Q&A with Distributed Workforce Expert Shelby Wolpa

Erez Greenberg October 27, 2019

Shelby Wolpa is Vice President of People Operations at InVision, a digital product design company. Shelby spoke to us about the challenges and benefits of maintaining a fully distributed workforce of more than 800 employees and contractors.

At Invision you have no central office. The entire team of over 800 people works remotely. How do you make everyone feel like they are part of the team?

Fundamentally, we are one InVision. Although we are in 30 countries around the world, most of the People Team programs are global programs. When we think about onboarding, or collaboration tools, or company all-hands, they are designed for all of us. For example, we use Slack to communicate and collaborate with each other across all time zones and have many channels for all-company, departmental, project and interest group communication.  We use video conferencing for our all meetings. No matter where you are in the world, your face is on the screen and you are connecting with your fellow InVisioners.

Everyone using the same tools keeps everyone on the same page?

That’s right.

One of the benefits of being fully distributed is that there isn’t an “HQ vs everyone else” atmosphere. And it’s why I’m such a big fan of a distributed model. As an HR leader, I don’t need to think about, “what is the experience HQ is going to get versus the satellite offices?” Every single person, up to our CEO, is based out of their homes.

There is no office at all?

There is no office at all. In some of our larger, more metropolitan cities, we have some co-working space available. InVisioners have the option to get out of their homes and meet up with co-workers. But that’s not the norm. Our model is designed to support working from home.

Something else to mention about people feeling connected – while our day-to-day is working from home, as a company we all get together for what we call “IRL” [In Real Life]. Once a year, we fly everyone to one location and come together as an entire company. Additionally, we have departmental off sites, so usually every six months, we’re getting together face-to-face, either with the whole company or with the department for celebrating, for bonding, for learning, and for deepening our relationships.

Do you think that’s enough to build those relationships?

Yes, I find no difference between building connections and trust over video vs. in-person. Because you’re in my home, and I’m on video, I bring my personality and my true self to work.

Because you are more comfortable in that setting?

I feel that because we are in our homes and you see our real lives – our pets, our loved ones, our interests and hobbies, concert posters on the wall, guitar in the corner – it lends itself to opening up about who you truly are, vs. the work persona that you bring into the office.

Does that improve work performance as well?

I think it has a huge effect on feelings of inclusion and belonging. When people feel that they belong in a company, they are more engaged and their performance is higher. I also feel that there are endless benefits to the remote model for your personal life and designing your best life. Because you are at home, it can create so much more balance to your life and you have more time to spend doing the things that bring you joy.

Because there is no commute?

Instead of work-life balance, we refer to it as work-life integration. You are able to integrate personal activities and life’s daily chores into your work day seamlessly. You may have a work call and then put a load of laundry in, then do work on a project, and then do a guided meditation. The lines blur between when work stops and personal begins because it’s all integrated. I find that I’m able to get all of life’s responsibilities done during the week, which leaves my nights and weekends free to spend time with my family and friends.

How did this model come about?

Invision has been fully distributed from the very beginning. Given the expense of top talent in the New York City market, our founder realized he could hire wonderful, talented people more quickly if they were remote. The team grew with folks all over the world.

How does distributed work impact your total rewards strategy?

Because we are fully distributed, we have designed our benefits and perks program to be remote-first, and globally focused. No matter where you are in the world, perks are all the same for things such as parental leave, peer recognition dollars, charitable donation matching, and your home office set up. We provide a cafe debit card with a monthly allowance to encourage our team to have a change of scenery.  They may work from a local coffee shop, take a long lunch, or rent a day drop-in at a co-working space. Everyone in the company, no matter where you are, has access to those perks. When it comes to health care or more traditional employee benefits, those are customized to be geographically competitive. We work with local brokers to design competitive healthcare packages in our global entities.

How do you decide which will be the universal programs and which will be localized?

Our intent is to have our global perks and benefits be consistent, yet locally relevant. One example I am proud of is our parental leave program. Even in geographies that do not mandate leave, we provide 8 weeks of paid parental leave.

How do messages get out so that everyone is in the same boat?

We use cascading communications when rolling out any major program. For example, significant organizational changes, or launching performance reviews, are communicated first to the executive team, and then cascaded to all managers and employees.

Communication at any company of our size can be challenging. What I appreciate about our remote model is that it democratizes hierarchy when we’re talking about things that matter at our company. At prior companies, when you’d join an all-hands, leaders would talk and the organization wasn’t given an opportunity to ask questions or challenge responses. When our leaders are on the all-hands meetings, every single face is shown equally on the screen. We have a portion of the all hands as an “Ask Me Anything” session. All questions are invited with prompts such as, “What do you think others are thinking but aren’t asking?” or “I heard a rumor that we were doing X, but want to get the facts.”.

Although we are over 800 people, we are working to keep a strong culture of compassionate candor. For example, one of our values is co-ownership. While we are all equity holders, more importantly we want everyone to feel that they have a voice, and to understand what we’re all working towards.

Is there an example of something that could only happen through the distributed structure that would have been impossible or more difficult in the traditional set up, to the point where it might not have happened?

Hiring the best talent no matter where they live. We are not restricted by physical offices or geographic hubs. And speaking personally, with the hiring I’ve done with my People team, it’s been incredible. For years I was based in the Bay Area, and struggling, like everyone, to compete for talent in that market. With my move to Invision, I’ve been able to broaden my talent pool, and hire very talented people quickly. They have great performance and engagement, from markets I’ve not been able to tap from before.

How do you find those markets?

Our Talent Attraction team is well versed in sourcing folks from the emerging markets for talent.  By posting our job openings nationwide (and in some cases internationally) we can meet (and hire) folks where they are or where they want to be. On my team, we are geographically diverse! From the lake region of northern Washington, to the coast near Boston, my team spans the country with me in the live music capital of the world and home to the best breakfast tacos (Austin, TX ;-)).

Do you see this model spreading it? Are other companies adopting it?

Absolutely, there are many companies adopting a remote-first model who see similar value in their employee experience, and giving people a more modern way of working.

What is the one thing you feel is essential to making people feel they are part of one team?

It really boils down to the culture of ONE company and hiring leaders who are very open and have high emotional intelligence to reach through the screen and connect with people. This model requires a high degree of trust. That’s what I mean by culture. It starts from a place of trust, and everything else is built on top of that.