Making Remote Work: Behind the Scenes at Stack Overflow

The logistics of Stack Overflow’s remote-first philosophy

By now you’ve probably heard about Stack Overflow’s commitment to making remote work, well… work. If not, you can read about it here, here, and a whole page of links here. Seriously, we care about it a LOT. At Stack Overflow we want to hire the best person for the job, even if that person is in Salt Lake City, Utah; Berlin, Germany; or São Paulo, Brazil. Promoting remote work promotes diversity, and we are committed to improving both.

However, this isn’t going to be another article about why we believe in remote work. I’m here to tell you about how we pull the whole thing off. I manage workplace operations for the company, and a huge part of that job is making sure that our 85+ remote employees have everything that they need to get their jobs done. So here are my tips for having a successful remote infrastructure:

Have a dedicated remote person (like me!) to be the point person for remote needs.

This is definitely the most important piece of the remote puzzle. You need a person whose stated job is to make sure that remote employees have a specific person for questions, concerns, and problems. When we hire a new remote employee, I tell them that they can come to me with any type of question, and I will try my best to answer it, or at least point them in the right direction.

I get aaaaaall kinds of questions and requests. For instance, I now know how to buy and ship Belgian beer to Poland for an employee that wasn’t able to attend a work event because of a surgery. Also FYI, Uruguay has very strict restrictions on voltage of household items, so getting a crank-lever standing desk to Montevideo was fun (read: not fun).

There also needs to be someone on the executive team (it’s better if there is more than one someone) consistently asking “What about the remotes?” When you have a new “x,” the execs should be thinking about how that impacts all employees, including remotes.

Have your People and Finance Teams homed in on remote needs

Companies will encounter a wide range of odd legalities in dealing with remote employees, especially with international folks. Did you know that in Romania if someone is going to have a home office, they have to have it inspected by a fire marshal? And in the U.S. we have a rule called “prevailing wage determination” that requires some remote employees to post a paper notice in their home for at least 10 days. (I like to think they put it in a laundry room or over the toilet.)

It definitely helps to have an HR department that is certified in immigration and visa issues. At Stack Overflow we are lucky enough to have a lawyer on our People Team along with other trained HR counsels for employees to go to when these issues arise. The same goes for finance departments. The taxation alone is a handful with multiple states/countries. You need an entity for each state, which requires considerable forethought. You also have to file payrolls properly and that varies depending on location. No one ever accused the IRS of being simple!

Remote first

We’ve already touched on this in the other blog posts, but it bears repeating: If one person in the meeting is remote, we’re all remote. If there are 5 people in a conference room and 2 people dialing in remotely, it is very easy for the folks in the meeting room to forget about the people dialed in. You can eliminate that problem by having everyone call in, if possible. After a while it is second nature to jump on a call instead of finding a room. Currently in the Stack Overflow NYC office it is really common to walk around and see two people on a hangout even though their offices are next to each other! (It is also possible that these people are just lazy…)

Try to recreate office fun stuff in a remote capacity

We have regular “Bev Bashes” and holiday parties in the offices, but what about the remotes? How do you give them fun stuff even though they are scattered all over the world?

For starters, we have “Remote Bev Bashes” over Zoom every Friday. The “Bev Baron” for that week (nominated by the last Bev Baron) schedules a Zoom call and sets a theme. Employees grab a beverage of their choice and just chat. You can stay for just a few minutes to say hi, or you can be a part of the entire thing.

Additionally, each office has a pretty fancy Holiday party in December, so we of course invite any remotes that are near the offices. If they are too far away to attend, we give a $200 stipend so that they can have their own festivities, whether it’s a really nice night out with their partners or just a big dinner for family. We don’t care as long as the employee does something yummy with it.

Don’t forget: If you make swag (t-shirts, hats, new socks etc) make sure that you send them to the remotes too. It may seem like a lot of work (believe me, with 87 remotes, it is a lot of shipping), but it is definitely worth it!

Bring them all together

Once a year, we bring all of our remote employees together for a week for some much needed face-time. It’s a different city each time, and there are usually 3 days of Executive Keynotes, Tiny Talks, and many many games of Werewolf. We talk about the state of the company and new projects and teams, but we vow not to make any huge decisions or business altering plans. The focus is on camaraderie, not profits. We look forward to it all year, and it’s definitely a blast. No pressure on the person that has to plan it, right? Read: That’s also me.

We also have smaller mini-meetups for teams to come together when needed, but those are coordinated by the teams themselves and centered around one of our three offices.

Make their home workspaces as awesome as the offices

When a new remote employee is hired, I contact them for their furniture choices. They get their choice of the exact same desks and chairs that we have in the offices, free of charge. We want them to be as comfortable as possible, and that means if they want to stand instead of sit, no problem. Our IT dept sets them up with all of their tech, and I set them up with everything else.

Need a filing cabinet? Cool. You want a different type of desk that is bright pink and sings? Hey, it’s your house. We re-create the in-office set-ups as much as possible so that our remote employees never feel less valued than everyone else.

Want to go remote yourself?

Love remote work or the idea of it? Check out our Live + Work Anywhere job listings on Stack Overflow Jobs.

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Comments

  • Mark Cupito

    I like the blog post but I had expected to see/read more content and specifics (What’s a “Bev Bash”? Why do remote employees care about it?). As someone who works in an office with peers who work remote, it can be difficult to build camaraderie with these individuals at times. What tools (aside from Zoom) does SO use that make working with these people easier? What about different time zones? This blog says that Stack Overflow approaches this as a company, but I’d be more interested to see how this can be applied at the team level. For example, not every company has the budget for flying X employees to a certain city whenever they want to.

