Carta’s Return to Office Plan

Over the last year we have been figuring out how to work together from our individual homes and at the same time how, or if, we will return to the office. I have heard from hundreds of Carta employees through small round table discussions, spent hours with our executive team, and spoken to dozens of ceos about their plans. Some are certain that the world has changed, and remote will be the future. Others are certain that nothing has changed, and are already back in the office.

I am having difficulty predicting which future it will be. Will we want to double down in the geographies and markets we know, and invest in that density of collaboration? Or will we want to become a sprawling network of individuals in our homes working virtually most of the time and finding great people wherever they are? Where will our competitive advantage come from? I don’t know yet.

So I’m setting us up to learn. We will get back into the office to see what it feels like to see each other, meet the hundreds of Cartans who joined during Covid who haven’t met anyone in real life, and work shoulder to shoulder again. We will also work fully remotely two days a week, 3 weeks a year, and for the month of July, to keep our remote muscle working. And we will gradually create a set of fully remote employees to see how a remote first experience, including recruiting from markets where we don’t have offices, will be leveraged. For US employees, we will follow the below return to office schedule starting September 7:

  • Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays we will work from the office together
  • Wednesdays and Fridays we will all work from home
  • The last Friday of every month we will work from the office and have Company Day together
  • The entire month of July we will work remotely, as well as the weeks of US Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years
  • We will allow a percentage of our employees to be fully remote

One of my favorite concepts is the idea of stable and unstable equilibriums. I think this is an unstable equilibrium for Carta. Three years from now I doubt we will have the same work from office schedule or the same percentage of remote employees. I think we will either consolidate around a handful of Carta offices where the majority of employees work everyday, or we will be fully remote without offices traveling around the world to meet each other at rented locations.

That means all of this could change. We could increase the number of days that we work from the office if we start leaning towards consolidation. Or we could decrease it if we start leaning towards fully remote. Similarly, we could increase or decrease the percentage of fully remote employees as we see the program succeed or fail. We could implement travel policies for remote employees to visit offices on a regular basis or we could start doing offsites by team separate from the office schedule. The list of ideas we can try is long.

It is a brave new world. In typical Carta fashion, we will think unconventionally and from first principles with the goal of learning quickly. But the good news is that this transformation, a transformation that will shape Carta for the next decade, will be months, probably years, in the making. We will learn, adapt, learn more, and adapt again.

Below is a memo I shared with the company in the middle of us making our decision. Many have shared their final decisions, helping founders see options and examples. I hope sharing the thinking before the final decision is helpful for founders still working on their plans.

I’m out on MTO today and had a chance to do some writing so I wanted to jot down some thoughts about the RTO discussion. I don’t have an answer yet. But let me lay out the various arguments as best I can. Warning — I make no conclusions here. If you are looking for an answer on RTO I will disappoint you. But if you are looking for some of the thinking behind it, I hope you will find this helpful.

And quick apologies, I wrote this quickly so it is not my best writing. But hopefully it is a useful window into my stream of consciousness.

What should work, life, office space, travel, and company culture look like after 18 months of a quarantine? What a difficult question!! As actors in (and perhaps victims of) this question, we must attempt to simultaneously predict and decide its answer. What will the world do? What should we do? What if we predict a solution for the world and decide a different solution for us, did we decide wrong? How about the converse? And what does “wrong”, or “right”, mean in this context?

The most obvious answer for employees is a hybrid model where we keep offices and employees have the flexibility to decide what works best for them. They can work from home some days, all days, or no days. And they can go into the office on days they want. This is the model Google and Salesforce have settled on.

The common view is that it is the best of both worlds — people get the camaraderie of working from the office and the flexibility of working from home. I will make the opposite argument that it is not the best of both worlds but rather the worst.

The advantage of being in the office is that the people you need to meet are predictably there. If they are not there, or show up unpredictably, the value of being in the office goes down non-linearly. It isn’t a slight inconvenience if you commute 45 mins into the office to meet with your team and discover only half your team has shown up. To do the meeting you have to do individual zoom’s anyway with half your team in the office and half on zoom. In fact, it is harder to have four of eight people in the conference room with other four on individual zooms than just have all eight on zoom because the in-room side conversations get missed and so people in the conference room speak at the TV as though there is nobody else in the room. It is almost a nuisance to have them there. And you can’t do anything on the white board because the team on zoom can’t see it. You might as well have everyone on zoom and so it is a level playing field and everybody can interact in the same format.

You might say “Well, Henry, then teams should schedule to have people be in the office on the same day to meet!” But that has its own set of problems. Who gets to decide if somebody is required to show up or it is optional? The manager or the employee? If it is truly optional then managers can’t make people show up. If it is required at a manager’s discretion, then it isn’t hybrid flexible. It is still in-office, just perhaps not everyday, and at the whim of whenever your manager, their manager, or Henry, decides they want their team in the office.

Because of this dynamic, I’ll argue that flexible hybrid is on the same path as fully remote. It just takes a little longer to get there. As fewer people go into the office, there is less value for the remaining people to go into the office, so they stop going into the office, making less value for others who to go in, and so on, until no one is left. It is a steep and slippery slope.

If you wanted to combat the drift to vacant offices, we could require people to go into the office a certain amount. Perhaps one or two or three days a week to keep critical mass. It isn’t flexible. It is mandatory and it would be company wide to make sure everyone is in the office when you need them.

