy some new artwork, just to change it up."

Workers also need high-quality equipment: A poor camera or mic, Pitt said, is the digital equivalent of having something stuck in your teeth.

'It's easy to look busy'

Another way the company tackles remote work for an employee base spread around the world is to cluster some functions. Buildkite uses what it calls "timezone bubbles." So, for product and engineering, workers need to be plus or minus four hours from Sydney's time zone. For sales and marketing, it's the western US.

That helps to ensure coworkers are generally online simultaneously and not left waiting for responses from colleagues.

For all the work Buildkite has done to establish norms around having what Pitt refers to as 135 small offices around the world — one for each employee — he sees Buildkite's embrace of remote work as a long-term experiment.

"I'm eager to see how this thing plays out," he said. For now, it seems to be working. The company is on track to hire 50 people in 2024.

Rather than dwelling on where workers work, a big focus is on developing trust, Pitt said. He thinks one of the reasons some bosses are demanding workers be back in the office is because they don't trust their teams. But, Pitt said, "it's easy to look busy."

Pitt said building trust can be harder when people aren't face-to-face. Playing games with colleagues is the "shortcut" he's found to developing that faith in colleagues beyond completing projects together, he said.

That's part of why he occasionally gets workers together. After the last all-worker event, the number of employees who reported feeling more connected to their teams and the company more than quadrupled. Now, Buildkite runs employee sentiment surveys every couple of months. And when it dips below a certain level, the company will announce another gathering.

It's important to keep trust elevated because that's when workers do their best, Pitt said.

"Trust is a big part of being able to come up with creative ideas on things," he said.

And, Pitt said, if workers care about the mission, it doesn't matter whether they work in an office or from afar.

"People will want to do the work because it's fun and it's what they want to do with their lives," he said.


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