    • Jessica Pardue

      Hi Mark! Thanks for commenting. In the offices we have frequent Bev Bashes where a good number of people stay late on a Friday and we chat and have snacks and play games with our beverage of choice. Some people have beer or wine, but alcohol is NOT a prerequisite (hence the “bev” bash instead of “beer” bash). It was a great time to socialize with the others in the office so we decided to try and replicate that on a remote scale. It really does help with camaraderie. They usually have a theme so there’s already something for everyone to talk about. On a team level we mostly use Google Hangouts or Zoom for any and all meetings. You really have to commit to the “if one is remote then all are remote” philosophy for it to work.

  • We are all remote at Toptal for 100% at all – https://www.toptal.com/developers/blog/tags/remote

  • Toby

    Interesting post!having someone on the exec team that is concerned with remotes is a definite requirement!
    If interested, maybe check out GitLab’s documentation and blog articles on how they do remote work also.

  • Love this article, thanks for lifting the curtain, so to speak. Remote companies always intrigue me. Personally, I don’t think I could cope with being fully remote, so it’s really interesting to read how Stack Overflow makes sure everyone stays connected. Another company that does this really well is Hotjar, who run a fully remote company and have established a strategy to make sure each new hire is ready to work remotely. You can read some more about them here: http://bit.ly/2xvAF9w

  • MrWalez

    A really good article on making remote work work.
    Thank you @Jess pardue for sharing .

    Looking forward to make this work for my mentees.

  • Claiton Lovato

    Hi @jessicapardue:disqus, great article, its really nice to read the stories and see how others are making this work, and its great that you guys are showing that Remote Work works so hopefuly others can apply to.
    I am wondering if you would have any additional details, maybe just some pointers, on how you manage payrol in other countries, more specific in Brazil, I run a very small startup and we are trying to figure out a way to contract a person from Brazil but our research is always stumbling on more blocks.
    Thanks again for sharing, and hope to see even more on remote from other parts of the company too.

  • Twentyfourseven

    I always wonder about the long-term effects of remote work. I mean, it is said (and I believe there are statistics to back this up) that most romantic relationships began at the workplace. People spent a lot of time with each other, got to know each other well, and fell in love. The same goes for friendships, I guess. All the remote workers, who can no longer make friends “on the job”, will have to make an extra effort to find friends (and love). Sure, you can find friends outside of the workplace, but when you work in the main office, making friends happens while you work. You don’t have to spend extra time to go out to meet people, because you already meet people at work. Of course not everyone makes friends or finds love at work, and many who make friends there go out and make other friends away from work, but for remote workers one opportunity to connect to others falls away. And being connected over media isn’t the same. For one, you no longer even know of the people that you do not directly work with. There is no water cooler where you can talk to that girl from the other department, no hallway to walk along and look in on that guy who always smiles at you when you pass by. Every contact outside of your team will mean an extra effort and necessitate an explanation. And then there is touch. People are animals, and many of us (who have no social phobia) love to shake hands, pat each other’s backs, nudge an arm in camaradery, or hug because we succeeded. What does the remote worker do? Hug himself? Physical contact has beneficial effects on psychological and physical wellbeing. And does talking to a face on a screen really give you the same feeling of contact as talking to a person who is physically present? Do you feel appreciated and “seen” in the same way? Or do those remote workers, who did not choose to work remotely, for example because they wanted to stay home with their families, but had to stay home for other reasons, feel lonely?

  • Michael Kay

    I think what I really missed most during my 3 years of remote working was the “side-channels”. Whether it’s a glance across the room at someone’s facial expression while the boss is pontificating, or the gossip while you’re waiting for a meeting to start about how things were done in the old days, or an overheard conversation in the corridor that you weren’t really supposed to hear, these things create bonding and a sense of belonging — and sometimes impart vital information — that are very hard to reproduce in a remote environment. And even when it’s real programming work, I’ve yet to see communication technology that comes anywhere close to the effectiveness of sitting next to each other in front of the same screen.

    • Jessica Pardue

      This is definitely a challenge. Our IT team (half remote) tries to combat this by having an open Hangout basically all day. They just leave it on. That way they are hearing ambient noise from activities, or they can just say “Hey Sam” instead of having to type it. Then they’ll log out if they have another meeting, and log back in later. It’s not a mandatory thing by any means, but there will always be an IT video call open if they want/need it. I personally really like walking into our NY IT office and being able to say hi to IT peeps in Colorado or Jersey.

  • Interesting ideas …

    “… it is very easy for the folks in the meeting room to forget about the people dialed in. You can eliminate that problem by having everyone call in, if possible…”

    “… having an open Hangout basically all day. They just leave it on. That way they are hearing ambient noise from activities …”

  • Siddharth Naik

    My 2 cents:
    (1) Establish communication protocol: For example, updating the status on chat room to “at lunch” , notifying signing in and signing off etc.
    (2) Establish performance measurement standards: For example, work hours on scrum board, response time, ease of communication etc.

  • webone

    I am just not finding more that a couple of remote developer jobs out there… Unless you want to go freelance contractor…

  • theman

    this is dream come true actually..all my remote work is working from 12pm to 3am stem from plea hey i got a deadline tomorrow please bear with me..i am such a nice person..