The problem is that we now require people to live near an office just to go in one or two days a week. What a drag! There are so many great places employees could live! They could move closer to family. Live near their friends. Live in an ocean-front airbnb over the summer and a ski-lodge in the winter.

And imagine the recruiting benefit! If we didn’t have to recruit people within commuting distance of an office, we would open up millions of eligible candidates. We would have so much more access to talent than we have today. We are growing so fast and constantly behind on hiring, particularly in the many different niche talents we recruit for.

Why would we deny ourselves this incredible access to talent plus an amazing work-from-anywhere benefit just to go to the office a couple of days a week?

Hybrid is seductive because it seems like the right answer through the lens of an individual including myself (who has to commute 45 mins each day to SF). Who wouldn’t want the option of going into the office or staying at home at one’s leisure? But like many organizational (and team) decisions, what is good for the individual is bad for the team. The game theory version is that the local maximum for individuals is the global minimum for the organization.

Somebody once told me, “Henry, you already run a distributed remote company. You just haven’t accepted it yet.”

He is probably right. And if he isn’t right yet, he will be in time. We are barely 1,000 employees and already have ten offices. The reason we have so many offices is we hire so many diverse skill sets from different talent pools. And we go to the regions where we find them popping up offices all over the country and world.

And even inside these offices we work as distributed teams. Many people work with more people not in their home office than in their home office.

That’s why we run out of conference rooms — everybody is coming to the office to jump in conference rooms to zoom other people who came to an office to jump in a conference room to zoom them.

When we re-orged to the BU model in January 2021, just before covid closed the offices, I attempted to geo-locate teams to reduce the amount of people who worked with people outside their home office. It was a failed attempted. As I hard as I tried, the natural flow of talent, the inevitable entropy of the organization, and the surprisingly frequent misuse of tinder geo-location by young employees, I was pushing against water.

If we are not already a remote distributed company, we are headed in that direction. We will only hire, and acquire, more unique and diverse skill talents. And we will hire them at speed and scale. At current trends, in 24 months, employees of today will be less than 1/3rd Carta. Where will the 2,000+ new employees come from? Will we pop yet more offices that asymptotically become zoom rooms to zoom employees in other zoom rooms? Will we be 3,000 employees with 30 offices? Why limit where we can hire, make employees endure long commutes, and force people to live where we decide to have an office? All to pretend we are an in-office company because we have real-estate when in practice we are really a remote one?

We will inevitably be a fully distributed company. Why not embrace it instead of fight it?

A year and a half of shelter-in-place feels like a decade. It is hard to remember what it was like to be together. The energy, the hustle, the friendships, the feeling of being part of something. If you haven’t been to an office since the pandemic you should visit one. They are beautiful. They are a physical representation of who we are and what we do. I visited the SF office recently and it was magical.

Going to fully remote is a one-way door. If we allow employees to move, and recruiters to recruit from, anywhere, entropy will take over. We will lose the ability to cluster back into offices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. But it does mean we must be prepared to permanently give up all the things we loved about having offices.

In February and March the news kept predicting that it was going to take a year to get everyone vaccinated because of all the issues in the early supply chain. However, in company town halls we predicted that it would happen quicker than anyone expected because bad news travels fast while good news travels slow. And though the early vaccination news was filled with mistakes and problems, we knew that in the background vaccines were flooding the US supply chains and would soon hit the population with non-linear speed. It would feel like nobody was getting vaccines until suddenly it felt like everybody was getting vaccines. And that’s exactly what happened.

Similarly regarding RTO, the first and loudest voices will be the ones who say the future of work is changing forever and announce everybody is, and should be, going remote. You see that in the broad population but also within our own employees. But if we are attempting to predict the future like with vaccines, in the background, the US is quietly returning to offices. All the banks in New York, all the manufacturers in Detroit, all the laboratories in Boston, all the film studios in Los Angeles, are returning to offices. And more people now want to return to the office than six months ago.

As you all know, we never do something just because others do. We are first principle thinkers and stand on our own two feet. But the world is coming roaring back with or without us. Imagine for those people, what that first day back in the office will be like! After 18 months we as a nation, as a species, emerge from quarantine, greet each other, speak face to face, eat together, meet together, be together. I get chills thinking about it. People will talk about that moment for years, even decades. The Great Re-Emergence. The day we reunite after the Great Pandemic.

And imagine the days, weeks, and months after that. The first year back of working together in offices, visiting the local coffee shop on the way to work everyday, grabbing drinks with coworkers on Thursday after work, and having lunch with everyone on Fridays. Do we want to deny ourselves an opportunity to experience that, along with the rest of the world, just because we got into the routine of staying at home?

Change is hard and once routines are in place, nobody likes changing them. But will we regret sitting out the Great Re-Emergence because we got used to staying home? If we don’t like going back to the office we can always change our mind in six months and close the offices. But will we regret not joining the rest of humanity in ending the pandemic? Should the lesson from 18 months of sheltering in our homes be that we should stay in them?

Or should we be part of the early leaders of the Roaring 20s that help bring the world back to normalcy?

I know I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered. But I hope this is useful framing. We will continue thinking and talking about this. I know we need clarity for our employees and our recruiters. We are working quickly to try to get answers to these questions.

Just a reminder there is no town hall today. I hope everyone has a good weekend. See you next week.

CEO at Carta